The year was 1980. Susie Basler had a great life in Evanston, Illinois: good friends, a supportive community, a food co-op she loved. She did not want to move to Westport, Connecticut.
But her husband’s job beckoned. The Baslers pulled up stakes. And the course of Susie’s entire life changed.
Kate McGraw was a new neighbor. As Westport’s assistant superintendent for special education, she knew plenty of girls in crisis. McGraw wanted to launch a group home.
She enlisted human services worker Barbara Butler. And — because newcomer Basler had a master’s degree in social work, had studied residential facilities and worked in the juvenile justice system — McGraw asked her to help too.
Basler was on the founding board of what became Project Return. With tremendous energy and enthusiasm — but no site or money — the group forged ahead.
Butler convinced First Selectman Bill Seiden to give the dilapidated Town Farm house on North Compo Road — slated for demolition — to the organization, for $1 a year.
The building — between Little League fields and tennis courts — was infested with racoons, squirrels and mice. But with plenty of hard work — and the help of grants writer Barbara Heatley, architect Ed Campbell and carpenter Ed Canning — the dream became a reality.
Project Return welcomed its 1st girls 30 years ago this month. The part-time director — who had 3 young children, and lived in Stamford — left 3 months later.
Basler stepped in, temporarily.
She never left.
Basler — now 73 years old — has announced her retirement as executive director. She’ll be honored on Saturday, April 2 (7 p.m) at Project Return’s annual Birdhouse Auction and Gala, at the Fairfield Theatre Company Warehouse.
When Basler took over, 2 girls had already run away. Two staff members were ready to quit.
“I realized my entire life had prepared me for that moment,” Basler says.
She instituted core principles that were revolutionary at the time. She made sure that social workers — “our best staff” — spent most of their time not in meetings, but with the girls.
“Kids are hungry for feedback,” Basler says.
Basler has “enormous respect” for each girl who has come to Project Return. They cope with so much.
“The human spirit is resilient,” Basler says. “There is such a push for growth. Many times, I am in awe.”
Of the many things she is proud of, Project Return’s organizational model — circular, not hierarchical — tops the list.
“Our direct care staff is a team,” Basler explains. “We make decisions via consensus. We’ve created, I think, a wonderful, respectful, supportive environment and culture.”
Westport has noticed. Local support — both financial and volunteer — for the group home is “a beautiful story,” Basler says.
Basler’s work is not easy. Girls arrive at Project Return from abusive or neglectful homes. They’ve been let down by their families.
“A group home is not a girl’s first choice,” Basler notes. “They’ve angry. They don’t want to open up. They’re afraid of being hurt again.”
It’s hard, she says, for even the most committed staffer to “love girls who exhibit unlovable behaviors.” In a group setting, that’s especially tough.
But — thanks in large part to Basler’s leadership — it works. “I’ve always treated the staff the way I want them to treat the girls,” she says simply.
She has done much more at Project Return, of course. She created HEAL (Heal, Empathy, Altruism, Love) — an after-school community service project for at-risk girls. She organized an annual educational conference for mental health professionals. She established an aftercare program to ensure the girls’ continued emotional and financial support.
That last initiative is particularly dear to Basler’s heart. Former residents call aftercare coordinator Renee Gold at all hours — including 3 a.m. — with questions ranging from “How long do you cook an apple pie?” to “How can I handle my boyfriend?”
Basler and Gold are in touch with nearly 100 former Project Return residents. This summer, they attended the wedding of one.
Another Project Return graduate just had a baby.
“Growing up, she watched her father throw knives at her mother,” Basler says. “She’s in her early 30s now, and never thought she’d have children. When she got pregnant, she was so worried about being a parent. But she fell in love with her child when she saw the ultrasound.”
Basler is justly proud of that woman — and many others. Some have even gotten their own social work degrees.
“Project Return has changed my life,” she says emphatically. “I’ve learned so much: patience. That crises will pass, and we should celebrate good moments. That all of us are constantly growing.”
Basler has also learned “the importance of saying goodbye.”
As she says goodbye — after 30 years in charge — she will face the challenge of “how to be an elder in a community.” She hopes to share her wisdom, so that parents can understand their children better.
At 73, she has her own children — and 3 grandchildren. She is a child herself, with a 97-year-old mother. She plans to spend time with all of them.
But she’ll still have time for one activity. Susie Basler says, “I’ll remain Project Return’s biggest cheerleader.”
(For information on Project Return’s April 2 Birdhouse Auction and Gala — where Basler will be honored — click here.)