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

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.

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Vermont’s Businesses Are Protected Under Vermont’s Consumer Laws

Businesses can be consumers too! Vermont is unique in that our Consumer Protection Act defines “consumer” to include businesses that are the consumer in a transaction, such as when purchasing goods or services that are not for resale (9 V.S.A. § 2451a(a)). If your business needs help, contact our Small Business Advocate by emailing or calling 800-649-2424.

Here are some recent examples of how the Small Business Advocate has helped Vermont business consumers:

  • Small business paid a listing service for over 5 years of online advertising when it realized that advertiser had published the wrong phone number for the small business. The listing service offered to refund the small business $450 to resolve the issue, but this was significantly less than what the small business had paid for the service. Our Small Business Advocate reached out to the listing service on the small business’ behalf and was able to secure a refund of more than $4,000 to recapture the costs paid for the service.
  • Small business attempted to cancel their lease for credit card processing equipment (the lease was entered before new protections took effect on July 1, 2018), but the leasing company claimed that the small business owner was unable to cancel the lease agreement and needed to pay the remainder of the lease term. Our Small Business Advocate reviewed the lease contract and found that it did not conform to Vermont’s Home Solicitation Sales Act (9 V.S.A. § 2454). The leasing company agreed to cancel the contract, saving the business owner more than $600 over the course of the lease.
  • Small business signed up for a lead generator service but was dissatisfied with the quality of the referrals they received. Small business requested a refund but did not receive a response from the lead generator. Frustrated by the lack of response, they contacted our Small Business Advocate who brought the complaint to the lead generator’s attention and facilitated a refund to the small business of nearly $300.

Does your business need help? Review our office’s webpage for small businesses and contact our Small Business Advocate today. 

Vermonter of the Month: Julia Birnn Fields

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

Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont

Julia Birnn Fields, 4th-generation owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont and our April Vermonter of the Month, didn’t always know she would take over the family business. She felt called to service when her father and uncle considered retirement.

Now, almost ten years later, it’s clear that she and her husband Mel found the right path: Her love for what she does shines through in her words.

Perhaps most inspiring, she has prioritized helping her employees grow. Why? She says, “Our employees are the heartbeat of our company and we would not exist without them.”

Birnn Chocolates hire many new Americans. Because English is a second language for those employees, they started offering English lessons during the work day. It all started because they “noticed that some of the most veteran employees for whom English was a second language weren’t being promoted as quickly as native English speakers.” Now, they work with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to continue the lessons indefinitely.

Julia Birnn Fields exemplifies a connection to family, community, diversity and investing in employees. We’re proud to honor her as our April Vermonter of the Month.

Tell us a little about yourself (What is your official title? What has been your career path? How did you get to where you are?):

I am President and 4th-generation owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont.  My degree is in Elementary Education, so the family business was not my chosen career path early on.  After I graduated from college I taught skiing at Sugarbush Resort, gave tours and repped events for Magic Hat, worked summers for Appalachian Landscaping, and managed a seasonal restaurant.  Each of those jobs taught me great life lessons on how to deal with people both internally and externally in a wide variety of businesses.  Four years after graduation, when I was skiing 100+ days in the winter and caretaking a private island on Lake Champlain, my dad asked me what my plan was.  I was a bit taken aback, as I thought I was living a pretty darn good life, but from my father’s eyes it didn’t seem like it was my forever path.  My dad and uncle co-owned the family chocolate business, and they were beginning to think about retirement.  My uncle doesn’t have kids and I’m an only child so their plan was quite simple: if I wasn’t interested they were going to sell.  I honestly had never even considered working for my family; it was always my dad and uncle’s thing.  However, the thought of them selling the multigenerational business didn’t sit right with me, and I wanted to at least explore the option before it was gone.

In 2010 my partner, Mel, and I made the life-altering decision to try the family business on for size and agreed to work for a year to see if it was a good fit for us.  We knew we wanted to work together, whatever we did so this seemed like a logical option.  Now, nine years later we are still here.  Year one flew by, along with year two.  We started in production, learning each job from the best, seasoned employees.  I worked in the business in high school, so I did have some basic knowledge, but we still took the time to learn each position. We felt this step vitally important to truly understanding the business as a whole.  Our roles evolved organically. We’d see an area that needed improvement and then help implement things to make people’s jobs easier.  In doing so we not only gained respect from our coworkers, but also helped the company become more efficient.  Year three we began talking about the future.  It was clear we were quite happy in the business and were ready to talk seriously about succession.  It took a couple of years to come up with a plan that felt really solid for all four parties involved.  Mel and I became the 4th-generation owners in 2016 and simultaneously my dad and uncle retired.  It was quite a big step but we all felt it was the right move for the company, our employees, and the bright future ahead.  We’re now expecting a baby next month, the first of the 5th-generation!

What sets Birnn Chocolates of Vermont apart from other truffle makers? What’s your mission or motto?

