Vermonter of the Month: Bess O’Brien

Vermonter of the Month 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.

Bess O'Brien with TJ Donovan
Bess O’Brien with Attorney General T.J. Donovan

Our August Vermonter of the Month is director, producer, and arts activist Bess O’Brien—Vermont’s truth-teller.

Bess began working in film when her husband Jay Craven hired her to produce his first short movie High Water. From there, she went on to co-produce Where the Rivers Flow North and A Stranger in the Kingdom before starting to make documentary films.

Through filmmaking, Bess has shined a light on issues affecting Vermonters. Her recent filmsComing Home, All of Me, and The Hungry Heart—depict important issues like reintegration into communities after incarceration, body image and eating disorders, and the opioid and prescription drug crisis in Vermont.

In December, our office hosted a screening of Bess’ film Coming Home for staff. The film follows five Vermonters returning to their communities after being incarcerated. It highlights the amazing work that the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program is doing in Vermont—helping people reintegrate into their communities and showing the power of compassion and empathy.

In 1991, Bess and Jay established Kingdom County Productions (KCP). The nonprofit’s focus expanded in 2009 to include performing arts; bringing shared arts-based community events to the Northeast Kingdom. Today KCP is dedicated to “transforming community through film, performance, and experiential learning.”

We met up with Bess at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival to ger her perspective on the importance of storytelling in Vermont.

You’ve been described as “Vermont’s truth-teller.” What inspires you, or drives your passion for this work?

I am interested in telling stories that go to the root of the problem, whether it be drug addiction, incarceration, foster care, etc. I want to hear voices from people who are often not seen and are invisible. I want their voices heard. By telling their stories change can begin to happen.

Why is documentary filmmaking and the arts, in general, important in a rural state like Vermont?

Because Vermont is small, telling stories and sharing the lives of people who are often silenced can make a difference. We are a small state so a documentary film that tours to 15 towns can truly start a conversation!

Why did you and your husband Jay create Kingdom County Productions?

To tell stories that are rooted in Vermont.

How do you strive to transform “community through film, performance, and experiential learning?”

By bringing the arts to rural areas and to folks who often don’t experience the arts it raises awareness and forms a strong community.

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

Tell the truth, talk to people who are outside your comfort zone, have empathy and raise people’s voices!

Bess O’Brien with Attorney General T.J. Donovan

Attorney General Donovan Joins Fight Against Illegal Robocalls

Robocalls are annoying. But, when a scammer is on the other end of the call, they can also be dangerous. That’s why Attorney General Donovan with attorneys general from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., formed a public-private coalition with 12 phone companies to implement anti-robocall strategies to help protect consumers from illegal robocalls and make it easier for attorneys general to investigate and prosecute bad actors.  

The Anti-Robocall Principles address the robocall problem in two main ways: prevention and enforcement.

12 phone companies—AT&T, Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Consolidated, Frontier, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon, and Windstream—will work to prevent illegal robocalls by:

  • Implementing call-blocking technology at the network level at no cost to customers.
  • Making available to customers additional, free, easy-to-use call blocking and labeling tools.
  • Implementing technology to authenticate that callers are coming from a valid source.
  • Monitoring their networks for robocall traffic.

These phone companies will assist attorneys’ general anti-robocall enforcement by:

  • Knowing who their customers are so bad actors can be identified and investigated.
  • Investigating and taking action against suspicious callers – including notifying law enforcement   and state attorneys general.
  • Working with law enforcement, including state attorneys general, to trace the origins of illegal robocalls.
  • Requiring telephone companies with which they contract to cooperate in traceback identification.

Moving forward, phone companies will stay in close communication with the coalition of attorneys general to continue to optimize robocall protections as technology and scammer techniques change.

If you have received an illegal robocall, you can act by reporting it to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP). CAP tracks scam trends occurring throughout Vermont, and provides timely alerts about rising scams. Call CAP toll free at (800) 649-2424.

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: Victoria Lloyd

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 Victoria “Tori” Lloyd

Earlier this month, we celebrated World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and the one-year anniversary of the Attorney General Office’s Elder Protection Initiative (EPI). Over the last year, EPI has participated in statewide working groups, undertaken enforcement actions and criminal prosecutions, and advocated to strengthen laws and agency coordination to protect older Vermonters and vulnerable adults. Through this work, we met our June Vermonter of the Month, Victoria “Tori” Lloyd—a tireless advocate raising awareness and supporting prevention of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

After years in service to the State of Vermont as an investigator with Adult Protect Services, Tori formed a nonprofit group designed to bring together public and private stakeholders to prevent and mitigate financial exploitation. The group, Financial Abuse Specialist Team of Vermont or FAST, was formed in 2011 and seeks to end exploitation of elders and vulnerable Vermonters. Building on the success of the Vermont chapter, Tori formed FAST of America four years later in 2015, bringing her advocacy efforts and technical assistance nationwide.

