Category Archives: Children

Inside A Large Circle Of Friends

Freida Hecht is passionate about the power of friendship. With 11 kids of her own, she knows the importance of children laughing, playing and just being kids together.

She also knows that youngsters with special needs often have limited social lives. They may not belong to sports teams or school clubs. They’re seldom included in play dates.

Thirteen years ago Frieda — who teaches adult education, runs a Hebrew school, is a community activist and, oh yeah, has 11 kids of her own — matched Westport 2nd selectman Shelley Kassen’s daughter with a young special needs girl. They planned one afternoon together.

circle-of-friends-logoThe day went well. Both wanted to continue.

Word spread. Freida matched more children with autism and disabilities with teenagers who wanted to be friends. The circle spread.

Today, the group has a very appropriate name: Circle of Friends. More than 150 teens — in Westport, Weston, Wilton, Norwalk, Easton, as far as Ridgefield — spend at least one weekend a month with their special needs friends. Circle of Friends clubs support the effort at Staples and Weston Highs.

Their time together includes the usual things friends do: Baking cookies. Playing games. Bowling.

Friendship means fun.

Friendship means fun.

“Friendship does not need special training,” Freida notes. “Just an open heart.”

Circle of Friends opens many hearts. After the first meeting between one new volunteer and her young friend, Freida called the mother for feedback.

The woman said she peeked in, and saw her daughter laughing loudly.

“I’ve never heard her laugh before,” the mother said.

The connections last beyond weekends. Another woman said her child always sat alone at lunch. Now she eats with the “cool kids.”

The students who join get as much out of the Circle as their friends. “Teenagers want truly meaningful volunteer opportunities,” Freida says. “This builds their self-esteem and confidence too.”

PJ & Jonathan Ross

PJ & Jonathan Ross

On April 2 (the Inn at Longshore, 5 p.m.), Circle of Friends celebrates 13 years — and the current 150 volunteers — with an “Evening of Recognition” fundraiser. Westporters Jonathan and PJ Ross — whose 2 children participate — will be honored.

Three siblings will also speak. Their topic is “the art of friendship: passing the torch.”

In 2008, Jillian Pecoriello was matched with a 3-year-old boy. Three years later, when she graduated from Staples, she asked her brother Scott to continue the tradition.

When he graduated, he made sure his younger brother Justin kept the friendship alive.

During school and summer vacations, Jillian and Scott hang out with their friend. They’ve become part of his family.

Jillian, Scott and Justin Pecioriello, with their young friend.

Jillian, Justin and Scott Pecioriello, with their young friend.

Justin graduates from Staples this year. But he’s already made sure that Ethan Gross — a current freshman — will spend the next 3 years with their friend.

The Pecoriellos’ parents — Andrea and Bill — are past Circle of Friends honorees. Now, they’re spearheading a Circle campaign to create a baker to employ adults with disabilities.

“Their family’s entire foundation is one of giving and sharing. They’re infused with goodness,” Freida says.

She believes that friendship is “a basic necessity of the human condition.”

For 13 years, she’s made sure that Fairfield County’s circle of friends is big, wide, and very loving.

(For more information about the Circle of Friends’ “Evening of Recognition,” click here.)

Arrivederci, Vespa. Welcome, The ‘Port.

In its 2 1/2 years in Westport, Vespa earned the loyalty of many customers.

Unfortunately, they came almost entirely on Friday and Saturday nights.

Owner Bobby Werhane thought there was a demand for “a New York style, modern rustic restaurant” in that location.

There was. But attracting diners on more casual weekdays was tough. Though the 155 seats inside were filled — and in summer, the 60-seat patio was packed — the size of National Hall, plus the difficulty of scheduling employees for both peak and slow times, led to what Werhane admits was “inconsistency.”

“The Cottage and the Whelk are small enough to do well consistently,” he says. “They’ve got a small, constant staff, and a tight menu. Their expenses are manageable. It was a lot tougher for us.”

The Inn at National Hall. Vespa most recently occupied the ground floor.

