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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Grants Available for K-12 Science & Tech Teachers

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2020 at 2:30 PM

A Middlebury Union Middle School project on sustainable ecosystems, funded by last year's VASE grant - COURTESY OF JOHN COHN
  • Courtesy of John Cohn
  • A Middlebury Union Middle School project on sustainable ecosystems, funded by last year's VASE grant

According to conventional wisdom, kids learn by doing. When it comes to science education, that means curiosity-driven, hands-on projects like building robots, raising trout and using 3D printers. But materials for those kinds of endeavors don't always fit within schools' budgets.

That's where the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering (VASE) is able to help. For six years, the organization — made up of scientists and engineers who work in both academics and industry — has awarded grants of $500 to $1000 to Vermont science and technology teachers, enabling them to bring more innovative, standards-based projects into their classrooms.

VASE offers two types of grants. Its Small Equipment Grant helps classroom teachers purchase hardware, software, lab equipment, STEM kits and maker tools for their classrooms. Its Hands-On Science and Technology Grant supports extracurricular programs like FIRST Robotics, Makerspaces and 4H and science clubs. Between the two types of grants, VASE gives around $20,000 to teachers every year.

VASE Outreach Coordinator John Cohn, an IBM Fellow at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, said that since the grants' inception,  VASE has recognized the importance of funding projects that are sustainable, year after year.  The organization also favors projects that are open-ended and playful — things that "spark joy," said Cohn.

Teachers' requests may look a little different this year because of the educational changes due to COVID-19, but Cohn is looking forward to seeing the proposals. The grants, he said, are even more important during these challenging times.

Find more information about VASE's grants for teachers here. Deadline for both grant programs is  September 30. Grant submissions and questions can be emailed to vtscieng@gmail.com.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Fletcher Free Library Posts StoryWalk at Leddy Park

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2020 at 11:53 AM

The new StoryWalk in Leddy Park - COURTESY OF MEGAN ESTEY BUTTERFIELD
  • Courtesy of Megan Estey Butterfield
  • The new StoryWalk in Leddy Park
Looking for a literary walk in the woods? Last week, the Fletcher Free Library rolled out a new StoryWalk in Burlington featuring the picture book Pie is for Sharing  The book, written by Stephanie Parsley Ledyard and illustrated by local children's book writer and illustrator Jason Chin, uses a Fourth of July picnic to highlight the value of friendship and sharing.

Spaced-out wooden posts, each containing laminated pages of the book, line a walking trail that begins in the northeast corner of the Leddy Park parking lot and ends at the Burlington Bike Path. Some posts also include questions and activities intended to spark conversation and build early literacy skills. The installation — a collaboration between the library, Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront, and Burlington City Arts — is permanent but the featured book will be changed every few months, said Fletcher Free youth services librarian Megan Estey Butterfield. 

The idea for taking apart and laminating picture books, then putting them along a path, was conceptualized by Montpelier resident Anne Ferguson in 2007. Ferguson wanted to create a literacy resource that would also get families outside and moving. She called it the StoryWalk Project, and trademarked the name. She's assembled dozens of StoryWalk books since then, which she keeps in a storage space at Kellogg-Hubbard Library and loans out to recreation departments, childcare centers and nature centers free of charge for up to two weeks. She's also written detailed directions for creating your own StoryWalk, which can be found here.

For more information on the Burlington StoryWalk, visit fletcherfree.org/storywalk

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Forgotten Films: 'Treasure Planet'

Posted By on Fri, Sep 11, 2020 at 11:32 AM

© INFO849943 | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • © Info849943 | Dreamstime.com
Treasure Planet is one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most forgotten films. Released in 2002, the adventure movie was a box-office bomb and received lukewarm reviews. Some say its poor  showing was because of a flawed marketing strategy that emphasized solemnity over fun. Others attribute it to being released around the same time as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was one entry in a massive series that was dominating the market of family-friendly films. Still others claim it was simply because its traditional hand-drawn animation looked dated compared to the 3D computer animation in other children’s films released around the same time, like Toy Story and Shrek. Regardless, it’s a shame Treasure Planet didn’t get much recognition. It’s a fantastic movie that's on my top-ten list for animated films.

