Hal Colston named Vermonter of the Year for 2014

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As published in the Burlington Free Press on December 31, 2014:

You might call Hal Colston a serial do-gooder.

The Winooski resident has laid down a track record of work to improve the lives of people in the community during his 25-year tenure in Vermont.

Colston is best known as the founder of Good News Garage, the nonprofit that fixes donated vehicles for low-income people.

He also is known for launching NeighborKeepers, an initiative to help families in need build relationships with those who can provide the support they need.

He was instrumental in forcing Vermont to confront the issue of racial profiling by the police.

Colston says he sees every day as an opportunity to make a difference.

“We get them one at a time with no guarantee for tomorrow,” he said. “May all of us spend our days wisely to improve the common good.”

Colston’s understated demeanor often belies his passion. He works to give voice to those who are unable to be heard on their own. He has shown the courage to tackle difficult issues.

Colston’s quiet devotion to bringing the people together and looking out for those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances especially stand out in a year that saw the streets of this country fill with protest — both peaceful and violent — against injustice.

For his years of service to the community in the name of social and economic justice, the Burlington Free Press editorial board names Hal Colston 2014 Vermonter of the Year.

In nominating Colston for Vermonter of the Year, Laban Hill of Winooski writes, “Hal has spent his life devoted to our community and making a difference in both small and large ways.”

Colston’s work with Good News Garage has earned him national recognition, including an appearance on the Oprah show. The idea is simple. For many, one of the bigger barriers to economic independence is the lack of reliable transportation. Good News Garage tackles that problem in the most direct way possible by awarding reliable cars to those in need.

Colston founded the organization in 1996 after meeting a Lutheran minister he had heard in Philadelphia shortly before moving to Vermont. That chance encounter led to developing an idea and seed funding from what he calls a pan-Lutheran organization. He launched the nonprofit under the wing of the Lutheran Social Services New England.

Nearly two decades later, Good News Garage has awarded more than 4,000 vehicles.

Second career

His career in community service also includes a stint as associate director of Community Action in Burlington, now Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, as executive director of the Vermont Commission on National and Community Service and as diversity coordinator for the social services nonprofit HowardCenter.

Colston also spoke out clearly and firmly when African-Americans in the community charged that local police were using racial profiling in stops.

In an April 2007 My Turn piece in the Free Press, Colston wrote, “I believe that racial profiling in Vermont is an epidemic,” going on to recount his own experience with “driving while black.”

Colston did more than complain. He worked to open a dialogue within the community, including the police, that allowed people to talk openly about issues surrounding race.

“We’re building trust,” he said. “I don’t believe we will ever eradicate racism, but how do we heal from the wounds?”

All this was a major shift for a man who had made a career as a chef and restauranteur in Philadelphia, and arrived in Vermont in 1989 to become the director of catering at the New England Culinary Institute in Essex.

Colston called his career change a midlife crisis, but said the work put him in touch with his core values, “truth and justice.”

Today, Colston is engaged in what is perhaps his biggest challenge to date. He serves as director of Partnership for Change, a collaboration between the Burlington and Winooski school districts. The mission is to re-imagine public education to better prepare students from diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds to succeed in school, in their careers and as members of their communities.

“The reason I love Vermont is it’s got its challenges. But it’s really on a human scale. You can have a conversation,” he said.

For his steady faith in the ability of each person to make a difference, and putting that faith to work in the service of his community, Hal Colston is the 2014 Vermonter of the Year.

Join the conversation online at BurlingtonFreePress.com or send a letter to the editor to moc.a1449440697idems1449440697serpe1449440697erf@s1449440697rette1449440697l1449440697. Contact Aki Soga at moc.a1449440697idems1449440697serpe1449440697erf@a1449440697gosa1449440697. Follow him on Twitter at @asoga.

A nominating letter

I would like to nominate Hal Colston for Vermonter of the Year.

Hal is director of Partnership for Change, which is remodeling Burlington and Winooski school districts by establishing a student-centered learning system that enables all learners to develop skills, knowledge, and relationships necessary to become confident, motivated, and self-sufficient learners who are successful in college and careers and are engaged in their communities.

Hal and his team are changing the way education is delivered in our communities so that it is more rigorous and more equitable.

Over the years Hal has been an integral and essential part of our community. He founded Good News Garage, which is one of the first nonprofit social enterprise car donation programs in the U.S. He also founded NeighborKeepers, which was a community nonprofit that helped the generational poor become financially secure.

Hal has spent his life devoted to our community and making a difference in both small and large ways. He seems like the ideal candidate for the Burlington Free Press’s Vermonter of the Year. In addition, there has never been a person of color who has been recognized as Vermonter of the Year. It’s about time.

There are so many people of color in Vermont who are making important contributions to our community. Now is the time to begin recognizing them.

LABAN HILL, Winooski

Past Vermonters of the Year

2013: Lois McClure, philanthropist

2012: Bill McKibben, environmental journalist and climate change activist.

2011: Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, Vermont National Guard adjutant general.

2010: Robert “Bob” Hoehl, philanthropist and co-founder of IDX.

2009: Beth Robinson, marriage equality advocate.

2008: Howard Dean, former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

2007: Daniel Fogel, president, University of Vermont.

2006: Tony Pomerleau, philanthropist and real estate developer.

2005: Peter Miller, photographer and writer who chronicles a disappearing Vermont.

2004: Martha Rainville, adjutant general, Vermont National Guard.

2001 – 2003: None named.

2000: John McCardell, president, Middlebury College.

1999: Rita Markley, director, Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS).

1998: Darby Bradley, president, Vermont Land Trust.

1997: Jody Williams, anti-land mine activist, winner of Nobel Peace Prize.