One of the things he enjoyed most about  Vespa was establishing strong relationships with guests. One was Sal Augeri.

A 14-year Westporter with 2 kids, Augeri — a Wall Street guy — was thinking about the next phase of his life. He’d always been interested in restaurants; he was involved in his town, so …

… welcome to the new spot that’s taking Vespa’s place. It’s called …

… The ‘Port.

It aims to fill a niche that Augeri believew is lacking in Westport’s restaurant scene: an “approachable, authentic experience.” He calls it “a place to go after your kids’ practice, or for a quick bite with friends. But a place that also has a definite local flavor.”

The ‘Port — our town’s sometime nickname — hopes to convey a real Westport vibe. Vespa’s white walls and beautiful surfaces will remain; some banquettes and communal spaces will be added, and “Westport stuff” put on the walls. Soon, the owners hope, the iconic building will be filled with people, 7 days a week.

“Owners” is exactly the right word. Augeri’s company — SMA Hospitality — is the majority owner and operating partner. Twenty-three investors have joined the 10 original Vespa backers. That’s 33 families, all with young kids and town ties.

Local designers Alli DiVincenzo and Michele Cosentino teamed up with Westport architect Lucien Vita of the Vita Design Group to brand and design the interior of The ‘Port.

The restaurant will also hire Staples students as busboys. (The last place that did that may have been the Arrow.)

The ‘Port will be “family friendly.” Augeri says that means “simple, basic, good food that people want”: an excellent burger. The “Port Club” signature chicken sandwich. Fish, pastas, fresh salads, great wings.

Milk and fresh lemonade for children — drinks that are healthier than most restaurants’ sodas and juice boxes.

Dessert includes homemade brownies and Chipwiches. “I don’t need tiramisu,” Augeri laughs.

Chef Justin Kaplan last worked in Lake Tahoe. This will be the 7th restaurant he’s opened.

He looks forward to “rustic, home-style cooking done right. We’re designing this menu for our guests — not the chefs’ egos.”

Chef Justin Kaplan (left) and operating partner Sal Augeri. (Photo/Allyson Monson)

“Family friendly” means the owners hope The ‘Port will be the place that Staples Players and middle school actors go to celebrate after shows. What about the diner — the current favorite spot? “We’ll do special events for the cast,” Augeri promises.

He will also provide discounts for veterans, police officers and firefighters, along with special post-Back to School Night promotions. Augeri adds, “teachers will be glad we’re there. A lot of times they’re looking for a 4-to-6 p.m. spot.”

A couple of TVs will draw guests for big events, like the NCAA Final Four, US Open tennis or a Premier League championship. But — although he’s deeply involved in the Westport PAL, and he hopes teams will gather there after big wins — Augeri claims, “this is not a sports bar. It’s a restaurant with TVs.”

The projected opening date is a month from now. See you at The ‘Port.

Talking SMAK With Special Needs Kids

Parents of special needs children spend countless hours with educators and other professionals, crafting IEPs — Individualized Educational Plans.

But when school is out, a small group of kids and 2 very committed young teachers work together on another IEP. They call it an Individualized Exercise Plan.

And boy, is it fun!

Frankie D’Souza and Jenn Fittipaldi are the speech pathologists who founded SMAK (“Specialized Movement Active Kids”). And just as the acronym does not single out “special education,” the program offers this sometimes-isolated group of youngsters a chance to participate in an activity all kids love.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D'Souza, at Fitness Works.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D’Souza, at Fitness Works.

Frankie and Jenn have 3 classes, with 6 children each. One meets on Tuesday afternoons at Fitness Works, the gym underneath Granola Bar. Two others take place on Saturdays, at Crossfit in Norwalk.

The kids — many of them on the autism spectrum — do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and box step-ups; use weights for squats and dead lifts; perform handstands and sprints; push sleds, and work with medicine balls and kettle bells.

They’re called “exercises.” But the group — ages 5 to 15 — love them.

