Jenny, now 12, clearly remembers her first asthma attack, when she was only seven. "I was at my friend Amy's house. We were both playing with her new puppy. I was in her room for a little while when all of a sudden I felt like I couldn't breathe. My chest felt funny, and I made a whistling sound every time I breathed out."

Episodes like Jenny's are becoming more and more prevalent in Vermont and throughout the rest of the nation. Childhood asthma attacks -- often triggered by dust, mold, mildew, pollen, or animal dander and further aggravated by poor air quality -- have rapidly become a major challenge to those addressing environmental problems critical to children and other more vulnerable Vermonters.

A civil and compassionate society is measured not by the total of its monetary wealth, but rather by its willingness to care for those least able to care for themselves. If we hold this to be a self-evident truth, then indicators of our compassion would likely include the degree to which we care for infants, children, elderly citizens, and those coping with some type of chronic illness or disability. Thinking even more expansively, our charity could also be measured by our willingness to bring threatened and endangered species back from the brink of extinction or extirpation and to protect fragile natural communities.

Vermont and Vermonters share a proud past and a promising future. We can learn of that past through the stories told by senior Vermonters. We can glimpse the future in the eyes of children. We treasure the youngest and the oldest not only because they link us to the past and to the future, but also because they are our family members, our friends, and our neighbors. Unfortunately, they are also the Vermonters most at risk due to environmental degradation.