Category Archives: Teenagers

Who You Gonna Call? EMS Always Responds

As I arranged a 4-hour ridealong with Westport’s Emergency Medical Service, officials warned: There are days when absolutely nothing happens. Be prepared to sit.

A mid-April Wednesday was not one of those days.

I had just walked into the EMS hallway, next to police headquarters, when the call came in: a 34-year-old male with chest pains, at a Post Road store.

Deputy director Marc Hartog shepherded me into his fly car. He pulled out of the bay, hit the siren — and I watched in amazement as an impatient Imperial Avenue driver tried to cut him off.

Welcome to Westport, and the unsung world of our EMTs.

Westport EMS has 3 ambulances. They are shiny on the outside -- and very impressive inside.

Westport EMS has 3 ambulances. They are shiny on the outside — and very impressive inside.

Police and firefighters were first on the scene, as they often are. But the paramedics took over, reassuring their patient while taking a medical history, providing oxygen and placing him on a stretcher.

The ambulance’s interior resembled a boat or plane: well-stocked, with no wasted space. As we headed to Norwalk Hospital, a paid paramedic and 2 volunteers worked efficiently. They checked vital signs, administered nitroglycerin and baby aspirin, communicated with the emergency room, and obtained insurance information.

That saved crucial minutes. When we arrived the patient was transported quickly inside, and hospital staff took over. Total time, from receiving the call to leaving Norwalk for the trip home: 38 minutes.

I learned a lot watching EMS in action. They’ve got a very intriguing story — and it’s one not many Westporters know.

WVEMSThere are actually 2 parts to Westport’s emergency medical services. “EMS” includes 6 paid full-time paramedics who are town employees, and a contracted Norwalk Hospital paramedic on duty 24/7.

Approximately 120 others — all unpaid — comprise our Volunteer Emergency Medical Services. They are students, business executives, attorneys, housewives, retirees and more.

The oldest volunteer — Jay Paretzky — is 72. He takes 2 shifts a week, and teaches nearly every CPR class. In the 1st 3 months of this year, he worked 400 hours for WVEMS.

The youngest volunteers are 29 high school students, part of an Explorer post. They undergo the same extensive training as the older volunteers, and perform nearly all the same tasks. (It’s not all adrenaline-inducing. They restock ambulances and write reports too.)

The initial EMT certification class involves 200 hours of classroom and practical work. Re-certification — with another 30 hours of refresher classes, and a state exam — takes place every 3 years. There’s in-service training every month, too.

Rebecca Kamins (left) acts as a "patient" during EMS training.

Rebecca Kamins (left) and Whitney Riggio act as “patients” during EMS training. Learning proper procedures are Christian Renne (left) and Zach Klomberg.

The paramedic program takes 2,000 hours, spread over 18 to 24 months. It includes clinical rotations in hospital settings. Every month, paramedics complete 4 hours of continuing education.

In other words: The guys (and gals) who take care of us know exactly what they’re doing.

Yves Cantin is a WVEMS volunteer. The father of 3 children, he takes a 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift every Wednesday and Friday. He spends many more hours as the organization’s treasurer.

Why does he do it?

“There a good feeling of helping the community,” he says. “It’s rewarding to deliver care that’s needed.”

Cantin has learned that despite Westport’s affluent image, our town is filled with a variety of physical and emotional needs.

He adds, “I’ve made friends through EMS. And I learn something on every call.”

EMS volunteers and paramedics (from left) Larry Kleman, Yves Cantin, Kevin Doherty, Marc Hartog, Rich Baumblatt, Joe Pravder and Aaron Greenspun stand ready, outside the ambulance garage behind the headquarters they share with Westport police.

EMS volunteers and paramedics (from left) Larry Kleman, Yves Cantin, Kevin Doherty, Marc Hartog, Rich Baumblatt, Joe Pravder and Aaron Greenspun stand ready, outside the ambulance garage behind the headquarters shared with Westport police.

