Person of the Week
Gale Dilger: A Very Special Award
Gale Dilger (left), pictured with her late daughter Alexandra, has with her husband Patrick formed the Alexandra Dilger Award to assist young adults with neuro-disabilities in overcoming challenges. (Photo by Patrick Dilger )
Gale Dilger has had one of life’s most demanding challenges: turning the memory of her daughter Alexandra, who died in 2018 at the age of 21, into an ongoing force for creative accomplishment.
What Gale and her husband Patrick, who live in Deep River, have done is set up an award in Alexandra’s memory, an award designed for people between the ages of 18 and 30 who struggle against the kinds of emotional and psychological challenges that Alexandra faced. Alexandra had suffered from depression and anxiety since her early teens.
The award is being given in conjunction with A Little Compassion (ALC), the non-profit that operates The Nest Coffee Shop in Deep River. The shop was designed to give work experience and a chance for meaningful social interaction to a population of young adults, many on the autism spectrum, whose emotional and psychological needs often make it more difficult to find both employment and friendship.
Gale was part of a focus group that worked to create the Nest and Alexandra was part of a committee to organize social gatherings.
Applications for the Alexandra Dilger Award are available on the ALC website (alittlecompassion.org). People can self-nominate or be nominated by others. The ALC website is also the place community members can make contributions to the financial stipends that will be awarded. Last year, the first of the award, the Dilgers financed the program by themselves.
The amount of the stipends depends on the amount of money raised for the award. The Dilgers wanted the awards to be cash grants rather than scholarships so the winners could apply them to the particular obstacles they faced in whatever way would be most productive.
Last year, three young people received grants, two using the money for special-use computers and the third for driving lessons customized for her situation.
Gale recalls Alexandra as a young woman of eclectic tastes, who loved indie films and such classic but complex authors as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and James Joyce.
At the time of her death, Alexandra had been planning, through Landmark College in Vermont where she was a student, to be part of a summer program in the African nation of Botswana.
“She was so interested in the environment and in animals,” Gale recalls.
The Dilgers don’t want to talk about Alexandra’s death in great detail, sharing only that authorities concluded that it was neither self-inflicted nor due to foul play.
Gale and Patrick, who have lived in Deep River for 28 years, have long been active in community affairs. Gale was a member of the Deep River Board of Education from 2003 to 2010, serving as both vice chair and then chair of the group. With Patrick, she was involved in starting and running Top Soccer, a soccer program for young athletes with physical and emotional disabilities.
Among the organizations for which Gale has volunteered are Tri-Town Youth Services, where she was a member of the board of directors, and The Nest, where she is also a board member. Recently she and Patrick were involved with helping resettle a refugee family from Africa in Killingworth.
“Living in a small town, you feel like you can really make a difference by being active and involved, and you meet many wonderful people along the way,” Gale says.
For the last seven years, Gale has been a paraeducator at Essex Elementary School, working with children with special needs. Earlier in her career she had worked in human resources management with companies including Northeast Utilities and Yankee Gas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston College and a master’s degree in organizational behavior from the University of Hartford.
Gale grew up in New Britain and graduated from Boston University with a degree in psychology. She later got a master’s degree in organizational behavior from the University of Hartford.
Her marriage to Patrick was not local-girl-meets-local-boy. Patrick had come to the United States from his native New Zealand for a graduate degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina. They met at a party—an all-weekend party, Gale recalls—in Fairfield; he was the roommate of her roommate’s brother.
“I thought he needed improving and I could improve him,” she says.
Patrick reports Gale is a great baker. He describes himself as an avid consumer, but he is not alone. He says that Gale is known as “the Desert Queen” at her book club. Gale identifies French Chocolate Cake and Bailey’s Irish Cream Cheesecake as among her best offerings.
Gale and Patrick are eager not only for the Alexandra Dilger Award to assist young adults with neuro-disabilities in overcoming challenges, they are also eager for the public to know more about such conditions.
“We need more conversation about mental illness. There is less stigma now; there are strides being made,” Gale says.
Alexandra’s situation, she adds, was a learning experience for the family.
“We learned how much we didn’t know; we evolved,” she says. “We realized how brave she was.”
The Dilgers hope the award in her memory will help other young adults.
“It’s about facing challenges. We want to help people achieve their goals,” Gale says.
For nomination forms for the Alexandra Dilger Award or to make a contribution to help finance the grants, visit alittlecompassion.org.