A few miles away in Westport, Wynston Browne is a 21st-century Helen Keller.
The Staples High School rising sophomore is severely autistic. He does not speak.
From his diagnosis before he was 2 years old, to just a year or so ago, everyone — including his parents and 4 siblings — thought he was intellectually disabled. His IQ was believed to be 60 or so. The books read to him were 1st-grade level.
With his detached look and inability to focus, he was assumed to be off-the-charts disabled.
Last week I spent a couple of hours with Wynston and his parents, Lynda Kommel-Browne and David. It may have been the most astonishing, eye-opening afternoon of my life.
Research shows that for Wynston and others, the inability to speak is not cognitive. It’s muscular.
He cannot make connections between his brain, and his mouth, jaw and tongue. But Wynston’s brain is spectacularly active.
And it always has been.
Using a spelling board — a simple, low-tech device with letters and numbers he points to — and working with an extremely gifted, dedicated and professionally trained communication partner named Elisa Feinman, Wynston has made great progress in the past year.
Wynston’s low-tech spelling board. Pointing to letters is easier than typing, for someone without fine motor skills.
But in the last month, his parents say, his growth has been phenomenal — about 10 years’ worth of progress. They now know he can graduate from high school, and go on to college.
He might even follow the path blazed by Dan Bergmann, a non-speaking Harvard Extension School graduate, who gave his school’s commencement address.
Or the co-valedictorian at Rollins College, Elizabeth Bonker,
During the pandemic, Lynda and David heard about organizations promoting the idea that non-speakers had motor — not intellectual — differences. Wynston began working with the letter board about a year ago.
He points to the letter he wants, to spell out words. It’s easier than typing. Because of motor difficulties, when non-verbal people make typos, it’s assumed they lack intelligence.
Elisa holds the board for Wynston. But what he does with it is amazing.
It’s inspirational. And life-changing.
Wynston and Elisa, at work with his spelling board.
In the past month, Wynston’s parents have watched in wonder as he not only answers questions and does math problems, but demonstrates abstract thinking. He expresses his emotions — something it seemed he was never able to describe — and answers open-ended, personal questions.
On Fathers Day, Wynston spelled out, and Elise wrote down, a card to his dad.
“I like to give my dad hugs,” he said. He wanted to honor his father by being “the best person I can.” He vowed to work hard “to increase my skills like communication.”
His spelling board, he added, makes him feel “happy.”
Wynston’s Fathers Day card. He spelled out the answers to Elisa Feinman’s questions; she wrote them down.
Suddenly, Wynston’s world has been unlocked. It’s not unlike Helen Keller spelling “water” for the first time with Anne Sullivan.
There were several books on Wynston’s table. I chose a biography about Temple Grandin — the scientist, animal behaviorist and autism advocate.
I read a few pages out loud. Wynston did not make eye contact; it looked like he was not even listening.
But he sure was.
Wynston Browne learned — and remembered — everything about Temple Grandin.
When I was finished, Elisa asked him some questions. Where did Grandin earn her master’s? (Arizona State). What was her major? (Animal science.) What was her highest degree? (Ph.D.).
He did the same with a book about the atom bomb, which Elisa had read to him a couple of days earlier. He remembered Lyman Briggs (head of FDR’s Uranium Committee — a name and group I’d never heard of), He spelled every word correctly — including “physicist,” which trips up many people.
And he did it all despite never having had a formal spelling lesson.
For years, Lynda says, “He was learning basic math. Because he couldn’t express how easy it was, he exhibited extreme behavior” — rocking and other motions. “That reinforced for others that he did not understand basic math. Bur really, he knew much more than that.”
Elisa held up a board with numbers. Wynston quickly went through addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems well beyond “basic math.”
Then it was time for a chess lesson. The game demands many types of intelligence: pattern recognition, thinking ahead, analytical skills, long-term memory.
Wynston made his moves quickly and confidently.
Scenes like these excite and hearten his parents — and make them angry and wistful too. They rue the nearly 15 years they held low expectations for him. They wonder what he felt all those years, with so much intelligence bottled up inside, and no way to express it.
Wynston Browne (3rd from left), with his parents and 4 siblings.
“I get goosebumps,” Elisa says, her voice breaking. “I feel we wasted so much time. But now he will excel. and we will push him as far as we can.”
“Wynston is not non-verbal,” Lynda emphasizes. “He is non-speaking.”
She notes one small sign of Wynston’s abilities to think deep thoughts, and express them well. The other day, she asked him which dog he preferred: his service animal, or the family pet.
He chose the one with “a calm temper.”
On the outside, Wynston may not seem calm. He rocks, makes repetitive motions, and is in constant motion.
It took nearly 15 years for the people closest to him — his parents — to realize that his brain was moving just as rapidly. He had thoughts, ideas and feelings — but no way to “speak” them.
Now he does.
Wynston Browne is non-verbal. But he’s not unintelligent.
