Vermonters of the Month: Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner

TJ Donovan, Matt Kehaya, and Steve Gagner at 14th Star Brewing CompanyThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Through the “power of great beer” Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner, our December Vermonters of the Month, are proving that “a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.” When Matt and Steve founded their company 14th Star Brewing Co. in 2011, they knew that they wanted their beer to be “brewed with a mission” which is why these Vermont-natives and Army veterans founded the business on the principles of “improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.”

The business plan for 14th Star was drawn up on the back of a notebook while Matt and Steve were deployed together in Afghanistan. When they returned home, they decided to take the leap from homebrewers to entrepreneurs with the mission of continuing to serve others. Since opening 14th Star in 2011, the St. Albans-based business has grown to 24 employees and distributes their beer in 5 states. In keeping with their mission, the business gives back to organizations like Purple Hearts Reunited, the Josh Pallotta Fund, Make-A-Wish Vermont, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, and Martha’s Kitchen, while also hosting community events at their Taproom.

With 20(+) years of service, Matt (20 years) and Steve (23 years), attribute much of their success as business owners to skills they learned from the Army. Leadership, strategic planning, safety, mentorship and teamwork are all skills that they have applied directly to entrepreneurship. Now, Matt and Steve (along with partner Zac Fike) have made it their mission to share this knowledge with other veterans. Their latest venture, Danger Close, is a whiskey-distillery that teaches other veterans to draw on skills they learned through service to start their own businesses.

We visited Matt and Steve at 14th Star’s Brewery and Taproom in St. Albans to learn more about the inspiring work they’re doing.

Brewed with a Mission logo on t-shirt

 

Tell us a little about yourselves (What are your official titles? What have been your career paths? How did you get to where you are?) 

(Matt): I’m from Burlington, Vermont and currently live in Swanton. I am married with two wonderful boys. I am a platoon sergeant in the Vermont Army National Guard’s Mountain Infantry Battalion and have served in the Army for 20 years. I have two deployments (Iraq and Afghanistan – both with Steve) and we founded 14th Star Brewing together in 2011. Steve and I met in late 2000 and we knew early on that we wanted to continue to find ways to work together. After our 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, Steve and I decided to put the brewery business plan we wrote overseas into action. We never envisioned the brewery to grow as big and as fast as we did, but we find that our military experiences have helped us grow the business.

(Steve): I am originally from Highgate, Vermont and live in St. Albans with my wife and two children. I am the executive officer for the Army’s Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont. I have served in the Army for almost 23 years. I think our time in the Army, and the Vermont Army National Guard in particular, has helped us as entrepreneurs. As full-time guardsmen, we assist the traditional guard leaders who work the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” schedule in completing their goals and training objectives. Since we aren’t at the brewery full time, we use the very same tactics in leading the organization: We have a talented team of full-time staff and leaders at the brewery and simply provide them guidance and direction and let their natural talents shine.

What inspires your work with the Army, 14th Star Brewing, and in the community?

The desire to serve others and our community not only led us to joining the military, but to continue that service through our business. We believe that leaders should show others what right looks like and inspire them to “Follow Me.” We look for those very same characteristics in our employees and partners because we know that our efforts as a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.

What sets 14th Star Brewing apart from other brewers? What’s its mission?

Well, we can start with amazing beer! But seriously, there is some fantastic beer being made throughout Vermont. We think the thing that sets us apart is that we have a reason for doing what we do—beer happens to be the product we create. This translates directly to our motto of “Brewed with a Mission.” This means that we work to improve the lives of our nation’s veterans and our local communities through the power of great beer.

You give to so many organizations, is there a cause or organization that you are most proud to support?

We are proud of all of our efforts in working with organizations dedicated to doing good and helping others. From the very beginning, we have been a supporter of Purple Hearts Reunited and their mission of return lost or stolen purple hearts and medals of valor to veterans and their families. We also have a very deep connection with the Josh Pallotta Fund, founded by Valeria Pallotta, the mother of a Soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in our Brigade and who took his own life after struggling with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Outside of the veteran organizations, however, we are pursuing projects like Vermont’s first “The House That Beer Built.” Working with the Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity and gathering support from other Vermont Craft Brewers, we’re working to fund the building of a home for families in need – simply through the power of great beer. Helping these organizations certainly keeps us busy, but it is the kind of work that the brewery was founded on: Improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to impact their community?

It’s not as daunting as you think it is. The return on investment in terms of goodwill and community engagement you’ll receive from your efforts, no matter how big or small, is infectious and you’ll find that it eventually makes its way into your financials. The important part is not the size of your efforts or contributions, but the fact that you’re engaged. “Many hands make light work” and if every business were involved in the improvement of the community as a responsible corporate citizen, our little corner of the world would be a far better place!

