A Very Merry Bridgeport Christmas

It started with a small request.

Kathy Mahieu — a Westporter who teaches in a Bridgeport elementary school — asked if I could write about the differences between our school district and theirs. I had a better idea: I’d post her 1st-person account. Her words would be far more meaningful than mine.

A Tale of 2 School Districts” provoked a powerful response. Dozens of commenters offered thoughts. Many wondered what they could do to help.

The answer: Plenty. And here’s where this story really gets good.

Catherine Walsh called Kathy, and provided cartons of paper for the Read School. That simple gesture solved an enormous need.

Simultaneously, Jimeale Hede and Carolyn Russo got involved. Using Facebook, they installed “room moms” in every pre-K through 3rd grade classroom. The women published wish lists on their grassroots Brighter Lives for Kids Foundation website. Classroom supplies poured in.

Kathy Mathieu in her Bridgeport classroom. Very few teachers have whiteboards.

Kathy Mathieu in her Bridgeport classroom. Very few teachers have whiteboards.

In just one week this month, over $71,000 was raised. Much of that came from a Cushman & Wakefield fundraiser. The money will pay for the purchase of 90 Chromebooks with educational programs, as well as field trips and a soccer program.

“06880” readers — and others in an ever-widening circle — volunteered to address other needs. Teachers are identifying students who need shoes or a backpack, for example, as well as requesting items like rugs, headphones and books for their classrooms.

Help is on the way Cesar Batalla Elementary School too.

Read Elementary School

Read Elementary School

Watching the generosity unfold brought Catherine to tears. Westport and surrounding communities rallied around the needy school. Importantly, she says, they’ve “committed themselves long-term” to aiding these children and their families.

One of the Westporters who helped with Pamela Long. She heard about a toy drive for the Cesar Batalla and Read Schools. She bought some, but was chagrined to learn that donations were slow.

She asked “06880” for help. Again, I was happy to help. Again too, I asked for the story in her own words.

Pamela was eloquent. “These kids are in desperate situations — the highest poverty brackets, shelters, you name it. 100% of these children are fed breakfast and lunch at school,” she wrote. “Their families have no money for basic necessities — let alone holiday gifts.

“Westport:  We can do better. Every child deserves the joy of opening a gift this season. We’ve got 4 more days to come together as a community and show our compassion, by helping those who do not have our good fortune. Open your hearts and your wallets — and get shopping!”

Westporters — and readers far and wide — responded instantly. Taking advantage of an Amazon link — and thanks to a generation donation from locally based/internationally known toymakers Melissa & Doug — they blew past the goal.

Plenty of people also helped with the logistics: wrapping, transporting, and making the toy magic happen.

Some of the presents that poured in to the Read and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools.

Some of the holiday gifts that poured in to the Read and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools.

So — when it’s almost time for boys and girls all over America to enjoy the wonder of Santa Claus — let’s pause to thank the men and women (and kids) of our “06880” community (real and virtual) who helped bring smiles to kids a few miles away.

And let’s vow to keep helping the boys and girls of Bridgeport every day in the coming year.

15 responses to “A Very Merry Bridgeport Christmas

  1. This is wonderful but does not solve the problem of inequality in this region. We need to change how schools are funded in CT and address the low wages earned by so many hard working folks.

    • The only way we can be “committed to the long-term” is if our society believes that we should educate and support all our children equally. Tragically, the difference between Read and Long Lots shows that we don’t. – Chris Woods

  2. A heartwarming story. Thanks Westport.

  3. Dan: This is is great. Wow. Makes me feel much better about living next door. Alida is right. I would love to see our soccer program find a way to get engaged with younger kids in Bridgeport. I think it would be good for everybody.

    • Aaron- Jimeale Hede here. I just ran a soccer program for 60 kids at Cesar batalla – twice a week for an hour. The kids loved it- we got them uniforms and the teachers said how amazing the kids were in class ! We are planning to run again in the spring!

  4. From Gerry Manning
    Black Rock, Bridgeport

    Dan, if you need to reach me, I’ll supply you my cellphone in a separate communique.