Far from it. He’s learning how to communicate well. He’s learning many things people thought he never could.
And the rest of us are learning that he may very well be gifted.
(Hat tip: Jill Johnson Mann)
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As an orthopedic physical therapist, David Curtis knows all about taking care of feet.
And as a longtime local resident, he knows that the best person to care for his own shoes is George Ouzounidis.
In his 40 years as owner of Westfair Shoe Repair opposite Stop & Shop, he’s developed a loyal clientele. They appreciate and admire his great work, attention to detail — and all the little things that make his small store such a warm, welcoming place.
“There’s always a smile on his face. He’s happy-go-lucky and jovial,” Curtis says. “If you’re having a bad day, by the time you leave you’re in a good mood.”
But George is also a dedicated, hardworking craftsman. He works on more than shoes. Boots, belts, all things leather; thick nylon, like collars and leashes — he fixes them all.
George Ouzounidis. in his Westfair Shoe Repair Shop. (Photo/David Curtis)
During his long career, George has worked on damaged or worn Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Ferragamo items, worth thousands of dollars.
He’s spent as much time and care on items that are valuable only to customers, like a deceased dog’s collar or leash.
He works too on things that no one at all might care about, like stuff found in a trunk in a grandparent’s attic.
Whether it’s soccer shoes worn in a state championship match ro Army boots worn on the beaches of Normandy — George makes it look, feel and work like new.
With soft Greek music playing in the background, George’s go-to greeting is “my friend.”
“Whenever I walk in, the first thing I hear is ‘My friend, how have you been?'” Curtis notes.
“Whenever I leave, it’s ‘My friend. I will do the best I can. My friend, when do you need this?'”
And, Curtis adds, “He under-charges and over-delivers. He’s so honest.”
The other day, Curtis forgot his wallet. George — who accepts cash or checks only — said, “No worries, my friend. Pay me next time.’
“George is a town icon. A legend. A treasure. A dying breed,” praises Curtis. “He is vintage Westport.”
(I’m amazed George has never been nominated as an Unsung Hero before. Then again, his quiet concern, care and competence are the essence of what an Unsung Hero is.)
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There are not a lot of reasons to look up on Main Street.
Most folks are focused on where they’re headed. If you’re crossing the street, be alert — Westport drivers are not always, um, courteous.
Nor is the architecture particularly compelling.
Most of it, anyway.
The Blue Mercury building — on the east side of Main Street — has an interesting feature up near the top: 2 windows with blue trim. (Click here to see.)
Morley Boyd calls an “Italianate-style gable sash.” Who am I to argue?
It was the subject of last week’s Photo Challenge. Besides Morley, 3 other “06880” readers recognized this architectural quirk: Lynn Untermeyer Miller, Elaine Marino and Mary Ann Batsell. Congratulations (but watch where you’re going!).
This week’s Photo Challenge is below. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.
HINT: It’s not Friendly’s That closed many years ago.
(The Photo Challenge — and the rest of “06880” — runs completely on reader support. To donate, please click here.)
For all its beauty and promise of summer, June is a frazzling time for Westport parents.
There are thousands of end-of-school activities, end-of-sports activities, get-ready-for-camp activities. There’s no time to stop and smell the roses, let alone tend the rest of the garden.
But all that takes a back seat on Fathers Day weekend (sorry, dads!).
It’s Yankee Doodle Fair time. Knocked out twice by COVID (and back, to much joy, last September), the Westport Woman’s Club fundraiser returns to its traditional dates this year.
A timeless scene. (Photo/Dan Woog)
The Fair — on the Woman’s Club grounds at 44 Imperial Avenue — runs this Thursday and Friday (June 16 and 17) from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday’s hours are 1 to 10 p.m. Sunday’s final day is 1 to 5 p.m.
Among the highlights: a carousel, Flying Dumbo, Dizzy Dragon, Frog Hopper, Scrambler, Cliff Hanger, Zero Gravity and Expo Wheel. One-price, unlimited-ride wristbands make the process hassle-free.
Other attractions include sand art, a bake sale, music (rock, country and bluegrass), raffles (prizes: $1,000, $500, and a gold-and-diamond necklace), and a “take a chance” tent with a ton of prizes.
Food court offerings range from burgers and dogs to Greek delights, waffles and ice cream. Beer and wine too (though not for the kids).
As much fun as the Yankee Doodle Fair is, it’s serious business for the Westport Woman’s Club. Funds raised support an array of programs and grants, from a food pantry and help for organizations serving women, children, people with special needs and much more, to scholarships for graduating seniors.
This year, the WWC donated to $300,000 to Westport’s Emergency Medical Services. That pays for a much-needed new ambulance.
Between the good Westport Woman’s Clubs good works, and all the fun the Yankee Doodle Fair offers, it’s a win-win for all.
See you at the Fair!
The Yankee Doodle Fair (Drone photo/Ryan Collins)
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The refrigerator needs replacing. Then you add the cabinets next to it.
