Category Archives: Children

“Day Of Champions” Will Be Quite An Experience

Westport is awash in organizations that benefit young people — here, in the rest of Fairfield County, the country and the world. It’s one of the strengths of our community.

Many throw fundraisers. Westporters support them generously, with time as well as money.

But most of these kid-focused groups’ events don’t actually involve young people themselves.

That’s why Experience Camp’s Day of Champions is so wonderful.

Not to mention unique, cool, and tons of fun.

Experience Camp is the Westport-based network of summer camps for youngsters who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. The program builds confidence, encourages laughter, and allows them to navigate grief through friendship, teamwork, sports and the common bond of loss.

This year, Experience Camps will serve 1,000 boys and girls, at 5 locations from Maine to California.

Of course, running such a life-changing program costs money: $1,000 for a week at camp.

For much of its first decade, Experience Camps — founded by Westporter Sara Deren — relied on gala fundraisers in big cities, and foundation grants.

In 2017 Deren asked fellow Westport resident Gery Grove to help raise funds here. She teamed with Melissa Post, who like Grove loved the idea of the camp.

They thought about the usual events, like cocktail parties. But they realized the best way to raise money for kids was to involve kids themselves.

Together with a hard-working committee, they launched the first Day of Champions in 2018.

Fun at Experience Camps’ Day of Champions …

Camp Mahackeno was the perfect venue for the camp-like color war/field day. Twenty teams of 10 to 15 people each (kindergarten through adult) competed in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and others activities. Many wore costumes.

Points were awarded for spirit, fundraising, cheering and more. It was a joyful day — and it brought in over $150,000.

… and funny hair …

To participate, teams had to raise at least $1,000. Some were well over $25,000.

Organizers feared the first year might have been a fluke.

It wasn’t.

Last year’s Day of Champions brought in more than $225,000. Over the past 2 years, Westport’s Michelle Yanover — who lost her mom at 7 — has raised over $45,000. Working with his New York Life firm, Grove’s husband Matt added another $40,000-plus.

… and a tug-of-war …

This year’s 3rd annual event is Sunday, May 17 (8 to 11:30 a.m.). Due to construction at Mahackeno, it’s moved to another great location: Fairfield County Hunt Club.

Yet as fun and financially important as the Day of Champions is, there’s another element that makes it special.

… and more fun. (Photos/Stephen Dodd)

“It teaches kids a lot,” Grove says. “They learn there are other kids who need their support — kids who don’t have their entire family here anymore.

“Kids get a chance to raise money for a resonant cause. And they have the best time doing it. Our lives are busy, but families come and do this together. Kids, teachers, parents, town officials — everyone puts concerns and differences aside for the day. It’s a great time!”

(Click here to register a team. Spectators are welcome too.)

Rach’s Hope Shines Through

The family of one critically ill child could not visit much. The cost of hotels and meals away from home was prohibitive.

The family of another found lodging miles from a hospital — but had no way to get back and forth. Parents of a third worried about care for their other children, while they tended to their sick one.

When a child is diagnosed with a critical illness, parents face a blizzard of decisions. They’re in a fog of uncertainty and fear, handling a hurricane of tasks.

Yet in the midst of all that activity and emotion, one more weather-related metaphor stands out: a ray of sunshine.

It comes, gracefully and lovingly, from Rach’s Hope. The Westport-based foundation honors Rachel Doran. In 2018 the Staples High School National Merit Commended Scholar — a rising senior at Cornell University, talented Players costume designer, and founder of her own pajama company — developed a rare reaction to common medications.

She suffered severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed another life-threatening syndrome. After 35 harrowing days, Rachel died.

Rachel Doran

Despite their grief, her parents Alan and Lisa remembered the kindness shown by friends, hospital staff and strangers.

Small gestures — finding a hotel 2 blocks from the hospital; arriving with healthy muffins and protein shakes; taking care of Rachel’s sister — sustained the family at a time when they were so focused on Rachel that they had no time or energy to care for themselves.

