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PAC leader, CHANGE maker: Amy Bremel gives a voice to people who need it the most

Amy Bremel, right, and Wellness Center Director Martha Coulter discuss PEER Advocates for Change at a recent event.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and most classes have cleared from Leavenworth Hall, but from a first-floor classroom escapes the sound of laughing and spirited discussion. Inside are students lounging comfortably and releasing their stresses. At the head of the group sits Amy Bremel, smiling, listening intently, and providing advice.

It’s a Peer Advocates for CHANGE meeting and there’s little to prepare for aside from the upcoming poetry slam, so Bremel checks in. How’s life? What’s new? How can she help? Relaxed talk drifts into a conversation about the latest drug-bust in Rutland that uncovered three woman chained behind a padlocked door, an assumed human-trafficking operation.

“No one’s talking about it. I haven’t heard anyone mention anything about it on campus. It’s terrible,” freshman Lily Modica sighed.

“Well, I can’t help but wonder who these women are,” Bremel quipped. “What are their stories?”

This question echoes much of who Bremel is—someone who yearns to hear people’s stories, understand, and assist without judgment. Her position at Castleton has only amplified her ability to reach those who need a helping hand.

She who makes CHANGE

As coordinator of Advocacy, Activism, and Non-Violence Education and director of Peer Advocates for CHANGE (PAC), Bremel on a day-to-day basis deals with some of the darkest moments a student might have experienced—rape, sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence, both past and present traumas. But her work has given control and a voice to those who may feel helpless and alone.

“She’s a wonderful, empathetic ear for students, but she’s more than that. She provides some real information,” said recently retired Associate Dean of Students and Title 9 Coordinator, Victoria Angis. “If a student wants to report to the police, Amy’s right there by their side helping them, and supporting them, and being there for them. You’re not telling them what to do, but if that’s your choice, I’m there to help you in any way I can—that’s just Amy.”

Angis was on the hiring committee with colleague Linda Olson 10 years ago when Bremel first applied to Castleton University for the position of victims’ advocate. From Wisconsin originally, Bremel’s first phone interview happened as she was already in the process of moving to Vermont—in fact, all that was left in her home was the phone she called on.

And it wasn’t long before the job was hers.

“I will say that she’s the only person who talked about blowjobs in an interview [and] I’ve been on lots of search committees. It was relevant to what we were discussing, but we both just cracked up,” Olson said. “So, I immediately liked Amy. And I haven’t changed my mind since then.”

Her roots

Bremel grew up in the small town of Union Grove, Wisconsin, where she knew from an early age that helping others was her passion. She, herself, grew up in an abusive home and often experienced the same feelings of helplessness she now navigates her students through.

“My mom never had a day out of that relationship. She died when I was really young. She died when I was 25—she was 53 years old,” Bremel said “This is all kind of for my mom. She didn’t get her voice ever, or the ability to share.”

It wasn’t until she reached college and beyond, however, that this passion for aiding those in need truly began to take form.

Bremel received her bachelor’s in communications from the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse with a specialization in public relations. She used her degree in work with state agencies, government funded programs, fund-raising and strategic planning for nonprofits, and consulting businesses. No matter where she went, her duties centered around prevention and work with at-risk populations, be it alcohol and drug prevention, sexual abuse prevention, or her work on a reservation in Minnesota.

When she began work with the Girl Scouts of America, she discovered an opportunity to pursue graduate school. Both the local and head offices would offer one class per semester each, unpaid. Thus, Bremel began her journey toward(s) her master’s in women’s and gender studies at Minnesota State University Mankato. Ten years, two extensions, and three children later, she finally got it.

“They finally said, ‘Amy, if you don’t finish your thesis, you will not graduate with a master’s from here’—when I had everything else done and I’d worked so many hours. I was probably about four months pregnant with my third kid and working full-time—and I did it. I finished my master’s.”

Finding her (Castleton) way

When the CHANGE and PAC initiatives were in their infancy and under the watch of creator, Olson, roughly eight students were trained before Bremel’s arrival. Now, Olson and Bremel have together trained over 200 students in advocacy and survivor wellness.

“I thinks she did what I set out to do, which is create a matrix of support for survivors,” Olson said. “Students have all these resources other than Amy on campus that they can now turn to as well. So, she really did the work that I wanted to do. She’s the one who made it happen.”

In addition to the work Bremel does with victim’s advocacy, she team-teaches the Trauma Studies course with Olson and the two are also beginning to make headway on establishing a new center for social justice and trauma informed care. This program aims to create a campus that is more conscious of trauma, diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, and making a more comfortable atmosphere for students of all backgrounds.

It is through these initiatives and Bremel’s work on campus that she has made some of her closest friends—both past and present students as well as coworkers.

“She’s like a second mom, you know? She’s a friend who’s always there and always sees the positive,” PAC leader and Castleton senior Isabelle Nichols said. “And we both really love French toast, which is so funny to me. We’re just so similar in so many ways. It’s like we’ve known each other forever.”

She gets up again

Bremel has come to call Vermont ‘home’ after a decade of living here, with a love for the fall foliage season, her nearly year-round swims at Emerald Lake in Dorset, and Vermont white cheddar cheese.

But her life in Vermont has not been without major, uprooting changes.

In 2019, Bremel filed for divorce from her husband of 24 years and the process has been upending, to say the least. Her friends and “coworker family” have been of great support in the course of it all, but Bremel said her own perseverance has also helped her find her strength.

“I really am proud of being super tenacious [in my divorce]…You know that song, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’—I really think that there’s an important lesson in that you shouldn’t let other people define you. They can hate on you, but you know in your heart who you are—and keep standing back up. And I’d say that I do that in my work too. No matter how you find me here, I’m gonna do the same thing for you, too,” Bremel said. “I will fight for you or with you, whatever you want to do. And not give up.”

Students, coworkers, and friends agree that these words are more than just a sentiment—it’s who Bremel is.

“Despite everything going on [in her life], Amy still gives a lot—care, compassion, and her own time. She really fights for what she believes in and helps students feel comfortable in these types of difficult situations,” Nichols said.

The lover, the fighter, the crazy game-nighter

Above the hardships Bremel has endured, she is well-known for her kindness, fortitude, and her bubbly sense of humor. She brings a full heart everywhere she goes and a large smile to the faces she sees. 

Bremel said she loves her silliness and that game-nights with her coworkers are an opportune time to see her at her most comfortable. Some of her favorites to play are the puzzle game, The Genius Square, and the card game, Ligretto.

Sara Sterns, a 2020 Castleton alum and Bremel’s intern, said this light-heartedness applies to both her personal and professional life and that

“Amy’s presence makes [difficult] things easier to talk about,” Sterns said.

“The topics that Amy works with are pretty heavy—and can be really depressing. But Amy makes it fun. We do fun activities with students while we’re planning and stuff. We’re always making jokes and are laughing and, you know, trying to try to find the light in some of the darkness that the work revolves around,” Sterns said. “[She’s] extremely caring and funny and a real advocate for people.”

Though her advocacy work has been some of the most gratifying Bremel has done, she is most proud to be a mother to her kids, 20 year-old London, 19 year-old McKinley, and 15 year-old Meridian, and said that her life philosophy mirrors something which she has often told her children.

“If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. I put a caveat on there because now they’re older—I’m like okay, ‘within reason. Keep it legal.’ But I do think it’s true,” she chuckled. “Just have fun and enjoy life.”