Soon you decide to redo the full kitchen. When you’re finally done, you’ve renovated the entire first floor.
Green’s Farms Church is a lot older than most Westport homes. Founded more than 3 centuries ago, and occupying the same storied spot on Hillandale Road since 1789, it has a remarkable history.
Green’s Farms Congregational Church
The church was formed when area residents grew tired of traveling by horse and cart to Fairfield every Sunday for services. The meetinghouse served as the site for important religious, political, educational and social meetings. It was rebuilt when the British burned it. After moving from what is now the southern side of the Exit 18 commuter parking lot, it endured more fires, hurricanes, and everything else that happens in 311 years.
One of Green’s Farms Church’s most cherished items is a pitcher donated by Martha Washington. It honors Rev. Hezekiah Ripley, who served from 1762 to 1821.
Parishioners first gathered on June 12, 1711. This Sunday — June 12, 2022 — Green’s Farms Church celebrates its most recent renovation.
It is thorough. It is handsome. It is in keeping with the understated Congregational tradition. But it brings Westport’s first religious institution firmly into the 21st century.
Yet much of it would not have happened without our 21st-century curse: COVID.
Several years ago, it was time to replace the organ. First installed in 1964, it had outlived its life span.
Soon, church leaders decided to also address structural issues like drainage and leaks at the same time. When they looked around the building — and saw that rooms like the social and banquet halls needed modernizing to better serve smaller gatherings like youth and bible study groups, and 12-step programs — they developed an integrated plan.
In 2019, architect Steve Orban and interior designer Betsy Cameron — both Green’s Farms members — began their designs. The next important step — fundraising — started too.
A few months later, the pandemic slammed the door on all in-person worship and meetings. Services went virtual — and contractor Rick Benson (also a parishioner) went to work.
The organ was removed. Contractors dug right to the foundation. They were surprised to find not boulders, but stacks of small rocks, supporting the structure.
Much of the work — steel, HVAC, drainage, fire suppression and more — will never be seen by congregants.
But what they see is quite impressive.
Beams from the original 1853 building — constructed after a fire destroyed the 1789 structure — were uncovered. Quickly, they were incorporated into the vestibule design.
One of 2 original beams, now in the narthex. They extend up to the 2nd floor.
The handsome narthex leads to a large area that can be used as an art gallery. It opens this Friday (June 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.), with an exhibit of paintings by Rebecca Swanson called — appropriately — “Emerging.”
Artwork will be hung this week in the new gallery.
At the rear of the gallery is a full kitchen. Among its uses: cooking meals for Westport’s Gillespie Center.
Two new classrooms bring the nursery school total to 6.
A handsome table upstairs was donated in memory of Stan Atwood. The Atwood family lived near the church.
The meetinghouse itself feels the same. But it’s deeper than before. The stained glass is much brighter (and built into a cabinet, with LED lights). The balcony has been brought forward too.
(From left): Diane Parrish, Peter Jennings and Claire England, iin the sanctuary.
A view from the rear shows newly restored stained glass.
As for the Aeolian-Skinner organ — the genesis of the ambitious project — it’s fully restored. But, in a nod to history, music director Rick Tripodi named several stops after choir members. He won’t be there to use the new instrument, unfortunately; he died just before the renovation was completed.
The restored church organ.
Green’s Farms parish was the original heart of what is now Westport. Over 300 years later, “we want to be more engaged and enmeshed in the community,” says Diane Parrish, co-chair of the capital campaign and renovation project.
“This is such a wonderful place for events and gatherings. We hope everyone will use it as much as possible.”
Several civic organizations are doing that. The Rotary Club and Sunrise Rotary are meeting weekly at Green’s Farms Church; the Chamber of Commerce will meet monthly. The Greens Farms Garden Club, Greens Farms Association and New Neighbors all use the space.
So will church-sponsored Scout troops. Four 12-step groups, and another one focused on mental health, have all been added.
A redesigned youth group room is also used for 12-step meetings.
“We owed the people who came before us the responsibility of caring for this building,” Parrish adds. “We owe it to the people here now — everyone in Westport — to be the best community members we can be.
“And we owe it to the people who come after us to make sure this is a building that lasts.”
If it lasts as long as the current one, Green’s Farms Church will be still serve Westporters in the year 2191.
(The rededication ceremony this Sunday, June 12, begins with a 9 a.m. ribbon cutting by 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker. Services at 10 a.m. led by Rev. Jeff Rider feature music performed on the restored pipe organ. A festival at 11 a.m. includes food, games, ice cream and cake. The public is invited to all activities.
(In between the June 10 gallery opening and the June 12 ceremony is this: At 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, the Remarkable Theatre screens “The Bad News Bears.” Green’s Farms faith formation minister David Stambaugh played Toby Whitewood in the classic film. Click here for tickets.)
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A new curved wall in front of Green’s Farms Church has proved to be a popular spot to meet and relax. (All photos/Dan Woog)
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