Since then, Rach’s Hope has provided real, important sustenance and hope to families tossed by the tornado of a child’s critical illness.

For example, a Westport resident who teaches in another town knew of a student in intensive care at Yale New Haven Hospital. Rach’s Hope sent Uber cards for transportation, and Uber Eats for meals.

“Family members have to eat and sleep well, so they can be strong for their child or sibling,” Lisa notes.

Another boy in that same district is being treated in Boston. Rach’s Hope provided gas cards to the parents, and covers their hotel bill.

Columbia Presbyterian is a great hospital. But there is no reasonably priced hotel nearby. The Dorans formed a partnership with the Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. They pay a discounted rate for families who stay there — and the hotel provides shuttle service to the hospital.

Though its reach is wide, Rach’s Hope’s Westport roots are deep. Lisa’s niece volunteered as a counselor at Experience Camps — the Westport-based program for children whose parent, sibling or primary caregiver has died.

Last summer, Rach’s Hope sponsored 2 children for the camp. They’ll send 5 this year. A week for each child costs $2,500.

To raise funds, Rach’s friends, their families and others close to her –including W Hair & Color, Rothbard Ale + Larder and Le Rouge by Aarti — are sponsoring the 2nd annual “Rach’s Hope PJ Gala.”

It’s Saturday, February 29 (7:30 to 11 p.m., Penfield Pavilion, Fairfield). Last year’s inaugural event was fantastic: warm, fun and energetic.

And it brought in over $100,000.

(Yes, you’re supposed to wear PJs. Rachel had founded her own pajama company, Rachel’s Rags.)

Rachel Doran (left) shows off her portfolio.

It’s clear she touched a ton of people. Her sister Ellie and friends founded a flourishing Rach’s Hope chapter at Staples. The school’s volleyball team hosted a fundraiser of their own. And Rach’s Hope is one of the charities receiving proceeds from this year’s County Assembly dances.

They all believe in Rach’s Hope. And they hope everyone who knew Rachel — and many who did not — will support the February 29.

The storm of a child’s critical illness will never go away. But with Rach’s Hope’s help, those dark clouds may part just a bit.

(For tickets, more information or to make a donation, click here.) 

PS: As a fashion design management major at Cornell, she was a research assistant in the Costume and Textile Collection, wrote for their blog, and became a curator. 

Her mentor Denise Green called her “the kind of assistant every professor, collection manager and peer dreams about. She was curious, determined, passionate, smart, kind, and had a great sense of humor.”

A central exhibition space — which housed her own project a few months before she died — has been named in her honor. Click here for more information, and to donate.

Ben Saxon Brings Tech Tutoring To Kids

Ben Saxon loves all things STEM. Ask him anything computer, microcontroller  or Arduino related. He admires Elon Musk — for all he’s accomplished, as well as his approach to problem-solving.

But the Staples High School freshman does not simply hole up in his room, surrounded by gadgets. He’s outgoing, articulate and active — on the varsity squash team, and a black belt in karate.

Ben also shares his STEM/tech passions. He wants others to hone the critical thinking skills so necessary for success in many fields.

Now they can. Ben created Simply Academic, a tutoring service specializing in math, robotics and coding. Clients range from age 6 to 14.

Ben Saxon with a youngster who takes Simply Academics’ robotics course twice a week. Check out the LEGO Mindstorms robot!

Sessions are held at the tech-friendly Westport Library. Ben and his fellow tutors bring all necessary components: robotics kits, math test prep and review sheets, coding material.

A free, initial consultation helps them plan lessons. “If you want to build a car, we do something different than if you want to program it,” Ben explains.

He and the other tutors — Tegh Singh and Ben Seideman — don’t simply give answers. They challenge their students, them, guide them, and help them find different paths to an answer — just like Elon Musk does.

Individual sessions are $40 an hour; small group sessions cost less. Fees include all materials. For more information, click here or call 203-291-9270.

All Students Safe In School Bus Crash

The Westport Fire Department, Police Department, EMS and the Norwalk Fire Department responded swiftly, after a school bus crashed into a tree on Sylvan Road North at 8:10 am this morning. The bus was en route to Kings Highway Elementary School.