The Story: In an intergalactic steampunk world, teenager Jim Hawkins lives with his mother, who runs an inn on the planet Montressor. Inspired by pirate tales of adventure, and harboring sadness due to his father abandoning his family years ago, Jim rebels from his mundane life. After a dying pirate gives Jim a map to the fabled Treasure Planet, Jim commissions a ship full of aliens to find the treasure. During his journey, Jim forms a bond with the ship’s cyborg cook, John Silver, who becomes a paternal figure for Jim. However, it soon becomes clear that Jim’s trust in Silver may be misplaced.

Why It’s a Good Family Movie: Treasure Planet is an adaption of the classic 1883 adventure story Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. That book capitalized on the idea of the unexplored sea being dangerous, fascinating and full of mystery. Treasure Planet puts a clever spin on this narrative, maintaining the characters, themes and swashbuckling adventure spirit, but translating them to a fantastical intergalactic setting. Weird sea creatures and treacherous waters are replaced with space aliens and black holes. In 2002, the sea wasn’t exactly novel and every inch of it had pretty much been explored and charted. Because of this, setting the movie in space was a fantastic idea in terms of having an unknown and vast setting that works for the 21st century.

Furthermore, this film features a great, complex character in John Silver. A lot of Hollywood movies clearly define who is good and who is evil. John Silver is a character who is morally grey; he has good deep within him but is constantly making bad decisions. You can tell that all Silver knows in life is being an avaricious pirate, but he also cares deeply for people, such as Jim. As a viewer, you might not like what Silver does, but you can understand why he does it. The film also features a great character arc and redemption for Silver, which adds to his complexity and allure.

Finally, the film is breathtakingly beautiful, with immaculately detailed characters, planets and ships. James Newton Howard’s magical score compliments the whimsical animation, perfectly encapsulating a sense of adventure and spirit throughout the film. The film is like a delicious cake, with all the different filmmaking ingredients coming together perfectly.

Age Recommendation: The book on which this film is based features much more gore, alcohol, politically incorrect language and a darker ending than the film. If you read the book beforehand, you should know Disney significantly toned it down for this adaptation. In the movie, there are many deaths, including major characters, and fights involving sci-fi weapons. Some aliens may look scary to younger children. I would recommend this film for ages 8 and up, and the Treasure Island book for ages 12 and up.

Treasure Planet is streaming on Disney+ and is available to rent on or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Download the September Coloring Contest

Posted By on Wed, Sep 9, 2020 at 11:42 AM

DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Dreamstime.com
Because the September issue of Kids Vermont is inserted in Seven Days — and only on newsstands for a week — we realize that not everyone may be able to pick up a copy. So this month we're making the coloring contest available as a downloadable PDF so that you can access it at home. Entering the contest this month is simple. Just download the PDF below, print it out and let your kids go to town. Then, scan or take a picture of the entry with your smartphone, and send it via email to art@kidsvt.com. Make sure to include the title of the piece, your child's full name, age and town, and your email address and phone number. You can also send a hard copy of your kiddo's completed coloring contest to Kids Vermont/P.O. Box 1184/Burlington VT, 05402.  We've extended the deadline for September coloring contest entries to Friday, September 18 to give kids more time to complete it. Happy coloring!

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Vermont Association for the Blind Raises Funds Through Family-Oriented Scavenger Hunt

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2020 at 2:18 PM

A question from the Great Brave Little State Challenge - COURTESY OF VABVI
  • Courtesy of VABVI
  • A question from the Great Brave Little State Challenge
The coronavirus has put a kibosh on most in-person fundraising events, so some organizations are getting creative when it comes to soliciting donations.

The Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a Burlington-based nonprofit, has developed a family-focused scavenger hunt for those who make a donation of $15 or more to the organization. The Great Brave Little State Challenge gives participants the opportunity to discover new things about Vermont through online research, code cracking and exploration, said director of development John Thomas. He said the $15 donation threshold was decided upon because it is less than the price of admission to the Champlain Valley Fair, which was canceled this year.

The 135 questions in the challenge touch on topics including people, places and things of Vermont; nature and the environment; food; the arts; and politics.  Local luminaries including Grace Potter and Sen. Bernie Sanders got involved in its creation by offering questions they thought should be included and, in some cases, filming videos.

Thomas explained that the challenge allows for participants to complete at their own pace, and it's designed so people won't get stuck. It can also be done as a competition between families or classrooms. Visit vabvi.org to get started.

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Forgotten Films: 'Iron Giant'

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2020 at 11:49 AM

© 9DREAMSTUDIO
  • © 9dreamstudio
Filmmaker and animator Brad Bird has been recognized for many of his high-profile movies over the years, including The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. His films have a sense of fun that pays homage to 1950s B movies, while maintaining strong attention to visual detail and incorporating a sense of heart that is missing in many contemporary animated films. While Bird’s aformentioned films are well-known, the first animated feature Bird directed, The Iron Giant, is one of his best. When it was released, it had weaker marketing than most big-budget animated films and was a box-office disappointment. This is a shame. The film is so well-executed that I believe it offers serious competition to the best films from celebrated animation studios Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli.

The Story: In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, a 9-year-old boy named Hogarth Hughes lives with his widowed mother. Hogarth is an intellectually advanced boy with an overzealous imagination and is often bullied by his peers. On a night that will change everything, he discovers a robotic alien that has crash-landed in the woods and appears to be designed as a killing machine. However, through his interactions with Hogarth, the Iron Giant learns peace and friendliness, and the two become fast friends. While everything seems to be looking up for Hogarth, he and the Iron Giant must also avoid the wrath of a government agent who seeks out the destruction of the giant.

Why It’s a Good Family Movie: The Iron Giant’s massive heart shines throughout the film. When making it, Bird asked the question, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?” At one point, the giant even wonders whether he can ever have a soul, as he was a machine built for the purpose of killing. Hogarth tells him, “You’re made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.” The film conveys the important message that you can become the type of person you want to be, rather than what society dictates you should be.

Additionally, the film presents themes that counter xenophobia. Kent Mansley, the government agent, tells Hogarth, “You think this metal man is fun, but who built it? The Russians? The Chinese? The Martians…Canadians? I don’t care! All I know is we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to assume the worst, and blow it to kingdom come!” Mansley is set on destroying the Iron Giant, even if it means destruction and violence to America itself. That’s how paranoid the man is. He fears outsiders and, rather than trying to understand them like Hogarth does, he criticizes them with xenophobic stereotypes and has an immediate urge to annihilate them.

Finally, on the technical side, the film combines the hand-drawn animation of old with computer animation of new. This works well, as the computer-animated giant looks more technologically advanced and imposing compared to everything else that is hand-drawn. Furthermore, the film’s animation manages to capture a nostalgic undertone, with its small-town New England vibe and autumn colors. It feels almost as if it’s set in our own Green Mountain State.

Age Recommendation: The movie is mostly tame and inoffensive. In one scene, a deer is shot by hunters, which may be startlingly due to its suddenness and brutality. In the end, things escalate between the military and the giant. They shoot him with military weapons and the giant goes into beast mode, causing explosions that would please Michael Bay. In the end, a nuclear missile is launched, and the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, which may be disturbing to younger children. I would recommend this film for ages 7 and up.

The Iron Giant is streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Forgotten Films: 'Queen of Katwe'

Posted By on Fri, Aug 21, 2020 at 2:14 PM

© ANGELODEVAL | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • © Angelodeval | Dreamstime.com
This week’s featured film is Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair and released in 2016. Although it is a more recent release, it was a box office disappointment and snubbed at awards ceremonies, including the Oscars and Golden Globes. That’s a shame, because the film is incredibly well-directed, acted and written. Additionally, unlike previous films I’ve written about, it’s based on a true story, which may be appealing to families looking for an inspiring tale about a part of the world they may not know much about.