EMS has 3 ambulances, 3 SUV fly cars, and a fleet of light-and-siren-equipped bicycles for staffing crowd-heavy events. EMS responds to 7 or 8 calls a day — that’s 2500 times a year — from Westport residences, schools, stores, offices, beaches, as well as incidents at our nursing home, Hall-Brooke, and on I-95 and the Merritt.

The town pays for the basics. But — in addition to volunteering their services — WVEMS fundraises for an astonishing array of equipment. They not only buy the ambulances ($190,000 each), but also an expanded $85,000 ambulance bay; the $20,000 stretchers that lift patients automatically into the backs of ambulances, and nearly everything in each ambulance, from child immobilization devices to stair carriers. (With 3 ambulances, they need 3 of everything.)

Monitors and other equipment fill the back of each ambulance.

Monitors and other equipment fill the back of each ambulance.

The net cost to Westport is small indeed. The value is priceless.

“Without our passionate paid staff, and the thousands of hours WVEMS puts in — including fundraising — we couldn’t do this,” Hartog says.

(What fundraising? A low-key annual letter, sent to Westport residents. No hard sell here — even though their service deserves it.)

EMS does not miss much. They rotate ambulances on every call. Reducing wear helps them last 10 years, far more than the national average. Ambulances are plugged in after each use, ensuring that batteries running the many medical devices stay charged.

Hartog — whose first encounter with emergency medicine came at Columbia University, when he took a first-aid class to get out of a gym requirement — says that every day is different.

“Some calls are really routine. The next time though, you have to make a split-second decision. Someone’s life is in your hands.”

EMS deputy director Marc Hartog.

EMS deputy director Marc Hartog.

Hartog, Cantin and paramedic Rick Baumblatt — also on duty the day I was there — recall the satisfaction of receiving a letter from a man or woman (or child) who was almost dead.

The family of a skateboarder with major head trauma sends a fruit basket every year. Another family — whose elderly relative was brought back from full cardiac arrest — thanks EMS often for giving them an extra 6 years together.

For the rest of us, there are 2 things we can do for our emergency medical staff.

We can say “thank you” whenever we see them.

And when that fundraising letter comes, we can give generously to EMS.

Because — paid or volunteer — they give very generously to us.

 

 

Orphenians Tap Chanticleer’s Talent

Chanticleer is a 36-year-old, San Francisco-based ensemble. The New Yorker called them “the world’s reigning male chorus.”

Orphenians is a 56-year-old elite choir at Staples. Director Luke Rosenberg is working hard to make them the world’s reigning a cappella chorus — at least, at the high school level.

Orphenians director Luke Rosenberg. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Orphenians director Luke Rosenberg. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

On Wednesday, Chanticleer visited Darien High School for a choral festival. Participating were their hosts, plus choirs from Staples, Westhill-Stamford and Brewster Highs.

It was a long, intense but joyful day. First, everyone rehearsed 2 pre-selected pieces as a mass choir, under the direction of Chanticleer’s musical director.

Each high school choir then performed its own selected repertoire, for the other schools to enjoy. Next came Orphenians’ special 90-minute workshop with 3 members of Chanticleer.

The evening concert showed off each individual choir. Finally, Chanticleer combined with all several hundred students for 2 tutti numbers: Monteverdi’s “Si Ch’io vorrei morire” and Andre Thomas’ “Rockin’ Jerusalem.”

Here’s an iPhone recording of Orphenians performing “Tap-Tap.” You can hear the group live at Staples, later this spring.

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

 

What Would You Do?

Ask.fm is the latest post-anything website both beloved and hated by teenagers. Its anonymous question-and-answer format allows — if not encourages – abusive, bullying content. (The site was referenced in news reports of the suicide of a 12-year-old Florida girl.)

I know this because a Westport parent told me about Ask.fm, and described its use by middle school students here.

Ask fmThe bullying of the parent’s child (and a friend who stood up for the child) peaked this winter, with repeated references to school events. The child went to  administrators, who after an investigation said that one perpetrator had been identified. An official said the bully was remorseful, and an apology would be forthcoming.

It never came.

