Category Archives: Children

Proud Townees Offer Westport Wear

Last summer, Ted Vergakis was on vacation in California. He saw someone wearing a simple T-shirt, with 2 words in beautiful script: “King’s Highway.”

Ted’s a Westporter. He had no idea what the shirt referred to. It could have been “a San Diego biker gang,” for all he knew.

No matter. He wanted one.

His oldest son Theo went to Kings Highway Elementary  School. His youngest son Alecko is a student there now. The family calls it “a special place,” and seeing those words crafted on a T-shirt seemed both cool and rare.

Ted realized that though there are places to buy things that say “Westport,” they don’t feel as if they were created specifically for here.

Ted and Stephanie Vergakis.

Ted and Stephanie Vergakis.

So he and his wife Stephanie decided to create a hand-drawn script for Westport, and a unique illustration that can’t be found anywhere else in town.

This was not a total stretch for the couple — but not exactly what they’d been planning either.

Both grew up in small Massachusetts towns. Both started their careers in advertising, managing creative departments and producing campaigns.

Stephanie went on to work in fashion, at Donna Karan. Ted spent several years running the global creative group at IMG — with clients like the Olympics, NCAA, sports stars and models.

Now they run their own studio, called Offmad. They provide creative and strategic support to clients like Kayak.com, PwC, Vroom and others.

Ted and Stephanie's Westport hoodie.

Ted and Stephanie’s Westport hoodie.

Their route to Westport — via Manhattan and Hoboken — was similar to others’. When they felt the need for more space, and realized the commute would be longer, they wanted someplace special.

“More of a destination, not just a suburban town,” is how Ted describes it.

Work colleagues suggested Westport. On weekend trips here, Ted and Stephanie “pretty much knew it was the perfect place.” They loved it all: seeing houses in the morning, then lunch at the Mansion Clam House, a trip to the Compo Beach playground, a stop at Trader Joe’s.

“We were really taken by how much at home Westport made us feel,” Ted says.

“It felt very New England and familiar. We both loved where we grew up and vacationed — Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard. Westport really reminded us of all those special things from home.”

But — like most Westporters — when Ted had his aha! T-shirt moment, he also realized that Main Street has become flooded with retailers that do not offer anything authentic and Westport-special.

So he and Stephanie decided to partner with skilled designers and illustrators. They wanted to celebrate their town, and the artists who created its legacy.

Townee's sparkling Saugatuck Bridge t-shirt.

Townee’s sparkling Saugatuck Bridge t-shirt.

Creating the sparkling Saugatuck Bridge illustration for their “Townee” apparel — which now includes short- and long-sleeve T-shirts, hoodies, fleeces and rally caps, for adults, kids and toddlers — was particularly important.

“I don’t think there’s a soul in town who doesn’t love the way the bridge looks during the holidays,” Ted says. “It’s perfect from every view — from 95, driving over it, walking through it.”

As for the company name, Ted says, “We think being called a townee is a compliment — a badge of honor. It’s someone who knows the best things to do, see, when to go places.

“Loving where you live makes you a townee. We all spend so much time  here doing normal day-to-day things. We want to remind others of how special Westport is.”

Their reminder: a line of high-quality apparel that’s comfortable, can be worn every day, and shows the pride people have in their town.

Townee launched last month. You may already have seen folks wearing Ted and Stephanie’s gear.

Just call them townees.

(Ted and Stephanie offer free delivery to all addresses. For more information — including ordering — click here.)

Babysitting Solutions — The Modern Way

You need a babysitter. It’s getting late. Your regular — and your 2 back-ups — have not responded to voicemail or texts.

It’s a scene every Westporter who has — or had — kids can relate to.

Who you gonna call?

Starting soon, no one.

You won’t need to call. There’s an app for that.

Bambino Sitters is the brainchild of Sean Greene. Last year, the California single father of 3 realized while driving around his neighborhood, worrying about a sitter for that night, that behind many doors were sitters eager for work.

He just did not know who they were. And they did not know him.

Greene’s app could be called “the Uber of babysitting.” After downloading it to your iPhone or iPad, you create a profile as “sitter” or “parent.”

