Listen: Serving the Community for Over Fifty Years
By the time the ink had dried on the 501(c)3 paperwork declaring “Lebanon in Service to Each Neighbor (LISTEN)” an official nonprofit in 1973, the start-up activist collaborative had already racked up some significant accomplishments.
In the early 1970s, the conversation around town might have sounded familiar to modern ears: it centered on the shortage of quality, affordable housing for the people who lived and worked in the city. The city’s residents were in favor of the idea of public housing, but then – as now – the question had been about exactly where to put it. In late 1971, the City Council had rezoned South Main Street in West Lebanon to rule out anything other than single-family homes. But by the end of the following year, not only had a tight-knit band of parents and activists helped to overturn that decision – leading to the Lebanon Housing Authority’s construction of Romano Circle –they had also started a food co-op, a community garden, and a thrift store, and had begun to focus their efforts on a proposal for expanded tenants’ rights. Fifty years later, LISTEN Community Services is still working hard every day to serve those in need, in Lebanon and beyond.
It would be impossible to explain the early days of LISTEN without mentioning Marcia Boutin – its founder, first chairperson, and (as everyone will tell you) the driving force behind its early achievements. By all reports, Boutin was an activist in every sense of the word. In 1972, she showed up to City Council meetings to complain that the City’s “substandard housing board” rarely, if ever, met, and that there were dozens of “wrecks” it should be addressing – complaining that she had personally been working on three of them, but that it was a losing battle without City help. The fact that she had been doing so while both founding a community garden on Heater Road and opening a thrift store in the side of former Olympian Ernie Dion’s ski shop on Hanover Street only serves as further testament to her commitment to the cause.
According to Roscoe Putnam, LISTEN’s Communications Coordinator, the thrift shop began as a way to fund the organization’s community aid efforts. “[Marcia] went to the community and said, you know, you donate [the clothes], we’ll put them all on hangers. We’ll sell them for fifty cents and we’ll give the money away to anybody who needs heat or food or whatever else.” By 1973, the shop had moved to 92 Hanover Street, the site of the drive-through for the present-day Jiffy Mart and Dunkin’ Donuts. But even that home proved too small for the quickly-growing organization, and in 1976 they purchased 60 Hanover Street, at the time known as “Scotty’s Boarding House,” and made it LISTEN’s central office. “We had a thrift store downstairs, a food pantry in the back, and [offices upstairs].”
Over the years the thrifting operation expanded further. They opened a second location in White River Junction in 1980 and expanded into Canaan in 1985. In 2013, LISTEN opened their River Point Plaza in White River Junction – renamed the Bourne Center in 2016 after former executive director Merilynn Bourne –which houses not only a thrift store and a used furniture store but also the kitchen and dining hall for their Community Dinners program. In 2018, they purchased the old Bridgman’s furniture showroom on the Miracle Mile and moved their Lebanon thrift store to where it is today. While the stores aren’t solely to fund the other work the charity does – they don’t sell everything they take in, offering vouchers for clothes, shoes, kitchenware, linens, and even furniture to those in need –according to the organization’s 2023 Annual Impact Report, last year the stores generated 22% of LISTEN’s roughly $1.5 million operating budget.
That budget goes towards fulfilling LISTEN’s core mission, “to provide services and support to meet the critical needs of Upper Valley individuals and families,” and few needs are as critical as food. The community garden, first planted in June 1972, was meant as a part of the “Food Co-op” LISTEN had started in March of the same year. The Co-op was intended as a way to shrink families’ grocery bills and provided roughly 75 families a week with nonperishables, bread, and around 25 varieties of fresh vegetables from the garden. There was even a canning operation, both to provide preserved vegetables for the winter and to teach families how to preserve produce for themselves. The Co-op also worked with local businesses like Cabot Creamery to provide access to cheese and milk at wholesale prices, a model that persists to this day, with McNamara Dairy providing milk to the Food Pantry at a deep discount. The community garden and Co-op programs eventually evolved into the modern-day Food Pantry, which had over 11,000 visits last year. Also, in 1986, LISTEN took on the responsibility for the “Soups On” program, which was a weekly free dinner program run through local churches. It was quickly renamed to the Community Dinners program, and in 1994 it found a more permanent home in Canaan. Today, the dinners are served Monday to Friday from 4:30 to 5:30 at the Bourne Center in White River Junction, last year serving almost 33,000 meals.
LISTEN also serves the community in other important ways. In 1982, when the Winter Home Emergency Network (WHEN) dissolved, LISTEN took on the home heating assistance program itself. In 1998 it became their Heating Helpers program when it became internally funded. In 2002, the organization began its Housing Helpers program, providing one-time grants and legal assistance to help community members stay in their homes when they are at risk of losing them. Last year alone, those programs helped over 1500 people stay warm and prevented over 350 evictions.
Although they have stepped back from aid specifically for children and teens in recent years – in 2020, they transferred ownership of the Junction Youth Center in White River Junction to Second Growth, an organization more tailored to youth aid and outreach – LISTEN still does a great deal to support children in the area, running an annual Holiday Basket program and giving out scholarships for students to attend summer camps when they otherwise might not be able to. The Holiday Baskets program began in 1980, and today provides groceries and winter clothing for under-18s and seniors, and the Summer Camp Scholarship program began in 1990 and last year made it possible for 186 students to attend summer camps.
The Holiday Baskets and Summer Camp Scholarship programs were also two things Roscoe Putnam mentioned when asked about the benefits of being an independent charity rather than a government agency. “It may be hard for the government to see the need for summer camp scholarships and holiday baskets. Why do you need a holiday basket?” It could be hard, he argued, to sell the need
for summer camps to a government-run program that’s beholden to voting taxpayers, but “[it’s] an opportunity for kids to have some good memories of summer, not [just] sitting at home, sitting on the steps, bouncing a ball.”
The wide diversity of programs offered by LISTEN is at the core of the way the organization operates today, and that flexibility is important for LISTEN’s future, as well. In March, Rob Roy McGregor was appointed as the new executive director of the nonprofit, after almost twenty years as President and CEO of the Southern District YMCA in Exeter, New Hampshire. When asked about the future of LISTEN, he said he sees it as “a social enterprise, where you have a core part of your organization that generates revenue to support other elements of your organization that can’t support itself.” He said it was important for the charity to continue “to be able to generate the revenue through our thrift stores and [to] be able to use that as a revenue driver” to fund their fuel assistance and food insecurity work. He also wants it to be a “community driver for sustainability and environmental impact,” describing a kind of virtuous cycle, diverting clothing and goods from landfill and into reuse, all the while using the proceeds to help those in need.
McGregor seems to feel as though, at LISTEN, he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. He refers to himself and others privileged enough to do the work as “stewards,” of “fifty years of history.” “That’s all we can do, is to try to build on the pillars of what each of us has done.” As a final thought before rushing off to another meeting, he added a final, pragmatic thought about the future: “I’d love to see us out of the food industry and food insecurity business because that doesn’t exist in this world [anymore]. I don’t see that happening. And I’d love to see us out of the housing insecurity world because that doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think that will happen [either]. Until then, we just have to keep moving forward.” With fifty years under its belt, LISTEN has proven that it can do just that.
Shelf stable food and personal care items can be dropped off at LISTEN’s main office at 60 Hanover Street from 10 am-4 pm, Monday-Friday, and monetary donations can be made by going to listencs. org/make-a-donation-now.