The parent and child were uneasy. Neither knew which classmate had been behind the bullying, or which of the parent’s adult friends were helping that child hide behind the legal right of anonymity for juveniles.

“You know who punches you in the face on the playground,” the parent says. “But today’s technology allows this to be the perfect crime.”

The parent considered going to the police. Anonymity would still be honored, but in the parent’s words, “the process would be the punishment.”

After all, the parent says, “this family hasn’t had the moxie to come forward. We don’t even know if they punished their child.”

Bullying 3

The parent does not know if going to the police is the right thing to do. Is it overkill? If so, is overkill worth getting some satisfaction of knowing something happened — even if the parents never learn what (or even who) was involved?

The parent wants to know what “06880″ readers think. Should the parents of the bully have stepped up and apologized — or made their child do so? Should the police be involved? Are there other options?

Click “Comments” to weigh in. And — unlike Ask.fm — please use your real name.

“We Rob Banks”

In 1968 — a few months after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” swept the nation — a few Staples seniors and friends thought it would be cool to imitate the legendary outlaws.

The high school campus was open; students came and went as they pleased during free periods (and sometimes during not-so-frees). It was spring; giddiness filled the air. Hey, why not?!

Five guys dressed up like ’20s gangsters. They drove downtown, sauntered into Westport Bank & Trust — now Patagonia — and, with a “getaway car” idling outside, pulled out a fake .38 pistol and said, “Stick ‘em up!”

Ha ha!

A few customers scrambled for cover. The tellers didn’t know what to think, but eventually realized it was just a prank. Cops were called, and hauled the Gang of 5 across the street to the police station.

The Westport Town Crier covered the “let’s pretend” robbery jovially. They described the teenagers’ suits and fedoras in detail.

Times sure have changed. Banks — not to mention the ATF, FBI and NSA — don’t look kindly on fake stick-ups.

If this stunt happened today, a full-scale investigation would be held. School administrators and the Board of Education can’t have kids dressed as bank robbers leaving school in the middle of the day, then pretending to rob a bank.

And the Westport Police would certainly not allow 5 teenagers, dressed in fedoras and holding cigarettes, to pose jauntily in the station lobby, looking like they’ve just pulled off the heist of the century.

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii -- far from the scene of the "crime."

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii — far from the scene of the “crime.”

 

 

 

Mr. Cory Goes To Washington

Dave Stalling is a native Westporter. He served in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit, earned degrees in forestry and journalism, and has worked for several wildlife conservation organizations.

Dave is also the proud father of a young man named Cory. This is Dave’s guest post, on “06880.”

Although he grew up in Westport around the same time I did, I never met Peter Weisman. He had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and died at the age of 15. It was 1980 — just a year after I graduated from Staples.

Mary-Lou Weisman bookI learned about Peter nearly 30 years later when another Westport friend, Bill Handley, gave me Intensive Care: A Family Love Story. Written by Peter’s mother Mary-Lou Weisman, it described her family and son’s struggle with Duchenne. (The book was made into a 1985 movie, “A Time to Live.” It earned Liza Minnelli a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Mary-Lou.)

When I read her book in 2009, I had lived in Montana for 23 years. My own son, Cory, had just been diagnosed with Duchenne. He was 9.

I was devastated. I felt a need to talk to Mary-Lou. So out of the blue, I called her.

At first she thought I was a solicitor and said she was busy. I quickly said, “My son was just diagnosed with Duchenne.” After a bit of silence she replied, “For you, I have all the time in the world.”

She has indeed given me a lot of time, and helped me through the tumultuous journey of coming to terms with my son having a fatal disease. Her advice and encouragement inspires hope. A lot has changed since Peter died: New treatments are available; scientists feel they are close to a potential cure, and clinical trials are underway with promising results.

But more awareness, support and money is urgently needed to turn hope into reality.

Cory and I recently traveled from our home in Missoula to Washington, DC. We participated in an advocacy conference organized by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a national nonprofit leading the fight to end Duchenne. Cory met collectively and one-on-one with the entire Montana congressional delegation: Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh, and Congressman Steve Daines.