The scene this morning on Sylvan Road North.

The fire department says that all students had already been removed from the bus by good Samaritans without any complaints of injury.

However, the driver of the bus was trapped by the dashboard and required extrication using hydraulic equipment, by the Westport and Norwalk Fire Departments.

Rescue work today. (Photos courtesy of Westport FIre Department)

The last fire department unit cleared the scene at 9:26. Police are investigating the accident.

Pic Of The Day #1025

“Story Walk” on Riverside Avenue, behind Village Pediatrics. It’s great entertainment for kids — and their parents.

Unsung Heroes #133

Alert “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:

Each morning while on a coffee run I drive by Greens Farms Elementary School. I see the same person holding a stop sign to control traffic, and ensure the safety of children crossing the street.

This has been going on for years. It is a tribute to our school system, and the Westport Police Department that controls the program.

The other day I stopped and talk to the crossing guard. Jerry Meehan told me he had been doing this for nearly 8 years.

Jerry Meehan at work …

He had just helped Case and Jasper get to school. Jerry normally chats with moms and dads after assisting children. Today he also gave a dog a little treat.

The old adage for mail carriers applies to them, though modified slightly: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers (school guards) from the swift completion of their appointed rounds (tasks).”

Every day the guards protect our children for 2 hours before the opening of school, and 2 hours after it ends. Jerry works from 7:05 to 9 a.m., and 2 to 4 p.m.

The program is run by Lieutenant Jill Cabana of the Westport Police. There are 6 crossing guards, and 1 alternate. All have been working for at least 3 years, except Brienna Meier who started this fall.

… which also includes chatting with parents, and giving a dog a treat. (Photo/Bob Weingarten)

“They all do wonderful jobs,” Cabana says. “They are at school crossings on sunny days and inclement weather. The guards are another set of eyes and ears for us, making sure that everyone get to their destination in one piece.

“They are polite. They chitchat with moms, dads and kids, and are really unsung heroes.  They deserve recognition.”

Let’s recognize them by name:

  • Jerry Meehan (Greens Farms Elementary School, at Morningside Drive South)
  • Richard Space (Kings Highway Elementary School at Post Road West and Burr Road)
  • William Wanat (Long Lots Elementary School at Maple Avenue North and Hyde Lane)
  • Joan Lasprogato (Long Lots Elementary School at Hyde Lane and Long Lots Road)
  • Mary DelFlorio (Coleytown Elementary School at North Avenue and Easton Road)
  • Brienna Meier (Kings Highway Elementary School at Post Road West and Lincoln Street)
  • Kathryn O’Reardon (alternate).

Westport’s children, parents, teachers — and drivers: Thank you all!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Townwide Youth Concert Adds Chinese Art

Tonight is the townwide Youth Concert. The annual cross-cultural, collaborative event involves every school’s music department, plus teachers in departments like world language.

This year’s focus is on China. It’s part of the school district’s global initiative project.

Which means there is plenty of opportunity for visual arts too.

Beginning last year, Westport Public Art Collections’ exhibition — “Ties that Bind: Yangzhou and Westport” was displayed in every town elementary school.

The exhibit features ink landscape paintings by a pair of Chinese artists, donated to Westport in 2005 by our sister city. It also includes photos by famed local photographer Larry Silver, who first visited Yangzhou with a town delegation in 1996.

The Chinese government invited him back 3 years later. Both times, Silver took hundreds of black and white photos of the people and places he saw. A little more than 2 decades later, that way of life is very much changed.

Viewing, discussing and doing classroom projects with that artwork has been a great way for students to learn about China, before the youth concert.

Using WestPAC art to teach about China.

Dr. Ive Covaci, an Asian art scholar, adjunct professor at Fairfield University and WestPAC education chair, led professional development sessions with K-12 art teachers.

Then, elementary school students explored — via discussions and projects — the millenniums-old art of Chinese painting. They also compared the painters’ mountain landscapes to Silver’s photos of natural scenery.