 

Matt Kehaya, Steve Gagner, and TJ Donovan at 14th Star Brewing Company brewery14th Star Brewing Company glass with logoSteve Gagner speaking with TJ Donovan14th Star Brewing Company taproom and brewery sign

Vermonter of the Month: Jason Fitzgerald

Jason FitzgeraldThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Father. Exercise Physiologist. Athlete. “Diaper Guy.” These are just a few ways one can describe Jason Fitzgerald, our November Vermonter of the Month.

In 2007, Jason was out for an early morning run when he started thinking about different ways to help Vermonters, and it hit him: diapers! According to the National Diaper Bank Network, 1 in 3 American families experience “Diaper Need” and lacks access to a sufficient supply of diapers. As a father, Jason understands the financial burden that purchasing diapers can put on a family, especially given the lack of public funding available specifically for purchasing diapers. With the help of his employer, Dee Physical Therapy (Dee PT), Jason created the Great Diaper Drive, which collects diapers for families assisted by the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). Through sheer force of will, the drive, under Jason’s leadership, has collected more than 325,000 diapers over the past 11 years for Vermont families in need.

A native of Massachusetts, Jason came to Vermont as an undergraduate student at Champlain College. He left after college, but always knew that he would be back. So, when a job opportunity opened for him in Vermont, he jumped at the chance to return to the state he loved. Jason began working at Dee PT in 2007 where he currently serves as a Clinical Coordinator and Exercise Physiologist. At Dee PT, Jason is able to combine his professional pursuits with his passion for helping others to make a positive impact on the community. Here’s more about the amazing work that Jason is doing:

What inspires your work, both at Dee Physical Therapy and in the community?

My work at Dee Physical Therapy is inspired by my coworkers. They put so much into the job and care so much about the wellness of other people. I’m one of those people who enjoys coming to work every morning. I’m so fortunate to be able to come to work and know that I’m helping people get stronger and reach their goals.

My work in the community is inspired by my kids. I am lucky that I was put in a situation with Dee Physical Therapy that I was able to work at a place that allowed me to start a fundraiser. I want my kids to see that when you are put in these situations you should find ways to reach outside of the four walls you work in and try to help people every day.

Why diapers? How did you come up with the idea of the drive?

I start each day with an early morning run. I use this time to think and come up with different ideas. Some of these ideas seem amazing at the time, but when reflecting on them the next day, they often seem ridiculous. In 2007, I had two children both in diapers—Riley (now aged 14) and Kaia (12). I was out for my daily run when I thought about diapers—how expensive they are and how, as a parent, you are constantly worried about running out of them. I wondered if there were any organizations or fundraisers that collected diapers and I couldn’t think of any. When I went to work that day, I mentioned it to my coworkers who thought it seemed like a good idea. I then reached out to the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) to see if they would be interested in a fundraiser that collected diapers. COTS said that there was a need for families living in their shelters and seeking services from their organization, but that no one was collecting diapers at the time.

What has been the impact of the Dee PT Great Diaper Drive and what does it mean to you?

When the drive started in 2007, 6,000 diapers were donated and sustained a couple of COTS’ families. Now, as the drive has grown, we are able to collect enough diapers to last for an entire year for all of the families COTS serves. The impact of the drive is more than just diapers; it allows families to save money that would otherwise be spent on diapers for independent housing. We did the math and a box of 100 diapers can cost about $35. Depending on how many kids you have, what ages they are, and what’s going on with their bodies, a family can go through 10-12 diapers a day. Since the drive began 11 years ago, we’ve collected over 325,000 diapers. As a parent, there is nothing worse than knowing that you don’t have a diaper for your child. The diaper drive has taken away some of this burden that parents are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and is allowing them to save for housing.

This drive means a lot to me. I’m fortunate to be the one that gets to talk about the drive and spread awareness, but it really is the community around me that supports this effort. Through the drive, I’ve been able to make connections with amazing people. There are people that come back each year to donate diapers that they’ve been saving up all year. It’s a true community effort.

What’s your goal for this year’s diaper drive and where can people donate?

The goal is to collect 40,000 by December 21st. We’re on our way towards meeting this goal but want to collect as many diapers as we possibly can.  Donations can be dropped off between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Fridays at the following locations:

  • Dee Physical Therapy at 23 San Remo Drive, South Burlington
  • Dee Physical Therapy at The Field House, 166 Athletic Drive, Shelburne
  • Dee Physical Therapy at 52 Farmall Drive, Hinesburg

What advice do you have for other businesses (or individuals) looking to impact their community?

