For over 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has provided academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School. Our scholars have benefited enormously – but our community has been enriched at least as equally by their presence.
The ABC story is wonderful, and compelling. It deserves to be told to an audience beyond those most immediately involved – the scholars, and the many volunteers who dedicate untold hours to making the program work.
What better way to tell it than through the words and images of members of the A Better Chance of Westport family?
My sister Susan Woog Wagner is a very talented professional photographer in White Plains. She’s particularly good with kids. She is always on the lookout for great new projects. When I told her about how important ABC is to our community, she suggested working together on a photo essay.
Starting last fall, I talked with scholars and their parents, host families, resident directors, tutors, drivers, founders, board members, the chef and others. Sue took their pictures. (We also collected photos from previous years.)
The result is “This is ABC.”
This project takes many forms. I’m posting my interviews and Sue’s photos here on “06880.” Each day, I’ll post a different story or two. It’s something very different for this blog. Then again, ABC is a very special program.
A video version will be shown on Saturday, March 17 (7 p.m., Rolling Hills Country Club). Staples grad Connor Mitnick and audio instructor Geno Heiter helped produce that compelling piece.
And the photos and interviews will be compiled into a brochure, to give interested Westporters — including potential volunteers — a sense of the depth and breadth of the program.
“This is ABC” tells the story behind the story of an important, enduring institution – one that impacts Westport, and the world far beyond our borders. Enjoy!
NASH OGUTU: SCHOLAR PARENT
In his native Kenyan village, Nash Ogutu milked cows and tended goats. He ran to school, where he was entrusted with the prestigious task of bell-ringing.
He listened to country singers like Dolly Parton. “America is the best place to live,” he and his friends thought. Nash’s dream was to study with “those greatest people.”
He became a registered nurse. But when a missionary group offered the chance to go to America, he instantly said yes.
Nash enrolled in college in New Jersey. At the same time, he worked several jobs. He earned re-certification as a registered nurse here. While supervising a local health department in North Carolina, he was asked to work as a project developer at New York University.
The year was 2001. Nash had custody of his 1-year-old son, Mannasses. He made the move.
It was not easy. Nash worked, continued his studies, and raised his son. He made sure that Manny kept a strong relationship with his mother. And he instilled in Manny a reverence for education.
“Back home, as poor as we were, education worked well,” Nash explains. “Boarding school is the way out.” In fifth grade, he had been selected to go away to school. He studied hard, and succeeded in that very competitive environment.
In America, Nash fought for Mannasses to enroll in a gifted and talented program. When his son was in seventh grade, Nash began looking at boarding school opportunities. Someone told him about A Better Chance.
He explored every opportunity for his son. While Mannasses was on the waiting list at prestigious New England boarding schools, father and son traveled to Westport for an ABC interview.
“It was so impressive,” Nash recalls. “I was in tears seeing how involved and interested everyone there was.”
At the end of the interview, Manny was asked if he was interested in Westport. He said yes, and withdrew his applications to boarding schools.
Nash had to convince Mannasses’ mother it was the right move. He also had to deal with his own emotions.
“It was tough. We had been together since he was 1,” Nash admits. “But I always felt I could not allow an opportunity for him to ‘study with the greatest’ to pass by. I believed he needed to be in that environment to be challenged. I did not want to be selfish.”
Saying goodbye was extremely difficult. Nash wanted to drive from Bayonne to check on Manny often, but was told he could not come too soon. The first time together, Nash took him to dinner. Each shared how tough the separation and transition had been. But Nash encouraged his son to work through the difficulties. It was another defining moment in their long journey.
Manny fared poorly during his first semester at Staples High School. He was devastated.
But father and son spoke by phone nearly every night. When they could not talk, they texted. That daily connection kept them both going.
So did Mannasses’ growing relationship with his host family. Peter and Suzanne embraced him, physically and emotionally. So did their children, Rose and Bennett, along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
On one of his first weekends, Suzanne took Manny to a Seventh Day Adventist church in Bridgeport. “We’re not staunch followers,” says Nash. “But that meant so much to him. It helped him keep going.”
It was just one of many small gestures that helped Mannasses feel welcome – and reassured Nash that his son was in good, warm hands.
As the months and years passed, Nash watched his son grow and thrive: academically, emotionally, interpersonally. A major reason, the father says, was “the holistic approach. You can’t get that at any boarding school. Westport did it.”
