Young Vermonters

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(HOST) There has been a clear trend in Vermont’s population over the last several years: we’re getting older. And that has a lot of people asking what could make today’s young Vermonters decide to settle here instead of leaving the state. Commentator Helen Labun Jordan has some thoughts on this issue.

(LABUN JORDAN) I never paid close attention to the discussion about why so many young people leave Vermont until I became a young person who returned. Choosing where to live seemed like it would be a simple equation of finding a job, apartment, and reasonable social life. But then, a year out of college, I was one of those Vermonters weighing the possibility of moving back home, and I discovered that my decisions didn’t happen the way I’d anticipated.

When I think of where I grew up, I think of embarrassing things first. Like the time when I accidentally locked every set of my parents’ car keys inside my father’s car. That mistake might have been forgotten if my mother hadn’t printed an announcement about it in bright red letters, billboard style across the side of our toolshed. Which, in turn, might have gone unnoticed, except that our backyard becomes the town volleyball court every Sunday during summer.

But incidents like this are OK . . . after all, there’s something relaxing about a place where you don’t have to worry about making the perfect first impression.

Then there was junior high and my career as cast member and scriptwriter for La Cebolla, a musical comedy about onions. I played Trixy, the onion heiress, opposite Buns Geraldo, the traveling onion salesman. Buns is now at Julliard, I’m just grateful that I had the good sense to write myself a non-singing role. It’s less embarrassing than the car keys and there’s a better lesson here – a community that had space for everyone to try out their creative talents.

My crowning academic achievement will always be remembered as the report on gerbils that I wrote in first grade. Apparently, this was when I also announced my professional ambitions to be a scullery maid and live in the basement of a castle. The story still comes up at holiday parties. Which is fine; I like the fact that less than twenty years ago I thought I could do anything.

In the end, things like the car keys and onion musicals and gerbils were surprisingly relevant to whether I would stay in Vermont or go. These details form a sense of a place that was more credible to me than what I could glean from a trip to Boston’s cultural amenities or a list of career options in DC. They gave me a base for moving forward. It would have been exciting to start fresh in a new place, but it’s also exciting to build from what’s already familiar.

Good strategy for keeping young Vermonters in Vermont means we all invest not just in how our children experience things like community life, creative expression, or exploring different skills, but also in connecting those experiences to their expectations for the future once they’ve grown up. These connections are unique to a home state. And while that alone might not have been enough to make me settle here, it was enough to make me start thinking about the possibility.

This is Helen Labun Jordan of East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural development.

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