MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury volunteer and activist Dottie Neuberger might be one of the six recent recipients of honorary degrees from Middlebury College, but before the May 22 commencement ceremony she would never have dreamed about sharing the stage with a U.S. senator or an internationally recognized geneticist.
“I don’t see myself in the same category as most of the honorary degree recipients,” Neuberger said last week.
After all, she explained, she has spent the vast majority of her time since her 1958 graduation from Middlebury College right here in Addison County, not, like the honorary degree recipients, fighting for civil rights in the South or studying the economic policies of the Soviet Union.
“They all operate in a macrocosm, and I operate in a microcosm,” said Neuberger, who returned to Middlebury a year after graduating. “What I do, anybody could do.”
But even the modest Neuberger recognized the difference between potential and action. Her ability to recognize the former and inspire the latter is what has made her such an effective force of change in Addison County.
“If I have a skill,” she says, emphasizing the “if” part, “it’s helping people work together, and helping people be providers.”
Whether one recognizes her face, or even her name, Neuberger’s work in Addison County can hardly escape notice. She has been a ubiquitous presence in initiatives to improve the local community, from her years of service at Middlebury Union High School to the annual Christmas dinners and weekly community suppers that she helps organize.
Her goal, from the very beginning, has been simple: “to do as much as I could to make this the kind of community that would benefit (my kids), and other kids, as well as the other members — older, younger, all ages.”
WORKING WITH TEENS
“I’ve always liked adolescents … (they are a) a bundle of potential,” said Neuberger, a mother of four and grandmother of nine. She and her husband, Fred Neuberger, retired dean of admissions at Middlebury College and a 1950 graduate himself, raised their children in Middlebury.
Neuberger, who holds a Master of Science in therapeutic counseling from Saint Michael’s College, worked for 27 years at the Counseling Services of Addison County until her retirement in 2000. She was based primarily at Middlebury Union High School, where she also spent many years serving on the school board.
“I liked working with (teenagers) at the high school … in my own family and in the neighborhood,” says Neuberger. Her impact on the school has been tremendous — she pioneered the Peer Leader program, which prepares 12th-grade students to mentor groups of 9th-grade students, and played a major role in the development of the Alternative Education Program for students who struggle with the standard curriculum.
“Dottie was a strong advocate for all students,” said MUHS Assistant Principal Cathy Dieman. “She was readily accessible and viewed as a trusted adult … Dottie truly enjoyed her work with students and modeled this enthusiasm for her colleagues.”
Outside of the school, Neuberger also served on the board of directors for Youth Empowerment, a Vermont-based organization aimed at providing more activities for adolescents and to give them a sense of empowerment in their communities. Even in her optimism that every Vermont youth can find a place they belong in their community, Neuberger is pragmatic about the challenges of meeting such a goal.
“Part of the problem … is that kids mature and go on, and what pleased and satisfied the needs of one group doesn’t always please and satisfy the needs of the next group,” says Neuberger.
Though most people who have experience dealing with teenagers — from teachers to parents — will say it can sometimes be a thankless job, Neuberger feels differently.
“Working with adolescents and watching them move from a place where they’re stuck to a place where they can actually move forward is always very rewarding,” she said.
But Neuberger has no illusions in terms of her role when it comes to counseling troubled teens. She said she makes the most difference when she identifies potential and inspires action so the teen can help him or herself.
“I don’t ever forget that they’re the ones who had to make the change.” Neuberger said. “What you do as a counselor is you simply say, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem to be working. Have you thought of doing something else?’ But then (the teen has to) do the something else. So they deserve the credit for that.”
Perhaps Neuberger’s most visible impact on the community has been the Friday night community suppers. The idea came out of a January 2005 conference on poverty held in Middlebury, in which the conclusion was that some people were under-fed. Neuberger recalls one particularly shocking statistic, that “one out of six children in our county is ‘food-challenged.’ That’s a euphemism. It means they don’t have enough to eat.”
By March of that year, Neuberger was doing her part to reduce the number of local under-fed families by organizing and hosting community suppers at the Congregational Church in Middlebury every other Friday. Soon, they moved to every Friday to avoid confusion.
“I thought the numbers would go down,” says Neuberger, of the decision to move to every Friday, “but instead they went up. Because people could rely on the Friday night suppers.”
Slowly but surely, the numbers rose from 22 at the first dinner to the 200-plus who regularly attend today.
Neuberger sees many benefits to the community suppers. First and foremost, she said, “They’re just fun.” It’s a great way to meet people in the community one might not otherwise, and the environment is casual and friendly.
Nevertheless, Neuberger stresses that those who come to the supper “are our guests … One of the things that is very important to me … is the respect that (we) give the guests,” who she calls “nifty, nifty people.”
Neuberger also notes that the providers can get almost as much from the suppers, if not more. In particular, she feels that it’s a good opportunity for people on probation or parole to “reenter the community in a little different spot, where they are the ones who are being the providers. It’s a good opportunity for people who have perhaps made some bad choices to get back into a society that really needs to welcome them back.”
Neuberger has been involved in other initiatives to combat hunger in Addison County. Since 2001, she has organized Christmas Day dinners for those who don’t have another place to celebrate, and is a member of the Governor’s Council on Hunger.
Characteristically, Neuberger refuses to take singular credit for the success of the community suppers, which are one prong of the Middlebury Community Care Coalition (MCCC), an organization started in 2005 to help feed and house struggling Addison County residents, and for which Neuberger serves as the vice chair. Doug Sinclair and Ginny Hiedke, in particular, have been instrumental in MCCC’s housing and lunch programs, respectively. The housing program houses 50 people every year, including 20 children.
She also recognizes the critical role of people like Pat Chase, who does much of the behind-the-scenes work for MCCC. Most importantly, she says, credit goes to the 700 volunteers who put in 23,000 hours of work last year alone.
So, where others see Neuberger spotting potential and inspiring the action of others, she sees a collectively motivated community that cares deeply for themselves and for each other.
“When I’m standing up there getting an honorary degree,” she says, “it’s with 700 other people, beside me, in front of me, and behind me. It’s really an award for volunteers. And I think that’s a great thing to recognize.”
Ian Trombulak is at [email protected]