Vermonters of the Month: Elizabeth and Alex Grimes

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.

TJ Donovan with Alex and Elizabeth Grimes and their children
Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Elizabeth and Alex Grimes and their children

Alex and Elizabeth Grimes, our July Vermonters of the Month, describe the past six years as a “whirlwind of emotion.” May 5, 2013 is the day that forever changed their lives when their nearly 5-month-old son Tatum passed away from SIDS. While grieving his loss, Elizabeth found herself the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ website and rediscovered her purpose in life. The Grimes family decided to honor Tatum by becoming foster parents and creating their nonprofit Tatum’s Totes in his memory.  Now, the Grimes’ have seven beautiful children and support others in foster care by proving totes with essential and comfort items like blankets, stuffed animals, diapers, toothbrushes, and books.

Elizabeth says, “Losing Tatum is a pain we feel every day, but every day we try to honor him.” Tatum’s Totes is dedicated to helping children in foster care one tote at a time.

We visited Alex, Elizabeth and their children at their home in Rutland to hear more about their journey as foster parents and learn more about the impact of Tatum’s Totes.

Tell us a little about yourselves, your son Tatum, and your journey to becoming foster parents.

Both Alex and I are from Rutland Town, Vermont. Our oldest child, Emma, was four years old when we found out we were expecting our second. On December 7, 2012, we were surprised to welcome a little boy into our family, Tatum James Grimes. He was 8 lbs. 2 oz., 19.5 inches long, and was perfect. Tatum looked grumpy all of the time, but when he smiled it was the sweetest little smile. He rarely cried. He liked to just sit and watch what everyone was doing. We were so proud of him and how well he was adjusting. Sleep was even easy with him. He slept perfectly in his own crib.

Our family was doing well, Emma was enjoying being a new big sister and Alex was promoted at work and landed a new day job which allowed for more time with our family. Everything changed on May 4, 2013. We had family over to help build a new deck and we were outside working while Tatum was napping. A few minutes after checking on Tatum, the crew started up the saw. Knowing this would wake Tatum, I went back in the house to get him. I saw Tatum’s hand through the railing and I knew something was wrong. Tatum wasn’t breathing. We believe everyone did everything they could that day to save Tatum, and while his heart started again, it wasn’t enough. Tatum was taken off of life support on May 5, 2013 at 11:00 AM.

Days passed. Weeks passed. I cried. I screamed. I felt like my heart was physically broken. During all of this, I stumbled on the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) website and I knew what I needed to do. I needed to become a foster parent. I needed to help children, and love them, and protect them. I called the Rutland District DCF Office and set up a meeting. I am so thankful for a supportive husband who agreed to do this with me. In his own grief he always knew how to be there for me through mine. 

Eight weeks after losing Tatum, I met with DCF and felt I may have a path in life again. It was a path as a grieving mother, but at least I had some sort of direction. Two weeks later, our journey as foster parents began when I picked up two children from the DCF Office and brought them home with me.

Why did you start Tatum’s Totes?

The idea of Tatum’s Totes came from my first experience as a foster parent. When I went to the DCF Office to meet the two children Alex and I would be caring for, we were greeted by a police officer and a case worker with two small children who had no shoes and tear-streaked faces. Between the two children, ages three and one, they had a toy fire truck and a plastic bag with some diapers thrown in. That’s all they came with.

Alex and I started Tatum’s Totes four years ago to provide children entering foster care in Vermont with essential and comfort items. The children we serve are given a backpack filled with new items, including blankets, stuffed animals, toothbrushes, pajamas, toys, books, school and art supplies, etc. We try to tailor the bags to different age groups. For babies, we provide diaper bags filled with baby items. For teens, we fill the bags with age-appropriate items and gift cards.

Has Tatum’s Totes evolved over the years?

Our hope is to be able to cover the whole state of Vermont one day, but we are successfully covering eight DCF Districts right now. We have a lot of support from the community, including some wonderful ladies covering different areas of the state, and Green Mountain United Way which covers three Districts in the northern part of Vermont. I myself cover Rutland and Middlebury. 

What has been the impact of Tatum’s Totes in the community, and what does that impact mean to you?

Tatum’s Totes is expanding each year. We run a huge Christmas program where people can buy for a child in foster care. We covered over 500 foster children this past year for Christmas. It grows every year. We have helped pay for summer camps, and have gotten cribs, strollers, and car seats for new foster parents. We have helped struggling parents with new school clothes and so much more. I am proud to be Tatum’s Mommy and proud to honor him. This has helped my and Alex’s broken hearts so much. Giving back to the community is truly our pleasure and I hope we can continue to grow bigger and bigger. Everyone’s support, donations, fundraising events, and positive thoughts are so appreciated. The community has made this possible.

