FAIR HAVEN — After a nearly three-year search, First Congregational Church of Fair Haven has found its new pastor. Bishop James L. Mills Sr. accepted the position of pastor last month. Mills replaces the Rev. Chris Heintz, who served in an interim position after longtime pastor, the Rev. Marsh Hudson-Knapp, retired in 2016 after 36 years.
Mills brings more than 20 years experience as a minister and administrator to Fair Haven. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, ministry is in Mills’ blood. His grandmother served as a pastor in the African-Methodist Episcopal Church for 20 years. Mills said family members recall him delivering his first sermon at the age of 8.
The job might be new, but Mills and his two teenage children are no strangers to the area. He first visited Vermont in 2008 when he took a trip to Rutland while recovering from cancer. A lover of sleepy New England towns — a love, he joked, that was inspired by watching episodes of “Murder She Wrote” — he immediately fell in love with the area.
“In many ways, cancer brought me to Vermont, and the people healed me,” he said.
Mills says his decision to take the job at Fair Haven was an example of “the spirit at work.” He had all but accepted a job offer at a nonprofit in Las Vegas, Nevada, when a call came through from Jenna Stiles, the church pastor search committee chairwoman.
“I was attracted to the church by their enthusiasm and open hands praying,” he said.
“They are people who want to be in the community. They are a community-focused people, which is who I am.”
He acknowledged the powerful dynamic of his being an African-American man leading an all-white congregation.
“I think it speaks volumes that, at this moment, they would pick an African-American man to lead them.”
Any notion that the color of Mills’ skin would be an issue for the some in the congregation of around 150 is not evident in weekly attendance numbers, which have, according to Mills, doubled to between 50 and 60 people since his appointment in December.
“They’ve doubled and then some,” said Stiles, who has been a member of the congregation for 10 years. “It’s like the church has come alive again.”
Service in the community, especially around issues of social justice and inclusion, is dear to Mills. Prior to accepting the pastorship in Fair Haven, he served as administrative bishop at the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational, multinational, primarily African-American group of Christian leaders and laity who practice a theology of radical inclusivity, which engages and ministers to individuals on the margins of society.
Mills hopes to bring those principles to the Fair Haven community, where issues of poverty, opioid addiction and an aging population are impossible to ignore.
He said his goal is to make the church a place of refuge where people living in those margins can know they are loved and needed. “Even just sitting with them and building trust is a great first step.”
Mills said the congregation is already doing good work, noting its Laundry Love initiative, which provides clean clothes to resource-challenged individuals in the community.
In addition, he’s begun paying home visits to elderly church members who can no longer attend weekly services.
Looking ahead, Mills and Stiles are eager to make their congregation more active and visible in the greater Fair Haven community.
“What I hope to bring the community is a sense that everyone is welcome in the house of the lord,” he said. “We’re not looking for perfection. We’re all far from perfect — we’re trying to make progress.”
A new pilot program at Stafford Technical Center aims to give engineering students a leg up as they pursue their careers.
In December, 17 students participated in a daylong Lean 101 training conducted by Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center. Lean is a methodology that grew out of the Toyota Motor Corp. in the 1990s that builds on philosophies and practices developed through decades in the Japanese manufacturing industry. The goal of Lean is to apply a set of principles that eliminate waste and increase efficiency within a loop of continuous improvement.
According to Guy Babb, engineering instructor at Stafford, Lean is a significant certification that will give students a competitive advantage when applying for jobs in the manufacturing industry.
“I thought, why can’t we be teaching this to the kids? The philosophy ... can apply to a lot of aspects of life, but particularly manufacturing.”
Babb proposed the idea to his department’s program advisory board, which is comprised of representatives from local manufacturers, including GE Aviation, Omya, Hubbardton Forge and Carris Reels.
“They were all very enthusiastic about us being able to teach our kids this (program) because now when our kids move out of (Stafford) they’ll come prepared to these employers,” Babb said.
Mallory Ezequelle, a longtime advisory board member and process engineer at Omya, agreed.
“The sooner we have these future engineers thinking about how better to do their job, the better we are as an industry,” she said. “It gives us the confidence that they have an understanding of work flow and the need for continuous improvement.”
There is also a financial benefit: Employees who are already Lean certified do not need to undergo training when hired, which saves companies money.
VMEC, which already offers Lean training to companies, agreed to help Babb to develop a version for students. After getting the blessing of the state Agency of Education, Stafford became the first school in the state to offer the certification.
“A potential part of workforce coming up with this kind of experience is a no-brainer,” said Carla Wuthrich, professional manufacturing and business growth adviser at VMEC.
In addition to Babb’s engineering students, students enrolled in Stafford’s power mechanics/welding and culinary arts programs were also given the opportunity to participate in the training.
The cost of the training was $3,500, which Stafford paid for through its program budget.
The 7-hour training, which took place at Stafford on Dec. 19, had students participate in a simulated assembly line in order to apply Lean principles in a hands-on work environment. Initially, the simulation was set up to function inefficiently. After the first trial, students examined the process, discussed what they could do better and redesigned the workspace accordingly. At the end of the day, students had to pass a test to demonstrate comprehension.