“It’s so rewarding!” says Jenn, who notes that special education youngsters often have fewer opportunities than others for social and physical activities. SMAK provides both.

“They really get stimulated,” Frankie adds. “A lot of them have social anxiety, on top of other issues. But they socialize in the gym. They’re active, and so proud of themselves. Plus the release of endorphins make them feel really good.”

She notes with pride a boy who seldom showed emotion. Yet he grins broadly while exercising. “That’s the first time I ever saw him smile!” his sister said. Excitedly, she snapped a photo.

All kids -- like those in the file photo shown here -- enjoy the benefits of working out.

All kids — like those in the file photo shown here — enjoy the benefits of working out.

When they go back to school, Frankie says, they feel “a real sense of commonality” with their SMAK friends. Without realizing it, they’ve worked not only on fitness, but following multi-step oral directions, taking turns, initiating and maintaining conversations with peers, and vocabulary.

Merrily Bodell is the parent of 2 special needs youngsters. A member of the school district’s Special Education Parents PTA, she can’t say enough about what SMAK has meant for her kids.

“Frankie was my son’s speech pathologist at Greens Farms Elementary School,” Merrily says. “She’s so sweet and loving.”

Her son can’t participate in team sports, so the chance to be physically active in the gym, doing partner activities, has been fantastic. Her son feels engaged, and enjoys socializing.

Merrily tells the story of a boy who repeats words or phrases, hour after hour. When he’s with Frankie and Jenn in the gym, he never does.

Happily, everyone around — his new friends, his parents, and Frankie and Jenn – smile through the SMAK sessions too.

 

How The Earthplace Garden Grows

Like the perennial plants that bloom, then disappear there, the native garden in the Earthplace atrium has cycled through periods of growth and dormancy.

Designed in 1960 by Eloise Ray — a noted landscape architect — at what was then called the Mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum, the handsome garden was filled with indigenous species.

Eloise Ray, in the natural garden she conceived and designed.

Eloise Ray, in the native garden she conceived and designed.

Over the years — as the name changed to the Nature Center — the garden became a favorite spot. A bronze statue and bench added to its serenity.

In 1977, the Greens Farms Garden Club took over maintenance. They continued until 2011, when the board of trustees changed the courtyard focus. For a few years, the garden fell into disuse.

But in the fall of 2015, the garden club revived it. They weeded vigorously. Working from Ray’s original blueprints, they planted 17 new shrubs, and 42 native plants. Last year, they added 12 more perennials.

Greens Farms Garden Club members (from left) Ann Watkins, Barbara Harman, Wynn Herrmann, Rivers Teske and Donnie Nader take a rare break from their Earthplace work.

Greens Farms Garden Club members (from left) Ann Watkins, Barbara Harman, Wynn Herrmann, Rivers Teske and Donnie Nader take a rare break at Earthplace.

Today the garden is once again a delight. It supports local wildlife like grey tree frogs. Honeybees pollinate the flora. Birds and butterflies abound.

Staff and visitors love it. And, says Greens Farms Garden Club past president Wynn Hermann, members and Earthplace employees enjoy a “wonderful partnership.”

Earthplace's atrium garden blooms again.

Earthplace’s atrium garden blooms again.

On Saturday, March 11, guests will gather there for a Garden Party Gala. There’s great food and music, plus an auction. It’s a fundraiser for Earthplace’s education programs.

The theme of the evening is “Help Our Garden Grow.”

Which makes perfect sense. Whether it’s flowers or the environmental awareness of children, Earthplace plants seeds, nurtures and grows.

(The Garden Party Gala is set for 7-11 p.m. on Saturday, March 11. For information and tickets, click here.)

 

To Cesar Batalla School, With Love

If you’re like me, you spend time sitting in Riverside Avenue traffic wondering what goes on behind those mysterious windows above Arezzo restaurant.

bonnie-marcus-logoTurns out it’s a design studio, home to the Bonnie Marcus Collection. Launched by Diane von Furstenberg’s former right-hand woman, it’s where 10 very talented people — all local moms — create illustrations for bridal shower, wedding and party invitations; greeting cards; calendars and more.