The Story: In an impoverished area of Uganda called Katwe, the recently widowed Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to raise and provide for her multiple children. In Katwe, money is tough to come by for a single mother. One of Harriet’s daughters, 10-year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), yearns for a better future, one in which she doesn’t have to sell maize forever. She meets chess teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and discovers she is chess prodigy. Under Katende’s mentorship, Phiona wins multiple tournaments and earns her way to represent the Uganda team in the Chess Olympiad. With this newfound success comes other concerns, such as financial hardships associated with chess tournaments and Phiona’s developing overconfidence.

Why it’s a Good Family Movie: Queen of Katwe is an inspiring underdog tale with a charming cast. Phiona is not just from the slum, but at the bottom of it, and is constantly ridiculed and underestimated. Even the poor children who are on her chess team initially make fun of her economic standing and criticize her smell. When she gets good enough to play against the city kids, they are bigoted, wiping their hands on the tablecloth after they shake her hand and constantly making rude, condescending remarks throughout the game. Phiona is an inspirational character in the sense that she is able to overcome these hardships and show up the others with chess prowess. In the beginning of the film when she is being taught how to play, a character remarks that the pawn (the little one) is able to become the big one (the queen). While this is in reference to chess, it is also an inspiring message for Phiona — and the source of the clever double meaning in the film’s title.

Queen of Katwe is also a great film in narrating actual events that took place in Africa. The film educates viewers on the struggles people experience in the poorer sections of this country and also showcases Ugandan culture in a respectful, realistic way. Oftentimes Hollywood movies, like The Constant Gardener and Machine Gun Savior, have a “white savior” narrative when depicting African stories. This movie depicts African people as their own heroes, without a single white savior in sight.

Finally, I must praise some of the technical aspects of this film. Mira Nair and the cinematographer, Sean Bobbit, have crafted a very beautiful film. Colors in the film are vivid and impactful. Additionally, the acting is exceptional, with David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o being particular standouts in their roles. Chess can be a boring activity to watch, but Mira Nair has the rare ability to create tension and make the game feel mesmerizing, even to those who aren’t chess buffs.

Age Recommendation: This film is relatively tame in the violence department. Besides a kid getting hit by a motorcycle and the pain and injuries associated with being hit, there’s nothing else that could be considered violent or gory. There are many references to prostitution in the film, with multiple slimy male characters making disturbing references. However, the innuendoes would likely go over younger children’s heads. I would recommend this film for ages 9 and up.

Queen of Katwe is available for streaming on Disney+ and available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Forgotten Films: 'Chicken Run'

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2020 at 4:53 PM

'Chicken Run' - © DREAMWORKS DISTRIBUTION / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
  • © DreamWorks Distribution / Courtesy Everett Collection
  • 'Chicken Run'
A few months ago, on the occasion of Chicken Run’s twentieth anniversary, Netflix announced it would be distributing Chicken Run 2, with production beginning next year. I thought it would be fitting this week to revisit the original stop-motion animation film. Chicken Run, released in 2000, was created by Aardman Animations, a British animation studio most notable for its droll Wallace and Gromit franchise. While the hens in Chicken Run are not as well-known as that duo, it’s a well-written film brimming with British humor, exceptional clay models, action-packed animation and imaginative sets.

The Story: In rural England, a farm of chickens produces eggs for the malevolent Mrs. Tweedy. Chickens are expected to fill a daily quota, and those who fail to meet expectations are executed and summarily turned into food. Ginger, one chicken among many, often devises escape plans that are met with fruitless results. As business at the farm suffers, Mrs. Tweedy arranges for her egg farm to manufacture a line of frozen food and begins work on a machine that will turn chickens on the farm into pot pies. As the hens race against time, a rooster named Rocky, who seemingly possesses the ability to fly, shows up — and brings with him a last-ditch possibility of escape.

