Memorial gift helps kids enjoy summer: Dibley donors expand Bristol Rec scholarship fund

BRISTOL — More five-town kids will get the chance to go to a Bristol Recreation Department summer camp — play in the river, make pottery, become a superhero — thanks to friends and family of the late Matt Dibley.
Last week, participants in the First Annual Matt Dibley Memorial Backyard Hockey Tournament donated $750 to the recreation department’s scholarship fund in Dibley’s memory.
“Every year at this time, we get hit with a lot of people asking for help,” said Recreation Director Darla Senecal. “We do throughout the year, but particularly when we come to summer camp time. And the scholarship fund was down under $1,000.”
The size of the gift will make a tremendous difference, she said.
“Usually we see a donation of like $50, so to get a $750 donation was remarkable,” Senecal said. “To get a donation like this is going to allow us to double probably the amount of scholarships we would normally give out.”
The gift seems a fitting tribute to a young man friends describe as generous, outgoing and kind.
“He just had a wonderful spirit, very charismatic and very caring about people,” said Dibley’s friend Pete Zelonis of Bristol. “He’d be there for whenever you needed him. He was just one of those guys that everybody knew and everybody loved. He liked being around children. He was very athletic and very outdoorsy. He was a very avid fisherman. He liked being in the woods and harvesting mushrooms and making maple syrup, anything like that. It just seemed like keeping the money real local to the five-town area and helping kids out, he would have liked that.”
Dibley grew up in Indiana, one of six siblings. He came to Vermont around a decade ago and was a longtime employee of Aqua Vitea — he’d gone from delivery truck driver to brewer, said Zelonis. Dibley lived in Lincoln, in a cabin in the woods without running water or electricity.
“He didn’t make a show of it. That’s just the way he was,” said Zelonis.
Dibley died last July 9 after falling off a cliff while hiking near the West Vista Trail in Lincoln. Dibley and a friend had hiked to an overlook at around 7 p.m., watched the view for about an hour, then accidentally veered off the trail while making their way back. Friends said it was a trail he knew well.
Search and rescue volunteers and personnel worked for hours to find Dibley and bring him out on a backboard. He was taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center, but died two days later at age 30.
Zelonis said that he and other friends decided last fall to hold an event in Dibley’s honor. They hit on the idea of a backyard hockey tournament, in honor of one of Dibley’s favorite pastimes.
Zelonis described Dibley as “an exceptional skater,” who loved backyard hockey and played on a Middlebury men’s team a couple of times a week.
Dibley’s approach to hockey, said Zelonis, exemplified his approach to life.
“He was probably better than any of us, but he was just as happy skating with my six-year-old and goofing around on the ice as he was in full gear,” he said. “He’d come over and have dinner and skate with the kids. It didn’t matter how good you were or how talented. He just wanted to play. He just wanted to be on the ice. He was like that with everything he did. He was really exceptional.”
Zelonis and others organized a two-day backyard tournament held in February. The traveling trophy for the winner was designed from Dibley’s skates.
Close to 50 skaters participated and nearly 100 friends and family attended, including Dibley’s brother David, who came from out of state to attend the event and now lives in Bristol. Organizers collected donations, some of which went to cover expenses, with the rest intended for a gift in Dibley’s name — tournament winners’ choice.
Zelonis said that an April social media posting from the recreation department requesting donations for the scholarship fund caught the group’s attention.
“It looked perfect,” said Zelonis.
The scholarship fund, explained Senecal, is supported entirely through donations and fundraisers — not taxpayer dollars. She said the department works hard to keep programs affordable, while also running a quality program and attracting talented instructors.
“To get good instructors, you’ve got to pay them a wage that’s going to make it worth their while to come out and spend their day or their week sharing their passion,” said Senecal, adding the department has a fiscal responsibility to bring in revenue from its offerings.
Nevertheless, she said, the recreation department wants to serve every kid it can.
“We know the financial piece is a barrier for some families,” she said. “And we want to do what we can to help with that. We know there are families out there that are stretched. And just because your kid wants to go to camp we don’t want to put a family in a position where they have to say, ‘Nope. You can’t have fun this summer.’ We never turn anybody away but just do our best to find that funding.”
The department sometimes works with businesses to help sponsor programs and also organizes fundraisers, such as its annual Breakfast with Santa, dances, or the town-wide yard sale coming up in June.
Senecal also noted that over the years the department has learned that it’s most effective if a family pays at least part of a workshop or camp fee and thus has “some skin in the game.”
“If they pay a little bit there’s a little bit more meaning in it,” Senecal said.
Bristol Rec’s “River Camp” sounds like an offering that would have pleased Dibley.
“It’s just kids outside being kids. It’s not overly structured,” said Senecal. “We have a fishing program, and they build dams in the stream. It’s one of those opportunities for kids just to be kids, away from screens, away from their television. They can come out to the park and really explore a natural area right in their backyard. It’s one of our longest-running programs.”
Senecal noted that Dibley’s brother David brought the $750 check to the rec department in person.
“We are so touched by this donation,” said Senecal. “The day that we received that check, I was able to give out $300 in scholarships. That donation allowed me to do that. That was great.”
Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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