Bonnie has developed licensing deals with some of the biggest companies in the world. Her designs are found in more than 50,000 retail and online stores.

But today her studio concentrates on one school, in nearby  Bridgeport.

Bonnie’s cards often feature hand-painted sparkles. So Westporter Nicole Straight — who volunteers at the Cesar Batalla School, and is a big fan of Bonnie Marcus Collections — came up with an idea: Give every student there a chance to make a sparkling Valentine’s Day card for someone special.

Westport middle school student Sydney Gusick helped package goodies at the Bonnie Marcus design studio.

Westport middle school student Sydney Gusick helped package goodies at the Bonnie Marcus design studio.

It could be a parent, sibling, teacher or friend. The key is for kids to have fun making their own cards.

Today, Nicole is delivered 1,200 sparkle pens to the school.

Plus Valentine’s gifts for each teacher: A calendar, filled with color and creativity, for every classroom.

Bonnie and the rest of her team enjoyed plenty of smiling faces at Cesar Batalla today.

Who knows? They may find a future designer there too.

(Hat tip: Robin Gusick)

Making a valentine, today at Cesar Batalla School.

Making a valentine, today at Cesar Batalla School.

 

Kelly Powers: Westport Privilege Meant Straddling 2 Worlds

TEAM Westport’s essay contest on white privilege has sparked plenty of conversation, both on “06880” and — thanks to an AP news story that went viral — everywhere else.

Alert reader and Staples High School graduate Kelly Powers has a unique vantage point. She writes:

It was my first day at Saugatuck Elementary School. I had moved to Westport that summer, and was less than thrilled to enter a new school.

Little did I know I was extremely lucky. The Westport school system opened doors and granted opportunities I could only have dreamed of in my hometown of Port Chester, New York.

Yet instead of basking in my fortunate circumstances, I noticed — and pointed out, without hesitation — that no one looked like me.

Everyone stared. I had kinky hair, a “boys” haircut, tanned skin, and I used alien vernaculars no one seemed to understand. Those who did understand were quick to teach me the “proper” way of speaking.

I’d love to say that I had a remarkable ability at age 9 to deconstruct the stigmatization that was placed upon me. But I didn’t. Instead I answered questions like, “Do you live in Bridgeport?” I watched the confusion as people saw me with my white dad. Then came the next question: “So you’re adopted?”

I’m not denigrating my classmates for their curiosity, nor did I take offense. I’m simply noting that from the very beginning, I learned I would be under the microscope. To escape these confines, I would have to fully integrate into the new culture I was thrown into.

Kelly Powers (center), with Staples High School friends.

Kelly Powers (center), with Staples High School friends.

It didn’t take long to mold myself to Westport’s standards. The only thing I couldn’t mold was my skin color, which proved to be a blessing and a curse. I was just as much a Westport kid as my classmate who got a hand-me-down Audi for their 16th birthday. (I got a Subaru, which could be argued is more Westport than an Audi. But that’s not the point.)

I lived and breathed the bourgeois lifestyle. I expected the world to work with me, never against. Did I notice the bits of microaggression, stigmatization or alienation I endured? No, because I was feeding them. To escape the microscope, I fed into the hegemonic ideologies that form the bubble that encases the town, and more specifically, Staples High School.

I was not surprised to see a Facebook page filled with “mean spirited” (every “ist” you can think of) memes, from Staples students.

The Staples environment is filled with racism. The quicker you accept that, the easier it is to assimilate. For a student of color at Staples, it always proved beneficial to juggle the “us not them” and “them, but not really” outlook.

For Kelly Powers (right), life was not always a day at the beach.

For Kelly Powers (right), life was not always a day at the beach.

“Us” meant being a part of the Westport world, where we complained about having to put our laundry in the hamper for the cleaning lady. The “not them” referred to the other people that who match our skin tone but lived an incomprehensible, and disregardable, lifestyle.