Why It’s a Good Family Movie: While film cameras can capture motion effortlessly, that’s not the case with Claymation. Each frame is individually shot as a photo, with many photos making up just one second in the film. Furthermore, each frame needs to be meticulously planned so character movement appears natural. Factor in time spent building sets and modeling each character and their expressions, and you’re looking at well over a year in terms of production time for Claymation films. By comparison, an average Hollywood movie takes a few months, while many indie movies shoot in only a few weeks. Chicken Run was shot at 20 frames per second. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, that's roughly 114,000 photos taken to make the film! Children, or adults, watching this movie may be inspired to create their own shorts after seeing how clay and photography can come together to create a compelling film.

This film also serves as a family-friendly introduction to adult prisoner-of-war-themed films. In fact, it's a spoof of sorts of the 1963 World War II POW movie The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges. Shot from the chickens’ point of view, Chicken Run is a hellscape with chicken coops, watchtowers, and barbed wire hilariously overexaggerated to look like a prisoner’s camp. Dark horizons and farm machines are presented in a surreal, Kafkaesque fashion. From artistic direction alone, you can immediately sympathize with the chicken’s plight and entrapment on the farm. Following a motif of many POW films, the hens band together to overtake a common threat, offering a positive message about teamwork and collaboration.

Age Recommendation: The film features numerous scenes of peril, and Mrs. Tweedy is often seen wielding an axe, which she uses to decapitate chickens. There is one scene in which she succeeds, although it’s done off-screen. Mrs. Tweedy is also constantly beating up her oafish husband, although this comes off as slapstick. One scene features two chickens falling in a pie machine and almost getting diced, sliced and cooked. While no danger befalls them, it’s certainly scary. I would recommend this film for ages 8 and up.

Chicken Run is available for streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Want to experiment with stop-motion with your kids? Try these online resources:
-Tech4Learning: Making Claymation in the Classroom
-TinkerLab: Easy Stop-Motion Animation With Kids
-Lemon Lime Adventures: How to do Stop-Motion Animation With Kids

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Forgotten Films: 'The Fox and the Hound'

Posted By on Thu, Jul 30, 2020 at 4:29 PM

'The Fox and the Hound' - © 1981 DISNEY
  • © 1981 Disney
  • 'The Fox and the Hound'
This week’s film, The Fox and the Hound (1981), is one of the first movies I watched and my unrivaled favorite among Disney’s massive library of animation classics.

Disney films made in the ’70s and ’80s are often overlooked in favor of classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Lion King and more contemporary movies like Frozen. But many of the films made between 1970 and 1988 have creative stories, darker tones and beautiful unrivaled animation. The Fox and the Hound is especially indicative of this era, with a more somber tone, a uniquely allegorical story and detailed animation.

The Story: After losing his mother, a kit fox named Tod is taken in by a rural farmer known as Widow Tweed. Tod’s only neighbor is a gruff hunter named Amos Slade, who also recently adopted a young hound dog called Copper. Tod and Copper become fast friends, even though Copper is being raised to hunt animals, including foxes. As they grow up, the two friends begin to learn that society never wanted them together and discover different loyalties that will cause rifts within their friendship.

Why It’s a Good Family Movie: Disney movies are often tear-jerkers. While the deaths of Mufasa in The Lion King and Bambi’s mother in Bambi are sad moments that come to mind, in my mind, there’s nothing close to the amount of emotional pain Tod endures within this film and the sorrow that it instills within the viewer. Kids, especially those who have lost family members, will be able to sympathize with Tod, and learn from him, too. Despite the tragedy in his life, he always finds positivity.

Additionally, the film touches on the hardships of growing up, and the loss of relationships that come with it. In a gut-wrenching scene Tod has to say goodbye to Widow Tweed, his new parental figure, because he has become too old and thus is too much of a risk living near Slade, a man who hunts foxes. Additionally – spoiler alert — while they mend their friendship, Tod and Copper never become the friends they originally were due to life taking them on separate paths. While the film acknowledges the harsh truth that life may separate you from the friends you grow up with, it reinforces the idea that the bond you create will be important for your whole life. It’s a touching message that will particularly resonate with older kids and older adult viewers who have lost touch with a friend.