We exclusively make chocolate truffles, no other products.  We also only sell in bulk to the wholesale market and do not have a retail store of our own.  Our number one focus is our wholesale customers and therefore our focus is on customer service and ensuring that our customers are getting what they need in a timely manner.  We ship the same day that orders are placed, which is pretty unique in our business.  We also ship year-round and cover the cost of extra insulation and ice packs during the warmer months.  We’re family owned and operated so when you call you always get a person and we’re always willing to listen to customer requests and make a sincere effort to accommodate them.  We are extremely efficient in what we do which helps tremendously with producing a high-quality product for a very competitive price.

Our mission: Above and Beyond – Every Day, Every Way, Everyone.

Our motto: We make truffles, for people who sell truffles, to people who love truffles.

What inspired you to offer English classes to your New American employees?

Mel and I noticed that some of the most veteran employees for whom English was a second language weren’t being promoted as quickly as native English speakers.

How did you promote the opportunity to your employees? How did you ensure that these classes were utilized?

We originally tried offering English classes before and after work and no one signed up.  We were discouraged but understood why.  We then met with the Vermont Department of Economic Development and received a grant for English lessons during the work day.  The grant paid for half of the expense of hiring a teacher and paying our employees to attend the classes.  Once the grant was completed, we wanted to continue offering this benefit to our English Language Learning employees so we made arrangements with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to continue the lessons.  We’ve offered English lessons for two years now and plan to continue them indefinitely.

What impact did offering these classes have on your business?

With just two hours a week (plus some voluntary homework) we’ve seen a significant increase in confidence and English usage in the workplace. This also creates a more inclusive environment for others that don’t speak another language.  Previously there were a few different languages being spoken and it could feel isolating to some when a group of people spoke freely next to them in a language they did not understand.  We’ve really tried to get everyone involved with our efforts and have asked our native English speakers to help others with their vocabulary and pronunciation.  We’ve worked hard to create a safe and trusting space where people feel comfortable asking for help and guidance with the English language. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. 

Would you recommend this to other small businesses? What advice do you have for other small businesses looking to create organizational change or empower their employees?

We feel that empowering our employees is the single most important thing that we can do.  Not only does it tell them that we’re invested in their well-being, it’s very rewarding watching them learn and grow in an environment we’ve helped to cultivate.  We also hope that this will carry over to interactions with communities outside of the workplace, and to further that aim, we’ve encouraged a curriculum that isn’t solely based on chocolate or manufacturing vocabulary.  We would most certainly encourage any and all businesses to develop their own programs.  The rewards are priceless.  Our employees are the heartbeat of our company and we would not exist without them.

Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Birnn Made in Vermont

5 Wedding Scams to Avoid

Don’t let your dream day turn into a nightmare! As wedding season gets closer, we are here to warn you about five wedding-related scams that target both people planning weddings and businesses providing services:

#1 Fake photographer: Scammers offer what appear to be professional photography services through websites with stolen or stock images. They ask for payment up front and then disappear with your money.

Here’s how to avoid this scam:

  • Research businesses BEFORE hiring them—ask friends for recommendations and look for online reviews.
  • Ask the photographer for references and call them. 
  • Ask the photographer to sign a contract before providing a deposit.
  • NEVER wire money to someone you’ve never met!

#2 Online wedding dress: Scammers create rip-off websites offering steep discounts on designer dresses. You pay for the dress, never receive the order, and can’t get in touch with the sellers. Then the website disappears from the internet.

Here’s how to avoid this scam:

  • Search online forums for reviews of the seller and the website.
  • Check the dress designer’s website to see if the seller is listed as an authorized dealer.
  • Comparison shop. Check prices with multiple sellers. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Scammers target wedding vendors too!

#3 Fake order of goods/services: Your business is contacted by a “client” who wants you to perform a service or provide goods for their wedding. (This scam typically targets florists, musicians, bakers, and event planners.) You receive a check for more than the agreed upon amount. Your “client” then advises you to deposit the check and send the difference to another vendor by wire transfer. Later, the check bounces and you’re out any money that’s been transferred.  

Here’s how to avoid this scam:

  • Do not cash the check.
  • Never send money to an unknown party and cease all communication with the scammer immediately. 
  • Be cautious of clients sending you more money than you’ve agreed to. This is a sign of a scam!

#4 Justice of the Peace scam: Your information is published online as a Justice of the Peace (JP). You are contacted by a “couple” who wants you to perform their marriage ceremony. The scam involves a fake check well over the amount for marriage ceremony services and a request to send the excess to another ceremony vendor.  In one report recently received by the Attorney General’s Office, a JP was mailed a fake check in the amount of $1800 and instructed to send the majority to a videographer.  

Here’s how to avoid this scam:

  • Do not cash the check. 
  • Never send money to an unknown party and to cease all communication with the scammer immediately. 

#5 Wedding Expo scam:  A scam website claims a big wedding expo is coming to town. There is a registration fee for vendors with promises of a great location and exposure. The “event organizers” require payment in advance and you later find out that the expo doesn’t exist.

Here’s how to avoid this scam:

  • Contact the venue the expo is claiming to be held at.
  • Check the event organizer’s references.
  • Connect with other vendors to see if they have any information.

Vermonter consumers and businesses who have fallen victim to any of these scams should contact the Consumer Assistance Program right away at 800-649-2424.

Now that you know what scams to be aware of, here’s information about obtaining wedding licenses for people getting married in Vermont. Happy planning!

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

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