Susie Basler Steps Down; Leaves Project Return Legacy

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.

Project Return today.

Project Return today.

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.

Until now.

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.

Susie Basler

Susie Basler

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.

Project Return logo

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?”

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

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.)

15 responses to “Susie Basler Steps Down; Leaves Project Return Legacy

  1. Jamie Walsh

    Susie has been a rudder in the storm for so many young women who have passed through the portal of Project Return. Her vision, leadership and dedication rival anyone in a similar position of commitment. The best of wishes to Susie and I am sure she will always remain close by as more than just a cheerleader!

  2. My best friend! Saint Susie Basler, she is an incredible human being and a gift to the Fairfield County Community. Thank you Dan for giving Susie the spotlight she so deserves.

  3. Susie Basler is a true hero. One of the kindest, most loving and committed people I’ve ever known. Her enthusiasm for Project Return is infectious and, through her wonderful leadership, she changed so many girls’ lives and helped them to heal. Thank you, Susie, for all your very hard work! Happy retirement, my friend! You’re the best!

  4. Wally Meyer

    I was the Treasurer of that pioneering group for the first 10 years and for much of that time we were living “hand to mouth”. First we had to redo the house. The house was built in the late 1700’s and was originally located in Playhouse Square. It was moved in the 1800’s and served as the Town’s
    “poor house ” for a number of years. The house was in such bad shape you could put your fingers through the the outside wall. Actually, that was to our advantage. That historic house was in such bad shape that we never had to cope with the “preservationists” who might have insisted that we historically restore the house. That we couldn’t do, because the bedrooms were designed so that each had two ways to exit. Finally we were a few thousand dollars away from our refurb goal. and we asked each Westporter to contribute $2.00. The $2.00 checks, sometimes more,
    flooded in.
    Through it all Susie Basler stood tall. She believed that with love and a structured environment girls can and would change. She was right and somehow we made the early finances work. I am proud to say that I helped make Project Return happen.

  5. Sally Campbell Palmer

    All the best to you, Susie!

  6. Congratulations to Susie! I can attest to the importance of this home. During my eleven years at SHS, I met many girls with tragic stories who, because of the love and kindness and services at the home, graduated and became successful. It didn’t work for every girl, but Susie and her colleagues tried as hard as they could to help every single girl who lived there. She can retire knowing that she made a huge, positive difference in the lives of many girls.

  7. Joanne Aidala

    Susie – you are the best! And we are going to have fun in this next chapter of both our lives. with a big hug, Joanne

  8. Congratulations Susie! As a teacher at Staples for many years, I came in contact with many of the girls, was an occasional guest at Project Return and once invited the girls to a pool party at my home where my animals were the highlight.
    I remember coming for dinner around Christmas time one years.and brought a few homemade ornaments for their tree. I was sure it would be a Charlie Brown tree with not much on it. I was wrong. It was the most beautiful Christmas tree I’d ever seen. What made it even more special was the tree was a gift from a former resident who just wanted to support the house. She’d gone on to become a Fairfield policewoman and just wanted to give back.
    Many of the girls went on to college, productive lives and families of their own. Project Return was a community that didn’t sweep problems under the rug. They worked through issues and were held to responsibilities. Much of this success is due to you Susie, your perseverance, your longevity and your capacity to love. Many staff members also brought joy and a sense of belonging to the house. Bravo all and bravo you Susie. Enjoy your retirement.

  9. Mark J. Marcus

    Years ago, I was Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). Our department licensed all child care agencies in the state – large and small. Project Return was among the very best. It enjoyed an excellent reputation largely because of the hard work, dedication, love and commitment of Susie Basler. Susie, have a wonderful retirement , you deserve it.

  10. Scott Broder

    Thank you for your years of uniquely stellar service to Project Return!✨
    May you enjoy your family and all that you want in your years of retirement💥
    Warmest wish,
    Julia & Scott

  11. Marcia Laverte

    Marcia Leverte, – Licensed Clinical Social Worker
    Thank you for the opportunity to work with you at Project Return and to truly get to understand the core of PR. I had the opportunity to guide staff meetings ,spend time with the girls making individual personal portfolios for each girl through photography and to eventually write the CIRCLE Of HOPE with Tessa Gilmore Barnes, a guide to setting up a working clinical program duplicating Project Return. Through all of these activities I learned that the core and strength of Project Return came from Susie Basler.She helped all who were involved in Project Return to understand and adopt the core beliefs and to utilize these beliefs in their every day working with the girls. Her belief in each girl’s strength and significance never wavered and thus neither has the program. Susie ,Thank you for such an great opportunity .The Best of Luck !!!

  12. A moving and much deserved tribute. You are one of the all too rare people who have made a profound difference (for the better) in the lives of many people. Bravo! —Joe

  13. Judy Funderburk

    Susie is one of the most caring, thoughtful, and kind people I know. She also has a skill set that is unparalleled in her field, having developed core principles that work. Her willingness to think outside the box has helped the many troubled girls who have come her way to heal and see themselves as whole.

    Sending you wishes for all the best that is to come, with gratitude for your warm heart and abounding spirit.

    Blessed be,

  14. Amy S. Luciano

    It was a pleasure to work as a resident manager at Project Return in the late 80’s. In many ways, being under the directorship of Susie and experiencing a functioning household of non relatives working together – solving the issues of residents and staff – benefited me more personally than any classes or other work experiences could have.
    Many thanks to you Susie for all you’ve given to the residents and staff of Project Return over 30 years!
    Wishing you much health and happiness in the coming years.
    Love to you,

  15. Florence Boyer

    I came to live in Project Return when I was 15 years old in 1985. I remember when Susie started working at Project Return and am happy that she made a 30 year a commitment to the Girls that came to live there – we all need a good female role model as Susie was and continues to be!
    I became the first and perhaps only girl at Project Return that could not return home and my 2 years living there proved to be the only feeling of having a real Family that I continued to draw strength from – even now!
    What Susie gifted me with was a feeling of Hope that my life would get better and I know very few things that are more valuable than Hope!