Whether through class, cultural, political or any other type of difference, the film is an allegory that society often ruins what could otherwise be great relationships between people. If the characters in the film can get through this unreasonable hatred and learn to accept and appreciate each other in the end, then shouldn’t society at large be able to do that, too?

Finally, the film’s animation is topnotch. The backgrounds are beautifully painted, with gorgeous vistas, wildlife, rolling rivers and waterfalls. The film makes you appreciate the beauty of nature, without having to leave your living rooms. The animals in the film are also expertly drawn, with lifelike mannerisms that could only be achieved by carefully studying real animals. While the titular fox and hound are clearly demonstrative of this, the bear at the end has always struck me as being exceptionally good in the way the animators made it seem so demonic and imposing. Although detailed fur is easier to animate in contemporary computer-animated features, the bear’s fur in this scene is especially fluid and looks insanely realistic for hand-drawn animation.

Age Recommendation: Firearms feature prominently throughout the film. In the beginning, there is a shot off-screen followed by an implied animal death. Amos Slade, the primary antagonist of the movie, constantly shoots his gun at animals, although he has the aim of a Stormtrooper (meaning he never seems to hit his target). One elderly dog is hit by a train and plummets down a steep slope. However, it is later revealed that he just broke his leg. The most concerning scene is a somewhat brutal fight near the end between Tod, Copper, Slade and a bear, which features wounds and gashes. I would recommend this for ages 6 and up.

The Fox and the Hound is available for streaming on Disney+ and available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

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Vermont Children's Trust Foundation Announces Alternative Polar Express

Posted By on Thu, Jul 30, 2020 at 8:19 AM

Children look out the train window during the Polar Express in 2018 - COURTESY OF VERMONT CHILDREN'S TRUST FOUNDATION
  • Courtesy of Vermont Children's Trust Foundation
  • Children look out the train window during the Polar Express in 2018
The holiday season seems far away, but the Vermont Children's Trust Foundation has already decided to offer an alternative to its annual Polar Express holiday fundraiser, which has been a local family favorite for 18 years. In years past, the event, which is inspired by the 1985 Christopher Van Allsburg picture of the same name, featured a train ride, caroling, a story time and an appearance by Santa.

The elaborate production usually happens several times over the course of two days in December and draws around 3600 passengers. But not this year. Instead, the organization will encourage donors to fund its community-based prevention programs for children and families by offering special DIY Polar Express packages.

Those who donate $100 or more will receive a package that contains everything needed to hold a Polar Express event at home: bells, golden tickets, chocolates, a note from Santa, and a link to an original video of The Polar Express being read aloud.

$150+ donors will receive those things, plus a signed copy of the Van Allsburg picture book and a Polar Express ornament.

Both groups of donors will be put on the advanced ticket list for the 2021 Polar Express.

Last year, the event raised $170,000, one-third of the organization's fundraising budget, according to executive director C. Fagan Hart. In 2019 Country Living magazine named it one of the 15 best Polar Express train rides in the country. 
Author Stephen Kiernan reads 'The Polar Express' to families in 2018 - COURTESY OF VERMONT CHILDREN'S TRUST FOUNDATION
  • Courtesy of Vermont Children's Trust Foundation
  • Author Stephen Kiernan reads 'The Polar Express' to families in 2018


Hart said the decision to cancel the in-person Polar Express was made because the logistical challenges of pulling off a "hugely collaborative event" seemed insurmountable.

These included the feasibility of temperature checks and distancing families on a train and in Union Station. Additionally, the event typically relies on about 700 volunteers, many from school groups, said Hart.

Offering Polar Express-themed packages to donors will allow families to have a special night together at home and, said Hart, "keep the spirit alive until next year when we can ride again."

Donate to Vermont Community Trust Foundation by October 25, 2020 to be eligible for a Polar Express gift package. Find more information here.

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