    Dan, As one who’d lived in Westport from 1949 through 2006, I’m happy to learn just how your outreach has motivated so many good folks from Westport to reach out and really help Bridgeport’s children with generous and much-needed assistance and expertise. Bridgeport is a wonderful city, full of so many treasures that are often lost in the haze of negatives that plague its reputation. But the underlying truth is that it sorely needs the expertise and targeted assistance from our more affluent neighbors in order to bridge the huge gap that separates our communities. As one who grew up thinking that Bridgeport was “off-limits” and unsafe, I can tell you that the generosity your outreach has inspired is a big step in demonstrating that the old untruths about this City are melting away in the simple and wonderful glow of human kindness and love for the children of lesser means who so often go unnoticed, living in our own back yard.

  5. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    Thank you Dan for your help getting the word out there. In addition, I was at Cesar Batailia School yesterday along with a number of other volunteers to help accept deliveries for them and to coordinate the distribution and pick up of a Christmas meal for each family.

    We also published the need for people to donate (thru Jimeale Hede and her Brighter Lives 4 kids foundation) frozen turkeys, veggies,band potatoes, carrots, stuffing, fruit and roasting pans and a dessert. Donations were dropped off and peapod deliveries came to both Read and Cesar Batalia schools yesterday.

    The families that came to pick up these much needed meals were thrilled and very gracious and appreciative of this gift of food for their families. I got to speak with some of the moms who were looking for jobs and one was so excited that she had just found out she had an interview for a job. Some of them came from their jobs to pick up the food and others needed help getting the food to their homes because they were walking and pushing a baby stroller and holding the had of their child who attended the school, but they figured out a way to get the large and heavy boxes home with help from friends or they made two trips splitting the box into two lighter packages.

    I have to let you know how much of a difference this made to these 40-50 families this year. Today Santa is coming to deliver all those presents that were donated and they are very excited about that too.

    I have photos from yesterday and I would love to send them to you Dan. Also, many thanks to a large donation from Across the Globe Children’s Foundation based in Westport and Stamford to the Brighter Lives 4 Kids Foundation which was split between the two schools to assist Jimeale in being able to provide some of the basics and technology to these two schools.

    Next year we hope to increase the meals to 75 families that need them at each school.

    We did receive enough toys to send some of the extras to other Bridgeport schools as well. It was such a wonderful response to these needs from the 06880 community as well as from Fairfield and weston and other generous people who we reached Thru 06880 and Facebook posts.

    Thank you everyone and happy holidays to all. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year!

  6. Frannie Southworth

    Dan, you are a gift to our community! Thank you. This is wonderful and exactly what we all need to hear and participate in. All the small positive actions we take add up to big ones!!!💗Happy Holidays to all!!!!!

  7. The inequality issue is at the heart of it and unfortunately the funding from the state will most likely become even less. What is important is, Fairfield County neighbors have recognized the issues and have risen to the occasion. Brighter Lives for Kids Foundation have taken the long view and the support of these two schools in Bridgeport goes far beyond toys and holiday food. These schools no longer have para professionals. Brighter Lives has organized suburban volunteers for each school. These room mothers volunteer 5 days a week and assist the teachers in every way. If the mothers see an emergency situation such as a child coming to school without shoes or coats, they immediately reach out to the organization for support. These moms will drop everything and shop for the child in need and deliver to the school for that child within hours. The schools need absolutely everything. There is an on going list of supplies always needed. I urge all of you to check in with BL through out the year and keep the paper and glue flowing directly to the schools.

    Happy Holidays to you Dan, job well done.

    • Again, I would like to say how wonderful it is that folks have risen to help but a public school system should not have to depend on private, discretionary sources of aid. We need to change the whole system. As Judge Moukawsger noted in September 2016, comprehensive reform is needed. A state funding approach that gives rich towns money desperately needed by poor towns “makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate education opportunities to all students.” Private generosity should not have to make up for the state’s inadequacy. Alida “Lidy”

      • We have many problems with our Bridgeport school system, not the least of which are the cronyism and turf battles waged between school board members. Rather than do what is right for the kids, board members have engaged in in-fighting, finger-pointing and all manner of competitive jockeying for influence. Who suffers? The kids suffer. It really is shameful that we’ve been unable to field a team of qualified and committed board members who think less of their own personal ambitions than the futures of kids who rely upon them to manage a system that prepares them for entry into the greater society as adults.
        But hope has arrived! Under the new leadership of Joe Larcheveque, I’m so encouraged that his common-sense approach to leadership bodes well for the future of Bridgeport’s school system. Joe, we’re with you. Here’s hoping that your example of commitment to the kids translates to a more selfless culture amongst school board members.

