Category Archives: Children

Winslow Park Is Not Going To The Dogs

Right now, it seems, every elementary school child in Westport is sledding or tubing on the snowy hills in the middle of downtown.

Winslow Park 2

So much for the myth that kids today never put down their electronic devices.

Winslow Park 1

Of course, 30 years from now, those now-grown parents will say to their own children, “Put down your intelliport! When I was your age, I played all day in this amazing blizzard….”

Winslow Park 4

Winslow Park 5

Winslow Park 3

Laura Loffredo Offers Adoption Hope

Laura Loffredo is a child of Westport. Her father was the hard-working, generous owner-operator of Belta’s Farm on Bayberry Lane. Her mother helped out there too.

From childhood on Laura wanted to have kids, and be a mom like her own mother.

Laura first babysat at 14. She continued until graduating from Staples in 1995, then earned a BA in psychology at the University of Connecticut and a master’s in community counseling from the University of Bridgeport.

Laura Loffredo

Laura Loffredo

She worked as a mental health counselor and case manager, then went back to school for a 6th-year degree in education. She’s been a teacher for the past 7 years, while also working for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

To this day, Laura remembers crying at TV commercials showing starving children in Africa. At 14, her parents helped her sponsor a little boy overseas. She still recalls his name: Saul Hormiga Donu.

When she got married, Laura and her husband John expected to have children right away. Instead they endured a 6-year struggle that included thousands of dollars spent on 8 failed fertility treatments, and a miscarriage.

“I prayed every night for a baby. The longing inside my heart was unbearable,” Laura says.

“I didn’t understand why God was denying me the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world. I was angry, bitter and heartbroken. I couldn’t breathe.” She calls this “the darkest time of my life.”

When Laura and John finally made the decision to adopt, it was “like a light in the darkness.” For the first time, Laura felt hope.

Laura and  John Loffredo, with their daughter.

Laura and John Loffredo, with their daughter.

The first time she held her minutes-old daughter in her arms, Laura was overcome with emotion. All the pain washed away.

“At that moment, I understood the reason for everything,” she says. “This little girl was always meant to be ours. It just took her a while to come to us.”

But she agonized over all the people who did not have $40,000 to adopt a baby. The thought of not being a mother was overwhelmingly painful.

So Laura adopted a new cause: adoption advocate. She began forming ideas for what is now the Adoption Hope Foundation. Its mission is to provide grants to people who hope to build families through adoption.

The Adoption Hope Foundation is seeking non-profit status. It’s inaugurated a GoFundMe campaign, to cover start-up expenses and initial grants. The goal is to award the 1st funds by the end of the year.

“Adoption is a beautiful gift,” Laura says. “It is a life-altering experience that has allowed me to feel the deepest kind of love imaginable.”

That love extends from her daughter, out to the birth parents who selflessly placed her with Laura and John.

Now, Laura is paying it forward. She’s spreading that love — and the funds needed for it — as far as she can.

(For more information, or to support Laura’s work, click on the Adoption Hope Foundation’s GoFundMe site. To contact Laura directly, email loffredo.laura@gmail.com, or call 203-354-4971.)

Laura and John's daughter. Her outfit says "And baby makes 3."

Laura’s daughter. Her outfit says “baby makes 3.”

Food For Thought: Who Sits Where In The School Cafeteria

Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. Sunday was the most segregated hour of the American week. He was referring to the segregation of white and black churches, of course.

But 11 a.m. weekdays may be the most segregated hour in American schools. That’s lunchtime — and day after day, week after week, the same friends sit at the same tables.

In Westport, the separation is not racial or religious. But it is segregation by friend groups.

In nearly every cafeteria, the same groups sit together every day.

In nearly every cafeteria, the same groups sit together every day.

That self-segregation is the basis for this year’s TEAM Westport “Diversity Essay Contest.”