If you’re a sitter, you set your own schedule and update your availability.

Two screens for sitters...

Two screens showing sitters…

If you’re a parent, you sign in via Facebook. That allows you to see friends in your neighborhood — and which nearby sitters they love.

You don’t have to text 20 sitters. You just punch in “6-10 p.m., Thursday night,” and send a request to the sitters you (or your friends) like. When someone responds, it’s a match made in babysitting heaven.

The app tracks the time a sitter spends at work. All payment is done through the app too, so there’s no fishing around for money or change.

...and 2 for parents.

…and 2 for parents to click on. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

Last summer, Greene launched Bambino Sitters in Pacific Palisades. He’s since rolled it out to Santa Monica, Brentwood and several other neighborhoods.

So what — besides similar demographics — does this Southern California story have to do with Westport?

Bambino Sitters’ director of marketing is Sara Snow. She’s Greene’s friend, and former neighbor.

For the past year and a half, Snow has lived in Westport. She came East for her husband’s job. (Why Westport? Her college friend Missy Zahler lives here, and sold Snow on it.)

Sara Snow (upper right), with her children and mother. With Bambino Sitters, mom won't always have to babysit!

Sara Snow (upper right), with her children and mother. With Bambino Sitters, mom won’t always have to babysit!

This area will be the first national extension of the app. It goes live here over the next few days.

Katie Hill serves as Westport’s launch director. She moved here with her husband and 3 elementary school-aged kids. She’s a natural — as both a user and an executive.

Once Westport and Fairfield County are Bambino Sitter-ized, it will be rolled out in other towns and cities nationwide.

It’s a great app for any area with anxious parents and eager sitters. In other words, almost everywhere.

But we’ve got it (almost) first.

Jersey And Walden Rock Broadway

The Milwe name is well known in Westport.

Sid and Bea were longtime political activists. Alison Milwe Grace is a noted caterer, and much-admired culinary teacher at Staples High School. Many family members still live here.

After graduating from Staples in 1985, Cindy Milwe moved to California. She now teaches middle and high school English in Santa Monica. But her sons are making quite a name for themselves. They’re both on Broadway — in the cast of “School of Rock: The Musical.”

school-of-rock-logo

Plenty of Westporters have seen the pulsating Andrew Lloyd Webber smash. But they might not have known they were watching a pair of Milwes. The boys — Jersey and Walden Sullivan — use their father’s last name.

Yet their Westport connection is strong. The town where so many relatives live is just a train ride away from New York. It’s nice to come here. Eight performances a week is never easy.

Particularly when you’re just 12 and 9 years old.

Jersey was the first to join the cast. He’s loved music since he was 2, and for years took lessons through School of Rock — the similarly-named-but-unconnected music education program (a franchise is in Fairfield). Jersey joined the West L.A. house band. He was 10 years old, and life was good.

Jersey Sullivan

Jersey Sullivan

In the summer of 2015, Cindy and Tom heard about a casting call for the upcoming Broadway production. Jersey didn’t think of himself as a “theater kid,” but he loved the music. He figured, what the heck?

Tom sent a YouTube video of Jersey playing guitar and drums, and singing. The casting director liked it so much, he asked Jersey to fly to New York — the very next day.

The family had already planned to be in Westport the following week. While here, they learned Jersey had landed a role in the ensemble: James, the “security guard”. He’d also understudy for 2 actors: Zack  (the guitarist) and Freddie (the drummer).

More than a year later, Jersey is 1 of only 2 original cast members left. Since Walden joined the show last fall, they’re also the only brother act.

Walden’s the true “theater kid” in the family. He’s played the piano, sung and danced since he was 4.

Walden always wondered why his non-theater brother got to be on Broadway. He actually auditioned at the same time Jersey did — the producers may have just humored the 7-year-old — but when the original Lawrence (the keyboardist) got too big for the part, Walden was asked to audition again.

Another kid got the nod.

Walden Sullivan

Walden Sullivan

Yet Walden was called back last summer. He started rehearsing in October, and made his debut November 7.

The road to Broadway was not easy. Jersey was unsure about leaving his family (including an older sister), friends — and his band — behind.

