Author Archives: Dan Woog

Bereaved Kids Enjoy Great Camp Experience

When Darren was 10 years old, his father committed suicide. Like many children who have lost a parent or sibling, he felt not only the sting of death, but isolation from his peers. He was different, he thought, from every other kid.

Fortunately, he attended Experience Camp. Every summer, bereaved youngsters come together for a week. Most of their time is spent in typical camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, campfires.

But with the guidance of licensed clinicians, they find opportunities to share their life stories with kids who are just like them.

Darren did not say a word all week about his situation. Nevertheless, he came back the next year. And the year after. The year after that, too.

Finally — in his 4th summer at “ExCamp” — a counselor told Darren privately that he too had lost his father to suicide. Tentatively, Darren opened up.

The next year, Darren became a leader. Today, he’s a counselor helping other kids share their own stories.

To Sara Deren, that’s what ExCamp is all about. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, she says. But caring support allows hundreds of youngsters to move on from the trauma of losing a loved one.

Deren is a Westporter. And Experience Camps — which has grown from one site and 27 kids in 2009, to a network of 4 camps in New York, California and Georgia, with 200 volunteers serving 500 boys and girls ages 9 to 16 a year — is headquartered right here in Westport.

Jon and Sara Deren

Deren never went to summer camp. She had a high-powered career in financial services. But she married into a camp family. Her husband Jon owned Camp Manitou for boys in Maine.

Deren quickly learned about the wonders of camp. She and her husband also recognized that its high price prevented many youngsters from enjoying the growth of a summer in the woods.

In 2008 they formed a foundation, with the broad mission of providing a camp experience to those who could not afford it. When they learned that Tapawingo — another Maine camp — ran a bereavement program for girls, they realized they could fulfill their goal by setting up a parallel week for boys.

Experience Camp began the next year. It ran the week after Manitou’s regular session ended.

Using crayons, campers express their feelings after someone very close has died.

It filled a crucial need. “For a kid, death can be incredibly isolating,” Deren says. “Feeling ‘less normal’ than everyone else — and not having a way to express it — can lead to detrimental actions, sometimes years later. This gives kids a place where they don’t feel alone. A lot of times it’s the only place where everyone understands what they’re going through.”

Many campers return each year, Deren adds, “because grief changes too.”

Darren — the boy who grew into a leader, after 4 years of silence — is one example of the wonders of Ex Camp. There are many more.

Steven’s father spent years in a vegetative state after a car accident, before finally dying. A year later, Steven’s mother succumbed to cancer. An only child with no other relatives, he was adopted by the woman who nursed his mother before she died.

Despite his horrific childhood, Steven had not lost his smart, articulate, mature personality. At the camp’s talent competition he recited all the presidents’ names — backward and forward — and held up a sign about running for president. He was named “Mr. ManEx” (Manitou Experience).

Campers rushed the stage to embrace him. “For the first time, he experienced a real family,” Deren says.

He returns to Ex Camp every year, “paying it forward.”

Deren serves as executive director of Experience Camps. Her office is in downtown Westport, right above Brooks Brothers (coincidentally, just down the hall from another Maine camp, Laurel).

She loves her work. Now — in addition to planning 4 summer sessions — she’s looking ahead to year-round efforts. “We do camp really well,” Deren says. “But we also want a way for kids to stay connected all year long.”

One of her jobs is fundraising. No child pays anything — including bus transportation to and from camp.

It costs $1,000 for a week at camp. That’s all covered, thanks to individual donations, foundation grants and fundraisers.

A week at Experience Camp is filled with fun.

All the hard work is worth it.

“The feeling of fulfillment — of making a difference, and giving other people an opportunity to make a difference too — is fantastic,” Deren says.

“Our supporters, our volunteers, our campers — everyone works together to create a microcosm of how the world should operate: with acceptance and inclusion.

“Being able to provide a way for kids to thrive, to find happiness and lightness in an otherwise dark time — what an incredible privilege.”

(Click here to learn more about Experience Camps. Click here for a series of powerful videos, and here for resources for helping youngsters deal with grief.)

 

Aarti Is All In For The Cure

Aarti Khosla is one of my — and Westport’s — favorite people.

The owner of Le Rouge — the fantastic handmade chocolate shop on Main Street, just past Avery Place — is always the first to donate funds (or treats) for any good cause.

Today she went one step further.

As part of her mission to help the St. Baldrick Foundation raise money for childhood cancer research, she set a personal goal of $5,500.

Friends, family and customers pledged $6,783.

So today, Aarti sat down to fulfill her side of the deal.

Aarti Khosla before …

… during …

… and after the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser, at the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

She’s proud to do her part to help kids who are battling severe illnesses.

Now it’s your turn.

You can still donate to Aarti’s page. Just click here.

Then have some of her chocolates. They — and the knowledge of doing good — will make you feel great!

Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

Six of the 7 Board of Finance have written an open letter to Westporters. They say:

Westport has worked hard to prudently manage its finances and tax base. All branches of our town government, many elected officials and volunteers, have worked collaboratively, on behalf of all residents, to ensure we have a high quality of life at a cost all residents and businesses can afford.  Sadly, maintaining this balance will be more difficult in the future.

Today we are faced with grim economic news from the State of Connecticut. This is not a one-off problem and it will continue for years to come. Because of our state government’s inability to manage their budget and control spending, resulting in a projected deficit of over $1.5 billion next year alone, Westport finds itself in a difficult position. Instead of tackling a state government that has grown too large and too expensive for the residents, the state is largely trying to solve its budget problems by shifting costs to towns.

First, the state is decreasing or totally eliminating payments it has made to Westport for either education or other services, which equals $3 million to $4 million in 2018 alone. We assume this revenue from the state, which directly supplemented our operating budgets, is permanently gone.

Second, the state is discussing transferring ongoing costs from the state budget to the town budget, in the form of teacher pension costs. If it does not come in the form of teacher pension costs, we still believe transferred costs will come to us in another form.

The total impact in 2018 will be in the $8 million range (based on the proposals currently on the table). Rather than pass these costs directly on to Westport taxpayers with a big tax increase, approximately $800 per household, the Board of Finance asked our town to come together as a community to find ways to slow the growth of operational costs.

The Police, Fire Department, EMS, Public Works, Parks and Rec, Library and Town Hall staff did what they could, and reduced their initial operating budget submissions by 1.5%. We also asked the Board of Education to trim its submission by 1.5% or $1.7 million. This actually results in an increase of 1%, or $1 million over the prior year education budget.

Now it is time for the Board of Education to join with the Westport community to do its part, as they have before. This is not the time for pitting parents against the rest of the community. We must all do what we can to try to provide the best services to everyone in Westport at the most reasonable cost.

As we have learned in the past, it is indeed possible to slow the growth in the education budget without significant pain and suffering. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession crisis, the school system proposed an extremely responsive budget, and even gave back a sizable year-end surplus, with minimal impacts to our children.

We ask the Westport school administration, Board of Education, PTA, teachers and parents to come together collaboratively to try to discern what areas of the education budget can be trimmed without impacting our children’s futures.  We know that in order to continually be a leading school district that we must continue to innovate.  That means evolving and becoming better consumers at every level.

This is not a circumstance of Westport’s making. None of us can be satisfied with the decades of financial mismanagement in Hartford. The unfortunate reality is that successful communities such as Westport are being forced to shoulder the burden of Hartford’s failures.

Let’s take our passion regarding our schools to the state. All Westport citizens should be telling our representatives in Hartford — Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Tony Hwang — that Westport will not stand for being the state piggy bank. This is where we should raise our voices and be heard.

Lee Caney
Sheri Gordon
Michael Rea
Brian Stern
Jennifer Tooker
Jim Westphal

Democracy On Display In Westport

They came from all over Westport, and Redding and Roxbury. There were, by some estimates, 800 of them. But crowd estimates, as we all know now, are less important than the message the crowd sends.

They were Democrats, Republicans and independents. They were moms, dads, tweens and teens, and folks who marched in the ’60s and are now beyond that age.

The English translation of this Russian sign is: “Treason leads to impeachment.”

All 3 selectmen were there, with town officials, state legislators, and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Julia Belaga. The first President Bush appointed her regional director of the EPA, an agency that President Trump wants to scrap.

Past and present town officials — Republicans and Democrats — at the march included (from left) Steve and Rosemary Halstead, 2nd selectman Avi Kaner, 1st selectman Jim Marpe, State Representative Gail Lavielle and 3rd selectman Helen Garten.

They were there for the environment, women’s rights, immigration and education. They were there against authoritarianism, murky Russian ties and the countless whack-a-mole controversies that have sprung up ever since January 20.

Westporter Susan Terry led the crowd in a rousing, singalong “Star Spangled Banner.” Car horns honked in solidarity. (One car passed by with a counter-protest. “Make America great again!” the driver shouted.)

Suzanne Sherman Propp wore her favorite hat.

The music included upbeat songs like the Beatles’ “Here Comes the  Sun,” and protest anthems like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

And when today’s “Connecticut: One Small State, One Big Voice” march from Jesup Green to Veterans Green was over — after Senators Chris Murphy and Dick Blumenthal, Congressman Jim Himes and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had spoken — there was one last song.

“These boots are made for walkin’,” Nancy Sinatra sang. “And one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

Are you ready?

March organizers (from left) Darcy Hicks, Lauren Soloff and Lisa Bowman show off the message of the day.

Today’s march attracted demonstrators of all ages…

… including this future voter. (Photo/Cathy Siroka)

Congressman Jim Himes gets ready to speak.