Cory hangs with Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Cory hangs with Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Congressman Daines took Cory onto the House floor, let him cast votes, and introduced him to other representatives. One was Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She lost her legs while serving as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War, and uses a wheelchair.

Cory befriended an assistant clerk to the Supreme Court. He took Cory into the courtroom (off limits to tourists). Cory met Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who is leading Congressional efforts to increase awareness and support for fighting Duchenne. We also had plenty of time for to visit various monuments and museums.

Cory stands proudly at the US Capitol.

Cory stands proudly at the US Capitol.

More importantly, Cory persuaded both Montana senators and our congressman to co-sponsor re-authorization of the Muscular Dystrophy Care Act. It could provide funding and support for further research and development of treatments, therapies and a cure that could help save not only his own life, but those of nearly 350,000 boys around the world who have Duchenne.

The trip was paid for entirely by donations from generous, supportive friends and family members, including numerous people from Westport.

Thanks to all who made this trip possible.  Special thanks to Peter Weisman, whose strength, courage and memories are kept alive by his amazing family. Peter continues to inspire boys like my son Cory to fight Duchenne, while enjoying life to the fullest.

(Last year, Dave’s Staples Class of ’79 donated leftover reunion money to help Cory and other boys with Duchenne. To contribute, click here.)  

Cory at the memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both used wheelchairs; neither was  bound by them.

Cory Stalling at the memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both used wheelchairs; neither was bound by them.

If your browser does not take you to this video of Cory’s trip, click here.

 

 

 

Staples Students Dodge Cops; Everyone Happy

Cops and kids battled it out for a couple of hours last night at Staples.

They threw stuff at each other, across a line no one dared cross.

Then they all fist-bumped, had pizza, and drove home safely.

The event was “Dodge-a-Cop” — a massive dodgeball tournament — sponsored by the Westport Police/Youth Collaborative and Youth Commission.

Over a dozen high school teams participated, with at least one Westport Police officer on each team.

Students paid to participate. All funds raised go to Homes With Hope.

That’s a big 10-4.

Officer Ned Batlin, Deputy Chief Foti Koskinas and Captain Sam Arciola are all smiles -- before the dodgeballs start flying.

Officer Ned Batlin, Deputy Chief Foti Koskinas and Captain Sam Arciola are all smiles — before the dodgeballs start flying.

Staples track stars (from left) Patrick Lindwall, Will McDonald, James Lewis, Peter Elkind and Jake Berman are fast enough to run from the cops. At the dodgeball tournament, they didn't have to.

Staples track stars (from left) Patrick Lindwall, Will McDonald, James Lewis, Peter Elkind and Jake Berman are fast enough to run from the cops. At the dodgeball tournament, they didn’t have to.

Click here if your browser does not link directly to YouTube.

 

Eliza’s Story

Eliza had a tough life. Last summer she voluntarily signed on with Connecticut’s Department of Children and Youth Services. When foster care did not work out, she came to Project Return.

Since arriving at the North Compo Road home, where teenage girls and young women in crisis find a place to heal and grow, Eliza has thrived. She’s been sober for 6 months. Her relationship with her mother is vastly better.

Most importantly, she feels good about herself.

Project Return, on North Compo Road. It's a place where girls and young women transform their lives.

Project Return, on North Compo Road, where girls and young women transform their lives.

A part-time student at Staples and in Orange, Eliza starts full-time at Staples this week. Her truancy issues are gone. She’ll graduate sooner than she ever thought possible.

Eliza says, “I’ve grown into myself.” At Project Return she is surrounded by loving professionals, and other girls who support her. She feels “profound comfort. I’m safe, and in control of my emotions.”

Eliza’s passion for art has been stoked too. Drawing often in notebooks — usually with a fine-point quill, sometimes using watercolors, in an artist’s nook she created in the Project Return basement — Eliza creates wonderful works that come from her heart.

Eliza (left) relaxes with her sketch notebook in the Project Return living room with Christine Manenke (transitional living coordinator) and Susie Basler (executive director).

