Category Archives: People

Best Buddies Spread The Word — In The Very Best Way

Wednesday is a special day for special education students — and their many friends.

It’s “Spread the Word to End the Word” Day. The “word” is “retard” (or “retarded”). The aim is to draw attention to the casual use of that offensive, derogatory term — and end it.

Every year, the Staples chapter of Best Buddies makes a PSA for the day. This year, the group did something — well, special.

Wyatt Davis and Taylor Harrington.

Wyatt Davis and Taylor Harrington.

Best Buddies fosters 1-on-1 friendships between intellectually and developmentally disabled students, and their classmates. Taylor Harrington — a 4-year member — put her iMovie skills to great use.

She asked “buddy pairs” — who have been matched together based on mutual interests all year long — to help out. “I wanted viewers to see our buddies as people just like them, with their own talents and interests — not ‘that kid in a wheelchair’ or ‘in special ed classes,'” she explains. “Best Buddies focuses on our buddies’ abilities — not their disabilities.”

Everyone was excited to take part. Three students cannot speak. So their iPads were programmed so they could say their lines.

Megan Nuzzo and Alexander Baumann.

Megan Nuzzo and Alexander Baumann.

Filming was fun — filled with laughs. Alexander Baumann, a very popular senior, was “so in his element,” Taylor says.

“He was hanging out with his friends, having such a good time.” (He’s the one at the end of the video, flexing his muscles and tickling his buddy Megan Nuzzo.)

Taylor’s buddy is Wyatt Davis. She is thrilled that the video helps other people know “he’s a crazy music lover. He goes to so many concerts with his family. That’s something you wouldn’t know from looking at him.”

The finished product is great. It’s already gotten over 1000 views on Facebook. It’s been shared a lot — even by students not involved with the club.

It will be shown at Best Buddies’ fashion show, silent auction and dinner this Saturday (March 7, 6 p.m., at Staples — all are welcome!)

In the meantime — today, Wednesday, every day — “spread the word to end the word.”

Spread the video, too!

If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.

Library’s Latest Shout-Out: Forbes.com

Forbes may be “the capitalist tool.” But it’s got a soft spot for a certain everyone’s-equal space: the Westport Library.

Forbes-logoForbes.com carries a story — “Remarkable Lessons in Innovation From a Public Library” — by Westporter Bruce Kasanoff.

He begins: “There are two ways to run a public library in a small town: the traditional way, or the Maxine Bleiweis way.”

After praising the director for being “a vibrant tool for bringing out the best in others,” he cites her for not knowing the definition of “can’t.” Her library, he says, can be “noisy, boisterous, provocative, outrageous (and) entertaining.”

Kasanoff adds that Bleiweis’ best talent may be bringing out talents in other people. He cites these traits that we all should emulate:

Boldness: If it will benefit the library, Maxine will ask anyone to do anything. She enlists CTOs of Fortune 50 companies, top journalists, famous authors, and a huge corps of enthusiastic volunteers. Just as importantly, she always has a bold idea and a few “asks” ready; if she spots you in the library, the odds are 100 to 1 that she’ll tell you about her latest projects and how you can help.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech writer-video star-guru happily obliges.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech guru-writer-video star happily obliges.

Warmth: The Westport Library is partially funded by the town, and also depends on donations from its supporters. There’s never enough money, especially now that the library is embarking on a capital campaign to reshape the building to be much more of a gathering, social and performance space. Leaders in such an environment don’t get to bark orders. Maxine leads with warmth, charm and enthusiasm. She understands that her role is to be uplifting and aspirational.

Imagination: What if we turned the middle of the library into a Makerspace? Could we teach kids to program computers by buying two Aldebaran robots for them to program? Maxine discovered the answers to both these questions was “yes.”

The Westport Library's Makerspace has a prominent position in the midst of the Great Hall.

The Westport Library’s Makerspace has a prominent position in the Great Hall.

Kasanoff concludes:

Maxine taught an entire town not to be limited by outdated conceptions of what you or your organization is supposed to be doing. She showed an entire generation that you are limited only by your own imagination, creativity and willingness to whatever it takes to bring your dream to life.

Most importantly, she showed us what happens when people with diverse talents, abilities and interests work together to uplift a community. The answer, of course, is that magic happens.

