In 1993 , 15-year-old Naomi ran away from her Stamford home.
For a year, she lived with friends. One day — needing her passport and Social Security card to get a job — she “broke into” her home. Her parents had her arrested.
She became a ward of the state. In 1994 — after a stint in the Greenwich youth shelter — Naomi ended up at Project Return.
“It was a huge adjustment,” she says of the former farmhouse nestled between Little League fields and tennis courts on North Compo Road. It serves as a group home for girls who are victims of abuse or neglect.
“I’ve always been independent. I could take care of myself. I had a huge problem trusting adults,” Naomi recalls.
All of a sudden Naomi had to share a room. Do chores. Become part of a family.
All while she was still “angry at the world.”
Fortunately, she’d landed at the right place. Slowly, Naomi began to trust a few staff members.
Renee Gold was “a solid rock,” Naomi says. “As annoying as I thought she was then, she was always honest — in the nicest way possible.” Years later, Renee was invited to Naomi’s wedding. She was there the days Naomi’s daughter and son were born.
Tessa Gilmore-Barnes was “the first person who made me talk about my childhood, and why I ran away,” Naomi says. “She always made me feel safe. When I was anxious, she calmed me down.”
Theresa Roth spent weeks with Naomi, scouring New York to find just the right fabric for her prom dress.
“It’s tough being a teenager,” Naomi notes. “It’s especially tough if you feel you can’t trust anyone.” At Project Return, adults asked how her day was when she stormed through door. If she woke up from a nightmare, they made her tea.
“I hated it,” Naomi says of her 2 years in a group home. “But I realize now they were doing everything in their power to work with us independently. At the same time, they were teaching us how to share a house, and be a family.”
At Project Return, Naomi learned how to cook dinner, then share a meal with others. She did laundry, cleaned up, went to Staples High School.
“I was functioning as a normal person,” she says. “The staff brought you back to the basics. It could be something small, like learning how to complete a school project. But whatever it was, they helped you.”
Project Return is warm and welcoming. There are bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen the girls are free to wander into.
But at 18 — when she had to choose whether to remain under Department of Children and Families supervision — Naomi decided to leave.
She earned her GED. A friend of a lawyer got her an internship at a fashion house. She worked her way up in the textile world. Today — now known as Naomi Kydes — she has a very good job selling fabric to clothing companies.
She is also in her 3rd year as a board member of Project Return.
“It’s so interesting to see the other side of the people who want to make a difference,” says the 1st-ever former resident to sit on the board.
She brings a different perspective than other members — for the most part, therapists and long-time Westport residents.
For example, every Christmas the board buys the same gift for each resident. This year, they considered Ray-Bans.
“Most of these girls come from a place where they have nothing. I thought it would be great if we could give them gift cards. Buying a lot of clothes for themselves at Marshall’s would mean more to them than sunglasses.”
Like many of the girls, Naomi arrived at Project Return with “one little bag of clothing. All of a sudden, you’re in Westport. That’s a very different reality. I hope I’m able to bring that sense to the board.”
Naomi has enormous respect for her fellow members. “They totally understand the importance of treatment and healing. Lots of boards just focus on the business side of things.”
Naomi calls Project Return “a model for what a group home should be. It’s an environment filled with caring and love.”
It is not, she emphasizes, “a place for girls to just live for a while.”
No, Naomi says. Project Return is “a home.”
(Tomorrow — Thursday, March 21 — from 6-8 p.m., Project Return sponsors its annual “Birdhouse Stroll.” Westporters are invited downtown to enjoy 130 birdhouses, specially designed for the organization’s 18th annual Birdhouse Auction. There is a welcoming reception at 6 p.m. at West Elm on Main Street, and a dessert reception at Urban Outfitters.
(Stores will display these works of art for 3 weeks. The Birdhouse Auction fundraiser is set for Saturday, April 6, 7-11 p.m. at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton, with food and music. Click here for information on the Birdhouse Stroll and Auction, or call 203-291-6402. Click here for a video on Project Return.)