Senior Thomas Dunbar, 18, of Poultney, said he enjoyed the real-world scenario. “It’s better learning. … The hands-on experience was really great, and I feel like it really enhanced the experience that we had.”
Dunbar plans to get a mechanical engineering degree after graduating Stafford in the spring. He said he would like to travel some, but could see himself staying in Vermont; however, he admitted it depends on what jobs are available.
Michael Thayer, 18, of Fair Haven, also found value in the training. “It didn’t feel like 7 hours ... because you were involved the whole entire time. ... It made it feel like you were actually in an industry, and you got to see your stats as you progressed.”
Thayer plans to attend Castleton University in the fall for two years before transferring to a technical school, where he wants to pursue a degree in either mechanical or electrical engineering. He, too, would like to stay in Vermont after college, but said he could see himself heading out of state for a better job.
Wherever students go, their Lean certification will go with them, though, Babb admitted he hopes their Lean experience will open some doors locally and convince them to stick around.
Based on the pilot’s success, which Wuthrich credited to the “strong partnership” between VMEC, Stafford, the local manufacturing industry and the Agency of Education, the Lean 101 training is now available to other technical schools and high schools around the state. She noted some have already expressed interest.
She said encouraging students to be ready and excited for jobs in advanced manufacturing benefits schools, industry and the economy in Vermont. “It’s a win-win-win.”
After seven years, the leaders of Project VISION said at their Thursday meeting they are planning to update their vision, objectives and goals, as they expand from a focus on the Northwest neighborhood to the whole city.
Joe Kraus, the chairman of Project VISION, explained the reason for the update. He pointed out during Project VISION’s Thursday meeting he was “amazed” that after seven years, Project VISION meetings still attracted a full room at their meeting place in the Howe Center. The meetings take place the second Thursday of every month.
“I think the key to maintaining that energy, that focus, is to stop from time to time, take a big step back and take an honest look at where we are. I underline the word ‘honest’ because, while we have a lot of successes, there are areas where we have not been successful, and we need to be honest about that so we can deal with our challenges and rise to the occasion,” he said.
A survey has been sent out to everyone on Project VISION’s email list. The surveys are due back in two weeks.
The survey results will be discussed at Project VISION’s February meetings along with an analysis of what the results say about Project VISION’s SWOT, or Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. In March, the group will discuss the high-level strategic plan elements for the new visions and goals.
Those elements will be refined by two dedicated committees, a strategic-planning team that will include Mayor David Allaire; Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen; RCPD Cmdr. Matt Prouty, who is executive director of Project VISION; Dr. Jeff McKee and Sarah Roy, who are co-leaders of Project VISION’s health and welfare committee; and Teresa Miele, chairwoman of the community, neighborhoods and housing committee. The members of a smaller working group, to make big-picture decisions, are Kraus, Prouty and Roy.
Project VISION also has a crime-and-safety committee. Prouty is chairman.
At the April meeting, the members of Project VISION’s three committees will develop action plans that meet the directions that have been established up to that point. The updated plan is scheduled to be shared at the Project VISION meeting May 4.
“I have no idea where this process is going to take us. None. I don’t imagine anybody in this room does. But I do believe it’s an essential time to do this so that we can keep our focus, keep our energy going forward,” Kraus said.
Attendees at Project VISION meetings have been suggesting the organization look inward since October.
On Oct. 8, members of the Rutland City Police Department shot and killed Christopher G. Louras, 33, son of former Rutland mayor, Christopher Louras. Police announced that day a man had been found dead in Salisbury.
The Vermont State Police soon announced the other man was Nicholas Louras, 34, of Rutland, who is Christopher Louras’ cousin and the nephew of Rutland’s current mayor, David Allaire.
Police have not released any information directly linking the deaths or providing any motivation for Christopher Louras’ action.
On Oct. 24, Jacqueline Burch, 26, of Pittsford, was killed in a vehicle crash on Route 4 in Rutland. An affidavit filed in the case said Michael D. Reed, 27, of Rutland, who was charged with causing the death, was seen “huffing” from an aerosol can just after the crash by emergency medical responders.
Joan Gamble, who will work as a facilitator with the planning committee and the planning sub-committee, said Project VISION was a coalition. The survey going out is based on surveys used successfully by other coalitions, she said.
Gamble said the strategic-planning committee would be responsible for reviewing the information that comes from the survey and making decisions. The sub-committee will look at the details, according to Gamble.
City Alderman Chris Ettori asked if the survey could be shared with Rutland residents who don’t regularly attend Project VISION meetings. Prouty said that would be encouraged, but pointed out the surveys need to be returned in two weeks.
Dick Malley, co-chairman of the Rutland Area Habitat for Humanity, said he hoped outreach would be made to the general public.
Kraus told the audience on Thursday that he believed the success of updating Project VISION would be proportional to the participation of members.
“The success of this turns completely on all of us. Don’t look to somebody else to make this successful. You have to look inward. We need everybody to engage in the survey, I think you’ll find it of interest, to give honest, thoughtful feedback and also to participate in all the other planning activities that will happen between now and May,” he said.