Northern Lights ended quietly on June 30 with a small group of former staff members present. It leaves behind a legacy of caring and support provided to dozens of women who found treatment, camaraderie, and compassion in a program that for fourteen years empowered them to reconnect with their families, address their needs, and build new lives.
Northern Lights was conceptualized in 2006 and opened the following year to help women build healthy, productive, fulfilling lives following a period of incarceration. Situated in the historic Varney House in Burlington, the program provided a home-like atmosphere where women could live comfortably while they attended therapy, sought medical care, and built the life skills that would enable them to realize better futures for themselves and their families.
Nearly all of the women who spent time at Northern Lights struggled with substance use and mental health issues and nearly all had experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lives. Many were mothers whose struggles affected their children and strained their family relationships. Their involvement with the justice system typically resulted from low-level drug offenses and at Northern Lights they worked and supported each other to develop healthy habits and positive social networks, breaking where they could from circumstances that contributed to their past challenges.
Following a long and alarming period of growth in the the number of women incarcerated in Vermont, the Agency of Human Services developed the Incarcerated Women’s Initiative in 2005. Working with the Vermont Research Partnership, and guided by the advocacy of Sally Fox from the Community Justice Center, the Initiative recommended transitional housing, mentoring, substance use treatment, vocational supports and especially the shared communal environment in which women could support each other, to help them as they helped each other and re-entered the community.
In Burlington, social service agencies came together to create Northern Lights, a program offering all of these supports and more. Operated by Howard Center with funding directed by the legislature from the Department of Corrections, Northern Lights enjoyed partnerships with Burlington Probation and Parole, the Burlington Housing Authority, Mercy Connections, Vermont Works for Women, the Lund Center, and Steps to End Domestic Violence. Northern Lights welcomed its first residents in 2007 and was always a community undertaking, with additional help provided by the YMCA, the Turning Point Center, and many others. Additional financial supporters for this critical community resource for women over the years included the Sills Family Foundation, the Vermont Women’s Fund, the Richard and Deborah Tarrant Foundation, the Fanny Allen Corporation, the Coates family, and many other families and individuals.
Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections grant funding that had, consistent with Legislative intent, been the primary source of funding that sustained Northern Lights since its inception, was terminated. Despite the best efforts of agency and community advocates to reverse the funding decision and with no viable source of ongoing replacement funding available, the difficult decision was made to shutter the program. The process of supporting the remaining residents through transitions to other accommodations began and an emotionally charged graduation ceremony that celebrated the achievements of the last eight women to complete the program was held with a large gathering of the graduates’ and the program’s family and friends at North Beach in June. All staff members have been offered new positions within Howard Center.
The closure of Northern Lights is a loss for the entire community, but especially for those women who will miss the benefit of its mutually supportive surroundings in the coming years. Nevertheless, its presence echoes profoundly in the lives of every woman who had the opportunity to live at Northern Lights, and who today are leading more fulfilling and happier lives thanks to their time and experiences in the program.