Tom — a copywriter and marketer — got a furnished apartment on the Upper West Side. The lease was 6 months.

Jersey loved his new gig. He quickly bonded with the cast. They eat together often, and have sleepovers.

Jersey  was playing with rock stars — including Stevie Nicks and Slash — and was actually a rock star himself. He performed with Lin Manuel Miranda; appeared on “The Today Show,” “The View” and the Tony Awards, and rode on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

When his brother joined the cast, he was happy to stay on.

“It’s a blast,” Jersey says. “The music is a lot of fun. I’ve made lifelong friends. And I learned I could move across the country, and succeed in a new environment.”

He’s also learned how to adapt to Broadway. A few times, he’s had just 15 minutes’ notice to prepare himself for one of his 2 lead roles.

Walden adds, “The best part is meeting new people, and getting to perform.”

Of course, he admits, he was nervous on opening night. But he got good advice — “If you make a mistake, don’t worry” — and ever since, he’s been rockin’ the house.

The Broadway house.

The other day, the cast of “School of Rock” — including Jersey and Walden Sullivan — joined a “Good Morning America” Andrew Lloyd Webber mashup tribute:

The Last Night Shall Be First

Tonight, Westport celebrates the final night of 2016 with a First Night celebration.

The family-oriented event includes a slide at Saugatuck Elementary School …

first-night-2016-slide

… Dennis the Train Man at the Westport Library …

first-night-2016-trains

… and a telescope for stargazing on the banks of the Saugatuck. In the background are launch boats, for the 8 p.m. fireworks.

first-night-2016-telescope

Hundreds of volunteers — including 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Jacqueline Devine — make First Night possible:

first-night-2016-jim-marpe-and-jacqueline-devine

It all takes place in and around downtown. There’s music, magicians and more at Town Hall, Toquet Hall, Jesup Green, the Westport Historical and Christ & Holy Trinity Church, through 10 p.m.

first-night-2016-light

Young Animator Draws On Her Talent

For as long as Olivia Porretta can remember, she’s loved animation.

“You can make a character very simple, but still get a powerful emotional response,” the Staples High School junior explains. “People can connect to just 2 eyes and 1 mouth — it’s a universal face.”

She also likes the fact that animation is done completely by hand. Every frame is created by a real person.

In 5th grade at Saugatuck Elementary School, Olivia designed storyboards for a made-up character — without even knowing what storyboards were. Her younger brother liked them, so she did more.

Olivia Porretta

Olivia Porretta

At Staples, Olivia honed her illustrating and writing skills in the Animation Club. Using Cintiq — an interactive pen device similar to a big iPad — and programs like Photoshop and TVPaint — her passion grew.

Except for a summer session at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Olivia is self-taught. She’s also a self-starter.

When she met Kimson Albert — a noted animator — she showed him her work. Last year, he invited her to join the Amaze Project. That’s a fun, engaging video series teaching tweens and teens about health and safety, including sexuality, gender identity, relationships, friendships and puberty.

Each short film is written, designed, animated and produced by different people. Olivia was hired — and paid — for a video about online safety.

“I wanted kids to be empowered, not scared, by information,” she says. So her animation delivers its message in the voice of a child. Staples students Chloe Adda and Jake Watzman provided 2 of the voices. Olivia also added her own.

It took several hours each night — for many weeks — for Olivia to complete her 4-minute film. It was released last month. Reaction has been great. Click on the video below, to see for yourself:

Soon, Olivia will be back at work, creating new animations. Meanwhile, she’s enjoying Staples — especially (of course) her English elective class.

It’s called Visual Literacy.

(Hat tip: Sean McGee)

A Very Merry Bridgeport Christmas

It started with a small request.

Kathy Mahieu — a Westporter who teaches in a Bridgeport elementary school — asked if I could write about the differences between our school district and theirs. I had a better idea: I’d post her 1st-person account. Her words would be far more meaningful than mine.

A Tale of 2 School Districts” provoked a powerful response. Dozens of commenters offered thoughts. Many wondered what they could do to help.

The answer: Plenty. And here’s where this story really gets good.

Catherine Walsh called Kathy, and provided cartons of paper for the Read School. That simple gesture solved an enormous need.