Eliza (left) relaxes with her sketch notebook in the Project Return living room with Christine Manenke (transitional living coordinator) and Susie Basler (executive director).

This Saturday (April 5, 7 p.m., Rolling Hills Country  Club, Wilton), one of Eliza’s drawings will be auctioned off. It’s part of Project Return’s 19th annual Birdhouse Gala, featuring silent and live auctions of original birdhouses designed and built by local artists, bird-themed paintings, ceramics, furniture and jewelry, plus “migration vacations” and “nesting packages.”

Plus cocktails, dinner, and dancing to the DNR rock band. It’s a fantastic event, for an even better cause.

“This house has given me so much,” Eliza says, sitting in the comfortable living room as the smell of cooking wafts from the kitchen.

Eliza's contribution to the Birdhouse Auction Gala.

Eliza’s contribution to the Birdhouse Auction Gala.

“It’s helped me meet the person I always thought I was, but never thought I could become. I’m so grateful for the amazing therapists, wonderful tutors — all the incredible people who are here.”

Eliza is doing her part to give back. The piece she donated for the auction shows 7 birds — there are 7 beds at Project Return — with a quote from Maya Angelou, describing home as a safe haven.

Right now, it sits by the cash register at Eileen Fisher.

On Saturday, it can be yours.

Eliza would be grateful. So would the hundreds of girls who have passed through Project Return since its founding in 1985. And the hundreds more it will help over many years to come.

(For ticket information to the Birdhouse Auction Gala, click here. To bid on online items before April 5, click here.) 

Birdhouses from previous auctions. (Photos courtesy of Westport Magazine)

Birdhouses from previous auctions. (Photos courtesy of Westport Magazine)

Ruben Guardado: An ABC Scholar’s A+ Speech

Yesterday, “06880″ readers were inspired by a speech from Khaliq Sanda. The A Better Chance scholar spoke movingly at Saturday’s ABC gala about his 4 years in Westport.

Khaliq’s fellow senior (and roommate) Ruben Guardado also awed the large crowd. Today, “06880″ readers will be similarly moved by this outstanding young man’s words. He said:

Last year, I did my junior research paper on Che Guevara. I wrote a quote that meant a lot to me in one of my notebooks. Now, as I look back on the last 4 years, it’s become even more meaningful. “The road to success,” Che said, “is pictured as one beset with perils but which it would seem an individual with the proper qualities can overcome to attain the goal. The reward is seen in the distance; the way is lonely.”

Of course, Che was talking about revolutionary struggle in Cuba and elsewhere. But I realize now that I’ve traveled the road he described.

Ruben Guardado delivers his speech at the ABC gala with confidence and poise.

Ruben Guardado delivers his speech at the ABC gala with confidence and poise.

I was a little nervous when I first came to Westport, but I was ready to dive into the world headfirst. I had visited Staples in 8th grade, and it was literally awe-inspiring. It seemed like the perfect place to go to school, but I knew that it would mean leaving behind everything – and everyone – I knew.

I grew up in San Diego, in the barrio, where everyone was Hispanic or Latino. My heritage was pretty unremarkable because it was the heritage we all shared. We didn’t think about it or talk about it. We just took it for granted: we all spoke Spanish, we all ate tamales at Christmas, we all went to quinceañeras when our cousins turned 15.

Then I moved here. And hardly anyone was Hispanic or Latino, and no one spoke Spanish — although a lot of people were trying to learn it. No one ate tamales at Christmas, and instead of quinceañeras everyone went to bar mitzvahs. Suddenly my heritage became pretty remarkable, even to me. And that is probably the most important aspect of my experience as an ABC scholar. Being here has enabled me to grow and change — but also to become more myself.

Graduating seniors Ruben Guardado (right) and Khaliq Sanda pose with Anthony Soto, the gala MC, and the 1st Westport ABC alum to earn a graduate degree.

Graduating seniors Ruben Guardado (right) and Khaliq Sanda pose with Anthony Soto, the 1st Westport ABC alum to earn a graduate degree.

