Human Services Helps Young Grads Look And Feel Great

As high school and middle school graduations approach, many Westport students worry about what’s ahead.

Some have more immediate concerns: having the right clothes for the ceremony, and the festivities that surround it.

For 16 years, Westport’s Human Services Department has eased those fears. Its “Ceremonies and Celebrations” program helps purchase new clothing for graduates who cannot afford them.

Last year, 29 Westport students were able to purchase “special event” wear.

Human Services director Elaine Daignault says she always receives “numerous heartfelt notes of thanks and photos of the proud young people, as they walk across the stage or stand with relatives on their special day.”

In the grand scheme of things, the right clothes for graduation might not seem like much. To a teenager, it can be the biggest thing in the world.

“Small investments can enhance a young person’s self-esteem, mark new beginnings and celebrate their hard work despite financial challenges,” Daignault notes.

“Helping a young person feel good about their appearance is a momentous gift that can impact them for a lifetime.”

Tax-deductible checks (payable to “DHS Families Program”; memo line: “Ceremonies”) may be sent to the Department of Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport CT 06880, or dropped off in Room 200 of Town Hall daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Gift cards of any amount (American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Trumbull Mall/Westfield Shopping Center) are also gratefully accepted.

Human Services notes that donations honoring a teacher or special person in a student’s life will be acknowledged with a letter to the honoree.

If you know people who could benefit from this program, email familyprograms@westportct.gov or call 203-341-1050.

Blessing Of The Animals This Sunday At Saugatuck Church

Everyone is welcome inside Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Pets and other animals — not so much.

But this Sunday (April 28, noon to 2 p.m.), every living thing will be welcome at the sweeping front lawn, on the Post Road just a dogleg from Myrtle Avenue.

Westport Animal Shelter Advocates joins the church in co-hosting a Blessing of the Animals.

The Great Lawn of Saugatuck Congregational Church is well suited to a Blessing of the Animals.

All are welcome to bring a pet leashed, or safely contained (recommended for pythons). You can also bring a photo, for an individual prayer of blessing (probably even better for that python).

Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton will lead the service. She’ll include all wildlife in her prayers.

She’ll give special blessing to Westport’s ospreys, for their continued protection and a successful nesting season. A banner will feature photos of the raptors, all originally posted on “06880.”

Representatives from Wildlife in Crisis will be there too. They’ll answer questions about local wildlife, and discuss their rehabilitative and release efforts.

Also on site: Susie Collins of Sitting Pretty Dog Training.

Our pets and wildlife are true blessings.

On Sunday, Rev. Patton is honored to bless them.

(For more information, call 203-557-0361 or email wasa1@optonline.net. The rain date is Sunday, May 5.)

A dog waits to be blessed.

Jackson Ruscitti’s Amazing Journey

Like many young Westporters, Jackson Ruscitti loves playing soccer.

Unlike many, he has cerebral palsy.

That’s a challenge. As the physical gap with his peers grows, it’s hard for the 12-year-old to keep up with his able-bodied friends. (He does play in the Westport Soccer Association recreation league.) But programs for youngsters with developmental delays are not appropriate either.

Fortunately, there is also CP Soccer.

Jackson Ruscitti

In the fall of 2017 Jackson’s mom Elizabeth heard of a non-profit. Its mission was to build a nationwide league for kids with cerebral palsy.

There are already 5 US teams, in New York, New Jersey, the Mid-Atlantic, South Florida and Houston. Another 4 to 6 teams are planned.

Jackson travels a couple of hours, to Clifton, New Jersey. But he’s learning new skills weekly. His teammates include a boy who plays for his high school freshman team, and another on the US Paralympic soccer squad.

Jackson also attended his first-ever sleepaway camp, at Clemson University. (Coincidentally, the head coach of the Tigers’ national Top 10 team is Staples High School 1979 graduate Mike Noonan).

Elizabeth calls that experience “life-changing.” Many of the youngsters had never spent time away from home — or met another child with the same disability. The environment was safe, fun and totally accepting. No one had to hide his arm, or try to disguise a limp.

But that was just the start. In March Jackson helped represent the US in the first-ever international tournament for kids with CP: the Friendship Cup in Dublin, Ireland.

A U-14 team of 17 kids was formed. They came from around the country, and played squads from Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. They were accompanied by Kevin Hensley, a US Paralympic soccer team captain.

It was an amazing experience — and not just because the former strangers came together to ring up 3 wins, 3 ties and 3 losses.

Coach Ash Hammond, wrote down his thoughts after the trip. He tried to put into words what the tournament meant to him. He wondered:

Was it the training sessions on Wednesday and Thursday where everyone met for the first time and we all realized that we had a TEAM?

Was it the USA Flags everywhere, and realizing that you were representing your country, not just playing soccer?

Was it seeing one of the coolest signs EVER on the side of the field- “Soccer For ALL”

Was it the new friends we have made all over Ireland, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Was it that the national team players back in the US kept posting “support messages” recognizing our young charges as the future of US CP Soccer?

