Making a life in Addison County: Lifestyle, relatives draw new families

ADDISON COUNTY — Four years after they got married, Sharon O’Daniel and Jason Fearon took a risk. The couple had good jobs in Boston, but they decided to move back to Addison County in June 2007, regardless of whether they had jobs waiting for them.
O’Daniel had given birth to their son Grey, and the couple knew they wanted to raise their family in the Vergennes area, where they both grew up.
“We couldn’t imagine raising a child in a city or suburbs,” O’Daniel said. “Vermont’s atmosphere, attitude, pride and people are what we wanted to share with our kids.”
Although Addison County is composed of a smaller percentage of young children than the nation as a whole, many young adults are passionate about starting families here — even if that means earning less money.
Another couple, Jennifer Roberts, 33, and Judd Markowski, 28, are raising their young daughters, Mirabelle and Adalaide, in Bridport. Roberts currently runs Daily Chocolate in Vergennes, but over the past years, she and her husband have worked a wide variety of jobs to support their family.
Watch a multimedia profile of Jen Roberts and Judd Markowski explaining their decision to raise children in Addison County.
“I was always more interested in where I wanted to be than what I wanted to do,” explained Roberts.
Before she took over the chocolate shop, she worked for a landscaping company and a grocery store. Markowski has worked in restaurants, on dairy farms, in trucking and operating heavy equipment.
“Judd and I are very conscious of not needing a lot of money to have a high quality of life,” Roberts said.
O’Daniel and Fearon share Roberts’ sentiment and do not regret their decision to leave Boston.
“We missed that small town feeling,” O’Daniel said, “that feeling of being a part of a community where you smile at just about everyone you pass on the sidewalk, whether or not you known them. But there’s a good chance you know them.”
Luckily, the couple found ways to continue their careers in Vermont. Fearon teaches art at Middlebury Union Middle School, and O’Daniel works out of an upstairs office in their Panton home; she’s been telecommuting to her old job with a public health consulting firm in Boston.
“At the end of the day at 5 p.m., I just walk downstairs and my family’s right there,” she said. “Telecommuting has been amazing.”
As technology improves and workplaces become more comfortable with having employees hundreds of miles away, the number of people telecommuting to work in Addison County will likely increase. Improving Vermont’s telecommunications infrastructure has been a hot political topic for several election cycles.
But for now, a good number of young adults who grew up here do not take O’Daniel’s risk, and choose to pursue job opportunities outside the county.
A 2003 Census Bureau study found that a net total of 2,252 college-educated people under the age of 39 migrated out of Vermont from 1995 to 2000.
This is part of a larger tend throughout the country. The study found that young college-educated adults are moving to metropolitan areas like Las Vegas, Nev.; Charlotte, N. C.; and Atlanta, Ga., at very high rates.
Connected to this trend of educated adults leaving the state, a smaller proportion of young children live in Vermont than in the rest of the country.
Children under the age of five made up just 5.3 percent of the state’s population in 2008, while that group comprises 7 percent of the country’s total population, according to the Census Bureau.
Addison County figures are about on par with those of the rest of the state; 5 percent of the county’s population is under the age of five.
But for young adults who do choose to raise families here, being near their extended families is often an important draw.
In Bridport, both sets of grandparents live near Roberts and Markowski’s two daughters.
“We have a very old-fashioned lifestyle because we have both sets (of grandparents) within 10 miles of us, and they’re very involved in our children’s lives,” said Roberts. Mirabelle, 3, spends at least one day a week with her grandmother.
Family was also an important draw for O’Daniel and Fearon. Both Fearon’s parents and O’Daniel’s father and step-mother live in Vergennes.
“I question the sensibility of creating a nuclear family far from where you grew up,” O’Daniel said, exaggerating only slightly.
In addition to being near their extended families, young adults also choose to raise children here because Vermont offers a high quality of life for their kids.
In 2007, a study funded by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that supports health policy research, ranked Vermont second in the country overall in child health system performance.
The report cited various Vermont programs and legislation that have increased the affordability and accessibility of children’s health care. The 2006 Health Care Affordability Act, which included reductions in premiums for children in public programs by a half, was among the discussed legislation.
But the good quality of life for children in Vermont extends beyond the state’s health care system and into families’ everyday lives.
Roberts and Markowski have a large garden behind their house where they grow potatoes, beans, lettuce, flowers, beets, and much more.
Markowski estimates about half of the produce the family eats every year comes from their garden. This summer he’s trying to brush up on his potato storing technique so they can take advantage of their garden even more. The family also gets a good deal of their meat from Roberts’ parents’ farm.
Young Addison County parents are also taking advantage of being part of a community of people their age who also have children.
“I’ve actually been amazed by the 30 something group of parents,” said O’Daniel.
Particularly in the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh area, she describes an “influx” of young parents, many of whom commute to Burlington.
Many of these parents enroll their children in daycare centers, and around the county, parents often participate in educational programs themselves.
The Bristol Family Center has around 30 young children enrolled in its various programs this summer, and also offers parenting workshops.
The Otter Creek Children’s Center, meanwhile, has 51 children in its daycare program.
Director Johanna Vaczy, who joined the center in 2006 but has worked in early childhood education for close to 27 years, says that one of the main draws for raising children here is the area’s “really strong sense of community.”
Markowski and Roberts agree that there’s a strong parenting community in Addison County. It can even get a little tiring. Last week, for example, they went to three birthday parties with their daughters.
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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