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McCallum: Vermont Strong

06/04/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Lately, when educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum drives around Vermont she is taking notice of more than just the beautiful scenery - and keeping count.

(McCallum) I am one of the eight thousand. If we pass one another on the road and you glance at the front of my little red car you will see the bright green license plate that announces "I Am Vermont Strong." A friend gave it to me as a gift - I had planned to do the same for her but she beat me to it. It was a healthy sort of competition, and I paid it forward by giving one to another friend for his birthday.

A week later, I walked out of a local diner to my car and was greeted by the sight of two others parked on either side of it, each with an "I Am Vermont Strong" plate - it resembled a gathering of like minded friends. And I was proud to be part of their unusual collective.

Like a purchaser of a of newly-minted orange car who starts to notice all the other new orange cars on the highway, my radar did a similar jump up when I got the plate. I became a habitual counter of "I Am Vermont Strong" tags whenever I was on the road. One day I counted six on a ten-mile drive and felt a frisson of kinship with the drivers of those cars and trucks. But alas, it was a mere half dozen.

To put it in perspective, when Governor Shumlin went public with the "Vermont Strong" plate project last January, the goal was to sell about 40,000 of them as a way of generating $1 million dollars for the Vermont Long-Term Disaster Relief Fund. Each $25 sale would add to the coffers of post-Irene relief efforts while extending a feel-good to every buyer - they could support those who lost homes, land and businesses in the floods and participate in the powerful sense of community that Vermont is known for.

At an April press conference it was announced that sales of the plates had reached an impressive 25,000, and media outlets celebrated the news. But in May it was determined that the figure made public by the Shumlin administration was way off - the real number was closer to just 8,000, with only $195,000 generated in revenue. The press and politicians were quick to weigh in on the miscommunication, chastised the governor's office for the mistake and pointed to the unsold plates languishing in storage.

What a disappointment. Like many Vermonters, I carry the gene of community mindedness. Grassroots organizing for political and social change is second nature to the way we do things here - from the ground up. The license plate initiative is rooted in that same spirit. It says, If we each do a little, we can make big things happen. I see it in both big and small ways in my town, from volunteers who regularly step in to give our town librarian a much needed day off, to the scores of shovel-wielding neighbors who mucked out our local bakery cafe after Tropical Storm Irene.

"I Am Vermont Strong" is more than a catchy license plate slogan - it's the way we live here.

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