by Robert Barossi, Green Mountain United Way volunteer writer
Bluegrass bands. Vaudeville acts. Magicians and hypnotists. If all that and more is happening and it’s New Year’s Eve in Vermont, you may be in St. Johnsbury. And if you are at First Night North in St. Johnsbury, then somewhere in the crowd is volunteer Jay Sprout, doing whatever he can to make the event a success.
A native of Ohio, Jay came to New England by way of Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. He eventually set his sights on the northern part of the region, where he felt more at home. In 1982, Jay landed in St. Johnsbury, where he took a position as the minister of the North Congregational Church.
“My church strongly supported me having community involvement and they were totally behind me giving part of my time to working on first night. I had a flexible schedule and could schedule times when I would be working on first night in addition to my job,” he says.
The original impetus to start working on a first night event was twenty-six years ago, after Jay attended first night in Burlington, something he describes as “a very positive community experience.” After that, he and the pastor at South Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury talked about having a similar event in their city, something “that would be similar, on a smaller scale perhaps, but would be just as positive for the community and provide an equal range of entertainment on New Year’s Eve and cut down on the use of substances, drugs and alcohol.”
“That has always been a focus of first nights in general and we thought it would be a very positive part of what we could do with our first night in St. Johnsbury,” he adds, noting that it has been a very successful event in that regard. “So far as I know, there has not been any police action needed on New Year’s Eve in St. Johnsbury since we started.”
Jay’s involvement with first night has changed and grown since it began, back when the event was funded by a federal grant aimed at substance abuse prevention. “The original people who put it together with that federal grant did a fantastic job of identifying the many venues in St. Johnsbury where entertainment could be held and then regional entertainers who wanted to participate,” Jay says. “They really set the model and we had such an enormous success that first year that it sort of took off. We have certainly expanded the number of venues. Last year, we had eighteen venues in thirteen buildings, for eight hours, presenting, I think, 83 acts by 60 or so different groups or artists.”
For the past nine years, Catamount Arts has played a large role in keeping first night going and successful, and Jay has remained as involved as ever. He says his favorite role is “the actual curating and figuring out who is going to come and trying to put together a program that offers a wide variety of entertainment. The vast majority of first night entertainment is musicians, we try to make sure that we have music to suit every taste, all the way from bluegrass and folk to classical performances and everything in between. You name it, I think we’ve pretty much covered it.”
Those acts, including Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing’s bluegrass band, Vermont Vaudeville, Nimble Arts Ruckus Circus, magician hypnotist Marko, and many more, fill the numerous St. Johnsbury venues for eight and a half hours, from 4pm until after the midnight fireworks. The diverse variety of acts originate from all over our region and Jay notes it’s not just the performers who come from far and wide.
“We really do think of this as a regional event that covers northern New Hampshire as well as the upper valley of Vermont and New Hampshire and all the way to Newport,” he says. “St. Johnsbury is really blessed with a lot of really good venues that are all in a pretty tight area, so that people can get from one end to the other and walk about a half-mile. That is really remarkable. It’s very different from other cities that try to hold these kinds of events.”
If Jay’s work with First Night North seems like a year-round job, it is. And, while it may be a lot of work, it’s worth it for Jay when he walks around on New Year’s Eve and sees people of all types having a really good time. “It’s far more inclusive of the entire community than a lot of the other arts performances tend to be. We also try to make sure that everybody can afford it, so the price is kept low. For those who really can’t afford it, we have connections with social service agencies and we give away three to five hundred free buttons every year to families.”
“As I walk down the street, a lot of people recognize me and say thank you. It obviously makes me feel good that they recognize that we have given a wonderful gift to the community,” he notes, adding, “At the same time, I feel very humbled because I know that I don’t do it alone by any means.”
Still, there are some who are unaware of the event or aren’t interested because first nights, in general, can sometimes get a bad rap. “Any time I get a chance to talk to somebody who hasn’t found out about it, I try to give them a picture of what a wonderful community event it is and how much fun they can have on New Year’s Eve without going to a party that is serving alcohol or just being isolated unto themselves,” Jay says. “The community experience is really wonderful. People who attend are also ambassadors for the event and I hear time and time again how much it’s become their own New Year’s Eve tradition.”
Being a part of that tradition is just one of Jay’s volunteer efforts, which also include being on the Board of Directors for Northeast Kingdom Habitat for Humanity, among other community activities. He points to the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, “It is in giving that we receive,” as one reason why he puts so much time, energy, passion and dedication into these efforts, adding, “I think that’s a truth about life. If you live it in isolation, you definitely are missing out on what life is all about.”
The Local Heros is a monthly feature compiled by the Green Mountain United Way focusing on the contributions of local volunteers whose efforts benefit local nonprofit organizations in Green Mountain United Way’s service territory in Caledonia, Essex, Orange, Orleans and Washington Counties. For more information, or to nominate a volunteer to be featured here, go to www.gmunitedway.org/volunteer-of-the-month.