By Cheryl Herrick
As a relative newcomer to Vermont, Karen Freudenberger touched the lives of many in the region. The Ohio native moved to Burlington with her family in 2009 and almost immediately got involved in community projects that continued until her peaceful but sudden death in December.
Volunteering with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program deepened her interest in working with new Americans and eventually was the inspiration behind her work to establish the Pine Island Community Farm and Vermont Goat Collaborative, which provides new Americans with the opportunity to raise and sell goats to members of their community.
Because so many UVM students, staff, faculty, and alumni have been involved with these projects, we wanted to share some of their thoughts here in tribute to Karen and the legacy she leaves.
Jenn Colby ’04, ’12
Pasture Program Coordinator
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
“I’ve given a lot of thought to Karen over the last month. There were so many things that I loved about her. She asked hard questions, she had fierce passion, and she cared—a lot. At every step, she was testing ideas and gathering data. She systematically built her case to every potential partner and funder, and eventually to the Vermont Land Trust. They took a chance on a great idea, and they took a chance on a fiery, smart, creative person to get it off the ground. To see what the Pine Island Collaborative is today, from where it started just a few short years ago, fills me with great pride for the accomplishments of the woman who became my friend. I do, and will always, miss her greatly.”
“Karen was dedicated to helping farmers when they had no help, giving them a voice when they had no voice, and giving them a chance when they had a dream. She had a unique ability to pursue innovation because she had the true grit and tireless focus needed to really enable things to happen. Her hardworking spirit and legacy live on.”
Pablo S. Bose, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, UVM Department of Geography
Director, Global and Regional Studies Program
“I met Karen shortly after she had arrived in town from Madagascar. We met at Muddy Waters at the behest of the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program who had asked me to speak to a woman who was interested in refugees. Over the next hour or so of conversation, I was struck by Karen’s enthusiasm and energy—she’d already soaked up a lot of information about the local refugee communities and some of the challenges that they faced and had ideas on how to intervene in many of them. In the years that followed, I watched with amazement as she took one of these ideas—the goat collaborative—and built it into a thriving and vibrant initiative. Along the way, I also had occasion to meet with a number of students at UVM—interns on the goat farm, thesis students, those taking her classes—and was deeply impressed by what a strong impact she had made on many of them. For so many (students), as for so many of the broader community, she represented the best of an insightful, innovative, and above all engaged teacher, scholar, and citizen. They, and we, will miss her a great deal.”
Program Specialist, New Farms for New Americans
“Karen could run circles around me. As her counterpart in the refugee agriculture scene in Vermont, we lived parallel lives providing farmers with land, resources, and opportunities to grow their livelihoods here in Vermont. But Karen was a go-getter. For every one thing I did, she did ten new and amazing things. She didn’t just help farmers, she also gave their children rides to school and would feed a goat all before 7:30 a.m. It’s all very strange because I was supposed to be her mentor and yet the reverse would have been more appropriate.”
Kesha Ram ’08
UVM Legislative Trustee
“Losing Karen leaves us with so many questions, not the least of which are ones like, “How are we supposed to carry on what Karen made possible? How can we live up to the expectations she had for each of us?” Karen would tell us there is just one simple answer: We can only do it together. She was an ambassador not for a place, but for an idea: The idea that we need each other, that our relationships make us stronger, and that, together, we can accomplish anything.
The day before Karen died, she emailed me and asked me to attend a planning meeting for a large event. She was worried it would not be inclusive enough. I was getting ready to respectfully decline, but as in life, even in death, Karen would not take no for an answer. I never had a chance to write back, and now I will always have those last wishes from Karen—show up, give back, widen the circle. I invite you to honor her legacy by thinking about what you are an ambassador for, whose voices need listening to, what problems need solving, and how you can build durable relationships to make lasting change.
So let us mourn and grieve and remember, but let us not despair. That is not what Karen would have wanted. If you feel lost, think of her words: “Let’s get down to work.” Thank you, Karen, for sharing your incredible family, your steadfast beliefs, and your passion for living a life of meaning and purpose with us for so long.”
-Cheryl Herrick manages communications and the office at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and lives, writes, and cooks in Burlington.