Art About Town: It Really Is About The Art

In 5 short years, Art About Town has cemented a spot on the spring calendar. From a small Sconset Square start in 2010 to last year’s exciting reveal of Miggs Burroughs’ “Tunnel Vision” project, the late-spring event draws plenty of attention. And thousands of celebrants.

But though the opening night street party — featuring performers, dancers, live music and art demos — gets deservedly great coverage,  the rest of the month-long celebration is sometimes overlooked.

At its heart, Art About Town is an homage to local artists, and their creations.

Kim Porio

Kim Porio

Kim Porio is one such exhibitor. A 1983 Staples High School graduate and Providence College marketing major, she did not pick up a brush until 14 years ago.

But she studied well with Arlene Skutch, and learned quickly. The 2nd year of Art About Town, her application was accepted. She sold an oil painting that spring — and was thrilled.

Kim is just one of many local artists whose work is displayed — throughout the entire month — in downtown stores. When her paintings were in Loft, she sold 4.

“It’s awesome exposure,” Kim says. “People come from all over. And it’s a whole variety.”

Art About Town artists range from relative newcomers to very experienced. (Miggs Burroughs exhibited in Matsu Sushi a couple of years ago.)

Westport Downtown Merchants Association organizers are now accepting applications for this spring’s show, through March 20. A special application fee of $25 for artists up to age 25 encourages younger participants (regular fee: $35). Staples High School students are especially welcome to apply. For more information, click here.

An oil on canvas, by Kim Porio

An oil on canvas, by Kim Porio

100+ Women Who Care

Like many women, Tracy Yost’s volunteerism revolved around her children’s activities. Community service was a resume builder. Life was busy; time was tight.

Then, in 2013 — having just moved from Fairfield County to Santa Cruz, California — she discovered “100+ Women Who Care.”

Founded in 2006 in Michigan, it’s an organization so clever I barely know where to begin.

100 Women who CareEvery 3 months, there’s a 1-hour meeting. Each member brings a check for $100. Any member can nominate  local charities, non-profits or worthy causes. All names are put in a hat.

Three names are drawn, randomly. The 3 members who nominated them make 5-minute presentations, “selling” their causes.

Everyone then votes on which cause to support. The winner gets all the checks — made out to them, on the spot.

100 women = $10,000. Amazing!

Within a year, Tracy’s nominee — Coastal Watershed Council — was drawn. She spoke passionately — and won.

“It was an amazing, powerful experience,” she recalls. “I felt so empowered, and so connected to the community.”

Tracy Yost

Tracy Yost

A few months later, her husband was transferred back to this area. Tracy knew she wanted to start a “100+ Women Who Care” chapter here.

A woman in Wilton had the same idea.  Beth Kisielius contacted — out of all 150 or so chapters in the US and Canada — the Santa Cruz one for help. The 2 women connected quickly, and fortuitously.

Tracy arrived in Westport on January 16 (her birthday — go figure). Within a week, she and Beth had planned a working dinner.

Since then they’ve set up Facebook pages, a website and newsletters. Neither woman had ever done something like this, but clearly they are on a mission.

Now they’ve set a date for the 1st Fairfield County meeting. It’s Tuesday, March 10 (DoubleTree by Hilton, Norwalk). A social hour (5:30-6:30 p.m.) precedes the “business” meeting (6:30-7:30).

“We’re looking for women who are too busy to volunteer, or who like to know all the little things going on in the community, who like to get involved outside of their children’s schedules,” Tracy says.

100 women who care santa cruzShe is passionate about the impact 100+ Women Who Care made on her life, in a little over a year in Santa Cruz.

“I felt connected to the community,” she says. “I felt empathy, because I heard very personal stories about people who struggle. I felt part of a group who strives to make a difference locally.

“The group not  only donates 4 times a year. They connect people. They seek out ways to help. They raise the bar. They empowered me.”

Your charity doesn’t even have to win, for you to feel good. “It’s great just to tell 100 women about a really terrific cause,” Tracy notes. “And sometimes you spark an interest, and end up with new volunteers for your organization.”

(For more information on 100+ Women Who Care — including the March 10 meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Norwalk, click here.)

Jessica Gelman, Tom Haberstroh Star In Special “Super Bowl”

When Jessica Gelman starred on the Staples High School basketball court in the early 1990s, Tom Haberstroh was just entering elementary school.

