Vermont Church Has ‘Once in a Lifetime' Chance to Give Away $650,000

An anonymous donor asked the church to administer grants that will strengthen Middlebury’s business community

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A Vermont church has found itself with an unusual and enviable responsibility: giving away well over half a million dollars.

A nonprofit formed by the Congregational Church of Middlebury to disburse donated funds wants the money to make the community’s shopping and dining district more vibrant.

“There’s a buzz about it,” said Rev. Andy Nagy-Benson, the pastor at the Middlebury Congregational Church. “It feels like a once in a lifetime moment.”

The church has received two separate chunks of money, totaling $650,000, Nagy-Benson said. He told NECN it was all donated by a woman overseas with close ties to the community and church.

Greenhouse gas emissions in Burlington fell more than 15% in 2020, according to a new study conducted for the city. Officials are pushing to keep the numbers low as Vermont beings it open up after COVID-19 restrictions.

The donor wants to stay anonymous, but Nagy-Benson said she asked the church to focus its efforts for the first donation on boosting area farms and restaurants hit hard by the pandemic.

Table 21, the nonprofit formed by church members, has already given away $300,000 to achieve that goal.

“It’s a good day for Middlebury to have that kind of money infused into this place,” Nagy-Benson said.

Matt Corrente is using some of the $20,000 he received to order an outdoor heating system for deck dining at his Italian restaurant, The Arcadian.

“The more reasons that people have to come to and stay in Middlebury, the better for all of us,” Corrente said, adding he has deep appreciation for the donor’s gift. “She can’t know how much it means to us.”

Pleased at how that first pot of money was spent on 19 grants to boost the area’s food system, the donor then surprised the church with a check for another $350,000, Nagy-Benson said.

Table 21 is now using the latest funds to help other businesses claw back from a tough year.

From this round, Green Mountain Adventures received $10,000. That means Steve Atocha can revamp his business’s e-commerce website.

The retailer and provider of trips like kayak adventures noted his site upgrade had been on the back burner because of a tight budget.

“To be able to do that instantly and get someone working on it was amazing,” Atocha said.

Vermont's governor outlined a path to normalcy from the pandemic that relies on increasing levels of vaccinations and aimed at helping businesses, communities and schools. The news is being closely watched by the state's tourism community.

Another recipient from the second round of grants was the Better Middlebury Partnership.

Last month, NECN reported the partnership was offering $10,000 to a handful of entrepreneurs to encourage them to open up shop downtown, filling empty storefronts.

After receiving a Table 21 grant, as well as other community donations like one from the Rotary Club of Middlebury, the Better Middlebury Partnership said it will now be able to double the seed money it is offering five entrepreneurs.

The current sum is $20,000, with letters of interest in the program now due April 23. Information on the startup funding program, known as Kickstart Middlebury, is available through this website.

“We’re going to get some really great businesses into Middlebury, and I can’t wait to see what happens,” said Karen Duguay of the Better Middlebury Partnership, who predicted the anonymous donor’s support will make a major difference for the new businesses. “We are so unbelievably appreciative.”

The church isn’t sure if still more money could be coming, Rev. Nagy-Benson said. If another check does arrive, Table 21 is promising to use it to keep strengthening small-town bonds.

The church said it is confident a more vibrant downtown will make for an even better place to live, work and visit.

“It’s humbling, really,” Nagy-Benson said. “I know what that money’s going to be doing here and it’s significant.”

Atocha said that, while he doesn’t know the donor or her identity, he has a simple and sincere message for her: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

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