Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Week in the Country - Exchanging Hands

While talking with some long time inn guests about their recent work week vacation at a wooden boat school in Maine, innkeeper Amie Emmons wasn’t convinced at first that she’d have any takers for a volunteer work exchange at the West Mountain Inn.
Guests Barb and Mark Turpin of Troy, NY encouraged her to try it, saying their experiences were, “hard work, but a great time and we met some wonderful people. We got free room & board in exchange for our work & the chefs tried out their new recipes for their school season.”
The idea reminded Amie of a recent New York Times article on “crop mobbing” where volunteer groups of young farmers and the agricurious descend on a farm for an afternoon of tasks like mulching, building greenhouses and pulling rocks out of fields; providing an invaluable boost of farm productivity and camaraderie. Like a throwback to the days of town barn raising parties, could a modern movement of bartering labor and community building be re-emerging? As the long winter began to thaw, the inn was still in their slow season - a time when extra revenue to hire staff is low but the inevitable “to do” list of spring tasks is mounting. Amie decided to send out an email to all of the inn’s repeat guests to find out if anyone would actually sign up for a bed and breakfast work week vacation in the green mountains of Vermont.
The email went out offering the inn’s 20 beautiful guest rooms and delicious country breakfasts for three to seven days the first week in May, in exchange for donating approximately four hours each day to ready the inn for it’s busy season. Guests were asked to tell the inn what kind of work they enjoyed doing and any special skills they could offer, so that Amie and Gerry, the inn’s maintenance manager, could organize and set goals before their volunteers arrived. The emails started rolling in and before Amie knew it, eighteen people responded enthusiastically to the offer. Some volunteers had come to the inn many times, some added the stay onto an larger trip already planned to the area, others heard about it through a friend and had never visited the inn before. Travelers came from as far as Virginia, Montana and Manhattan and as close by as right in the town of Arlington.
Connie Rutter, who was born in Arlington, decided to make Work Week a mother/daughter get-away. “I looked up the Inn online, saw the info about work week and thought it was a great idea. My daughter, Ginny, came up with our adventure plans. Since I live in Maryland and she lives in Maine, I would fly to Manchester, NH where she would meet me at the airport and then we would drive to Arlington.”
Given the current sluggish economy, more than one volunteer had been laid off from a job and used work week as an inexpensive vacation they might not otherwise be able to justify or afford. Regardless of layoffs, most people are cutting back on spending and vacations these days, so the timing of the offer was appealing.
Volunteers Madeleine Page and Jason Vazquez said. “When Jason and I got the email for Work Week, we knew we had to sign on. We love the West Mountain Inn. It was where we took our first weekend away together. We wouldn't have been able to afford going otherwise this spring and it was such a treat to schedule the unexpected visit in May.”
As it turned out, not only did work week get a bigger response than expected, but people even showed up with some serious skills like carpentry, landscaping and interior design. Some even arrived ready with their own tools from special trim painting brushes to hammers and furniture clamps. Guests worked in small groups started quickly whipping all of the grounds and the main inn rooms into shape. They helped with everything from re-painting the entire foyer, bleaching the marble walkway to sparkling, putting air conditioners in rooms, weeding the gardens until they looked magazine beautiful, repairing dining room chairs, building flower boxes, putting in new storm windows and moving patio furniture into the gardens. Amie found that guests were even seeing things that weren’t on her list of jobs. “Some of the volunteers were asking for wood glue or fixing a screen door on their own, just because they noticed something around the inn they could quickly help improve.”
John Schatz, a firefighter and carpenter said, “I traveled from Queens, NY last year to stay at the Inn for a weekend and fell in love with the place. Sometimes I can't help my critical eye. I look and say ‘That needs to be fixed’ or ‘I can fix that easily!’ It’s just in my nature. When Amie sent the email about work week I jumped on it. For me it meant that I would get the chance to go back to a place that I loved, and that I could go around and fix those things that I saw that just kind of bug a guy like me.”
The exchange was fruitful from both sides of the barter. About 145 man hours were contributed over the course of the week and the room and food exchange (calculated with the inn’s regular rates) worked out to a value of about twenty-five dollars per hour of work donated. But ultimately, the experience wasn’t just about trading physical improvements to the inn for free room and meals. It was also about the feeling of involvement, cooperation and friendship for the volunteers and for the inn’s staff. Although Amie worried her maintenance manager would tire of organizing a big unfamiliar group and making multiple daily trips to the hardware store, by the time work week ended, Gerry was the first to say she wished it could have lasted two weeks. The group enjoyed a mid-week garden barbeque party and though most people worked more than requested, they had plenty of time for relaxing and exploring the area. Volunteer Connie Rutter agreed the experiment was a great idea, “Creative thinking produces creative results.”
Reflecting on her time at the inn, Madeleine Page felt, “There was a great sense of camaraderie and fun between all the workers. And frankly, versus sitting in an office, getting to spend four hours weeding outside felt like a vacation, even if it was "work." We hiked and read and slept and ate - it was perfect. I hope this becomes a tradition!”
“It was really great to meet people who had the same type of desire and mindset as me. I made some nice friends in the time I was there. Good people, kind, giving and unselfish - a very rare thing to find in such a self centered world these days.” said John Schatz.
Amie said she realized how, “an experience like this really makes people feel like the inn is ‘their’ place because they’ve come and given it their personal care and attention. It takes us back to old those values of community we’ve lost in our more stressful, time-poor lifestyles.”

The welcome sign on the West Mountain Inn’s front walk has always read “You’re One of the Folks” and after this year’s work week vacation, the phrase rings true more than ever.

A very big THANK YOU to all of our Work Week volunteers who helped get the inn ready for a beautiful summer season!

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