  8. don l bergmann

    So many names, so many fine people. I only know Cathy Walsh, but all are to be commended.
    Don Begmann

  9. Hello Everyone!
    Thank you Dan for following up on this, and for providing me with a forum to bring to light this issue with the community. The word I’ve been using since the beginning is ‘overwhelming.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this community to respond so generously.

    I’d like to share a short chronology of what’s been happening.
    1. The first day the story about Bridgeport and Westport was released, I was contacted by several people who said they were willing to help, including Jolanta Bilotti and Linda Amos. They delivered boxes of paper and other supplies to my house and donated computers and books. This was so exciting to me! I thought I was in heaven.
    2. The next day I spoke with Jimeale Hede on the phone. She set up an amazon wish list requesting supplies for our school.
    3. The next day Cathy Walsh and Chris O’Sullivan visited our school, met with some teachers and our principal, and talked about how they could help. And, they also brought four cases of copy paper and a few rugs for our classrooms.
    4. The next school day (3 days after the wish list was initiated) 57 boxes were delivered to our school. We received copy paper (the most prized supply of all!), markers, staples, construction paper, index cards, and the list goes on!! A colleague and I spent the afternoon unpacking the boxes. We were moved to tears by some of the comments that came along with the gift — so supportive, encouraging, and some were sent in memory of loved ones. My colleague commented, “I guess people really do care about Bridgeport.”
    5. Little did we know that the next day we would receive another shipment of over 50 boxes, and the same the next day.
    As we delivered the supplies to our colleagues, the teachers were overwhelmed with excitement. They kept saying it feels like Christmas!

    It didn’t stop there. Jimeale helped each of the teachers in Grades K through 3 get Room Moms. My Room Moms, Dani Lueker and Abigail Boston, rallied their neighbors to help support the students in my class. They were able to secure brand new coats for two of my students who didn’t have one. They were able to get us a TON of donations from a variety of places – books, floor mats, toys, just to name a few. They planned an amazing holiday party in just two weeks.

    My students had never had a party like this one. The two Room Moms were there and they brought their wonderful children. We started off with a craft – putting a hand print on canvas and decorating it. Abby read a book. Then students had a feast. As if that wasn’t enough, students were treated to a grab bag AND they were each given a gift. One of my students remarked that it was “the best day of his whole life.” And, they even gave every student a bag of food/goodies to take home.

    One of the teachers commented to me that this year students will be able to make a card to give to their parent or family member for Christmas. In past years, there wasn’t enough construction paper to do this activity. How wonderful!

    I didn’t mention all the toys that were donated by the hundreds of people in this and the surrounding community. It truly was overwhelming. You should have seen our students faces today when they were greeted in person by Santa and received a gift directly from him. So excited!

    We continue to receive more and more support, both in donations and help. Everything is appreciated so much by our staff and of course our students. I honestly don’t know how to express my gratefulness to each and every one of the hundreds of people who donated time, supplies, and treats to our school. You are an amazing community and I’m SO proud to say that I’m a part of it. You have truly made the lives of our students so much better with what may seem by a small gesture. It may be small to you, but it is HUGE to our students and our staff.

    Thank you, and I wish each and every one of you a beautiful holiday!

    • We should be thanking you, Kathy, and your colleagues. Teaching is challenging enough without the additional responsibility of making sure your students’ most basic needs are being met. It is exhausting and sometimes heart-wrenching work, and it takes special people to do it.

  10. I don’t know if the School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport was mentioned in these stories and responses. Anne Gribbon, the director, is always looking for volunteers to read in class, to tutor, and to mentor. Her email is AGRIBBON@bridgeportedu.net. She recently introduced my church, Green’s Farms Church, to Skane School, a public pre-school in the North End of Bridgeport. GFC volunteers had a blast at the school this week, photographing the children visiting with Santa and sharing the photos with Skane families. Supporting Bridgeport schools is a lot of fun, in our experience, and we plan to do as much as we can in 2017.