Currently, FAST of Vermont is focused on educating professionals who provide direct services to older Vermonters about the topic of financial exploitation. It is also working to expand statewide coordination in addressing financial exploitation, including through the use of case reviews and the creation of a rapid response team to financial exploitation.

To that end, in June 2018, Tori organized a tristate conference on financial exploitation for Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine FAST members and other professionals (including the EPI) working to remedy and prevent the financial exploitation of elders. Tori’s organization, FAST of VT, also recently hosted a convening between the Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and public and private stakeholders from across Vermont regarding the financial exploitation of older adults.

The need for advocacy like Tori’s is clear—by 2030, 1 in 3 Vermonters will be age 60 or older. Nationally, of this 60+ age cohort, 1 in 10 adults experience some form of mistreatment each year. This mistreatment can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, financial exploitation (often by family members or caregivers), and psychological and emotional abuse.

Thank you, Tori, for fighting to ensure that older and vulnerable Vermonters are able to age with justice, dignity, and respect.

Vermonters of the Month: Early Educators

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.

May 10th marked National Child Care Provider Appreciation Day. We want to thank Vermont’s early educators for all that they do for Vermont’s children and families by honoring them as our May Vermonters of the Month. To do this, we asked Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families by 2025, to help us highlight the stories of two inspiring early educators—Betsy Barstow of Nature’s Niños and Samara Mays of Montpelier Children’s House.

Early educators play a critical role in the development of our youngest Vermonters. According to Let’s Grow Kids, 70 percent of Vermont children under the age of 6 have all available parents in the labor force, meaning they’re likely to need some form of childcare. This, coupled with the fact that the first five years of a child’s life is when the brain is developing most rapidly, provide early educators with the opportunity to help children build a strong foundation for all future learning and development.

“Our early educators are literally building the brains of Vermont’s future leaders by giving young children the nurturing care and early learning opportunities that will set them up for success in school, work and life,” says Let’s Grow Kids CEO Aly Richards. “They’re with our children during the most critical time of development and they are supporting families as well as employers. We all benefit from the incredible work early educators do every day.”

We had the opportunity to meet Betsy Barstow and Samara Mays at their programs, in Adamant and Montpelier respectively, to hear their stories and see their amazing work in action.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Betsy Barstow at  Nature’s Niños
Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Betsy Barstow at Nature’s Niños

Betsy Barstow

Drawing on nearly 30 years of experience as a teacher, Betsy Barstow is shaping the lives of prekindergartners (Pre-K) at her 52-acre homestead in Adamant, Vermont. Her program, Nature’s Niños, is a nature-based Spanish-English Act 166 Pre-K. As a licensed Vermont Early Childhood Educator and Registered Family Child Care Home Provider with experience as a teacher in South America, Betsy offers both a bilingual Spanish-English program and a Spanish Language immersion program for children ages 3-5.

The students at Nature’s Niños spend most of their day outside—exploring nature, sharing stories and meals, and creating a sense of community while learning Spanish language and aspects of Latin-American cultures. Betsy’s philosophy on early education is simple, but incredibly impactful—”Young children are meaning makers. As they grow, they are busy making sense of the world around them, making relationships with the people in their life and building a self-concept. They are forming ideas about what the world is like and how to be in this world.” Betsy says it’s her intent to “show that the earth is an interesting, fascinating and beautiful place, that the people in it may be caring and responsive and that the individual is a valued contributor to the community no matter what his/her age.”

Why did you get into the early education field? What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?