Congressman Jim Himes said that President Trump has catered to “the worst elements of extremists.” But he hasn’t succeeded, because “all over America — in unlikely states like Oklahoma and Alabama — people came together. Reasonable Republicans heard from people like you.

“People have used fear to move decent Americans behind bad instincts,” Himes added. “But this is America. We don’t do fear well. Whatever your party, stand up.

“To all the Democrats and Republicans here: You are the best of America. Thanks to you, our shared values will prevail.”

The crowd responded with a heartfelt chant: “Thank you Jim!”

Senator Dick Blumenthal (Photo/Diane Lowman)

Senator Dick Blumenthal told the crowd at Veterans Green: “This is what democracy looks like!” It’s because of crowds like this, he said, that Trump’s “cartoonishly incompetent” healthcare plan went down to defeat.

The Judiciary Committee member pledged to push an independent investigation of the president.

He noted that his father fled Germany for the US in 1935. He was 17, and spoke no English. “This country gave him a chance to succeed. He would be so ashamed now, to see the Statue of Liberty’s lamp extinguished.”

Senator Chris Murphy (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Senator Chris Murphy energized the crowd, saying: “There is no fear that can’t be cured by political activism.” And though he sometimes goes to bed fearing the movement will lose strength, he wakes up in the morning to find it bigger than ever.

He said that he, Blumenthal and Himes “are trying to raise our game to equal this moment. Democracy is inefficient, but no one has invented a better system yet.” However, he noted, “democracy is not inevitable. We have to keep fighting for it.”

Senator Murphy on Veterans Green. (Photo/Diane Lowman)

Photo Challenge #117

Last week’s photo challenge was different. It was a portrait of an old guy, hanging in a private home.

Some people thought it was unfair. They guessed every famous Westporter — except Morris Ketchum. (The photo — circa 1850s, which you can see by clicking here — comes from Bob Ketchum. He’s Morris’ great-great-grandson, living far from Connecticut. Bob sent it to me, saying, “very little family lore was passed down” before his father — also named Morris — died.)

Finally, Pam Romano zeroed in on him.

So who was Morris Ketchum?

Bob’s great-great-grandfather helped bring the railroad to Westport. According to Woody Klein’s book he lived a couple of miles away, on a 500-acre estate called Hockanum. Consisting of parks, farmlands, wheat fields, vineyards, forests and gardens, it was considered one of the nation’s most beautiful estates. It was designed by Ketchum’s friend, Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park).

Born in 1796 in New York state, he came to Westport as a youth. Married to a member of the Burr family, Ketchum made his money in the cotton trade. He founded one of the first cotton commission houses in the country, in New York City. That led to his interest in the newly developing transportation network of railroads (with another wealthy Westporter, Horace Staples). That led to his role as a titan on Wall Street.

Hockanum — known now most as the place Abraham Lincoln allegedly slept at while here to raise money for the Civil War — still stands, on Cross Highway. Ketchum’s land — from Roseville Road all the way north to the Merritt Parkway and Lyons Plains — has been largely developed.

Morris Ketchum Jesup — who provided funds for the Westport Public Library building on the Post Road in 1908, shortly before his death — was Morris Ketchum’s godson. Morris Ketchum had been a close friend of Jesup’s father, who died when Jesup was young.

Got all that?!

Now you can smile at this week’s photo challenge. And stop complaining: It’s as Westport as Westport gets.

Click “Comments” below if you think you know where this is:

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Toll Tales

Tolls on Connecticut highways are one step closer to reality. The legislature’s Transportation Committee recently gave the “green light” to the state Department of Transportation to begin the 4-year process of planning to reintroduce the controversial devices.

Tolls were phased out over 30 years ago on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, following a deadly accident at the Stratford turnpike plaza. New tolls would be electronic.

Toll plazas were a familiar scene on I-95 more than 30 years ago. A proposed bill would establish electronic (E-Z Pass) tolls.

In their previous incarnation, there were tollbooths on I-95 near the Westport-Norwalk border. But they were not the first in the area.

In 1806 the state General Assembly granted a charter to the Connecticut Turnpike Company. They ran the road from Fairfield to Greenwich — today known as the Post Road.

In return for keeping the thoroughfare in “good repair,” they were allowed to establish 4 turnpike gates. One was at the Saugatuck River crossing — now known as the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.

The narrow, wooden Post Road bridge, in an early 1900s postcard from Jack Whittle’s collection. Relics of the toll collection system can be seen at the bottom (east bank of the Saugatuck River.

Four-wheeled pleasure carriages drawn by 2 horses were charged 25 cents. Two-wheeled pleasure carriages drawn by one horse paid 12 cents. Each sled, sleigh, cart or wagon drawn by a horse, ox or mule was charged 10 cents.

