ST. ALBANS — Walking into Anna Neville’s house, the Old Mill River Place on Georgia Shore Road, it’s easy to feel at home.
Upon stepping into the bright, open kitchen, one is immediately greeted by homemade cookies, a hot cup of tea, and a happy, jumpy and licking little white dog, named Zoot. Neville, 89, smiles with bright eyes and chats with a gleeful giggle, sitting in her wheeling chair.
Neville doesn’t stay still for long. She scoots all around the room, using her feet to nimbly move her chair, equipped with small wheels, forward and backward to the stove, to the large, sunny, yellow painted table, and to the other rooms throughout the home she has lived in since 1921, when she was two.
Neville continues to keep up her home and live alone, and she also does some gardening and visits with her only biological child, 51-year-old Jennifer Bright, and three grandchildren: Ian, Caroline, William.
She also stays in touch with the hundreds of children she has worked with as a Vermont Department for Children and Families social worker and as the district director for Franklin and Grand Isle counties in the 1970s and ’80s. Someone met Neville recently and said to her, “You must be the grandmother of the county.”
Many jobs, people
With a resume to match the long winding road she lives on, Neville has a history of keeping busy.
A Middlebury graduate, Neville went to Columbia Teacher’s College before working with Girl Scouts of America in Detroit for several years, and she also had a short stint in the Navy. She came back to Franklin County, where she started working for DCF as a social worker in the 1950s. By the early 1970s, Neville was the district director for DCF, where she stayed until the mid 1980s.
Neville has also served as a St. Albans Historical Society and Museum director, and as recently as six years ago, she was placing foreign exchange students in the county with EF Education First.
Though she has had many roles in Franklin County, what stands out most is Neville’s commitment to working with children, as indicated by the Franklin County Criminal Court House children’s room, named for Neville.
Neville has interacted with hundred of children over the years, and what’s more, she remembers each and every one. “I’m pretty good with names,” she said in an interview this week. “They were individuals and they stood out one way or another.”
Neville’s daughter, Bright, explained in a joint interview with her mother how, at a pancake breakfast in Franklin this spring, a man in his sixties came up to Neville and said, “You’re Mrs. Neville!”
Neville asked for his first name, and then remembered exactly who the man was – he had been through DCF as a foster child, and he was trying to get in touch with his sister. After the breakfast, Neville made a few calls to try and make the connection.
“Her kids are all over the county,” Bright said. “It’s a small place, but the depth of knowledge of the area is one of the secrets to her success.”
Though Neville dedicated a lot of time and energy to the children she interacted with through DCF, she also made time to be a mother at home. Bright said Neville rarely brought work home – though no one could stop the phone ringing most hours of the night or Neville running into clients in the grocery store – and that, even though it was difficult at times, Bright admires her mother for what she did.
“‘I’m only going to be a minute’ is the favorite phrase of my life,” Bright said. “People always said, ‘You’re so lucky’.” She added, “I think overall, I have been.”
Neville makes the point that she wasn’t a mother to kids going through DCF. “I was almost like an aunt because they had their own parents and their foster parents,” she said. Rather, Neville oversaw what happened to each child, and if needed, made changes needed to children in the right direction.
“My mother was the constant in a life of chaos,” Bright said.
Neville added that she had a great people to work with at DCF, which contributed to finding good situations for kids. “I had a good staff,” she said. “That was the difference.”
Bright spoke of her mother’s rather unconventional approach to working at DCF – namely, she put the child first and tried to find what was best for each individual. Sometimes, these choices were made against what the state would wish Neville to do.
“I think she was ahead of her time in the sense that she was interested more in the child,” Bright said. “She honored the voice of the child before a lot of people [did].”
Bright added, “A lot of that has to do with not letting the expectation be, ‘You’re a welfare kid.’”
Neville expected a lot of the children she worked with. One of them is Bryant Reynolds, now 73, and Neville’s next-door neighbor at her second home in Franklin. Reynolds met Neville at age 11 when she moved him out of a bad placement to a better foster home. In high school, Reynolds found Neville on the doorstep of his new foster home one day with an application for the University of Vermont.
“She said to me, ‘You can get a job, or you can go to college,’” Reynolds said by phone Friday. He chose school, and went on to receive his degree and join the Navy. Reynolds later earned several graduate degrees, and he finished his career by teaching theater in the arts department at the University of Guam.
Reynolds added that Neville only missed one or two of his education and Navy graduations throughout the years.
“You can push some a little here and there,” Neville said of working with people like Reynolds to achieve. “You don’t try to take over.”
Neville stayed in touch with many of her clients after they were out of the system. When they were old enough, Neville would also share background and family history with her previous clients – something the state wasn’t always thrilled about.
“I think it’s part of their heritage, actually, growing up and being an individual on their own” Neville said.
Because of Neville’s unconventional approach to working with children and her dedication to putting the child, and not necessarily what the state asked, first, she was asked to leave DCF in 1987. It was not, however, for a lack of effectiveness.
For her goodbye celebration, people Neville had worked with as children showed up from all over the country. By the end of her tenure at DCF, Neville was also very close with various service providers in town, all of them having collaborated over the years.
Neville continues to be connected to many of her clients. One of them is Reynolds, who became friends with Neville and is actually spending this Mother’s Day with her, Bright and her son, Ian.
“She’s really made me part of the family,” Reynolds said. “It’s been a very rewarding relationship.”
He added, “It has always been inspiring for me that’s she’s always there.”