Adam J. Lewis grew up poor, in the Bronx. But he seized the educational opportunities he was given — scholarships to Dalton, then Hamilton College — and made a great, successful and fulfilling life for himself.
Then, on September 11, 2001 he was killed at his World Trade Center desk.
Out of the ashes of his life, the people who loved Adam — his wife and many friends — built a superbly fitting tribute.
Patty Lewis and Westporter Julie Mombello — friends from their days working together at Greens Farms Academy — knew the importance of pre-school education.
In Westport, pre-school — where children explore the world using all their senses, and learn letters, numbers, scientific observation, music, art, language, problem-solving, cooperation, coordination and many other skills — is a given. That’s far less true in Bridgeport, where the cost of preschool can be daunting.
Patty and Julie vowed to do what they could to give little children just a few miles from Westport the same advantages their own kids had.
The Adam J. Lewis Pre-School was born. And — despite daunting obstacles including fundraising, site selection and city bureaucracy — it has thrived since opening last December.
Many folks — including Westport board members Nancy Aldrich, Lee Bollert and Trish Tweedley, and fundraisers Carolyn Cohen, Tracy Fincher and Anne Hardy — worked tirelessly to make the pre-school a resounding success. Earlier this month, they celebrated their 1st year.
There were 12 kids, all 3 and 4 years old. Everyone received need-based financial aid. (It costs $7,000 a year to educate each child. Sometimes, Julie says, parents pay what they can “literally in quarters.”)
Several boys and girls entered speaking no English. “We saturate them all in language,” explains Julie. “There is constant talking and reading. There are books and letters all over the place.”
Julie is an administrator and teacher. Westporter Saba Pina is one of the other teachers.
Earlier this month, a “graduation” ceremony was held for the youngsters moving on to kindergarten. The school worked hard to make sure each has an appropriate placement. Some are heading to charter schools; others to the Greens Farms Academy Horizons program.
The 1st graduation was quite a moment.
“When you sign up for a project like this, you realize it’s all about the kids,” Julie says.
“You can make a difference — one child at a time. You try to give them an opportunity they otherwise would not be exposed to.”
But, she realizes, beyond teaching children to count and learn their ABCs, Adam J. Lewis has given them “self-confidence, resilience and perseverance, so they can handle whatever life throws at them.” In Bridgeport, Julie knows, “you face a lot of curveballs.”
In the beginning of the school year, she recalls, a little boy always said, “I can’t do this.” Now, he never says that.
“That’s 90% of the battle,” Julie says. “If you believe in yourself, you have a much greater chance of success.”
She — and all the other folks associated with Adam J. Lewis — feel a tremendous amount of pride. They’ve launched what already is a wonderful institution.
But Julie can’t help noticing something.
“Literally 5 miles from Westport, things are so dramatically different. The need can feel overwhelming. It’s easy to think, ‘How can I make a difference?'”
She answers her own question.
“For some reason, the education of young children makes you feel like you are making a difference.”
Next year, Adam J. Lewis welcomes 16 pre-schoolers, up from 12 this year. They’ll add another teacher. And they’ll keep making a difference.
One child at a time.
(Adam J. Lewis Preschool administrators, educators and board members hope Westporters will continue to support them with money, time and energy. To learn more, click on the Adam J. Lewis Preschool website.)