I’ve always related well to children and wanted to do something that had an impact on their lives that encouraged development and a love of learning. Teaching touches lives and opens doors—I wanted to have a part in that. As a college student, I double majored in Elementary Education and Special Education at Trinity College. When I graduated, I moved to Cali, Colombia where I taught in a bilingual school and dreamed of starting my own school someday. When I returned to Vermont in 1988, I worked as a teacher in several local schools, teaching Spanish and art to different age groups. Influenced by becoming a mother and raising two children with my spouse and later working in the East Montpelier Elementary preschool, I realized how profound this period of time is in creating the foundation of a person’s life and decided to enroll in the Vermont Higher Education Collaborative (VHEC). The master level classes I took provided me with an additional endorsement in early childhood education. Vermont’s Act 166 allowed me to design a home-based Pre-K program that enables me to share my love of nature and multi-cultural based experiences, similar to those that I gave my own children, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

The most rewarding aspect of this work is being a part of these children’s lives, offering them experiences and watching them grow. My curriculum introduces the philosophy of the three cares—caring for self, caring for others and caring for the earth. This fosters a love of nature, a sense of beauty and an appreciation for the world around us. It also creates a community of caring for each other and ourselves. It is rewarding to see children become considerate, curious learners with a sense of wonder, thus laying the basis for lifelong learning. 

What do you think is important for Vermonters to know about early education?

Early education is broader than when a child goes to a home, school, or center-based program, it includes their experiences at home and in the community. For a young child, all experiences, are part of their education and form their life view, the habits they develop and their self-esteem, how they relate to others, pursue their interests and navigate life.  Additionally, I would like Vermonters to know that because of Act 166, and their contributions, all children have the opportunity to go to a Pre-K program to learn, grow, and develop.

How does your program support the community?

Nature’s Niños supports the creation of community among the children’s families and the act of community service.  Our beginning of the year picnic and other family events, are intended to help build relationships and develop support systems. We reach out further to the community by sharing some of the harvest from the school garden with local organizations like the Twin Valley Senior Center and the FEAST nutrition program at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center. The children learn through these acts of service that if you have food, you share it.

Why is early childhood education important for Vermont?

As Vermonters, we may bear in mind that children are future adult citizens and ask ourselves how we all can foster and be involved in nurturing an engaged, empathetic, secure, and globally minded citizenry. We can ask questions to facilitate children’s thinking, quest for answers, creative expression and spend time with them to let them know that they are valued and loved.

What impact, if any, has being an early educator had on your life?

Being an educator inspires my own creativity when I think about what kinds of experiences I want to offer and it gives me pause to reflect on what core values I feel are important to share. It has also allowed me to build lasting relationships with the children I’ve taught and their families that extend beyond when the children leave the program. This has given me a tremendous amount of joy in my life.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Samara Mays at the Montpelier Children's House
Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Samara Mays at the Montpelier Children’s House

Samara Mays

Samara Mays’ journey into early childhood education began during her own childhood, when her father, Larry Parker, operated a daycare out of their home and later opened the Montpelier Children’s House in 1984. Now, 35 years later, Samara serves as director, co-owner, and a teacher at the Children’s House, continuing the legacy of her father—who is currently enjoying retirement.  

Memories from Samara’s childhood and early adulthood are intertwined with the goings-on at Children’s House. She spent many afterschool hours and summers working alongside her father and other teachers observing the art of communicating respectfully and engaging joyfully in the education of young children. Though she initially moved away from the field of education and pursued a master’s degree in Rural Sociology, Samara was called to service when her mother became ill and her father increasingly found himself needing to be away from the program. While working for a Montpelier-based nonprofit, she filled in at Children’s House where she could—early in the morning, the occasional lunchtime and late afternoons. Each time feeling joy and ease as she slid back into the familiar routines of the program and her true calling, early education.

Samara left her nonprofit job after the birth of her second child, and, after a while began to care for other children in her home. She formally joined Children’s House in 2010, when her youngest child reached enrollment age and she was able to naturally transition the home care she provided for of other children over to Children’s House.

“During my time at Children’s House, I have grown considerably as an educator and administrator. I have been endlessly grateful for the support and knowledge of those I have become connected to in the field – teachers, colleagues, mentors and of course, children and families. I am walking a path where, like my students, I am constantly curious and enthusiastic about the hundred ways to know, investigate and experience the world together.” Samara says, “I am tremendously proud of my little school.”

Why did you get into the early education field? What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?

As a young person, early education touched so many aspects of my life but as a career, never crossed my mind. Watching my father grow the business made clear that it was very hard work for comparatively little compensation. That said, when I moved back to town in my mid-20’s I was drawn to the family business with a new perspective, particularly about how engaging, challenging, and rewarding it is to work with children and  families. When I started at Children’s House, there wasn’t a clear decision that I would take over the business—just that I was dipping my toes in the water a little bit. It was a huge learning curve, particularly learning about the business management aspects of the job. I started taking classes at Community College of Vermont to get my Director’s Credential and I really got hooked on learning about how children grow, develop and acquire knowledge and understanding. I really love the science behind early childhood education. I formally took over as Director about five years ago. Children’s House is 35 years old this year and I’m really proud to continue the program’s legacy forward into the future. I understand and value the huge importance of high-quality early education—not only for the healthy growth and development of young children, but also for our local economy. Families need access to high-quality, affordable care for their children.