What advice do you have for other Vermonters looking to make an impact in their community?

I have learned over the years that there are so many easy ways to make a difference in this world. Little things really amount to big things. Finding a passion and advocating for it, spreading the word and teaching people about it, including more people and asking for help can make any little idea a success. Whether it’s foster care, rescuing animals, supporting our veterans and so many other things, if everyone just did a little it would make this world a better place. 

Alex Grimes with two of his children
Alex Grimes with two of his children
Elizabeth Grimes holding her daughter
Elizabeth Grimes holding one of her children
TJ Donovan getting a tour of Tatum's Totes
Attorney General T.J. Donovan getting a tour of Tatum’s Totes
TJ speaking with Grimes kids
Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Alex Grimes speaking with one of the Grimes’ children

Vermonter of the Month: Monique Priestley

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.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main in Bradford, VT

Driven by her “love for community in every sense of the word,” our March Vermonter of the Month, Monique Priestley, founded The Space On Main in 2017 as a nonprofit community-based coworking, maker, conference, event, and gallery space in the heart of rural Bradford, Vermont.

Monique grew up on a back road in Piermont, New Hampshire, just over the river from Bradford. From a young age, her parents fostered a love of the arts, learning, hard work, and volunteerism. Monique says that as far back as she can remember, her mom always volunteered in the community and brought her and her sister along to help. In her view, the community was always there to help them in return. Because of this, Monique believes there is strength, energy, and hope in community.

As a teen, Monique moved across the Connecticut River to Bradford. She went on to graduate from Northern Vermont University – Lyndon and then the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. After completing graduate school in Seattle, Monique returned to Bradford and bought a house. Since then she has served on numerous boards, committees, and commissions, and was recently recognized as the Cohase Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year.

Today, Monique continues to demonstrate her dedication to community by founding The Space as a way of fostering entrepreneurship, collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the Vermont/New Hampshire Cohase Region. We recently had the pleasure of touring The Space and learning more about the work Monique is doing and what drives her passion for community:

How did you come to understand the need in your community for a space like this? What made you start this program in a rural place like Bradford, Vermont?

I am involved in quite a few local community groups and nonprofits. Before working on The Space On Main (also referred to as The Space), there weren’t many meetings that happened without someone asking, “How do we engage the young professionals here?” I was always the youngest person in any room (often by a few decades) so this question was often directed at me. At the same time, several of Bradford’s most beloved businesses had closed or moved and there was palpable desperation in the air. I started wondering whether I should move back to Seattle (I went to grad school at University of Washington and work remotely for a company there).

At one particularly hard meeting, a mentor and friend of mine asked me to share an idea I had only told a handful of people. I wanted to create a space where people could gather to work, create, teach, and learn side-by-side. I knew there were people who wanted to engage with the community but did not really need or know how to. I wanted to bring them together.

That meeting turned into an instant buzz of ideas. I went home, sent out an online survey to gauge community interest, and got 85 responses that weekend. That was a lot for rural Vermont. I started meeting with those people one-on-one in their homes, in coffee shops, in their studios, at their offices – figuring out exact needs, desires, prices, challenges, vibe, etc.

What is something that has been a welcome discovery? What is something that has been a challenge?

I am inspired every single day by the people who reach out to find out more about The Space, but more importantly, they reach out to find out how they can become an active member of their communities. They just need someone to listen to their story, to their ideas, and to help talk through the questions that are holding them back. It energizes me, it helps awaken something in them, and it makes me appreciate humanity.

In terms of challenges, the whole process has been one big series of challenges. I did not know the first thing about most of the tasks I needed to complete. Luckily, I have always been a lover of problem-solving, unquenchably curious, resourceful, and stubborn.

What has been the community response?

Honestly, mixed. There are people who understood what The Space was from the beginning and have been amazing – and who really made the entire thing possible by providing guidance, funding, and support. There are people who come in, sit down, and talk through what The Space can mean for them. There are the people who do not understand The Space – or really even the spark that happens when people from diverse backgrounds interact with each other. Then there are the people who just have not heard of it yet. The first few keep me going. The latter few present opportunities to practice marketing and storytelling skills.

You’ve said that about 2,300 people have been to The Space on Main since it opened. Are you drawing just from Bradford or surrounding areas? How do you get the word out?

