Vermont Air National Guard --
Standing for over 120 years in Barton, Vermont, E.M. Brown & Son, Inc., towers at four stories located on the town’s main street. A hardware store that has been a staple of the community, it is a main source of supplies for the rural community.
Having changed hands over the generations, the store is now currently owned partly by Arthur LaPlante. Many of the customers that walk in know him by name. Many others however, know him as a master sergeant in the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing, based in South Burlington.
His time at the wing is spent leading the wing’s student flight, which trains and prepares new enlistees on what it takes to be an Airman. His experience with working with young people isn’t just limited to the Air National Guard though.
A common fixture at his store has been children between the ages of 8 and 13 that come in from local schools under a program designed to give them experience outside of the classroom. These are kids who, due to disabilities, do not thrive in a classroom environment.
This effort has led LaPlante to be recognized by the Vermont Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities with the 2019 “Spirit of ADA” award, highlighting the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act in their employment practices.
“Giving every Vermonter the opportunity to pursue a meaningful career benefits both workers and employers,” said Governor Phil Scott about LaPlante’s program during the October, 2019 presentation of the award. “E.M. Brown & Son has created a workplace culture that supports all employees and leverages each person’s strengths and this award is well deserved.”
This has been a venture that LaPlante values and one that he discussed continuing during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q - How did you come into ownership of this business?
A - I’ve been selling building materials and hardware and lumber for 30 years. This opportunity came up a couple times but I didn’t even really in quire about it.
But when I finally came down and talked about it I was 40 years old at the time and I was like, well I don’t know what to do and I didn’t want to do it alone. I’m not an office guy at all, I was always the retail guy and dealing with customers. So this customer of mine, we bought it together. It’s been 13 years and we’ve bought a few more buildings and we’ve started two more businesses on top of the E.M Brown & Son hardware store with a lumber yard and feed store.
Q - So this has been a continuous business?
A - Well it started in 1896 by the Tower brothers. They were here for I believe 11 years and they went bankrupt. And it’s funny because they were very successful business owners in a couple of towns up from here and did a lot, came here, started this new state of the art gristmill and didn’t make it.
In 1925, I believe a wealthy doctor by last name of Brown bought it and it stayed in that family till I would say, the 1980s. It’s like a landmark in the area, we’re trying to do our best to keep it going. Like I tell the staff, one day we’ll be gone from here and hopefully someone carries it on and does even better. Right now, it’s our time to do our part.
Q - And part of this is now having the store involved with some schools?
A - One of the things that I’ve always had a passion for is working with youth in all different ages, but we usually focus on grade schools. I haven’t just done different projects, different fun things, we’re also able to donate products and help the schools out so I got to know the administrators well.
They had come to me last year right before the school season and they had a kid, he was a mentally and physically challenged young man that was going into the eighth grade and they really didn’t know what to do with him.
They said, we’d like to get him to get him to come up to try him for a few weeks and see how it goes just for an hour a day.
And I said sure, absolutely, we’ll give it a shot. So it ended up where he ended up staying the whole year and went off to high school and he’s still doing well. He’s a good kid. But that opened the door to this program that they have at the school.
Q - So this started a program where children from local schools would spend part of their school days in the hardware store?
A - They came back to me with an opportunity to help out a group of eight boys and it’s called the CEC, Center for Exceptional Children, and these are all children that just didn’t do well in a classroom environment. It’s not an IQ issue, it’s more of a behavioral issue and basically they’re fifth to eighth grade.
So we designed a program where the teachers would come up with them, they would work two different shifts from 10 to 11 and then another shift from 1 to 2, five days a week. I went down to the school and met with them and said, you know that sounds like a really good idea.
But I said, it’s going to be come up and learn. It’s not going to be take out the trash and sweep the floors, we all do that. There will be opportunities to learn, receiving orders, checking in orders, putting away all of our weekly hardware and freight that comes in. You get a chance to do some different things.
They might interact with the customers, help add them up, help me wait on them and bring them right to the point of sale system at the front of the store and I actually walk them through ringing someone up. We started it that way and it worked out extremely well.
Q - You’ve had some great success with this program, can you touch upon this a little?
A - We have one (student) here right now he is still employed here that came through the program. And so that brings you to a different level, whether they’re older, out of high school, that you get some kind of challenge, can be a learning disability, can be a physical disability, could be many things.
Our first member of the program that came here was a young man that just got out of high school, he had down syndrome. He worked for us for quite a while and gets really good job skills and went off to get a job at the hospital.
Q - And this program is what led to you being recognized by the state?
A - It was what they call the “Spirit of ADA” award. And when we received that award the governor came up. We had about 70 people here including the commissioner from the department of labor, quite a few folks from the governor’s office. It was a great day. I thought it would be a great opportunity for our kids from the CEC to come up and I had them right up front and introduced them when it was my time to talk.
I introduced them and they each stood up and they had the opportunity to shake hands with the governor and talk to him for a while.
Q - When COVID-19 hit, how did that change things?
A - When it happened, we were asking ourselves what is going to happen? When things first started shutting down, we still had the grade school kids here. The plan was to go right through to the end of the school year but then the pandemic happened unfortunately, so that put a stop to the program.
We had some things planned, we were trying to get a little building project in place that we could do for the school. But I’m very hopeful that we get as close as we can to normal in the schools during the fall and see the kids back up here.
Q - What is it about helping others that you like so much, why do you do it?
A - I guess the satisfaction of knowing that something that you have, some knowledge, some experience that you have gained from making your own mistakes or working hard, that you’re passing it on to someone that can utilize it that maybe isn’t getting that same opportunity.