MILTON — A leader who has for so long taken care of Milton’s families, will step down next week to spend more time with her own.
After 19 years at Milton Family Community Center, Executive Director Vikki Patterson is leaving to care for her young granddaughter.
Patterson became the Executive Director in 2002 and has devoted her entire professional career to helping children and families in Vermont.
“It's hard sometimes, being a parent,” she said. “It doesn't matter what your socio-economic status is. When you have that first child, the common thing that you have with other parents is, ‘Oh my goodness, what do I do?’”
Patterson and MFCC have been helping families answer that question for decades, through child care programs like Milton After School Kids (MASK), parent support groups and personalized home visits.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic was an enormous obstacle for many those programs, Patterson and her team problem-solved and continued to be the support Milton could lean on.
Her journey to MFCC
Patterson’s professors and classes at the University of Vermont were what first sparked her interest in parent child centers. Originally a business student, she switched majors to study early childhood and human development.
“I loved it starting in my early 20s and I still embrace it now — if you want to support children, you have to support the whole family, and that's been my passion all these years,” she said.
After graduation, Patterson was an intern at the Addison County Parent Child Center in Middlebury. Later, she returned home to work as a parent educator and group facilitator at the Rutland County Parent Child Center. She worked there for 10 years.
In 2002, Patterson moved with her two young children to Milton.
“My family is a biracial family, and one of the things that we were seeking was to move to a county that had more diversity than what we had in our own small town,” she said.
Patterson was struck by Milton’s hospitality, and when the directorship opened at MFCC, she knew immediately she wanted to be involved.
“It was a leap to go to a position of administration, running all these programs and supervising all these programs,” she said. “I was nervous. I was worried about whether or not I could do a good job and if I would be a good leader.”
Her first year at MFCC was challenging, not only because she was new to town and to leadership, but because the center was struggling. In 2002, not only did longtime Board President Wanda Viau pass away, but there was a recession in the state budget, cutting MFCC’s funding in half.
One of a network of 15 parent child centers in the state, and a non-profit, MFCC receives its funding from the state and federal government, as well as private foundations.
“Yes, there were probably moments when I might have wanted to run for the hills, but I know that what we do here is important,” she said. “I kind of have a bit of tenacity when it comes to things that are really important to me.”
Moments she will remember
Not too long ago, Patterson heard from a woman who had come to the center for help many years ago.
“She was doing a thesis paper and wanted to interview me,” Patterson said. “It was just so nice to reconnect with someone who I knew as a young mom, who was really struggling.”
Now, the woman is finishing up her college degree. Her children, who were very little when she came to MFCC, are now in high school. On the phone with Patterson, she choked up, thinking about how much she’s grown and changed.
“You don't necessarily know the path that the families that you're working with when they're young are going to take,” Patterson said. “So when you hear from them many years later, about how much this place did make a difference, it's just so much more reaffirming.”
While child care, playgroups and parent education are staples of MFCC’s offerings, Patterson has seen other programs come and go, grow and evolve, over the last 19 years.
For example, MFCC used to have a thriving teen center, which hosted pizza and movie nights on the center’s second floor. When funding for teen centers diminished, the program transformed into the Milton Community Youth Coalition.
“I’m very proud that's where the youth coalition’s roots are. They started under our umbrella,” Patterson said.
She is also proud of all the people at MFCC who have worked with her over the years. She said the incredible staff is what is making it so difficult to say goodbye now.
When hiring new educators and facilitators, Patterson looked for people with the right experience, knowledge and demeanor for the job.
“One of the things that this center takes great pride in is that we are a warm and welcoming place for everyone,” she said. “It's not just the things in our space that bring comfort, but the people.”
Nothing but gratitude
Patterson is firm in her belief that much of her success at MFCC is due to her staff and the Milton community.
“They’ve never failed me,” she said.
During the pandemic, Patterson was often worried MFCC would not be able to keep its emergency food shelf open.
The food shelf relies on donations from the community and local food banks, but when the demand for assistance is high, as it was during the pandemic, the shelves can be close to empty.
“We put out one post on Facebook that says, ‘hey, our shelves are empty,’ and people show up at our door with tons of food,” Patterson said. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
She knew Milton was special the moment she moved here, nearly two decades ago, and has continued to be proved right.
“This is a community that I think sets an example for other towns in Vermont, about what it looks like to come together and really help others in need,” she said.