Nash has 13 siblings. But his relatives live in Kenya. With the Propps, Manny became part of a large, close-knit family.
So did Nash. He was invited to join Manny and all the relatives at a Passover Seder. It soon became an important tradition. Nash looks forward to going each year – even if Manny can’t get back from college.
When he describes what A Better of Chance has meant, Nash becomes emotional. “I speak from deep in my heart. Westport is a unique experience. Thank you for being my son’s friend. You inspire us to become better people.”
He laughs as he describes Mannasses’ freshman year at Carleton College. As soon as he got back to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, the first thing he wanted to do was go to Westport.
Back in Kenya, Nash Ogutu had a dream. He wanted to study with “the greatest people” in America.
He did that. Then he passed on his love of education to his son, and watched with joy as it was nurtured here.
His voice thick with emotion, Nash notes, “I achieved my dream of coming to America – when I became involved with Westport.”
MERRILL BOEHMER: CHEF
Merrill Boehmer has come full circle.
She was born and raised in Westport. She graduated from Staples. She ended up as a cook. Now she is the very talented, much loved chef at Glendarcy House. She nourishes the stomachs (and souls) of eight scholars — who (of course) attend Staples
Like the boys’ routes to Westport, Merrill’s was not direct. After Staples (Class of 1990), she majored in art history, and minored in psychology, at Tulane University. But she’d always loved cooking — and kids.
After college she worked at Café Zanghi, the high-end restaurant at National Hall. She moved to Newport Beach, California for a change of scene — and careers. She spent more than eight years as a fashion show producer.
But Merrill missed things like the changing seasons. In 2005 she came back to Connecticut. She joined Velocity Sports, helping plan events like Super Bowls and tennis tournaments.
When the stock market tumbled, she realized she wanted to get back into food. She started her own company: Cooking-In.
The same week her business cards arrived, she heard A Better Chance needed a new cook. Alison Milwe Grace — who Merrill had worked with, and who taught culinary arts at Staples (another high school connection!) — recommended her highly.
She was hired. Almost immediately, she had to prepare the August welcome back party. To her delight, everyone loved it. And they all loved Merrill.
She returns the love. Seven years after joining ABC, Merrill calls this “the best job ever!”
She appreciates the freedom. She shops — eyes trained equally on nutrition, taste and budget — and creates her own menus.
In her first two years at Glendarcy House, Merrill never repeated a meal. She had Chinese, German and Mexican nights. She taught the boys about food — and learned a lot herself.
“They’re teenage boys,” she notes. “They love burgers, lasagna, pasta.”
But, she discovered, they also love kale salad, brussels sprouts and sautéed spinach. Who knew?
She cooks Monday through Friday, shopping Mondays and Wednesdays. She’s proud of her ability to base menus around the deals in a Shoprite flyer — and that all the meat, produce and fish guys there know her.
“I’m frugal,” she notes. “I’m very conscious that we’re a non-profit.”
She’s in the kitchen when the scholars get off the bus. They help unload groceries. In the bags are breakfast foods, like granola bars, yogurt, oatmeal and bananas; lunch foods (for those who want to make their own lunches), dinner foods and snacks.
She cooks in the afternoon. Some of the boys grab snacks and leftovers before heading off to study. Some linger to chat.
At 6 p.m. Merrill sets out dinner, buffet style. Each dinner includes greens, protein, a starch and dessert. If she’s serving a heavy entrée like steak, there’s fruit for dessert. If it’s fish, she offers cake or brownies.
Meals can be quiet — or filled with laughter. “They’re teenage boys, in a stressful school,” Merrill says. “When I hear them being kids, I love it.”
For weekends, she makes sure there are plenty of eggs, bacon, waffles, bread, milk, juice and cider in the refrigerator and pantry. Saturday dinners are often takeout. On Sundays the scholars eat with their host families.
Merrill has an easygoing relationship with the scholars. On their birthdays, they can choose the dinner menu.
But, she adds, “I’m the recycling queen. The boys know that. And they know how to recycle.”
It’s clear what the ABC scholars get from Merrill: great, nutritional and filling meals. What does she get?
“I love my job. Everyone’s taken me under their wing. The boys are cool, fun and silly. They keep me young. And they’re very appreciative. They always tell me they love my food!”