BRATTLEBORO — Frances Hicks, who started a nursery school in Brattleboro, died all too young in 1955 at the age of 45.
Despite her early death, her legacy lives on in the Frances Hicks Memorial Fund, which provides financial assistance to intellectually disadvantaged people who live in Windham County in Vermont and Cheshire County in New Hampshire.
The preschool program she started was one of the first to include handicapped children, especially those with developmental delays. Upon her death, an organization was formed to further her efforts. In 1956 the members founded the Frances Hicks Memorial School, which started on Chase Street and then moved in 1959 to a new building across the street from Living Memorial Park. The enrollment that year was 45 children in three classes.
“When my mom set up the Brattleboro Nursery School, these kids had no place to go,” said Munson Hicks, of Vernon.
But with the enactment of the Federal Education of the Handicapped Act in 1975, many children with disabilities were mainstreamed into the public schools and by the early 1980s all of the children of the Frances Hicks School were attending local public schools.
The school, no longer needed, was sold to the Christian Heritage School and the proceeds were used to establish the memorial fund.
The building has since housed the Winston Prouty Center and now, the Brattleboro Music Center.
Hicks, who wasn’t even a teenager when his mother died, wasn’t involved in the fund in its earliest years. It wasn’t until about 25 years ago when he was approached by Caroline “Cal” Heile, the current president of the fund’s board, that he became a member.
“I’ve always been incredibly proud of what my mother was able to accomplish in her life,” said Hicks. “In the 40s and 50s, this was unheard of. It was really a unique thing that she took upon herself to bring this population in to get an education. It was groundbreaking.”
Many of the people the fund supports get financial help from other organizations or government agencies, he said, so the Frances Hicks Memorial Fund helps recipients fill in the gaps for things like summer camp fees, field trips, supportive technology and equipment, respite care for families caring for disadvantaged loved ones, and participation in programs such as the Theatre Adventure Program at the New England Youth Theatre and the River Gallery School of Art.
“We give money away by request,” said Hicks. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as a pair of sneakers or shoes.”
The main connection between the fund and recipients is schools and social service caseworkers, said Heile, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, requests have dropped off.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t even know we exist,” she said.
“And we have tens of thousands of dollars to give away,” said Hicks.
Prospective recipients can apply online at any time. The board meets four times a year to review the applications.
“We can give to any age,” said Heile. “It isn’t restricted to children.”
The decisions are not income based either, said Hicks.
The fund supports 15 to 18 people on average each year, she said.
The board is not only seeking applicants, it’s also seeking new, younger members on the board, said Heile.
“The need is always there,” she said.
To learn more about the fund, or to apply, visit www.franceshicksfund.org.