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Vermont visits change the life of a kid from Brooklyn

ADDISON COUNTY — When Israel Dudley made his inaugural trip to Vermont, the first thing that jumped out at him was the silence.
“It was scary,” he said. “I was used to sirens and cars and constant noise, and it’s just so quiet in Vermont.”
Until Dudley was 11, the native of the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., had never ventured outside of New York City. That summer, the nonprofit Fresh Air Fund gave him the chance to spend two weeks with the family of Matthew and Deborah Dickerson in Bristol, Vt.
“I was still too young to know what any of it meant until my mom brought me to the Port Authority” bus terminal, Dudley recalled. “She left me with a bunch of other kids who were crying and were upset that their parents left. Then I was sent on a bus and shipped over to Vermont.”
The journey that began that June morning 15 years ago would change Dudley’s life forever.
“The tagline of the Fresh Air Fund right now is ‘Because a summer can last a lifetime,’” Dudley said. “When I look at my relationships with the Dickersons, the relationships that I have formed over the years with the parents and the brothers, that’s exactly what that message captures: relationships that have lasted a lifetime, and I’m so grateful for that.”
DURING HIS TIME spent in Vermont through the Fresh Air Fund, Israel Dudley, far right, came to view his host family, the Dickersons of Middlebury, as a second family. Dudley is pictured here with Thomas, left, Mark, Deborah and Peter Dickerson.
Courtesy photo
The Fresh Air Fund, established in 1877, gives low-income children living in New York City the chance to spend part of their summer months in rural locations around the Northeast, hoping to provide them some respite from daily life in the city. The fund typically pairs children with families like the Dickersons for one to two weeks, and also runs five different camps around Fishkill, N.Y.
Dudley said that, at the age of 11, leaving the Brooklyn neighborhood that he refers to as a “jungle” was eye-opening.
“There’s just a lot going on (in Brooklyn),” he said. “When I was growing up the things that I saw were drug deals, alcohol, violence, things like that … Things were different in Vermont.”
For the Dickersons, who lived in a secluded house surrounded by woods and farm fields in Bristol when Israel first visited but have since moved to the village of Middlebury, Addison County was the perfect place to introduce the 11-year-old boy who had never before seen cornfields to some of the joys of life in a more rural setting.
“We had a great space,” said Deborah Dickerson, who volunteers for the Vermont judiciary and teaches Sunday school at her church in Middlebury. “We lived in the middle of the woods and there were trails and ponds and plenty to do outside. We figured it would be a pretty different experience (for Dudley).”
Dudley stayed with the Dickersons through the Fresh Air Fund for four summers, though he has since returned to Vermont many times on his own. His Fresh Air Fund summers brought many firsts: learning how to swim, petting a farm animal, fishing with Matthew Dickerson (a computer science professor at Middlebury College). Dudley came to enjoy biking with Deborah, going to the Addison County Fair and Field Days and playing football and basketball outside with the Dickersons’ three sons, Thomas, Mark and Peter. Mixed into these activities were trips to Burlington to watch Lake Monsters baseball games and drives to a family vacation spot in Maine.
“Very simple outdoor activities, but it was just nice to feel like I could be a kid,” he said. “I could do those things and not worry about some of the challenges that New York presented.”
With each trip to Vermont, Dudley became closer to Deborah and Matthew and the three brothers. Now, he is all but a fourth son to the family of five. Mark and Israel shared a room for much of the time that the New Yorker spent with the family through the Fresh Air Fund, and the two became close through a shared love of sports. At Mark Dickerson’s wedding in February, Israel Dudley was his best man (pictured, right).
“I have a family of three sisters (in Brooklyn), basically a family of women,” Dudley said. “And so having three brothers all of a sudden was interesting at first, and it was pretty cool … they’re all different in a way, but each of us has different branches that connect to each other.”
Three years ago, the Dickersons encouraged Dudley to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Castleton University. Peter, the Dickersons’ youngest son, was a senior at Mount Abraham Union High school thinking about college at the time, and he and Dudley took on the college admissions process together. A Psychology major, Dudley will begin his senior year in the fall.
In his words, getting to know the Dickersons has made him “mentally a different person.”
“I can talk to (Deborah) about things that I couldn’t talk about with people in New York City that I grew up with,” he said. “Our conversations are about things like marriage, the work that it takes to be a good husband and things like that. There’s not really anybody in (Brooklyn) that I can have that conversation with.”
WHAT DUDLEY BROUGHT
The Dickersons went on to host several other Fresh Air Fund kids after Dudley stopped visiting through the program. They are perhaps as grateful for what he has brought to their family as he is to them.
“I think we maybe benefitted more than he did from getting to know him, learning from his experiences and seeing his generosity and his good character, his ability to enjoy life, to not be dependent on a lot of possessions to be able to enjoy things,” Matthew Dickerson said.
Now 26, Dudley is in Manhattan this summer working as a communications intern for the Fresh Air Fund. Although he is unsure of the steps he might take after he graduates from Castleton, working his current job has raised the possibility of someday working full-time for the organization that first introduced him to the family that has made Addison County something of a second home.
“Being a part of this organization is personally empowering for me,” he said. “Because I feel like I’m helping and giving back to kids who are in my same position, providing those opportunities for these kids to create a difference in their lives as well. That’s pretty awesome.”

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