Was it our crazy (GREAT) sibling cheering section?

Was it that we made history becoming the first US U-14 CP team ever to play a game, let alone an international game?

Jackson Ruscitti is in the back row, 2 to the right of the goalkeeper.

Then the coach offered a personal shout-out to the young Westporter:

Was it Jackson, who offered to go in goal when his team needed it and pulled off a magnificent save, along with his incredible effort in the field in the other games, or his crazy good split passing that we covet yet see so rarely in the youth game?

Then the coach revealed what really was his favorite part of the week.

It was all of those things and much more, but mostly it was the knowledge that we non-CP players, coaches and families were in the minority this weekend.

That the minority got to watch the majority, unabashed; perform, enjoy, revel, laugh, make friends, play, score, pass, tackle, dance, be recognized for their greatness, win, lose, tie, be happy, be upset, be exhausted and most of all seeing so many be among others like themselves for the first time.

Finally it was seeing our amazing children have a week like none other that they richly deserve, and giving US much joy along the way.

Jackson is already looking forward to his next camp at Clemson.

And 2 of his new mates from Ireland have signed up to go too.

(For more information, or to make a donation to support CP Soccer, click here.)

Pics Of The Day #737

Spring comes to Cross Highway … (Photo/Mark Yurkiw)

… and tulips push their way through an outdoor chair. (Photo/Gil Ghitelman)

Fashion Show Features Rachel’s Rags

Rachel Doran’s death last summer — following a rare reaction to common medications — devastated many Westporters.

Her former classmates at Staples High School — where she had been a National Merit Commended Scholar, talented Players costume designer, and founder of her own pajama company — mourned the rising Cornell University senior.

So did Ellen Gang. Her design studio and camp offer after-school and summer classes in fashion and related skills for children, teenagers and young adults. For years, Rachel was a student there. She was a camp assistant. And she exhibited in Ellen’s annual fashion show.

Rachel Doran (left) shows off her portfolio.

So it’s fitting that this year’s event — set for Saturday, May 18 — will honor Rachel.

Even better: It’s a fundraiser for Rach’s Hope. That’s the charitable organization the Doran family set up, to assist families weather the storm when a child is critically ill.

There’s more: This year’s show will highlight Rachel’s creativity, by showcasing a collection of “Rach’s Rags.” That’s the pajama pant business she began when she was just 11. True to her character, she gave part of her earnings to charity.

But Ellen needs some of those creations to show off. She asks anyone who has Rachel’s Rags PJs can lend them to the show.

They’ll be returned — lovingly — afterward.

Just the way Rachel lived her life.

(If you have Rachel’s Rags PJs to lend, email ellensgang@gmail.com. To support the May 18 “Walk the Runway for Rach’s Hope” fashion show at 4 Sunnyside Lane in Westport, click here.)

Unsung Hero #95

The Westport school district is filled with fantastic administrators. To a man (and woman), they go far beyond their job descriptions to give personal, authentic, honest and loving devotion to everyone in their buildings.

Particularly kids.

“06880” hates to single out any one principal or vice principal for special mention. So, while we honor Kevin Cazzetta — because the Greens Farms School head has been named Elementary School Principal of the Year (and will be honored at a dinner on May 2) — he symbolizes so much that is good about our district. Today’s Unsung Hero award goes to Mr. Cazzetta, and all his fellow school building administrators.

Kevin Cazzetta

The GFS lauds him for his “even-handed approach to addressing difficult situations, and his balanced perspective in considering everyone’s near- and long-term needs, while always maintaining a focus on what is best for the students and his staff.”

He is accessible and responsive. He meets with parents on any topic. He knows each child’s needs, and works hard to figure out how best to support them.

One specific example of his hands-on approach: When a tree was planted as a memorial at GFS, the principal watered it, and tended diligently to it.

He’s also the elementary school representative on the Community Advisory Committee, representing all 5 schools in analyzing options for the coming year.

This has been a tough year for students, staff, parents and administrators. Congratulations to Kevin Cazzetta, and all his colleagues, for all they’ve done to keep all our schools on top of their game.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Pop-Up Gallery And Studio Tour: Artists Collective’s Inspiring Draws

It’s been a great year for the Artists Collective of Westport.

The dynamic group of more than 150 men and women — from internationally known to emerging, working in a wide range of mediums — partnered with several local organizations, including the Westport Country Playhouse.

They meet monthly to plan public events, exhibitions and stimulating experiences. They also tutor, volunteer, and curate art-related activities.

Now they’re gearing up for 2 of their biggest events of the year.

This Sunday (April 28, 2 to 4 p.m., 47 Main Street), a pop-up Preview Gallery highlights art from 45 artists (plus drinks, refreshments and music). The show remains open all next week.