On the flip side, “them, but not really” allowed students of color to pick and choose the desired traits of their racial background when it was encouraged and deemed appropriate by those around them, even if they really had nothing to pull from. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a student of color who grew up in Westport say, “I’m totally afraid of black people, I wouldn’t dare go to Norwalk alone at night,” but then turn around and say, “I’m that loud because I’m black.”

The way to survive was to feed the biases, which began by belittling the group of people your peers associated you with. I constantly stoked the fires of prejudice, to stay afloat.

The “us, not them” and “them, but not really” outlook paved the perfect path to shaping one’s identity by the group that was in power: white, privileged, heterosexual teenagers.

I experienced this first hand by constantly being told the way I acted was because of my racial background. However, the real reasons lay locked away. If I ever combated this assumption, I would have been ostracized.

I saw it happen to students of color who called kids out for their prejudice. Not only did I not realize how confining it was to be forced into a tightly woven box using the fabric of essentialism, but they didn’t even realize that it was wrong.

Even though I’m biracial, I was labeled “black.” Even though I’m Italian, I was labeled “ghetto.” Even though I lived in Westport, I was associated with Bridgeport.

Kelly Powers today.

Kelly Powers today.

In the Westport I grew up in, a place people would not dare call anything other than “open, inclusive, and liberal,” these issues simply weren’t discussed.

I believe Westporters are so afraid of the word “racist” because it’s heavy and is seen as a binary. In reality, it’s a spectrum. We all have racial biases — it’s natural for our brains to categorize based on superficial attributes — but it’s not okay to denigrate entire groups of people due to perceived differences.

However, is it fair to expect a group of students who very rarely escape homogeneiy to be empathetic to other walks of life?

We can break this cycle. We must encourage students to talk about it, encourage the difficult conversations, write essays about white privilege, volunteer at a soup kitchen outside of Westport.

It’s never too late to unlearn prejudice. But first you must acknowledge that it exists.

Remembering Harold Levine

Harold Levine — a giant on the local philanthropic scene — died peacefully at home yesterday. He was 95.

Professionally, he’s known as the co-founder — with Chet Huntley — of the Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver ad agency. Highly regarded for its creativity, the firm was in the forefront of providing career opportunities for women and minorities. In 1996, Levine received a diversity achievement award from the American Advertising Federation.

Levine was also a lifelong champion of education and the arts.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, as chair of the Freeport (New York) Board of Education, he steered that school system during a period of racial and political unrest. He later served as chair of the board of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation.

Harold Levine

Harold Levine

After moving to Westport, he committed himself to providing educational and arts opportunities to Bridgeport children.

As chair of Neighborhood Studios, he helped a small arts program grow into a large, thriving organization that now provides a broad array of music, fine art and dance education.

He often — and successfully — sought financial and other support from Westport, to benefit Bridgeport youngsters.

Levine is survived by his children, Rita and Jay; 4 grandchildren, and a great-grandson. He was predeceased by his wife Sue and brother Josh.

A funeral is set for Monday (February 13, 10:30 a.m.) at Temple Israel. Memorial contributions may be made to Neighborhood Studios, 391 East Washington Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06608.


In 2015, Harold Levine asked me to spread the good word about Neighborhood Studios. I was happy to oblige. At 93, he wrote the following plea:

I just received a troubling phone call. Our executive director projects that by the end of our fiscal year on August 30th, we will be over $80,000 in  debt.

We are seriously understaffed. So why the deficit?

Neighborhood Studios logoWhy can’t we get enough money to provide arts experiences to over 1,500 children? Is it because they are poor? Is it because they don’t live in our community? Is it because they are black and Hispanic?

I recently invited a Westporter to join me on a visit to our programs in action. I was told, “Oh, I don’t go to Bridgeport.”

Neighborhood Studios was founded over 35 years ago by Pat Hart, a young woman who became blind at 28. She was committed to teaching art and music to blind and other handicapped children. Over the years the organization has grown to serve all Bridgeport children.

