This week, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.
Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.
RODNEY AND LATISHA WILLIAMS: RESIDENT DIRECTORS
Rodney and Latisha Williams’ road to Glendarcy House began elsewhere in Fairfield County.
Latisha — who worked in New Canaan as a teacher’s assistant, and in Greenwich as a Kids in Crisis counselor — met the resident director of New Canaan’s A Better Chance program. That led to helping out at the Wilton boys and girls’ ABC houses.
“Those kids were so cool!” she says.
Three years ago, she and her husband Rodney — a social worker – heard about an opening for house parents in Westport.
“I rode here on her coattails,” he says, as the couple sit on a comfortable couch in the North Avenue home they share with 8 scholars — and their own 2 children.
As a longtime basketball coach in New Canaan, Rodney saw great community support for A Better Chance. That’s replicated in Westport, where “they really allow us to function family-style,” Rodney says. “The town embraces these guys.”
A typical weekday begins with 6:15 a.m. wakeup. Rodney and Latisha chat with the boys as they grab breakfast. The scholars (and their own kids, Helen and RJ) go off to school. The couple goes off to work.
At night, there’s dinner together. “You never know where that conversation will go!” Rodney says.
The resident directors make sure too that homework gets done, and chores finished.
Saturdays are spent hanging out. Board games are a popular evening activity. “These guys are busy!” Rodney says. “Downtime is precious.”
Eight teenagers keep Rodney and Latisha active. They support the scholars’ extracurricular activities. The night before we spoke, for example, Latisha was at Staples High Schools’ Candlelight Concert, watching Diego and Yoel perform.
Glendarcy House functions differently than most Westport families. “These guys are away from home, out of their comfort zones,” Rodney explains. “They try to problem-solve on their own. If they can’t get it done on their own, they come to us.
“We’re not Mom and Dad. But we’re the closest thing they’ve got when they’re here. Once we earn their trust, it’s something.”
Latisha adds, “We do have relationships with their parents. And they do have a lot of support on the academic side. Teachers contact us directly. That takes some of the pressure off.”
Each boy, of course, has his own personality. Rodney and Latisha’s job is to make sure that every in the house — including their own 2 children — “function as a unit.” The resident directors have to manage all those personalities, ensure that everyone has personal space, and deal with occasional homesickness.
But, Latisha says, “we have a great bunch.”
“We’ve got sports guys, bookworms, guys into music,” Rodney adds. “They really are something!”
Rodney and Latisha may not be the boys’ biological parents. But at milestone moments — like when Manny and Sam walked across the stage at graduation last year — they get emotional. “We were part of that!” Latisha said with pride.
After graduating, Rodney says, “They still call and text to say hi. To hear their appreciation, and see them use the tools we gave them, is very powerful.”
The scholars benefit greatly from A Better Chance. They grow and mature, thanks to the guidance and love of their resident directors. Westport benefits just as much, from having the ABC scholars in our midst.
Two other people benefit from the program: Helen and RJ Williams. “They enjoy having the boys around every day,” Latisha says.
RJ plays basketball and chess with the scholars. As for Helen: “The guys in the house like having a little sister.”
ERIC SEIDMAN: BOARD MEMBER
Suzanne Sherman Propp helped convince Eric Seidman to move to Westport.
She’s also one of the reasons he’s spent nearly 8 years on the A Better Chance board – including 4 as president.
Eric and Suzanne were classmates at Colgate University. The woman who became his wife sang with Suzanne in an a cappella group. When the Seidmans relocated to Fairfield County for work, they looked for a home here because they knew how much the Propps loved the town.
After ABC opened Glendarcy House, Eric thought he might get involved – some day. A few years later he left his job in the food industry, and began working for himself at home. He went to the ABC website, clicked on “Volunteer,” and became a driver.
His very first rider was Charles Winslow. “He was incredibly impressive,” Eric recalls. Jahari Dodd made a great impression too. Eric was hooked.
At the end-of-the-year meeting, Eric chatted with board member Lee Bollert. He mentioned his only frustration: the scheduling process for drivers.
“Like any good leader, she immediately asked me to find a better way,” he laughs.
Eric discovered an online program. It was a marked improvement.
Two years later, he joined the board. His work with finance caught the eye of president Steve Daniels. He quickly identified Eric as a potential successor.
For nearly a year, Eric served on every ABC committee. He learned each facet of the organization. Particularly important, he says, is scholar selection. Everything A Better Chance does flows from that process.
“It’s really hard work,” Eric says. “We bring in 6 to 10 families, for 36 hours each, over a period of 2 months.” That — along with host families and the resident directors — are linchpins of the program.
He notes, “It’s really hard to ask young men to leave their families, and come here where they’re one of the few students of color.” As he was by Charles and Jahari, Eric is awed by the scholars.
“Most of them are extraordinarily smart. They may not have had the rigor of our middle schools, though. It’s our job to help them adjust, and keep them safe.”
Being president, Eric notes, is “a huge responsibility. It’s like having eight teenagers. There are lots of phone calls. Most of them are good ones. A few are difficult.”
One of his key roles as president, Eric says, was to ensure “a strong bench. We have to make sure our board is dedicated and passionate, willing to put in the time to keep us moving forward.”
He assumed his post when most of the founders had left the board. Recruitment of new members – men and women with drive, and diverse skill sets – was a high priority.
As he nears the end of 8 years on the board – term limits prevent him from serving longer – Eric realizes that a key strength of A Better Chance is the relationships forged between board members, scholars, teachers, principals, Board of Education members, and everyone else involved with and touched by the program. “I’m really proud of the town, and what it’s done,” he says.
He praises too the resident directors — “they do an unbelievable job, in a real partnership with us” — and all the other people who make ABC what it is.
“We probably don’t talk enough about how important someone like Merrill (Boehmer, the chef) is. And we sometimes overlook our wonderful tutors.”
If Eric has been surprised by anything, he says, it’s “the unwavering passion of the board members, who volunteer so much time. They really want to help kids, and bring a new perspective to the town of Westport.”
Yet he is not afraid to address a criticism he sometimes hears.
“People have said, ‘You spend so much time and money on 8 kids. But 2 towns away there is poverty, and poor schools.’
“My reply is: We have a lot of problems in this country. There is no one solution. We do spend a lot of money. But it’s working. It’s very positive. We do change lives. This is money well spent. I know we’re doing good work.”
Which is why he — and so many other board members — continue to commit their time, energy and money. They do all they can, however they can, to help A Better Chance of Westport flourish.