Simultaneously, Jimeale Hede and Carolyn Russo got involved. Using Facebook, they installed “room moms” in every pre-K through 3rd grade classroom. The women published wish lists on their grassroots Brighter Lives for Kids Foundation website. Classroom supplies poured in.

Kathy Mathieu in her Bridgeport classroom. Very few teachers have whiteboards.

Kathy Mathieu in her Bridgeport classroom. Very few teachers have whiteboards.

In just one week this month, over $71,000 was raised. Much of that came from a Cushman & Wakefield fundraiser. The money will pay for the purchase of 90 Chromebooks with educational programs, as well as field trips and a soccer program.

“06880” readers — and others in an ever-widening circle — volunteered to address other needs. Teachers are identifying students who need shoes or a backpack, for example, as well as requesting items like rugs, headphones and books for their classrooms.

Help is on the way Cesar Batalla Elementary School too.

Read Elementary School

Read Elementary School

Watching the generosity unfold brought Catherine to tears. Westport and surrounding communities rallied around the needy school. Importantly, she says, they’ve “committed themselves long-term” to aiding these children and their families.

One of the Westporters who helped with Pamela Long. She heard about a toy drive for the Cesar Batalla and Read Schools. She bought some, but was chagrined to learn that donations were slow.

She asked “06880” for help. Again, I was happy to help. Again too, I asked for the story in her own words.

Pamela was eloquent. “These kids are in desperate situations — the highest poverty brackets, shelters, you name it. 100% of these children are fed breakfast and lunch at school,” she wrote. “Their families have no money for basic necessities — let alone holiday gifts.

“Westport:  We can do better. Every child deserves the joy of opening a gift this season. We’ve got 4 more days to come together as a community and show our compassion, by helping those who do not have our good fortune. Open your hearts and your wallets — and get shopping!”

Westporters — and readers far and wide — responded instantly. Taking advantage of an Amazon link — and thanks to a generation donation from locally based/internationally known toymakers Melissa & Doug — they blew past the goal.

Plenty of people also helped with the logistics: wrapping, transporting, and making the toy magic happen.

Some of the presents that poured in to the Read and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools.

Some of the holiday gifts that poured in to the Read and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools.

So — when it’s almost time for boys and girls all over America to enjoy the wonder of Santa Claus — let’s pause to thank the men and women (and kids) of our “06880” community (real and virtual) who helped bring smiles to kids a few miles away.

And let’s vow to keep helping the boys and girls of Bridgeport every day in the coming year.

4 Stony Brook, 5 Golden Rings

It was always a tense moment.

We gathered in the cozy living room of the Bacharachs’ house on Stony Brook Road. We’d caught up on each other’s lives, had a bit of food, sung a few warm-up Christmas carols.

Now it was time for “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Slips of paper would be passed out. Which “day” would you get?

There were a few dozen of us — old and young, relatives and friends, from near and far — but 12 days is a lot. Each of us would have only 3 or 4 other singers to help out.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs' house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the early 1970s.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs’ house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the 1970s.

If you were a good singer — and many of the Bacharachs and their guests were — you were happy to get the 1st day: “a partridge in a pear tree.” Another prize was “5 golden rings.” You could draw that one out like Enrico Caruso.

I love music. Unfortunately, my voice does not. I always hoped for “12 drummers drumming.” Inevitably, I got “2 turtle doves.”

I thought of all that recently, when a group of former Bacharach carol singers got together. I was with some storied Westport names — Anne Leonard Hardy, Suzanne Sherman Propp — and the more we chatted, the more we realized those holiday gatherings were more than just a fond memory.

They were transformative moments in our lives.

The Bacharachs' library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

The Bacharachs’ library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

It wasn’t just the warmth of the Bacharachs’ home — a 1796 farmhouse with a 3-sided fireplace in one of the oldest sections of town, that could have come right out of colonial New England central casting.

It wasn’t the warmth of the annual holiday party either, with its cherished traditions: the smiling patriarch Jim Bacharach leading everyone in song; his wife, the equally delightful DoDo, carving up ham and ladling out egg nog; the tree in the same spot every year, unchanging amid the turbulence of the world around.