When I first got here, my day-to-day interactions with the kids who became my friends, the teachers who taught me, and the adults who cared for me highlighted the differences between us. The weight of it all finally hit me. I walked around with a large lead ball in my stomach. But even though I was homesick, I had the support of my family and the A Better Chance community.

In time, I found my place in the school community, and I found activities I enjoyed and people I really liked. I stopped seeing my peers as a monolithic group of teenagers, and I started seeing them as individuals. And I think that the same thing happened to them: they stopped seeing me as a Hispanic kid and started seeing me as Ruben, who happens to be Hispanic.

It has totally been a 2-way street. We have shared and borrowed from each other’s cultures. And now I am proud to be Ruben, who happens to be Hispanic and who happens to wear Sperry Topsiders, which I can guarantee you no one in the barrio wears. When I wear them home on break, I definitely get some funny looks. But I am kind of proud of them. They are proof that I am part of 2 cultures now. I am San Diego and Westport.

As a junior — feeling more secure — Ruben chose Che Guevara as the topic for his research paper. He learned that despite his flaws, Che had a vision to help the unrepresented and oppressed. Ruben also learned that his culture is filled with leaders, pioneers, writers, artists, scientists and musicians.

Ruben thought that engineering might be a way to address some of the problems he saw in San Diego and elsewhere. He understood the importance of working together, to help others. He repeated Che’s quote: “The reward is seen in the distance; the way is lonely.”

But, Ruben continued: My way has not been lonely. Even at the beginning, when I first got here, I never felt alone. I always knew there were people who were with me every step of the way.

Volunteers for the A Better Chance gala included Staples students. The signed Joe Namath jersey on the wall was one of many auction items.

Volunteers for the A Better Chance gala included Staples students. The signed Joe Namath jersey on the wall was one of many auction items.

He thanked past and present ABC chairmen Steve Daniels and Eric Seidman, house parents Desiree and Titus McDougald, house cook Merrill Boehmer, many volunteer drivers and tutors, and his host family: Nancy Yates, Bob Andrew, and their sons Sam, Ben and Eli. Then he said:

Although only one member of my family is here, I would like to thank my dad, Ricardo, who was the motivation for everything I did. My brother Raul and sister Viri were always waiting for me to get home so we could get back to bickering, which — strangely — I missed while I was away.

And last but not least, the most important person throughout this entire process: my mother, Teresa, who was my inspiration, as well as a great friend when I needed someone to talk to. Thank you all for always being there and for supporting me in everything that I do.

Ruben paused, took a big breath, smiled, and concluded:

I’ve learned many things during the past 4 years, but the most important thing I’ve learned is who I am. As much as this has been a journey of miles, it’s been a journey of self-discovery.  I am who I am because of all of you.

Thank you.

 

 

Westport And Diversity: Staples Students Have The “Write” Stuff

Today’s “06880″ theme is diversity. There’s more of it in Westport than you think. Stories posted in the past few hours include Khaliq Sanda’s stirring speech reflecting on 4 years here as an A Better Chance scholar, and Clay Garner’s career as a Westport teenager-turned-Chinese-musician-star.

Of course, another story noted that Westport’s wealthiest neighborhood — Coleytown — is 91.7% white, 3.1% Asian, 2.7% Latino and 0.9% black.

TEAM-Westport-logo2Recently, TEAM Westport — the town’s multiculturalism committee — joined with the Westport Library to sponsor an essay contest. High school students were invited to reflect on the fact that 30 years from now, racial and ethnic groups currently in the US minority will collectively outnumber whites. Students were asked to describe the benefits and challenges of this change for Westport as a whole, and themselves personally.

25 students responded. Tonight the winners — as judged by Westport educator Dr. Judith Hamer; Yale University’s Patricia Wei and teen services librarian Jaina Lewis — were announced. And celebrated.

The young writers addressed a host of challenges. Many were optimistic, even inspired.

Top prize — and $1,000 — went to Staples junior Megan Root. Her tremendously insightful essay — titled “Diversity: The Maestro of Innovation” — explored what she misses by living in a community that is 93% white. She knows that while her teachers pose many important questions, she does not hear answers from a variety of perspectives.