We are definitely drawing from Bradford and the surrounding areas. We have regular members and attendees from up to 45 minutes away on both sides of the Connecticut River. We have had quite a few people stop in that are visiting family or friends. We have requests from people who want to be members while their kids attend local summer camps. We have had a few people become members for a few days at a time while they scope out housing in the Upper Valley. And our Event Space and Conference Room are being booked all the time by local nonprofits and businesses that need a place to hold meetings, classes, and retreats.

We have mostly focused on social media, Vital Communities listservs, and Google. Features on television networks, in Seven Days, and in local papers have really helped. Word of mouth is the biggest driver. We plan to put more of a focus on print advertising.

What are some lessons you’ve learned about starting a small business? Do you have any advice for other Vermonters starting this?

Have patience, appreciation for timing, and listen to everyone and everything. There have been so many moments when I just could not get through to resources that I was advised to pursue. That was frustrating at first, but then I realized that opportunities to connect were presented to me later, in drastically better circumstances. At this point, it happens so much that it is entertaining to see how someone, or something will end up circling back around.

I think my advice would be to be open to any and all ideas and connections. I say yes, to a lot of things that seem pretty random – a person I should talk to, an idea someone wants to brainstorm, an event someone wants to go to, an article I need to read, but I never walk away from anything without having learned something from it. Those lessons increase my awareness for later discoveries and connections.

You are located right on Main Street in downtown Bradford. Are you working on bringing any other new businesses like yours to the downtown? Any long-term goals for The Space?

The cool thing about The Space and being personally engaged is that people reach out all the time with business or community ideas they need help with. As I connect with various people and organizations, it broadens the resources I can help point others towards.

Along with growing membership and rentals to sustain the nonprofit, our goal right now is to develop and fund programming that can provide support and opportunities to remote workers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and community members. We are also working on funding for equipment that will expand the types of programming that can be offered. We have ideas for using the third floor of the building and have been asked about potential satellites, both of which are longer term goals.

For right now, we are pretty excited for the number of people we have been able to serve in the first five months and cannot wait to see how The Space adapts and evolves over the coming year.

TJ Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main

Vermonter of the Month: Sharon Russell

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.

Sharon Garafano Russell is the Executive Director of the Rutland City Rescue Mission, better known at the Open Door Mission. The Open Door Mission houses 51 people and this year they provided 36,000 meals in the Soup Kitchen which serves residents of the Mission and people on the street. They have a staff of 11 that work around the clock providing meals, clean bedding and a clean and safe home for both residents and those just staying a few nights. The Mission serves three meals a day and runs on the proceeds of their thrift store, an annual golf tournament and individual donations. Under Sharon’s leadership, this structure has become a model for veteran shelters across the country.

Sharon has dedicated her life to helping the disenfranchised, supporting all people independent of their appearance, past or place in life. She has received countless awards over the years, most recently “The Unsung Hero Award” from her alma mater Mount St. Joseph Academy (MSJ Class of ’65).

After growing up in Rutland, Sharon completed her bachelors in early education from the University of Maryland. She then taught special education and served as the head of the Adult Education Program at the Brandon Training School for eleven years. This was followed by the state exam for social work, which led her to the Open Door Mission.

Sharon lives in Rutland with her two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

What inspires your work with the Open Door Mission?

What inspires me most is I went to MSJ and was always taught by nuns who said we should pay our good luck forward, and so too again when I attended The College of St Joseph. Second, and probably the most important, is that Jody Fish, a classmate at MSJ, went to Vietnam and never returned. That is why I contract with the VA to work with veterans.

What impact has the Open Door Mission had on your community?

The impact on our community is that the disenfranchised and the homeless veteran has a warm bed and 3 hot meals daily in our soup kitchen, where we serve 120 meals daily. We also serve folks from the street. There is nothing better then to see a small child go home with a full tummy and a smile–it makes my day–or when a veteran who has been on the streets in larger cities tells us how special our food is.

What have you learned from your work at the Open Door Mission?

Every day I learn something new. A few of those lessons are: but for how my life has been I could be on the streets; I have learned that labels are for cans, not for people; and we don’t always know what is causing people to have addictions or mental illness. I have learned if each one of us tries, we can make a difference in the world.

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

My advice for others is to make a impact on the community, stop and look around. You will see the need. Don’t judge people, for you will find that most are good people who have chosen that road that is too often traveled. I suggest instead, as Robert Frost wrote, to take the one “less traveled” in order to make a difference.