Open to all high school students attending any Westport high school, and Westporters who attend high school elsewhere — and carrying prizes of $1,000, $750 and $500 — the contest asks entrants to describe barriers that prevent students from reaching out to others different from themselves. They should then “identify specific steps you and other students in your high school” can take to help students break down those barriers — “especially in the cafeteria.” Entrants are also asked to discuss the “risks and benefits” of making that effort.

TEAM-Westport-logo2The contest follows last year’s very successful inaugural event. Students were asked to reflect on demographic changes in the US — describing the benefits and challenges of the changes for Westport generally, and him or her personally.

Applications for the contest are available here. The deadline is February 27. “06880” will highlight the winners.

(TEAM Westport is the town’s official committee on multiculturalism. The Westport Library co-sponsors the contest.)

Waterbury: Where Westport Minnybuses Go To Die

Or, at least one of them does.

Jennifer Sabella is a 1982 Staples graduate. She lives in Litchfield now. For years she’s passed by a junkyard near the Route 8 Colonial Avenue exit in Waterbury.

Deep in the woods — almost hidden by brush — she spotted an old Westport Minnybus.

Jennifer DeJesus Sabella's 1975 and '76 Minnybus passes.

Jennifer DeJesus Sabella’s 1975 and ’76 Minnybus passes.

Back in the day, they were Westport’s cutting-edge (yet diesel-belching) transportation technology. Driving fixed routes, they ferried people — mostly kids — around town. At least one parent was known to park kids on a Minnybus for a round-trip or two, using it as a vehicular babysitter.

At least 10,000 youngsters used it as a place to escape home, smoke cigarettes, make out.

Jennifer always wanted to take a photo. But that stretch of highway is busy. The junkyard entrance is hard to find. And there’s (of course) a barking dog.

The other day though, there was very little traffic. She pulled over.

And she recorded this little bit of Westport history, now rusting quietly away in the Valley.

Minnybus in Waterbury

Supervising Kids’ Cyber Lives: What Can Parents Do?

Like whack-a-moles, social media concerns pop up all over the school landscape. Middle school teachers and administrators often deal with cyber-bullying. Last spring, the anonymous app Yik Yak caused an uproar at Staples.

Recently, after a cyber-bullying incident via Instagram, an elementary school principal sent a letter to parents, then followed up with visits to each classroom. A parent at the school then sent this letter to “06880,” hoping to share it with a wide audience. Here it is:

Though Instagram requires children to be at least 13 years old, our children sign up, posting pictures and remarks which could lead to permanent consequences. A 10-year-old most likely does not understand the importance of reputation management. One inappropriate post can cause them a lifetime of unfortunate consequences, not to mention hurting other innocent people.

Instagram is not the only concern. Other social media vehicles (Facebook, Yik Yak, Twitter, Vine, to name a few) pose the same threat when misused.

Instagram is a popular social media platform for teenagers -- and younger children.

Instagram is a popular social media platform for teenagers — and younger children.

As parents we are in a tough spot, balancing granting our children the internet access their peers seem to have through mobile devices and computers with keeping them safe (not only from online predators but tarnishing their own reputations for unthoughtful behavior). Now the schools are asking our help in keeping our children’s cyber-activity responsible.

We can put on parental controls, talk to them about internet safety practices, even have them sign contracts. However, I think we need to take more responsibility to closely monitor their activity and be in the know of where our children really are online.

Giving our kids devices with internet access without supervising is no different than allowing them to throw a party, advising them not to drink and then voluntarily leaving the house. We need to choose to either prevent their access to devices that access the Internet (highly unlikely — most kids in our community have handheld devices by 11 or 12 years old, and at the very least a computer at home), or take responsibility to monitor their online activity across all devices.

cyber controls

Many friends ask me if I feel guilty looking at what my kids are doing online. My response? With the alarming increase in children’s cyber-crimes, I have a responsibility to be a parent and be in the know. While I don’t micromanage every last online action they take, I have the ability to  perform regular spot checks or at least check it any time I feel concerned.