First prize winner Megan Root is congratulated by (left) TEAM Westport chairman Harold Bailey, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

First prize winner Megan Root is congratulated by (left) TEAM Westport chairman Harold Bailey, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

Megan described the value of “a symphony of ideas.”

It’s a little like being able to hit new keys on a piano, shifting your hands and stretching your fingers so you can play different octaves. Every starts in the middle C position. It’s easy and comfortable and you learn the basic skills.

But all the interesting music, the songs with real power, make you strain for the high G and reach for that low F. Entering a majority-minority world is like starting to reach for those far-off notes.

It will be a challenge, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but ultimately it will open up a whole new book of music. No one wants to be stuck playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Taught by the maestro of diversity, I hope to learn Mozart and Vivaldi.

Megan looks forward to being exposed to more diversity, as the population changes. “I don’t think I can really complete an education in life until I join bigger, more varied conversations,” Megan wrote. “America’s diversity means access to culture and traditions and ideas from every corner of the globe.”

Eliza Llewellyn reads her award-winning essay.

Eliza Llewellyn reads her award-winning essay.

Eliza Llewellyn — Staples senior, and class valedictorian — won 2nd prize, and $750, for “No Longer 91 Percent.” She’s grown up in a multicultural family — part Welsh, part Chinese — and has hope for America’s future.

“Beyond economic strength, a mix of ethnicities will make us more tolerant and empathetic toward others,” Eliza said. “Rather than recoiling from a gay couple or crossing to the other side of a street from a black man in a hoodie, we can learn to see these individuals as people rather than a blanketed ‘other.’”

She concluded, “I am more than a Westporter, or even a Chinese-European. I am a citizen of the world.”

Third prize winner ($500) Kyle Baer was less optimistic. In “Westport: A Bubble Refuses to Pop,” the Staples junior wrote that Westport’s near-total whiteness “sets Westport back from the rest of the nation in terms of its cultural richness.

“To be stuck in an upper-class, all-white town in the coming years will be a significant disadvantage to students. We have little choice but to evolve, or risk losing our appeal as a family-friendly town. Yet the path on which Westport is headed shows, as of yet, no signs of diverging.”

Kyle is right: Westport is homogeneous. But — as the very fact that he won a prize by writing about diversity, in a contest sponsored by his town’s multicultural committee — shows, at least we’re looking at that path he says we’re on.

Kyle Baer with his proud grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer.

Kyle Baer with his proud grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer.

(Click here for Megan Root’s essay; here for Eliza Llewellyn’s, and here for Kyle Baer’s.)

Khaliq Sanda Thanks Westport; We Should Thank Him

Saturday night’s A Better Chance gala was — as it always is — one of the most emotional, warm and beneficial (as in fund-raising) nights of the year.

Hundreds of Westporters mingled with ABC House graduates, and were gratified to hear updates on their highly accomplished lives. There were silent and live auctions. The food was excellent.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at Saturday's A Better Chance gala.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at Saturday’s A Better Chance gala.

But the highlight of the evening — as it always is — was a pair of speeches by current Staples seniors. Khaliq Sanda and Ruben Guardado talked about their difficult journeys to, and through, Westport. They graciously thanked all who had helped them so far, and promised to help others who follow them.

They spoke humbly, with honesty, insight and power. They stood tall and proud. They awed us. For all they have given us, we are profoundly grateful.

Here is part of what Khaliq said:

Almost exactly a decade before I was born, President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was speaking literally about the barrier that separated East and West Berlin. I want to talk about metaphorical walls.

When my parents were in their 20s, they emigrated from Cameroon to the United States. Their motivation was the same as most immigrants: they wanted their children to get the kind of education that is unavailable in the country they come from. Their move to a strange and unfamiliar country — through checkpoints and gates and then up and over an invisible wall — was a sacrifice that I think about every day. My parents’ American lives and the fact that I am standing here in front of you today are proof that these walls can be scaled. But climbing over them requires more than just the usual factors, like perseverance, determination, adaptability, hard work, and good luck. It requires, above all, a human ladder to help you vault over the barricade.