The most rewarding thing about my work: I love facilitating learning and discovery. When you give a child the right environment, and the time and space for them to construct their own knowledge and understanding, you get to witness that spark of discovery that occurs. Imagine the magic and wonder of creating a new color for the first time! Working with young children allows me to share in the joy and wonder of discovering the world all over again. I also treasure the relationships made with children and their families. Early childhood is a marvelous and messy time, and we get to be in the thick of it with children and their families.

I also have to mention how rewarding it is to work with my co-teachers. Working in early education requires that you think on your feet and adapt to the constantly changing needs of the children and the group. My co-teachers are endlessly brilliant, flexible and creative. Working in a busy and fast-paced environment requires a special kind of communication and trust that we’ve been able to cultivate over time. I’m so grateful to have found dedicated and talented early educators that are as passionate as I am about the value of our children’s earliest years.

What do you think is important for Vermonters to know about early education?

This is a big one! High-quality early education is the foundation of growing healthy humans. We know that birth to five is the most important period for brain development. Every experience, every interaction becomes a part of how children create their understanding of the world, their relationships with others and their sense of themselves. Investment in early education pays off—we know this. High-quality early childhood education has been found to benefit children through adulthood and this benefit is even realized in subsequent generations. We’re learning how important it is for children to develop social and emotional skills and how these “softer skills” are predictive of later school success.  If we (meaning Vermont and the United States) want good outcomes for children and families there must be real and sustained investment in early education.

High-quality early care requires that we, as a community, make the decision to invest in early educators. Working in early education asks teaching professionals to subsidize the cost of childcare by making less money than peers with the same amount of education and often forgoing benefits such as health insurance, dental and retirement. It isn’t fair. While our program works hard to compensate teachers as well as we can, we’ll always come up against the challenge of affordability for families. Finding a balance that honors the value of early educators with livable compensations and maintains accessibility to all families is the challenge that every early education program will continue to face.

How does your program support the community?

We provide care for 25 children and families, most of who live in and around Montpelier. As an Act 166 prequalified partner, we are able to provide publicly funded Pre-K to our students for ten hours a week, 35 weeks a year. This absolutely helps with the total cost of tuition for families. We operate ten hours a day, year-round. Our availability and public funding mean we can be supportive and accessible to working families. We also provide warmth, continuity and community to our young people.

Our program aims to be in partnership with young families. As a parent myself, I am well aware of both the joys and the challenges that are part of these years. We all juggle a seemingly endless list of to-dos. Our goal is to provide a nurturing place for kids to experience joy and be a part of something bigger than themselves—even when growth comes with pains. If we do this well, we make space for parents to work, and meaningfully engage in our community and economy. By providing access to high-quality, affordable care we fill a need for communities such as Montpelier to attract young families. In that way, we are an essential part of the local economy.

Why is early childhood education important for Vermont?

As I’d mentioned earlier, high-quality early education is foundational. It is the foundation on which we grow Vermonters who are eager and enthusiastic learners, individuals who can manage relationships and work through conflict, problem-solvers who are ready to tackle new and challenging issues. This is the foundation we are setting for the next generation of citizens.

In the shorter term, high-quality early education is an absolutely necessity to attract and retain young people to Vermont. Families need and value quality care for their children so that they can work and support this state’s economy. Without adequate childcare options, growing businesses is a non-starter.

What impact, if any, has being an early educator had on your life?

I think that being an early educator is not what you do, but who you are. To me it’s one of those professions that becomes a part of your whole life. I truly love the work that I do. It is engaging, challenging and never, never dull. I get to work with incredible people whose skills and dedication to children and families are truly inspiring. I have the tremendous privilege of sharing in the early years of people’s children and am grateful for the trust that they have placed in me.

I am not an early educator because I love kids (which I do, of course) but because I feel a responsibility to do my part to protect childhood—to ensure that the young people in my care know that they are loved, valued and capable. All children deserve the opportunity to feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves and are responsible not only for themselves but for one another. Creating a school that instills this knowledge is the best way that I know of to be a citizen. It is hard work and demands your whole heart. It is worth every minute.