And it wasn’t the guest list: the Bacharachs’ friends and neighbors; their 5 kids’ friends; girlfriends, boyfriends, college friends — the more the merrier. Jim and DoDo embraced them all.

DoDo Bacharach

DoDo Bacharach

All those memories came flooding back, as Anne and Suzanne and a few others talked. But it was something else that made those particular carol sings such a powerful piece of our past.

Among the folks always in the Bacharachs’ home were adults we knew from Staples High School: teachers we admired and respected. Phil Woodruff, the next door neighbor. Dick Leonard. Dave and Marianne Harrison. All were there, year after year.

At first we were a little intimidated by them. Singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” with the same people who handed out homework and gave us grades was — different. But socializing with those adults in that way made us feel a bit like adults too.

As we grew up, we grew in other ways. We graduated from Staples, and entered college. Returning to the Bacharachs’ for the carol sing, we had new things to talk about. We told them what we were studying. We offered our opinions. We were probably a bit pretentious, but our former teachers listened.

Relating with them on that level validated us. Those adult-type conversations — respectful, honest, about real issues — were some of the first times I felt like an adult myself.

At the same time, as I looked around at the many “kids” there, I saw younger versions of myself. I realized I had once been like them. For the first time I understood what it meant to grow up. I recognized with clarity that at that point, my life was poised between my past and my future.

As we moved on into the “real world” — with real jobs — we kept returning to that carol sing. Now we were the adults. The Bacharachs, Leonards, Shermans and others got married, and started families. And every year, they brought their own children to the annual Christmas party.

The Bacharachs' next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily.

The Bacharachs’ next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily at the carol sing.

The Bacharach carol sing is no more. Sadly, the house was torn down, replaced by something far less warm and much less meaningful.

But the memories remain, as strong as ever. It was a joy to share those memories the other day, with good friends who remember those great days.

Something else is strong too: My sense of self, nurtured so lovingly by those adults years ago, when I was a teenager trying to figure the world out.

Over ham, over egg nog — and yes, over the dreaded “12 Days of Christmas” — I tasted Westport at its best.

A Very Cool Kids’ Kindness Week

On a national level, our rhetoric may be white-hot.

Despite that — or maybe because of it — here in Westport, our kids are playing nice.

Long Lots Elementary School has developed a Caring Council. Last week, students and their faculty advisors, Lori Grindrod and Cecilie Schachte — with the full support of principal Jeffrey Golubchick — rolled out an important event for the entire building.

kindness-week-monday-sign

“Kindness Week” included:

  • Make a Difference Monday
  • Thoughtful Tuesday , during which Caring Council students gave hot chocolate to bus drivers
  • What Can I Do to Help? Wednesday
  • Thank You Thursday
  • Friendship Friday, with a special friendship-themed “super recess.”
Long Lots bus drivers enjoy Kindness Week treats.

Long Lots bus drivers enjoy Kindness Week treats.

The Westport school system has embraced “kindness with sincerity” as a guiding principle. Is it naive to ask if some of our leaders in Washington could follow suit?

(Hat tip: Amy Chatterjee)

Long Lots 3rd graders made this quilt, showing what kindness means to them.

Long Lots 3rd graders created this quilt, showing what kindness means to them.

Urgent Plea For Bridgeport Holiday Help

Alert — and caring — “06880” reader Pamela Long writes: 

Maybe it’s the holidays. But I feel like I’ve had more and more conversations lately about raising generous, compassionate kids.

This is something I worry about in an affluent community with valet parking on Main Street, designer Christmas trees and shopping lists that include a trip to Tiffany are commonplace. Westport has tremendous charm. But it’s not how the rest of the world lives — though it’s likely the only world our children know.

I grew up in a very different place: a small town supported by a lumber mill. I made weekly trips to the secondhand grocery store to search through dented, unlabeled cans (Mom always found the peaches). We didn’t have much, but we always had enough to help a family (or 2 or 3) less fortunate than our.

“Adopting” families for the holidays became a tradition, one I looked forward to each year. As I raise my own daughter, it’s a tradition I’ve continued. It’s still my favorite part of the season.

You can be a Santa for kids who need you, just a few miles from here.