As he grew up — and became a Wrecker hoops player himself — their paths crossed occasionally. Tom says, “She was the first athlete to teach me that girls could kick guys’ butts.”

Jessica Gelman, at work. (Photo/Sports Business Journal)

Jessica Gelman, at work. (Photo/Sports Business Journal)

Jessica went on to star at Harvard, play professionally in Europe and enter the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. After earning an MBA at Harvard, she’s now a high-powered vice president with the Kraft Sports Group, handling marketing strategy for the New England Patriots and Revolution. Last year, Sports Business Journal named her to their “Forty Under 40” team.

Tom’s path took him to Wake Forest. He’s been an ESPN NBA analyst since 2010.

Jessica Gelman fights for a rebound, as a Staples junior.

Jessica Gelman fights for a rebound, as a Staples junior in 1992.

Both Jessica and Tom are numbers guys people. She took high-level math classes at Staples, learned to use data as a pyschology major in Harvard, and became an early leader in the field of sports analytics. (Her database of 3.4 million names makes Kraft the envy of the sports world.)

A decade ago, she taught a course on sports analytics at MIT Sloan School of Management with Daryl Morey. When he got a new job — general manager of the Houston Rockets — they turned the class into a conference.

The initial event, in 2006, drew 150 people. (“Half of them were my friends,” Jessica jokes.) Nine years later, she’s still the chair.

This year’s conference — tomorrow and Saturday (February 27-28) — will draw over 3,000 industry leaders. Michael (“Moneyball”) Lewis, statistician Nate Silver, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, and league commissioners Adam Silver and Rob Manfred are among the presenters.

So is Tom Haberstroh.

Tom Haberstroh, as a Staples senior in 2004.

Tom Haberstroh, as a Staples senior in 2004.

Like Jessica, he’s a sports industry leader in the field of analytics. He parlayed his background — which included Jen Giudice’s AP Statistics course at Staples, and the strong influence of math teacher Rich Rollins — into a highly respected specialty.

(In a small-world coincidence, Jessica’s former colleague Daryl Morey used an ESPN statistical segment of Tom’s to promote Dwight Howard for the NBA All-Star game.)

A few years ago, Tom introduced himself to Jessica at the Sports Analytics Conference. They kept in touch. This year, Jessica asked Tom to moderate a panel on the growth of sports science and data collection.

The 2 former Staples basketball players are huge fans of each other.

“Jess just won the Super Bowl with the Patriots,” Tom says. “Now she’s running a Super Bowl conference of her own.”

Tom Haberstroh

Tom Haberstroh

“Tom’s stuff is great!” Jessica replies.

Both look forward to this weekend’s conference. Tom jokingly calls it “the Super Bowl for sports nerds.”

Don’t be fooled. If the conference adds a 2-v-2 basketball game to the agenda, Jessica Gelman and Tom Haberstroh will kick everyone’s butts.

 

It’s Official: Lynsey Addario Is A Star

Last night she reached the top of the food chain: an appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

The segment was not hilarious. It was harrowing — as the Staples graduate/Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist/MacArthur “genius” grant winner recounted her 2 kidnappings — but also very instructive.

Lynsey Addario Jon Stewart

Stewart called Lynsey’s new book — It’s What I Do – “fascinating and phenomenal.” He ended the segment with a shot of her after her wedding, and announced, “You have a life. And you are a person.”

She is indeed. Westport has long known that.

Now the world does too.

(To see Lynsey Addario’s “Daily Show” appearance, click here.)

Honoring John Dodig: The Best Way Possible

The other day, John Dodig bought a lottery ticket. If he won, he thought to himself, his first act would be donating $20 million to Staples Tuition Grants.

Odds are, he won’t win. But I bet he’s thrilled at this news: The organization is naming an award in his honor.

Now it’s up to the Dodig’s many fans to get the scholarship as close to $20 million as we can.

John Dodig -- a Superfan of Staples -- has many fans throughout the community.

John Dodig — a Superfan of Staples — has many fans throughout the community. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

When the Staples High School principal announced he will retire in June, Lee Saveliff and Kate Andrews had the same reaction as many Westporters: great sadness.

But as former PTA presidents, now Tuition Grants donor co-chairs, they knew of Dodig’s great fondness for, and support of, the organization.

They asked if he’d be comfortable with a new award, named in his honor. The criteria: 1 boy and 1 girl each year, who are outstanding citizens, active in Staples activities and volunteerism, known to be caring, open-minded and willing to accept others.