It was not easy for Khaliq to enter Staples as a freshman. He did not know a single person, but every classmate seemed to know everyone else. “I was on one side of the wall,” he said. “Everyone else was on the other.” He wondered if the next 4 years of his life would be like that.

He found refuge in — “of all places” — Karen Thomas’ geometry class. Her dedication to teaching — and to him — was profound. Khaliq found other “amazing” educators at Staples — Heather Colletti-Houde, Will Jones, Christina Richardson, Suzanne Kammerman, and more — and he flourished.

Other strong arms lifted him up.

My host family, the Mathiases, was indispensable. Kim and Mark, your compassion, care, and willingness to make me a part of your family are the greatest gifts you could have given me. Nick and Nicole, you are the younger brother and sister I always wanted but would have treated really badly if you actually were my younger brother and sister. This way is better: I love you and I like you. If you ever need me, know I’m only a phone call away.

Khaliq Sanda with his host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq Sanda with his host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq also thanked the resident directors at ABC House; his fellow residents; ABC board members and volunteers, who provided a home away from home, rides and much else.

He spoke of his bonds with Michael Newman and the Peer Advisors group. In fact, he said, Michael is the reason he wants to study neuroscience. He thanked Kim Freudigman, for helping him reach his dream of studying at a university he once would never have dreamed of applying to.

Then, the once friendless Khaliq — now one of the most popular students at Staples — said:

If you’re going to climb a really massive, imposing wall, you’re going to need to stand on the shoulders of giants — young giants. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to make it through this program without my best friends and their families. Roscoe Brown, Grant Heller, Cooper Shippee, Jeremy Langham, Austin Nicklas, Joey Schulman, Charlie Leonard, Henri Rizack, Eliza Yass, Annie and Lauren Raifaisen, Elizabeth Colwell, Emily Korn, Elizabeth Camche and Caroline O’Brien — thank you. You have been there for me through thick and thin. When I have needed someone to talk to or share a laugh with, you were my first choice, my early decision. You have been crucial in my life beyond what any of you will ever understand or I could put into words. Without revealing anything that could get us all in trouble, let me just say… I don’t think there’s been a single dull moment.

Khaliq Sanda at a formal dance, with great friends Roscoe Brown, Emily Korn and Elizabeth Camche.

Khaliq Sanda at a formal dance, with great friends Roscoe Brown, Emily Korn and Elizabeth Camche.

Without sounding boastful, Khaliq described his life in Westport: 10 AP classes, a job at Internal Medicine of Westport, volunteer work with the Key Club, “advocating for students on Student Assembly, and trying to maintain the façade of a well-rested, happy-go-lucky, not-a-care-in-the-world, totally color-coordinated teenager.”

He concluded by reaching back to his original reference to walls.

When President Reagan asked President Gorbachev to tear down the wall, East Germans and West Germans had been separated for nearly 30 years. You can imagine — I can imagine — what they were thinking: the people on the other side of the wall are not like me. Their lives are not like my life. Their problems are not like my problems.

A Better ChanceThat’s what I thought when I first moved here. From my side of the wall, Westport seemed like a picture-book town. The reality is much more complex. I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived here for 4 years, but I also feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in Queens and Lawrenceville, Georgia, and to have been born into my amazing family. We don’t have a Range Rover in the driveway, but there is always a home-cooked meal on the kitchen table. And our house isn’t 11,000 square feet, but it’s filled with the people I love most in the world, filled with laughter and joy.

My journey these last 4 years is similar to the one my parents took when they were only a little older than I am now: moving to a place unlike your home, starting over with no family or friends to support you, and having to stay strong even when things were rocky. I think my parents would say that every moment of their journey was worth it, and every day, I am amazed by how strong, courageous, caring, and wise my parents are. Mom and Dad, you mean the world to me, I thank you again for having the confidence in me, and I hope I’ve made you proud. I love you guys.

Thank you all for helping me climb over the wall.

Stay tuned for Ruben Guardado’s speech.