We can’t afford not to monitor our children online as they access the internet, and especially as the internet accesses them. Too many cyber-crime stories involving children and unaware parents have been reported after it’s too late.  The risks are way too big.

What do you think? How do you monitor your children’s online activities? What’s appropriate for what ages? Click “Comments” below to contribute to this important conversation.

First Night 2015; Last Post 2014

First Night got underway late this afternoon. The sun was setting, the air was cold — but the anticipation of Westport’s 21st annual New Year’s Eve community celebration made for a warm feeling all around downtown.

Festivities continue through 10 p.m., when fireworks soar over the river. Come on down!

(Click on this schedule for all events.)

Horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown. For more modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

Horse-drawn carriages clomp downtown. For modern transportation, buses run between Jesup Green and Saugatuck Elementary School through 9 p.m.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

The Westport Astronomical Society hauled out some serious telescopes. The view is better now that the sun has set.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

First Night Westport/Weston runs smoothly, thanks to an army of volunteers.

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The Survivors Swing Band kicked things off at the library. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

First Night Forges Forward

Barbara Pearson-Rac’s life is intertwined with First Night.

She lived in Boston when that city inaugurated the original First Night — an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration at a variety of venues, with performances, entertainment and fun for all ages.

She moved to Westport 21 years ago — the same year our town started its own First Night celebration.

She joined the board 2 years later. Now she’s president.

First Night 2015 logoAnd though other First Nights have come and gone, Westport’s remains vibrant and strong. It’s one of only 3 left in Connecticut — and, judging from their websites, ours blows Danbury’s and Hartford’s out of the water.

Barbara is a strong believer in community service. She chairs Westport’s Make a Difference Day and is involved in breast cancer awareness, among other activities.

First Night — a happy, upbeat event, on a day when everyone looks forward and feels fresh — holds a special place in her heart.

“It’s live entertainment,” she says. “It’s a way of introducing children to talent, and for adults to have plenty of fun too.”

But keeping First Night alive is hard. There’s a perception that it’s only for kids (it’s not). More families now travel over the holidays. Non-residents don’t think they’re invited (they are). And the threat of bad weather always hovers overhead.

Fireworks in winter -- a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

Fireworks in winter — a tradition that moves this year to Jesup Green.

First Night is an all-volunteer effort. Attendance — by button-buying people — is crucial. Costs include performers, sound engineers, insurance, police and fire support, and pyrotechnics. (A barge is being rented this year, because the new Levitt Pavilion is no longer a viable spot for shooting fireworks.)

Westport’s First Night lives on thanks to the ongoing support of sponsors and the town of Westport, along with a very fiscally responsible board. While many First Nights have folded, Westport’s is now 21 years years old. “We’re legal!” Pearson-Roc jokes.

But it’s still alcohol-free.

(New events this year include a fashion show with a “Project Runway” contestant; 2 children’s performers; telescopes on Jesup Green, with Westport Astronomical Society members offering guidance, and popular college comic hypnotist Jim Spinnato. Regular keyboardist Mark Naftalin — hot off his election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is back at the Westport Historical Society. For a full schedule, and information on buying buttons, click on www.firstnightww.com.)

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist -- and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member -- Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.

Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band organist — and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member — Mark Naftalin is a First Night regular.

 

Sammy Got Her Kidney

Less than 3 months ago, “06880” posted a plea from Scott Brownlow. His 20-year-old daughter Sammy — a lifelong Westporter — needed a kidney.

Sammy Brownlow

Sammy Brownlow

Born with congenital abnormalities, she’d endured multiple surgeries. Some worked, but they took a toll on her one remaining kidney. A transplant was the only option.

Scott always assumed he’d be the donor for his gentle, hard-working, multi-talented daughter — currently a pre-med student at RPI. But doctors said he was not a viable option.

