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 — the final in the series — features a volunteer driver, a tutor, and a friend of an ABC scholar.
SHERYL LAWRENCE: DRIVER
Hundreds of volunteers make A Better Chance run smoothly.
There are host families, tutors, administrators, Dream Event organizers and many more.
But it’s people like Sheryl Lawrence who — quite literally — go the extra mile.
Sheryl is an ABC driver. Her own children are no longer at Staples. But her daughter Lilly had taken a science course with Dr. Nick Morgan. At the time, he and his wife were resident directors at Glendarcy House. He often talked with his students about his wonderful experience there.
Meanwhile, Lilly shared nearly every class — for all 4 years — with A Better Chance scholar Shamir Clayton. She watched with admiration as he became an important and much-loved member of the school community — and, after graduation, moved on to Emory University.
Sheryl’s son entered Staples. For 3 years, Dr. Morgan was his Authentic Science Research teacher. He was still an ABC house parent — and still spoke often about the program.
“It stuck in my head after my kids were in college,” Sheryl says. “I realized, I have a car, and I have time. Driving seemed simple to me.”
The idea was “a no-brainer.” But, Sheryl adds, “I know it means a lot to kids who need to go somewhere.”
The process is simple. Every weekend, drivers get an email listing rides needed for the coming week. One boy might go to the YMCA at 3 p.m. on Tuesday; another might need a ride from Staples to the Westport library, then back to school for chorus. There are trips to the barber, dentist, skating rink, a classmate’s home to work on a school project, tutoring at Freudigman and Billings — pretty much the same as any other Staples kid without a car. (Even scholars who have a license are not allowed to drive. Nor are they permitted to walk from Staples to Glendarcy House after dark.)
Sheryl looked forward to getting to know the scholars. She says, “I know as a parent, you hear things in the car — from your own and other kids — you wouldn’t hear otherwise.”
But she quickly learned there was far more to driving than just slipping behind the wheel, and keeping quiet.
“Once you start driving, you can’t not do it,” Sheryl insists. “We live in a wonderful area here. These kids are wonderful too. But this is a foreign land to them. The weather is cold, and the neighbors are all white.”
As she drives, Sheryl and her rider chat. They discuss families, pets, backgrounds and goals.
“It’s not delving,” she notes. “It’s a nice conversation with kids I wouldn’t have a chance to know otherwise.”
She got to know Manny Ogutu especially well. He liked to go to Winslow Park to walk. And every Friday, he treated himself to Chipotle.
“That was our thing,” Sheryl says. “I drove him every week. We got really close. We still keep in touch.”
She pauses. “Manny was my dad’s name too.”
When the scholars return from a college visit — sometimes driven there by board members — Sheryl hears their reactions. “College is a world I’m used to,” she says. “But I appreciate seeing it through other kids’ eyes.”
When they get accepted — sometimes as the first person in their family headed to college — she shares their enthusiasm and joy. She hears their concerns, and answers their questions.
They are always very appreciative of the rides. And the conversation.
“This is the most painless, easiest thing I can do,” Sheryl says. “Every person in the suburbs lives in their car. We go everywhere, all the time. Why wouldn’t I want to share my ride with someone?”
Sheryl downplays her role, with a little joke. “I’m just a cog in the wheel,” she says.
But every teenager needs wheels. Without her — and her many fellow volunteer drivers — our A Better Chance scholars would just be stuck in neutral.
KEVIN GREEN: TUTOR
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tutor A Better Chance scholars.
But Kevin Green is one.
A former financial analyst, University of Chicago researcher, and physics and astronomy professor at the University of Connecticut-Stamford, Kevin now teaches physics at the University of New Haven. He also works part-time as a solar project consultant.
He can talk about quantum theory, black holes and gravitational forces with anyone, any time. But he especially loves talking about them with the young men at Glendarcy House.
Kevin has been a science and math tutor there for 4 years. He volunteers his time and talents 2 nights a week.
Every night is different. Some boys come in with solid backgrounds. Others do not. All, he says, face the “cultural shock” of adapting to a new school, with rigorous academic standards.
Surprisingly though, freshmen tend to ask the fewest questions. “I got it,” they tell Kevin. Juniors are most active in seeking his aid.
Physics is the hardest subject for many. “It’s always a treat to see when they suddenly grasp a concept,” he says.
Kevin helps with homework. But he avoids giving answers. He teaches the scholars how to learn independently.
His style is Socratic. “I push them toward the solution,” Kevin says. “They need to find it themselves.”
It’s important too to “raise the bar for them. They’re young, bright kids. They need to know how much they can achieve.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how much potential each A Better Chance scholar has.
But being one sure helps.
BEN KLAU: FRIEND
Growing up in Westport, Ben Klau had little exposure to diversity. He met A Better Chance scholar Jarod Ferguson when both were freshmen football players. Ben’s mom was a volunteer driver, and gave Jarod rides home. The 9th graders played basketball together too.
Their friendship grew through radio. They did shows together on WWPT — Staples’ FM station. After Jarod left the football field for the radio booth, he announced Ben’s games.
They spend a couple of hours prepping for each broadcast — researching teams online, talking to coaches, figuring out what they’ll say and how they’ll say it. They work together setting up the equipment. After each game, they break the equipment down.
“Jarod is a lot of fun to work with,” Ben says. “He’s got a great radio personality. He’s energetic and passionate.”
Their friendship extends beyond radio. They hang out after school, play basketball at the Y, and are in the same fantasy football league.
Thanks to Jarod, Ben understands a lot about ABC. He admires the scholars. “They’re all great kids,” he says. “They take full advantage of the opportunity. They really make the most of it.”
Ben has watched the scholars make friends, join sports and clubs, and adapt to Westport life. He’s learned too about Jarod’s life in Philadelphia. This summer, Ben will visit him there.
“I’ve gotten to hear about life outside the Westport bubble,” Ben says. “It’s given me an eye on how privileged we are. I’ve really gotten to see how special Staples is — the programs, the teachers, the way people care.”
Ben says, “most Staples kids think all the ABC kids come from dangerous places. That’s not always the case. But they do come here to get the best education they can. Maybe at home they don’t have all of Staples’ opportunities.”
A Better Chance, Ben says, “gives these guys a chance to be all they can be. And it gives us a chance to benefit from their perspectives.”
He pauses. “It’s amazing the trust their parents place in us.”