Dodig was honored to be honored.

“There is no better investment than in education,” Dodig says.

“But not everyone — even in Westport — can afford it. Staples Tuition Grants does a fantastic job. Every June, at the awards ceremony, we hear from a speaker whose life was changed by a grant.

“Now, every year when this award is announced, it will be a way for people to remember that education is so important to me.”

Each year, Staples Tuition Grants helps dozens of Staples seniors and graduates attend college.

Each year, Staples Tuition Grants helps dozens of Staples seniors and graduates attend college.

Saveliff and Andrews agree. “This grant will represent John for years to come. It reflects the kind of person he is, and the legacy he leaves behind. It’s one way to recognize him for his years of service, and thank him for all he has done for our Staples students, families, faculty and staff.”

Funding the John M. Dodig Award is harder than simply buying a lottery ticket. Fortunately, it’s easier than actually winning the lottery.

It takes donations. You have to click on the website, or mail a check to Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159.

But that’s all it takes — a minute or two, max.

Staples Tuition Grants new logoThink how much John Dodig has given this community — and us, individually. Think how important Staples Tuition Grants is to him. To the awardees. To all of us.

So let’s do what we can to make the John M. Dodig Award the biggest of all 100-plus grants each year.

We may not be able to hit a Powerball-winning figure. But what about setting a goal for 2 full scholarships each year?

That’s very ambitious. Then again, John Dodig has always encouraged all of us to aim high, and reach our potential. This is the least we can do, to honor him.

(To contribute to the John M. Dodig Award, click here or mail a check to Staples Tuition Grants, Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159.)

Remembering Isabel Gordon

Isabel Gordon died earlier this month. She was 98 years old.

She lived quite a life. She was photographic illustrator for The Shadow Book, a 1960 volume that remained in print until the late 1990s. She wrote and illustrated other children’s books too.

Isabel Gordon

Isabel Gordon

Isabel won 2nd place in a photography contest with over 175,000 entries. When she felt that long hours with darkroom chemicals affected her health, she shifted her interest to studying the local environment. She became a beekeeper, studied horseshoe crab populations, and — using macro photography — documented the transfer of caterpillars into monarch butterflies.

She volunteered as a lecturer and field guide for the Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.

“06880” readers will recognize Isabel from a recent post on “The High Tide Club.” The story highlighted a video about a group of dedicated, mostly older swimmers at Burying Hill Beach. Isabel loved swimming, and the scene of her easing into the water with a walker — then floating gloriously in the Sound — was one of the highlights of the film.

Isabel is survived by her son Richard, and his wife Ingrid Bernhard, of Ridgefield, and her grandchildren Isabelle, Richard and Nielsen Gordon.

A memorial service is set for Friday, March 20 (11 a.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church). Contributions in Isabel’s name may be made to Women for Women International.

Maxine Bleiweis: A Library Winner, In Every Way

When Maxine Bleiweis was young, she says, “I was not a very successful library user.” She learned through hands-on experiences, not books. And she liked to talk.

If she were a kid today, she’d thrive at the Westport Library — an institution run by the now-grown Maxine Bleiweis. It’s a place filled with noise — of chatter, programs, and the hands-on learning, exploration and invention being done in the innovative MakerSpace, smack dab in the center of the place.

When Maxine was younger too — just starting out as a library director — she was influenced by Charlie Robinson. As head of the Baltimore County system, he believed that libraries did not have to follow a “business as usual” model. Rather than assuming libraries were arbiters of community taste — deciding unilaterally which books to purchase; decreeing that users must be silent everywhere — he said, essentially, “give ‘em what they want.” Even if “they” had no idea what it was.

PLAIn June, Bleiweis receives the Charlie Robinson Award. The Public Library Association honor goes to one innovative leader, risk taker or change agent each year.

“Having my name under his on that award is pretty amazing,” Bleiweis says.

It’s also fitting. For the past 17 years, she’s been a pretty amazing director of the Westport Library.

As she prepares to leave her post — she’s “retooling” (not “retiring”) as of July 1 — she spent time recently looking back on a career she’s embraced with a gusto that may once have seen out of place, back when librarians’ main job was to tell patrons “ssshhh…”

Her innovations — the basis of that Charlie Robinson Award — stem from her philosophy that a library should know what people need from it, even before those people know it themselves.