Family and friends offered — but no one was cleared to donate. Sammy desperately needed a match.

On Christmas Day, Scott emailed me again. Two weeks earlier, his daughter had gotten her most precious gift: a kidney.

The donor was her kindergarten teacher, Jennifer Giannino.

Sammy and Jenn, in kindergarten.

Sammy and Jenn, in kindergarten.

She has known Sammy ever since that class at the Unquowa School, 17 years ago. Jenn went on to teach in Westport a couple of years later, but Scott, his wife Karen Minkowitz and Sammy kept in touch. They’ve become part of each other’s families.

A year ago, Jenn wondered if she’d be a match. But there was too much going on in her family and life to do the test.

This fall, when Sammy was about to go on dialysis, Jenn got tested. The match was made.

Jenn has been very healthy all her life. Before her pre-test CT scan, she’d never had an IV. Now she volunteered to put her life on hold, spend days in the hospital, and lose an organ — all for a former kindergarten student.

“It’s a rare person who acts so selflessly,” Scott says.

Addressing her directly, he adds: “Jenn, you are an amazing and beautiful person. We can never thank you enough for the gift you have given Sammy. We love you.”

“06880” does too. Happy holidays indeed!

Sammy and Jenn, 2 days after the transplant.

Sammy and Jenn, 2 days after the transplant.

 

Santa Drives A Fire Truck

For a number of Westport families, Santa Claus came early this year.

Spoiler alert: If you are below the age of 10, do not read further!

The Westport Fire Department does many things well. They put out fires, serve as first responders, and bail out our basements.

This year they also traveled from home to home on the weekend before Christmas, bringing holiday cheer from one end of town (Green’s Farms) to the other (Saugatuck Shores).

That holiday cheer included Santa.

Fire DepartmentWorking through the Westport Uniformed Firefighters Charitable Foundation — and organized by Lieutenant Brett Kirby of Engine Company 4 — firemen headed out on their trucks last Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening.

They visited over 95 homes that signed up in advance. Kids — and adults — were thrilled to see firemen escorting Santa Claus to the front door. The WFD encouraged single stops for friends, making the “Santa Run” a neighborhood event.

But Santa never comes empty-handed. He delivered pre-provided (and pre-wrapped) gifts, too.

Santa and his elves — er, the firefighters — asked for a minimum donation of $25 per child (paid, obviously, out of sight). The funds benefit local charities.

Finn, Keith and Liam Stephan, with a special visitor.

Finn, Keith and Liam Stephan, with a special visitor. (Photo/Peggy Ann Kelly)

Peggy Ann Kelly says, “It was one of the sweetest nights of our kids’ little lives!  The surprise of it all — lights, sirens, a very boisterous Santa belting out ‘HO HO HO’ as he strolled up the driveway — it was just really special. And it made me love living in this town even more.”

“The Santa Run was amazing!” adds grateful father Jeff Manchester.

“My kids could hardly sleep that night. The ‘real Santa’ showed up on a fire truck at their door!”

Jeff’s oldest child — 8 years old — was wearing pajama footies with fire trucks. “I’m not sure who was more impressed,” Jeff says. “Logan with  Santa and the fireman, or the fireman with those PJs.”

Ella, Logan and Max Manchester, plus friend.

Ella, Logan and Max Manchester, plus friend.

Our town has lost some Christmas traditions — like the trees that once graced Parker Harder Plaza. This was the 1st year of the Westport Fire Department’s Santa Run.

Hopefully, it will be a memory-maker for years to come.

 

Remembering Walt Melillo

To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.

I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.

Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student, at Burr Farms School.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.

Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.

They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.

Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).

Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”

He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.

A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.

The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.

“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”

The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.

In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.

After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian.  The number of male teachers was extraordinary.

“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.

He kept busy, attending  Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).

But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.

“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”

Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member  they hired.

Walt stayed there —  working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.

“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.