Exhibitors include 10 artists who then welcome folks to the Collective’s Studio Tour (Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.): Charles Douthat, Árpád Krizsán, Judith Lambertson, Julie Leff, Steve Parton, Guy Phillips, Katherine Ross, Anthony Santamauro, Marlene Siff and Cindy Wagner.

Guy Phillip opens his studio to guests on the Artists Collective tour …

The tour is a special (and self-guided) treat through Westport, Weston, Fairfield and Norwalk. The Collective’s artists range from contemporary to traditional; their studios vary from light-filled lofts to backyard cottages to basement caves.

Each artist followed a different career path. But all make fantastic art. And all look forward to showing off their work, and the space in which they create it.

Tickets to the Studio Tour include a brunch at Tavern on Main (Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m. to noon).

… as does Julie Leff …

The Artists Collective of Westport thrives on the concept of artists helping artists. So it’s natural that this year’s Studio Tour benefits in part Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, the Bridgeport-based non-profit that helps youngsters gain confidence in their own ideas and creativity.

A collective is a powerful idea. With its pop-up gallery and Studio Tour, the Artists Collective highlights the power of art in Westport.

(For more information, click here. Studio Tour tickets are $35, $20 for designers, free for children 13 and under, and available online — click here. Tickets at the door are $40, $25 for designers. This Sunday’s pop-up gallery preview at 47 Main Street is free.)

… and Marlene Siff.

“Fractured Fairy Tales”: The Story Behind The BMS Show

This has not been an easy year for middle schoolers.

Coleytown was closed in September due to mold; 6th and 7th graders have been at Bedford ever since. Every day, administrators, staff and students of 2 schools make compromises. Everyone involved has done a great — and often unheralded — job.

But it’s one thing to move classes, or share gym and cafeteria space. It’s another thing entirely to accommodate 2 different drama productions simultaneously.

Traditionally each spring, CMS stages an all-school musical. BMS puts on a 6th grade non-musical.

Both are fully staged, with professionally produced costumes and sets. Both involve scores of students.

Directors Ben Frimmer (CMS) and Karen McCormick (BMS) agreed to keep the schedule the same as in past years. They would share space during rehearsals, but — to provide stage time for actors and the technical staff — Bedford would push its opening back to April.

Bedford Middle School art teacher Lynn Karmen, with one of her set painters. (Photo/Melissa Fass)

Musicals require tons of space — for dancers, singers and scene work. Coleytown’s “42nd Street” was especially big. With only 3 weeks for Bedford to install their set, create costumes and the actors to transfer what they’d learned from such a small space to a big stage, the BMS show could not be technically complex.

Normally, Bedford’s non-musical is a version of a classic childen’s book like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Phantom Tollbooth.” But with such limited room for rehearsals, plus set and costume construction, McCormick and her staff decided on a series of short stories from the 1960s “Rocky & Bullwinkle” cartoon show, called “Fractured Fairy Tales.”

They crafted 15 stories, and added short “fairy tale” commercials.

That provided 70 actors with over 240 roles to share. There are 40 narrators, 15-plus kings, queens, princes and princesses, and dozens of goblins, beasts, chickens, ogres, court jesters and peasants. Each youngster is featured in at least 2 “plays.”

The Do It All Wand cast. (Photo/January Stewart)

They found space in hallways and classrooms. Combined with Coleytown’s set construction crews, tap dancers, costume people, there were some very noisy afternoons.

“The kids didn’t mind,” McCormick says. “They worked very well under the circumstances.”

With just 12 days of unfettered access to the stage, BMS got creative with their set. “Fractured Fairy Tales” uses a new 25-foot floor-to-ceiling movie screen as a backdrop. It features hundreds of colorful images, most from old cartoons. On stage, 20 colorful 18-inch cubes instantly turn into thrones, tables or mountains.

Transferring the off-stage rehearsals onto the large stage has taken some work. But, McCormick says, the actors are working hard on new blocking, and pumped-up motions.

“Fractured Fairy Tales” rehearsals are fun — and energetic. (Photo/Melissa Fass)

Costumes were done later than usual too. BMS actors received theirs only a few days ago. Each person has 2 to 4 costume changes — some with only minutes to spare. They’re working on that too.

But this is Bedford Middle School. Like their Coleytown counterparts, the young actors and their tech crew embrace the challenge.

When the curtain rises this Friday, audiences will not even realize what everyone went through to produce “Fractured Fairy Tales.” They’ll smile, laugh and applaud. Just like every other BMS show.

(“Fractured Fairy Tales” performances are this Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 27 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m. Click here for tickets.)

(NOTE: Coleytown’s show — “42nd Street” — overcame several obstacles too, beyond shared space. Click here for that “06880” story.)

Pic Of The Day #736

Levitt Pavilion and Saugatuck River (Photo/Michael Tomashefsky)

Stop & Find Something In The Shop

One day after the Stop & Shop strike ended — at 7:30 this morning — this was the scene in the local supermarket.

It takes time to get back up and running, after 11 days of a work stoppage.

Employees said shelves should be much better stocked this afternoon.