Coleytown Elementary School students — who practiced writing Chinese characters, using an actual calligraphy brush — shared their activities on the school blog.

Practicing calligraphy in the Westport schools.

The public can see “The Ties That Bind” at tonight’s Youth Concert (7 p.m., Staples High School auditorium). Its tour ends at Town Hall, this spring.

(For more information on the Westport Public Art Collections, email westpac@westportps.org. The next open meeting is Friday, February 7, 9 9 a.m. in Town Hall Room 201.)

Evan Sheiber’s Joyful Life

Evan Sheiber was born with hypo-plastic right heart syndrome. That means he has a single ventricle — half a heart.

He’s not yet 4 years old. But last March the young Westporter underwent his 3rd open heart surgery.

It’s not a cure. Children born with this syndrome eventually require a heart transplant. The goal is to avoid the operation until absolutely necessary.

Evan Sheiber

After Evan’s open heart surgery, he has more energy. He keeps up with his identical twin James. He climbs, plays on the playground, and runs away from his parents at bedtime.

Yet he slows down more quickly, breathes more heavily, and has foot and leg pain.

Evan’s mother Britt notes other challenges too. A simple cold sent him to the emergency room. The flu can be devastating. She is always alert to danger.

Thirty years ago, most babies born with half a heart did not survive. But as far as medicine has come, there is much more to learn.

Britt has helped Dr. Rahul Rathod, director of the Single Ventricle Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, raise money for research and a registry.

With strong support from Westport, she has raised over $150,000.

Now Britt is preparing for JoyRide’s 4th annual Cycle for Heart event, on Sunday, February 9 (11 a.m.). There’s a raffle too, with donations from businesses like Rizzuto’s, Granola Bar, Organic Market, Saugatuck Sweets, SolidCore and SheLaLa.

To join the JoyRide event — or contribute without spinning — click here.

Click here to learn more about the FORCE Fund (formerly known as Evan’s Heart Fund), which directly impacts the lives of everyone like Evan living with a single ventricle.

 

Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

Youth Concert Brings China To Westport

Years ago, the Westport Youth Concert began as an opportunity to enrich students’ cultural awareness, through music.

As the school district’s emphasis on global understanding has grown, so has the Youth Concert. It’s evolved into a cross-cultural, collaborative event involving not only music, but Westport Public Schools’ visual arts and world language departments.

Outside organizations like the Westport Library, Westport Public Art Collections and PTA Cultural Arts have signed on as community partners.

A scene from last year’s Youth Concert.

This year’s event exemplifies the music department’s mission. “Music of China” features Staples High School musicians, the award-winning Middle School Percussion Ensemble, and guest artists from the New York Chinese Cultural Center. They’ll perform a lion dance and musical piece using a pipa, guzheng and erhu — with mini-lessons about each instrument.

The feature performance is Tuesday, February 4 (7 p.m., Staples auditorium). On that day, and February 6, in-school educational concerts for 3rd through 6th graders will complement the public concert.

It’s a huge undertaking. Youth Concert planning begins at the start of the school year. Coordinator Candi Innaco creates a classroom guide. It introduces the theme, and includes links to resources and classroom instruction.

Leading up to the event, teachers at Greens Farms, Long Lots and Saugatuck Elementary School had students design China-related art: hanging lanterns, wish kites, brush paintings, Ming Dynasty vases and the like.

Westport student art: Ming Dynasty vases.

All elementary music instructors are teaching the tune and lyrics to “Jasmine Flower.” At the concert, students will sing it from the audience — led by Staples’ Orphenians.

Staples’ world language department is involved too. Mandarin students will emcee the concert, and photos taken by teacher Chris Fray on his recent visit to China will be shown.

WestPAC, meanwhile, is displaying art and photography from China at their traveling pop-up galleries, at every school.

In March, the Westport Library will bring the same guest artists from the New York China Cultural Center, to perform again.

China lion dance, performed by members of the New York Chinese Cultural Center.

The public is invited to the free February 4 evening performance. For more information about this event and the Westport music program, click here.