The state granted exemptions for people traveling to attend public worship, funerals, town or freemen’s meetings; those obliged to do military duty; “persons going to and from grist mills with grists”; people living within 1 mile of the toll gates, and “farmers attending their ordinary farming business.”

However — for reasons that are unclear — those exemptions applied only to the 3 other toll gates. The Saugatuck River bridge was not included.

Astonishingly, the toll for automobiles over 150 years later was still 25 cents.

I bet that won’t be the base rate if when the new tolls are installed.

A View Of The Bridge

It’s been a while. It will be a while more. But Westporters are still talking about plans to “repeal and replace” the William Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge.

The subject is as controversial as ever.

But here’s one thing we can all agree on:

This photo from John Videler’s drone is magnificent.

Click on or hover over to enlarge. (Photo/John Videler)

Kindertransport Conversation Comes To Playhouse

Every day, the world loses Holocaust survivors.

In an age of rising anti-Semitism and distrust of “others,” hearing their first-hand stories is more important than ever.

Margie Treisman

Recently, Margie Treisman — a Westport Country Playhouse trustee and Anti-Defamation League national commissioner — was asked to help develop educational programming around an upcoming Playhouse production of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about the Kindertransport children’s rescue.

She called Margie Lipshez-Shapiro. An ADL of Connecticut official and noted Holocaust educator, she knows almost every living survivor in the state who is willing and able to tell their tale.

Lipshez-Shapiro suggested Ivan Backer, a Kindertransport survivor who has written about his journey, and his life afterward. Backer will be at the Playhouse next Wednesday (March 29, 7 p.m.), as part of conversation called “From Hate to Hope.”

The event — sponsored by the Playhouse, ADL and TEAM Westport — is funded by the Anita Schorr “Step in and Be a Hero” Fund. Schorr — a longtime Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands with her story of horror and hope — died last year. The event is free, but seats must be reserved by phone (203-227-4177). For more information, click here.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” follows a week later with a limited run at the Playhouse (April 5-9). The true story of a young musical prodigy, it intertwines the themes of family, hope and survival with piano selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — even a little Gershwin. Click here for more information.

Schools Superintendent Outlines Budget Cut Consequences

Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut the education budget by $1.7 million. Today, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer announced possible reductions, if that cut is sustained.

Other reductions may also be added to the list. Right now, it includes:

  • Implementing “pay for play” at Staples High School
  • Eliminating freshman sports at Staples
  • Eliminating individual music lessons in grades 4 – 8
  • Reducing club and after-school offerings at the middle and high schools
  • Reducing the Workshop Program
  • Eliminating bus monitors
  • Deferring yearly technology purchases
  • Eliminating all 4 grade level assistants at Staples (the previous proposal eliminated 2)
  • Eliminating library paraprofessionals
  • Moving to a “double 3 tiers” of elementary busing, causing a 3:45 pm dismissal at either Long Lots, Coleytown Elementary or Greens Farms.

Palmer noted that according to union contracts, salary and benefits require at least a 3+% budget increase each year.

“The structure of education funding in Connecticut is grounded in binding arbitration for our union contracts,” she said.

“It is impossible to hold costs constant for education when there are built-in systemic accelerators which we do not control.  A $1.7 million cut forces severe reductions, impacting the quality of our district.”

The Board of Finance meets on April 5 at Town Hall (8 p.m., Rooms 201/201A). At that time, they may consider restoration of funds cut at their previous meeting.

The Board of Ed will discuss these issues at its own meeting this Monday (March 27, 7:30 p.m., Staples cafeteria). The meeting will be televised on Channel 78.

Friday Flashback #32

The Westport Historical Society’s “School Days” exhibit — highlighting Westport education from 1703 to the present — closes tomorrow. Visitors give it high marks.

Westport schools have come a long way in 3 centuries. Two in particular are worth noting.

Today, Saugatuck Elementary School is located on Riverside Avenue. It’s the same building that previously housed Bedford Middle School. Before that, Bedford Junior High School. And before that, it was Staples High.

Yet Saugatuck El started out on Bridge Street. That building is now “The Saugatuck” — senior housing.

But that’s the 3rd incarnation. Prior to Saugatuck Elementary, a wooden building on the same spot was called the Bridge Street School.

The postcard above was printed before 1916. That’s when a new wing was added.

Meanwhile, across town, the handsome, Charles Cutler-designed Greens Farms Elementary School we know so well opened in 1925.

But it too was not the first school on the site. Here’s the original building:

That building was not torn down when its replacement was constructed. Like so many other structures in town, it was moved. It is believed to still stand, not far away on South Morningside or Turkey Hill.

[UPDATE: According to alert “06880” reader Chris Woods, the structure is on Clapboard Hill Road, between Morningside and Turkey Hill. It’s currently being renovated — again.)

(Postcards courtesy of Jack Whittle)