Bob Bick: Feeling gratitude, despite a year of hardship and loss

This time of year, and this year especially, I am particularly mindful about Howard Center’s critical role in the community and my gratitude for all who continue to support Howard Center’s work throughout the year. When the pandemic took hold in March I was concerned about the strain it would place on the community, the obstacles Howard Center would face in maintaining programs, and the difficulties long service disruptions could cause for the people we serve. At the time, we hoped the pandemic would quickly be contained and its harm would be minimal. But, instead of a rapid return to normalcy our communities endured what may be the worst shared year in living memory. And yet, despite this extended disruption, all across the agency staff members at every level worked together, found solutions, kept our clients and one another safe, and maintained a remarkable array of services despite the complexities and challenges of critical community-based care.

While Howard Center and other community-based agencies exist to help others, this year the community was quick to help when we needed extra support. 2020 was a year of incalculable hardship and loss, and it was also a year in which people all across Vermont showed a remarkable sense of individual and shared community engagement. From early in the pandemic and to this day Vermonters and local businesses came to Howard Center with donations of hand-sewn masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and food to distribute to our clients. Philanthropists and everyday Vermonters donated early and often, helping us meet tremendous unexpected expenses. Even in the best of times our commitment to person-centered, in-person, community-based care can be challenging and so I am especially grateful for the understanding shown by the people we serve and their families and our shared living providers whose services had to be limited, provided through telehealth, or altered in some other way in the interest of safety.

From the first days of the pandemic, it has been gratifying to watch colleagues across Howard Center’s clinical, school, residential, crisis, and community-based programs work together to find solutions, keep clients and one another safe, and maintain vital services, many that have continued in-person throughout the COVID-19 period. Before the pandemic we never could have imagined requiring health checks to enter our buildings, meeting clients while wearing masks and face shields or conducting therapy sessions by video chat or through plexiglass but Howard Center’s staff adjusted almost overnight and continue to adapt with every change in federal and state safety guidance. Our residential, medical and nursing teams, and our crisis programs and support staff have continued in-person care for all who required that level of support despite the added risks to themselves and their families brought about by COVID-19. Our clinical, facilities and support teams have ensured that the people living in the 22 residences that Howard Center operates have continued to have a home with the built-in support and compassionate care to which they are accustomed. Our crisis program, mobile crisis teams, and outreach program staff have continued answering calls, conducting crisis assessments, and offering critical care to people with mental health and substance use needs. And our staff teams providing medication-assisted treatment supports for so many in our community who struggle with substance use disorders never wavered in their commitment to maintain daily clinic operations.

As I ponder the extraordinary work of so many, I am reminded of what renowned educator and author, Booker T. Washington wrote, “Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” Mr. Washington’s early musings are a perfect reflection on those serving in the helping professions today, especially during this time when so many have made great personal sacrifice but continue to serve others. It seems that the greater the need has been this year, the more energy and creativity our staff and community has found to meet it. Even as the pandemic persists, I know we will draw a strength that comes from helping to provide kindness and support to so many Vermonters who need us.

Today is day 296 since Howard Center confronted COVID-19. When I look back on 2020, I feel loss but also gratitude and a sense of appreciation to live in a place where so many are so supportive, caring, and resilient. I’m thankful not only for Howard Center colleagues but also for so many of our community partners—in hospitals, nursing homes, and community organizations, on first response teams, in other designated and specialized service agencies throughout Vermont, in local news media for bringing essential, accurate and timely information to the public, in the legislature for ensuring COVID relief funds were responsibly distributed and for Governor Scott and his administration, and especially, Commissioners Levine, Hutt and Squirrell and their teams for guiding Vermonters and leading us with transparency, calm, and compassion through this unprecedented time.

We are truly fortunate to live in this community full of so many compassionate caregivers and helpers. As we look ahead to the distribution of the vaccine and to a time when we may come back together, I am beginning to feel optimistic that the worst is behind us and I hope you are as well.

Thank you for your continuing engagement with and support for Howard Center. I wish everyone all the best for a healthy and joyful winter season.


Bob Bick is the CEO of Howard Center, Vermont’s largest designated agency, and lives in Shelburne.