Everyone, she says, “has a need and a right to succeed at, and be validated by, this miraculous institution: the public library.”

Maxine Bleiweis

Maxine Bleiweis

To do that, she’s “taken herself out of” the building. That’s allowed her to reimagine what it could look like, unencumbered by preconceptions and conventions. It’s enabled her to advocate for, and introduce, not only the MakerSpace but advanced technology, TED Talks, wide-ranging programs and events that draw the community together. A true joy, she says, is “watching 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds exchange ideas and information.”

A library, according to Bleiweis, is no longer just a place to get reading material. Anyone can do that anywhere. It’s a place to “debate, discuss, discover.”

Among those most memorable debates: the night Westporter Phil Donahue showed a documentary he produced on the Iraq war. A fight nearly erupted, in the SRO crowd. Bleiweis — wedged against a wall — grew worried. Finally — “in his best talk show host voice” — Donahue defused tensions by saying, “I think this is the part of the program where we all hold songs and sing ‘Kumbaya.'”

An important discussion came soon after a disastrous, alcohol-fueled Staples Homecoming. The library provided a place — “outside of school,” Bleiweis notes — to share community concerns.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Public Library.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Library.

As for discovery, Bleiweis recalls a panel of pioneering feminists. “They were wonderful, but at the end they looked at the audience and said, ‘We’ve done our job. What about you?'”

On the spot, a group formed. Out of that meeting came a grant proposal for a program in which college women would mentor high school girls. In turn, they would mentor middle school girls.

What ideas did not work? Bleiweis can’t think of any — because that’s not the way she measures success.

“We’re always in beta test mode, always in tryouts,” she explains. “The library doesn’t really lead. It just provides fertile ground for people to grow things. Inviting in people is more important than making sure all our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.”

One of the Westport library's new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

One of the Westport Library’s new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

But, the director notes, “the more this community realizes what a library can be, the more we’re struggling with a building that was not built to facilitate that.” She is proud of the innovative role the Westport Library has played, but knows it will be increasingly difficult to continue, given the constraints of the present building.

In every institution’s life, Bleiweis says, there are junctures where decisions will be made by the person who will be there to see them through. The Westport Library, she believes, is at one of those points.

She’s put forth her vision of what the facility should look like, and how it should function. But many more decisions must be made. And — based on the demographics of her staff — many hiring decisions lie ahead.

Those are part of the reasons behind her decision to step down now. Her personal life plays a role too. Bleiweis’ mother is 98; at the same time, Bleiweis is a new grandmother. “I need a bit of flexibility in my life,” she says.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology -- or the needs of 21st-century users.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology — or the needs of 21st-century users.

Asked what she would say to her successor, Bleiweis offers: “You’re absolutely blessed with the most vibrant, thinking community anywhere. Listen hard; the answers are within the conversations you’ll hear.”

In the 4 months before she leaves, there is still plenty of work to do — and energy to harness.

Plus, of course, there’s that Charlie Robinson Award to pick up. It’s presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference, in San Francisco. That’s the last week in June — which happens to be Maxine Bleiweis’ final week as director of the Westport Library.

Talk about a storybook ending!

Silver’s Bazaar: A Clever Idea Moves Forward

What’s up with Steve Silver’s plan to open a vendors’ bazaar in his former gift-and-luggage store Compo Acres space?

Lots.

Steve is shooting for April 1 — no foolin’! — as the target date for his innovative venture. He’s already heard from 20 local vendors, but there’s room for more.

Steve Silver in his former gift-and-luggage store. Soon, the space behind him will be filled with artists and entrepreneurs.

Steve Silver in his former gift-and-luggage store. Soon, the space behind him will be filled with artists and entrepreneurs.

Artisans of all kinds — painters, jewelry makers, scarf designers, you name it — as well as entrepreneurs with ideas they’d like to test; people with a product to sell; mom-and-pops that need a smaller space…all are welcome.

“Whether you have 1 item or 100, this will be Westport’s small business refuge,” Steve says. “It’s got the power of an energetic group, uniting for a great cause. The possibilities are endless!”

Local artists or entrepreneurs interested in a space can contact betsy@ourtowncrier.com.

And — because this is truly a crowd-sourcing venture — even the name is up for grabs. “Silver’s Bazaar” is not set in stone. If you’ve got a better idea, email steve@silverofwestport.net.