The following article originally appeared in Strictly Business

Speaking from the CFES Brilliant Pathways center in Essex, NY, Rick Dalton, founder, CEO, and president of this innovative non-profit organization, described his vision. “Where a child starts shouldn’t dictate where they finish. There are an increasing number of children living in low-income households, especially in rural communities [According to recent U.S. Census data, of the nation’s 250 most impoverished counties, 244 are rural.] and they are being left behind. Rural children have increased needs and risks, and, due to fewer role models, lower aspirations. We know the impact of the people you are surrounded by. We see this happen. We believe in the destiny of rural communities and want to be part of the solution.”


Founded in 1991, CFES Brilliant Pathways has helped more than 100,000 underserved youth in 700 urban and rural schools through- out the United States get to and through college and career training programs. Participating schools target individual students who are low-income and generally the first in their family to pursue higher education, college, career programs, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) training. These students, who become CFES Scholars, engage in core practices that extensive educational research has shown are effective in helping them take steps toward success.

These core practices are Pathways to College and Careers, Mentoring and Leadership through Service. Dalton and his team believe CFES Scholars don’t lack ability, they lack opportunity. They need mentors to guide them and they need to build the essential skills such as perseverance and teamwork—skills that aren’t found in textbooks or measured by standardized tests. Most importantly, students need to shape a clear vision of what they can do with their lives and learn how they can get there.

Brilliant Pathways

CFES Brilliant Pathways partners with hundreds of colleges, school districts and corporations to provide students with access to college and career possibilities and offers educators in participating school districts professional development and support. This multi-faceted approach guides students and their families on the path to college and meaningful careers. Over the course of nearly three decades, engage- ment with CFES Brilliant Pathways activities has been shown to lead to higher educational aspirations and helps students overcome social and financial barriers.

Although it shares some initiatives with Upward Bound, the federally funded educational program that works with low-income, rural students, CFES Brilliant Pathways begins working with students when they are much younger (elementary and middle school), works with more students per school, includes a career exploration piece, and works with students to develop necessary skills.

Brilliant Pathways believes that motivated, successful individuals rely on more than academic knowledge to succeed. They rely on a host of attributes called Essential SkillsTM.

Goal setting: Identifying what you want and how you can achieve it.
Teamwork: Collaborating with others to reach a common goal.
Leadership: Taking charge of your future and helping your peers do the same.
Agility: Adapting and responding to changing circumstances.
Perseverance: The determination to overcome challenges to achieve your goals.
Networking: The art of turning an acquaintance into a supporter.

Because they cannot be measured by traditional testing, CFES Brilliant Pathways believes schools need resources and strategies to teach these skills to students who may not be living in circumstances where they can internalize them.


As a child in the 1950s, Rick Dalton witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Diane, then the costliest storm in the nation’s history, which killed and injured hundreds of people on the East Coast. In his hometown of Westfield, Massachusetts, a large population of low-in- come residents, many from Puerto Rico, were flooded out of their homes. At the time, his aunt, whom he described as “a woman who gave her life to help low-income kids,” brought him to see the devastation. Dalton internalized that transformative experience, and it fueled his later passion to help underserved children. Another significant childhood experience for Dalton was vacations at a family camp on Willsboro Point. Over the years, he developed a lifelong love of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. As an adult, he spent many years in Middlebury, Vermont but enjoyed a vacation home in Essex, New York.

Dalton earned his BA in English from Colgate University, spent seven years as a high school administrator and coach, and then earned a MA from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. After graduation he stayed on to work in admissions and during his last three years, he tripled the number of students of color enrolled at the school.

During a sabbatical, Dalton earned an MA in Education from Harvard Graduate School and later a Ph.D in Administration, Planning and Social Policy. “My vision for CFES Brilliant Pathways began to formulate in 1988-89 when I co-authored a study exploring the reasons why low-income students didn’t pursue higher education,” he explained. “I realized then that if I really wanted to help underserved young people, I had to leave my job at Middlebury College.”


Karen Judge Dalton, the Executive Vice President of Brilliant Pathways met her husband 25 years ago at a conference in Washington DC. “I was intrigued, and I wanted to learn how Rick went from working with children of great privilege to working with less fortunate children. As an educational administrator for many years, it didn’t take me long to understand his vision.”

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but raised in Palo Alto, California, Karen earned a BS in Sociology from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She then spent the next 18 years in Litchfield, Connecticut as a teacher and administrator at the Forman School which offers a college preparatory program for grades 9 to 12 primarily for students with learning differences such as ADD/ ADHD and dyslexia.

The Daltons, who have been married for fifteen years, have a blended family that includes six children and eight grandchildren. “Everything is intertwined. We enjoy being together. We have a common vision for our personal life and our professional life,” Karen explained. “Rick’s a global thinker. He gives people the leverage to execute. I’m into the details.”


The original CFES Brilliant Pathways offices opened in Middlebury in the early 1990s and remained there until 2012 when the operation moved across Lake Champlain to Essex, New York. “Moving here was a conscious commitment for us to help the children of the North Country,” Rick said. “We were willing to face the challenges.” To accommodate Pathways and its 10 employees, the Daltons renovated the building that currently houses the Essex post office to include offices as well as a meeting space.

Rick, who describes himself as “nomadic” travels to colleges and businesses around the country giving presentations and developing partnerships. He and Karen arrange their schedule to travel together while Tara Smith, Vice-President of Programs since 2002, oversees the day-to-day operations in Essex. Holding a BA in Sociology from the University of New Hampshire and an MA in Education from the Union Institute, Smith’s college thesis was “Effective Goal Setting for Middle Schoolers. “I’m passionate about this work,” she emphasized. I believe in our model, our framework and our approach. We have high expectations, but we are very collaborative and encourage in a healthy way. I like that I am able to work with a cluster of schools. Every day is different.”


This year CFES Brilliant Pathways is working with 25,000 students in 150 urban and rural schools in 30 states, and also has a presence in Ireland. (They began working with schools there in 2013). To address the needs of a changing workplace Brilliant Pathways is working in collaboration with GE to increase its initiatives in STEM training and is working to build partnerships with health care facilities, especially the University of Vermont Medical Center. Their goal for the next three years is ambitious. The Daltons would like to double the number of students served and double the amount of money raised. “It’s our responsibility,” said Rick. “You have to be committed.” Karen added, “We don’t miss any opportunity that is presented.”