Look around you. See what resources you have and take advantage of them. I’m not a fundraising guy and it’s a lot of hard work, but I’m so glad I did it. Every year I think about how to make the drive more efficient and effective.

Ask for help. Vermonters want to help each other, including people they don’t know. This is a huge asset and a great part of living here.

Dee PT Diaper Drive PosterJason Fitzgerald

 

Vermonter of the Month: Kathy Fox

Kathy Fox and T.J. Donovan

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Driven by her belief that “people can change, and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Kathy Fox, our October Vermonter of the Month, created Vermont’s first college-in-prison program to provide people who are incarcerated with a second chance at education.

As a University of Vermont (UVM) professor of sociology, conducting research in recidivism, Kathy saw the effectiveness of higher education as a pathway for reintegration for people who were formerly incarcerated. In the spring of 2018, she along with a group of dedicated educators launched UVM’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP). LAPP, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, provides introductory college courses to people who are incarcerated at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and Northwest Regional Correctional Facility. According to LAPP, “The recidivism rate in the state, while better than the national average of 60%, has hovered at about 45% for the last decade. Incarcerated citizens who are released with a high school education have a recidivism rate of 24%. The rate drops to 10% with two years of college, and to about 5% with four years of college.” By providing college courses to people while incarcerated, LAPP, under Kathy’s direction, hopes to reduce the rate of recidivism while also “while improving the odds of returning citizens becoming successful, crime-free, tax-paying members of society.”

A native of Oklahoma, Kathy found her way to Vermont when she accepted a position with UVM in 1994 immediately after completing graduate school. Since then, she has been impacting the lives of her students and people who are incarcerated through her volunteerism, research, and teaching. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Kathy to learn more about the work that she is doing and what drives her passion for social justice.

 How did you become interested in offender reentry/reintegration?

 I would attend criminology conferences and we would all be marveling at the incredible increase in the prison population and speculating about the issues that would be forthcoming when people got released. I had been studying Corrections for a long time and heard about the new reentry programs that Vermont was trying, and they sounded interesting to me. I learned about the unique system Vermont has with its community-based justice centers and was fascinated by the idea of considering reentry and reintegration as a community-level problem to address.

Also, from my research inside prisons, I could see how incarceration creates a lot of deficits for people, such as being able to get a job with a felony record, etc. I felt and still feel that our system isn’t designed for success upon release.

 What inspires your work, both at UVM and in the community?

 I have been aware for a long time about the role that privilege plays in the trajectory of one’s life. I came from a privileged background and know that, but for grace, there go I. I am interested in doing research and activities, like the Liberal Arts in Prison Program, that contribute to the public good, so that drives my decisions about what to devote energy and time to. It stems from a firm belief that people can change, and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, respect, and a second chance.

 What have you learned from your work with incarcerated individuals?

 So much! I have learned that people are remarkably resilient. The accomplishments of incarcerated individuals are more impressive to me than those by people with privilege, because many of them have significant challenges. I have met some very intelligent people who would have gone on a different path had their circumstances been different. I have also learned the value of letting people inside know that there are people who see them, and hear them, and care about their futures.

In addition, I have brought my on-campus students from UVM into the prisons for various activities, and I see tremendous benefit to that, for many reasons, but mostly to bring some humanity to their sense of the system.

 You have so many accomplishments, which, if any, are you most proud of?

 Well thanks! Personally, I am most proud that my spouse and I have raised two kids who are committed to social justice. But professionally, I think I am most proud of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program that I started (with lots of help from others!) because my hope is that it will be sustainable once I retire. We have only two semesters under our belt, but already a few incarcerated students, who were released, are pursuing higher education. Students have reported that they never thought they would be “college material” but now see themselves as students. That is deeply gratifying.

 What are you most hopeful for in the future with regard to offender reentry/reintegration in Vermont?

 I have been doing research on the Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA) program for a decade and am heartened by the fact that Vermont has run more CoSA groups than any state in the nation; this is all the more impressive given how small our prison population is. I think this program will continue to grow, with positive results. With the advantage of having the community justice structure, and the web of volunteers growing, I believe we can change the culture and narrative about the responsibility to help people reintegrate after prison. I would like to see us reduce the number of people going into prison, but I think that change is coming.

Kathy Fox and T.J. Donovan sitting at table

Vermonter of the Month: Lawyers Fighting Hunger

T.J. Donovan collects food itemsThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

For our September Vermonter of the Month, we are honoring all of those who donated to this year’s 2nd Annual “Lawyers Fighting Hunger” food drive. This collaboration with the Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont Bar Association raised over $12,700 and more than 3,000 shelf-stable, non-perishable food items in just two-weeks. We are proud to reaffirm our commitment to serving our community of Vermonters.