You can be a Santa for kids who need you, just a few miles from here.

So when I heard about a toy drive for the Cesar Batalla and Read Schools in Bridgeport, I quickly purchased more than I’m likely to admit to my husband. I assumed there would be an outpouring of support from many others.

Sadly, they’re falling very short on donations. The original goal was 1,000 toys for 1,000 kids. Now they just hope for 350.

These kids are in desperate situations — the highest poverty brackets, shelters, you name it. 100% of these children are fed breakfast and lunch at school. Their families have no money for basic necessities — let alone holiday gifts.

Westport:  We can do better. Every child deserves the joy of opening a gift this season. We’ve got 4 more days to come together as a community and show our compassion, by helping those who do not have our good fortune. Open your hearts and your wallets — and get shopping!

Your kids can add others to their shopping list.

Your kids can add others to their shopping list.

All toys (unwrapped, for 4-9-year-olds) must be dropped off by December 18, so time is of the essence.

Dropoff locations:

  • Green Moon Art Studio: 170 Post Road West, Westport
  • Kidville: 1572 Post Road East, Westport
  • Vincent Palumbo Hair Salon: 616 Post Rd East, Westport
  • Fairfield County Orthodontics: 1275 Post Road, Fairfield (located in Brick Walk)
  • Hair Clinic Fairfield: 427 Stilton Road, Fairfield

But you don’t even have to leave your house! Click below for links to Amazon. They’ll ship toys directly to the schools.  They start at just $4 each:
Read School
Cesar Batalla School 

You can use this as an opportunity to get your own kids involved. Have them help decide the gifts they want to give. They know best what kinds of toys will elicit squeals of joy. It’s a great way for them to practice kindness in a way that’s both meaningful and tangible.

You can’t take it with you, folks. Give generously this season. I guarantee you will be the one receiving the gift!

Martha Deegan: To Tanzania With Love

What do you do if you’ve been a Fairfield County lawyer for 30 years, but your son teaches in Tanzania and says he needs help building a school?

If you’re Martha Deegan you close your practice, and head to Africa.

Once there, you meet a young engineer from Indiana. You join forces, and build a home for orphans.

You become a missionary, sponsored by Westport’s United Methodist Church.

You work with a children’s home called Kwetu Faraja — “our comforting home.” You welcome Christians, Jews, Muslims, and boys with animist beliefs. You serve over 1,000 street children with medicine, food, clothing and emergency advocacy.

Martha Deegan, with some of the boys she's helped. (Photo/Thor Deegan)

Martha Deegan, with some of the boys she’s helped. (Photo/Thor Deegan)

You raise money for a solar project in the village, Kahunda. You are proud that there’s now electricity, and potable water. You develop a 35-acre farm for them, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

You live in Weston, but every year you go back to the village for a few months. You form relationships with people there.

You are appalled that they live in mud huts with straw roofs, without running water. You are impressed by their openness, generosity and loving spirit.

You know you can’t do everything. But you help a few kids — some as young as 4, sleeping in garbage bags on cardboard on the mean streets of Mwanza — by offering them a chance for an education at your school. You know that even though education is “free” in Tanzania, many youngsters cannot afford their required uniform, books or the interest they must pay on their desk.

Boys at , with a goat. (Photo/Thor Deegan)

Boys at Kwetu Faraja , with a goat. (Photo/Thor Deegan)

You turn to your next project: raising $22,500 to buy a tractor and farm implements. Right now, land is sown entirely by hand. You want the farmers, and the boys at the orphanage, to become self-sufficient.

Then, if you are Martha Deegan, you ask “06880” readers to help. You have faith that your neighbors will understand that you can’t do everything.

But you know that — especially in this season of giving — they (like you) will do whatever they can.

(Donations can be made for scholarships and for the tractor by clicking here. You can also send a check to Kwetu Faraja, 223 West 12th Street, Anderson, IN 46016-1331.)

As young boys swim in Tanzania, older ones keep watch for crocodiles and poisonous snakes. (Photo/Thor Deegan)

As young boys swim in Tanzania, older ones keep watch for crocodiles and poisonous snakes. (Photo/Thor Deegan)