Unsung Hero #228

Sally Silverstein was raised in Norwalk. But she grew up — literally and figuratively — at the Westport YMCA.

She swam with the Water Rats, competed on the gymnastics team, and worked as a counselor and swim instructor at Camp Mahackeno.

Sally knew legendary director Matt Johnson well. A few years after college — when she’d taught phys. ed. at Norwalk High for a couple of years, and started raising her own children — he called.

Sally Silverstein’s last photo with Matt Johnson, at the downtown YMCA.

He wanted to grow the Y’s small gymnastics program. He invited her to see.

Class was held in the upper gymnasium of the then-downtown building. There was no equipment. She figured, why not?

Staples High School was getting rid of its gymnastics apparatus. She took a van, and picked up vaults, beams and bars.

The equipment had to be set up each day, then broken down after each session. But Sally was all in. Quickly, the program grew.

Sally Silverstein

After Johnson retired, new CEO Dotty Kyle offered Sally a full-time job as sports and recreation director. Soon, she took over the dance department too.

The gymnastics program moved to the 3rd floor of the old Y. The ceiling was 12 feet high. Sally’s gymnasts were good. She worried they’d leap off the high bar and hit it. The Y built skylights there, for extra room.

The long path to a new YMCA at the Mahackeno campus was controversial for many reasons — including elimination of the gymnastics center, for budget reasons.

Y officials wanted to end the program altogether. But parents and staff fought to keep it. Space was found in Norwalk. The program thrived.

Finally, a sparlking gymnastics center was built during Phase 2 at the “new” Y. At 11,000 square feet, it’s nearly double the Norwalk space — and triple the downtown YMCA.

The Westport Weston Family YMCA Phase 2 project added a gymnastics center (right).

Sally is a firm believer in the importance of the gymnastics program. Beyond coordination, it teaches importance lessons like discipline, organization and accountability. And, she says, those all carry over into enhanced academic performance.

She’s proud too of the family environment she’s created. Parents are eager to help, and children know that they have a warm, embracing home at the Westport Y Gymnastics Center.

More than 3 decades later, members of Sally Silverstein’s first YMCA gymnastics team still keep in touch. The other day, they met for lunch.

COVID has taken a toll on the program. Some youngsters have been in gymnastics for 2 years, yet only now compete against other teams. When parents came — finally — to the holiday exhibition, it was the first time for many they’d even seen the new Y facility.

Earlier this month — after 34 years directing the gymnastics program — Sally retired. On her last day, she sat everyone in a circle and asked them to share their favorite experience.

Because of the pandemic,  younger gymnasts had never traveled on Sally’s trips across the country, and to Europe. They had never marched in a Washington parade, or gone to Olympic trials. They listened in awe to the stories of her older gymnasts.

Sally Silverstein’s showtime exhibition team win gold at USA Group Gymnastics Nationals.

As she retires, Sally holds those memories close. She also thinks of her staff — another family she created over the years. Like Sally, many grew up in the Y program. “They made everything we did possible, she says gratefully.

“I wouldn’t have stayed if the community hadn’t been so wonderful,” she says. “Parents — and others — always wanted to help.”

Among those others: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They always covered expenses for youngsters who could not afford a trip, or new gymnastics outfits.

(Newman knew Sally well. When she took down equipment at the old Y, it was so the actor could play badminton. If there was a fundraising bake sale in the building, he always bought a brownie.)

For 34 years, Sally has directed, coached and taught 7 days a week. She’s too young and energetic not to keep working at something. She will take a bit of time off though, before figuring out what’s next. She may give back to a hospital, which has helped care for a sick family member for many years.

She looks forward to taking her grandchildren to Disney World, spending time with her 99-year-old mother, and her husband of 41 years, Tim — “my best friend.”

Sally and Tim Silverstein with their grandchildren Jonathan and Nicole.

“I still love the Y,” Sally says.

After 34 years of service — and many more, as a growing-up kid — Sally Silverstein deserves the thanks of a grateful Westport Weston Family YMCA.

And of the greater community too. Which is why she is this week’s “06880” Unsung Hero of the Week. Congratulations, Sally!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email 06880blog@gmail.com)

Sally and Tim Silverstein with their son Michael and daughter Lindsay.

7 responses to “Unsung Hero #228

  1. Lily Bloomingdale

    What a wonderful program run by Sally. She has taken my daughter across the world to competitions in Ohio, California, Austria. More importantly, she gave the girls unending love, enthusiasm and support that increased their self confidence and self worth. She is truly a gem of the previous variety

  2. Rosemary Halstead

    Sally is the embodiment of what the Y strives to be. Over the past 34 years she has been a teacher, counselor, friend and confidant to a multitude of children and their parents as well as a highly regarded staff member. Sally, you are one of a kind. You have left an indelible mark on the WWFY and will be greatly missed. May your next chapter bring you fulfillment and joy.

  3. Joanie McCarthy Ketley

    I worked for Sally for many years in the gymnastics center. She was always great to work for and totally dedicated to the kids and her staff. Congratulations on your retirement. It is well deserved.

  4. Congratulations on a job well done Sally, proud to have been a colleague of yours for many of those 34 years!

  5. Ngassam Ngnoumen

    Congrats and wishing you all the best! Thanks for supporting our Y and our community for all these years!

  6. I worked for Sally at the Y teaching a soccer program. Taught her children at Columbus Magnet School. She has truly been a committed professional and human being. She touched so many lives in such a positive way. All the best to her on this remarkable career

  7. Wendy Crowther

    I’m so sorry I missed this posting when it was first published. Congratulations, Sally, on your retirement and your ability to stick with the YMCA through thick and thin, especially during times when it wasn’t easy. I was a staffer there (along with Bob Knoebel, Matt Johnson, Claire Sacramone and others when you first signed on, and I went through a few of those transitions with you. But, wow, what an incredible program you built over these many years. I’m so proud of you. The Westport Y has really big shoes to fill.