A recent study by the Vermont Foodbank and Feeding America shows that one in four Vermonters (around 153,000 people) turn to food shelves and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families.  These numbers include an estimated 33,900 children and 26,010 seniors. All food and funds collected during this year’s food drive went directly to the Vermont Foodbank and over two hundred Vermont Foodbank-partner food shelves and meal sites around Vermont.

For our September Vermonter of the Month we thank the twenty-six law firms and law offices that participated and made this year’s drive a success:

Bergeron, Paradis & Fitzpatrick, LLP

Biggam, Fox, Skinner, L.L.P.

Bradley D. Myerson Law Offices

Decato Law Office

Downs, Rachlin and Martin P.L.L.C.

Gravel and Shea P.C.

Langrock, Sperry and Wool L.L.P.

Maley and Maley, P.L.L.C.

Massucco Law Office P.C.

McNeil, Leddy and Sheahan P.C.

Office of the Vermont Attorney General

Paul, Frank and Collins P.C.

Primmer, Piper, Eggleston and Cramer, P.C.

Robert Appel, Attorney at Law, P.L.C.

Ronan Law Group, PLLC

Sheehey, Furlong and Behm, P.C.

Stitzel, Page and Fletcher P.C.

U.S. District Court/U.S. Bankruptcy Court

Vermont Bar Association

Vermont Department of Financial Regulation

Vermont Legal Aid (Burlington)

Vermont Legal Aid (Rutland)

Vermont Public Utility Commission

Vermont Trial Lawyers Association

Welford & Sawyer

Winburn Law Offices

Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

TJ Donovan and Keely Marie

Lawyers Fighting Hunger Food Drive

Brad Traverse and TJ Donovan

Vermonter of the Month: Kiran Waqar

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Kiran Waqar

Advocate. Volunteer. Mentor. Organizer. Poet. These are just a few ways one can describe Kiran Waqar, our August Vermonter of the Month.

Kiran’s commitment to community service began while in the tenth grade, when she organized a blanket drive benefiting Syrian refugees. While Kiran’s accomplishments since then are too numerous to list, her dedication to service and social justice—as a creator of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change—is inspiring generations of Vermonters; leaving many of us asking, “What can I do to make a change in my community?

Our office had the pleasure of meeting Kiran when she served as an intern with the Vermont Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit in 2017. During which time, she came up with the concept of Vermonter of the Month “as a way to engage with all sorts of Vermonters.”  In relaying her vision, she shared that “By choosing numerous types of Vermonters with varied achievements you can reach out to a diverse group. I thought that was important.”  While celebrating the one-year anniversary of Vermonter of the Month, we are so delighted to be recognizing its esteemed creator as our August honoree!

Kiran recently graduated from South Burlington High School and will be studying International Studies at American University this fall. We sat down with her earlier this month to talk about her plans for the future and thank her for all that she has done, and continues to do, for Vermonters.

What motivated you to become and advocate, and continues to inspire you today?

I’m motivated to advocate because I have the ability to do so. As the daughter of two immigrants from Pakistan, I grew up with a global perspective. I also grew up knowing the privileges I have as an American citizen. Knowing this, it seemed obvious to me to use the privileges that came with my identity to try to make a larger impact. I also am aware of my identity as a Muslim woman, particularly as one who chooses to wear the hijab. Taking up space is important for me as my identity is constantly being mischaracterized. Something that keeps me going is thinking about if I didn’t share my story, who would?

You’ll be leaving Vermont soon for college, what are you going to miss the most?

Probably the community I’ve found here. I’m going to miss my slam (poetry) family, my friends, my family, my mosque, and everyone who supported Muslim Girls Making Change in so many ways. I’m going to miss long car rides with my fellow poets, the amazing conversations with people post performance, and the joy of seeing new poets take stage. I’m especially going to miss Maglianero Cafe where our poetry journey started and Young Writers Project that fostered and supported it along the way.

What advice do you have for other Vermonters, young and old, hoping to make an impact on their communities?

I would say that every single person can make an impact and that it doesn’t have to be big to be effective. The smallest acts can have large effects and you never really know how you’re going to impact someone. Just being there and speaking your truth can touch someone in ways you don’t know, so I would say be authentic. Don’t try to censor yourself or cater yourself to the audience. It’s most important that you be whatever is most honest for you because you never know who needs to see that.

Kiran Waqar and TJ Donovan

Kiran WaqarKiran Waqar, Ted Hobson, Charity Clark and Chester