It works!
Retreats for Volunteer Preservationists

By Ann S. Cousins

A bit of magic happens when local volunteer preservationists gather at the Grand Isle Lake House to talk about community projects. Part of the magic comes from the passion of individuals who care deeply about their communities. Another part is the discovery that there are others out there with similar hopes and experiences. And finally there’s the setting! The turn-of-the-century former hotel, Grand Isle Lake House, now owned by the Preservation Trust of Vermont, is simply a perfect place for a retreat!

For the past three years, the Preservation Trust of Vermont has hosted two-day retreats for volunteers who are working on community preservation projects. The retreats are tied closely with the work of the Field Services Program, a partnership of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the National Trust. The Field Services Program provides direct assistance to groups undertaking community preservation projects. The retreats are a way to bring together six or seven community groups working on similar kinds of projects. A goal is to have a good mix of interesting projects at different points along their timeline. According to Paul Bruhn, Executive Director for the Preservation Trust of Vermont, “The participants mentor each other, learn that they are not the only ones working on very challenging projects, and see that they are all part of the process of building better communities and helping to protect the character of Vermont."

The retreats are structured so that each group of two-to-four individuals is invited to present a 10-15 minute case study about their preservation project. The case study is meant to frame a specific problem or situation that once solved will catapult that project to a higher level. Following the case study is about 45 minutes of brainstorming and cross-mentoring.

Along with community preservationists, two or three resource people are part of the mix. Depending on the projects, they might include someone from the State Historic Preservation Office or National Trust Northeast Office, or a fund-raising consultant, developer, architect, or someone from the Vermont Arts Council. But by-and-large, it is the community volunteers who bring collective thinking and experience to one another’s projects. At times, mentors have challenged the credibility of the problem, turning a project on its head before sending it down another path. Other times they have validated a group’s intuition. But always, participants have been generous with advice, often going beyond the retreat to visit one another’s projects and provide ongoing support.

Besides the structured case studies, the retreats allow time, before and after dinner, for more casual discussion-maybe during a walk, or sitting on the porch, or gathering around a scrapbook or display. During those special moments, ideas continue to flow with even more out-of-the box thinking. According to Sandy Kilburn, a retreat participant from Swanton, Vermont, “It’s so important to get together-to be inspired by what other towns are doing and to learn from them so that we don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s invaluable!”

And finally there’s the setting! Bringing people together in a wonderful place brings out the best. Owned by the Preservation Trust of Vermont, this 1902-3, former-hotel on Lake Champlain, is a preservation project in progress. “Part of the reason we decided to take on the Grand Isle Lake House project was that we hoped we could use this great place as a venue for nonprofit training and education” says Bruhn. “In fact, we hoped it would be our version of a nonprofit "dacha"- a place for renewal and re-energizing people active in the nonprofit sector." Every effort is made to keep the experience affordable. Overnight with dinner, breakfast and lunch costs $75 per person. “And in the end,” says Bruhn, “it's truly amazing to see people fly out of the Lake House with new energy and enthusiasm.” The retreats help build Vermont’s preservation network.

Ann Cousins is the Vermont Field Service Representative for the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the National Trust.