All photos/art by Ian Aldrich
Jodi Wheeler is a lot of things to a lot of different people. To new mothers struggling to make ends meet, she secures them clothes and toys for their infants. To a family facing winter, she finds good cold-weather jackets. To kids getting out of school for the weekend who may not have enough to eat at home, she provides backpacks stuffed with food to keep them nourished.
But in her hometown of Lyndonville, Vermont, Wheeler just likes to think of herself as a catalyst, someone who’s helping others find a channel for their desire to combat the poverty that laces through the northern part of the state. “There are so many people who want to help and do good stuff but don’t know how to do it,” she says. “They just want to do something.”
Wheeler can relate. Her husband, Rick, owns a local sporting-goods store, and in 2004 she noticed that he was giving away equipment to students so they’d be able to play school sports: a quarterback who didn’t have cleats … a baseball player who needed a new glove. Wheeler sent word to parents in the area that if they had unused sports equipment they wanted to donate, she’d clean it, sort it, and give the stuff out discreetly.
Wheeler found herself taking in requests for things other than sports equipment. Parents came calling for clothes; some needed food. Others needed different kinds of items–pots and pans, for example–just to make a fresh start in life. Wheeler tried to help them all, formalizing her work around an entity she called H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Everyday). Within 18 months she’d run out of room in the basement of her husband’s store. She found a new place, but then moved again when that became too small.
H.O.P.E. now makes its home in a renovated storefront in downtown Lyndonville. Like its founder, it serves a lot of different kinds of needs. It’s a thrift store; it’s a food pantry; it’s an appliance shop. The downstairs level caters to new moms, while a small closet houses prom dresses and tuxedos for high-school students. Wheeler’s office is really a holding pen for things like Christmas packages or Easter baskets that she plans to send out. There’s talk of creating a backyard garden that will supply the food pantry with a steady stream of fresh vegetables throughout the summer. “My board allows me only one idea a month,” Wheeler says with a laugh.
Equally important, though, is that this isn’t just a Jodi Wheeler-led operation. More than 50 people contribute in some way, from the local man who fixes the appliances to the retired woman who cleans and restores the donated dolls. H.O.P.E. is just what Wheeler imagined it would be: people helping people in any way they can. “It’s about the community,” she explains. “It’s about taking a little step forward and saying you’re going to do this, and then everybody helps you. Tiny things can make such a huge difference.”
For more information: hopevermont.com