For example, for private piano lessons we ask parents to pay $3 per sessions. Many tell us they cannot afford even that little.  Are we to turn that child away?  Of course not. That’s one reason we end the year with a deficit.

For the past 15 years we have sponsored Ailey Camp, a 6-week summer program in cooperation with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Bridgeport is one of only 7 such camps around the country.

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

Besides a great dance program, youngsters are also trained in speech, writing, and feeling good about themselves. Many campers return as interns and instructors.

This is a program that everyone in Fairfield County should be proud to support.  The campers (and their parents) are carefully interviewed. Each family pays only $25 for the entire summer — yet each camper costs Neighborhood Studios over $1,000.

We are looking for patrons of the arts. I was once told that if Neighborhood Studios was headquartered in Westport, we would be loaded with money.

But we’re not. We are in Bridgeport, serving a community very much in need. So how about saying to the children of Bridgeport: “We do care about you.”

Our programs work. We are successful in getting a high percentage of our children to go on to college.  We must continue to serve the children of our neighboring community, Bridgeport.

Westport Moms Own WestportMoms.com

Westport moms have lots of options.

Also, lots of questions.

How do I find the right summer camp? What activities can I do with my 2-year-old? Where can I find a place for a great brunch with my husband?

Up to now, those answers were scattered all over the Googlesphere.

Starting a couple of weeks ago, they’re aggregated all in one place.

Fittingly, it’s called WestportMoms.com.

The site is the work of (duh) Westport moms. Megan Rutstein and Melissa Post are the type of active, plugged-in women friends often turn to for advice.

Megan Rutstein and Melissa Post enjoy a WestportMoms event, at The Cottage.

Megan Rutstein and Melissa Post enjoy a WestportMoms event, at The Cottage.

When Megan and Melissa heard about GreenwichMoms.com — the brainchild of Layla Jafar — and similar pages for Darien and New Canaan, they realized it was a perfect platform for Westport too.

And they’re the perfect partners to produce it.

Megan and Melissa are responsible for all local content. (Which includes Weston and — at least for the moment — Wilton and Fairfield.)

The other day, the home page included “M&M Picks” (All Birds Sneakers for moms, Mad Mattr for munchkins); a New Year’s resolution on cooking healthier meals (with recipes for, um, pizza quesadillas and baked chicken fingers); a story on chef Brian Lewis, the man behind the wildly popular restaurant The Cottage, and a “Meet a Mom” feature with, actually, 2 moms (the founders of Granola Bar).

The rest of the site includes an events calendar (heavy on story time for toddlers); lists of public, private and preschools plus summer camps, and a resources page with links to activities, attractions, babysitting and nanny agencies, pet care, fitness health and beauty (from gyms to botox), pediatricians and pediatric dentists, restaurants and specialty food stores (there are plenty!), shopping and products.

Part of the home page of WestportMoms.com

Part of the home page of WestportMoms.com

WestportMoms.com makes money from advertising partners and sponsored listings.

The graphics are spare. That’s fine. Moms who log on want information, not splashy photos.

And to answer everyone’s question: Sure. There’s tons of good info on WestportMoms for Westport dads too.

Leah Rondon’s Birthday Bash

In August 2015, Westport mourned the loss of Leah Rondon. She was struck by a car, while playing at a friend’s house.

The daughter of Bedford Middle School teacher Colleen Rondon played soccer, basketball and softball, and was the Ansonia Boys & Girls Club “Girl of the Year.” She loved reading, and proudly listed all her summer titles on the refrigerator.

She was just 6 years old.

Despite this unimaginable tragedy, Colleen’s energy and enthusiasm has not wavered. She teaches children with passion and pride.

Leah Rondon

Leah Rondon

On February 4, Leah would have been 8 years old. Her mother has created a Birthday Bash. She’s determined to make it a day of joy, not mourning.

She’s also determined to make Leah’s birthday mean something. So she and her husband — an administrator at Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral High School — are growing a scholarship in Leah’s name.

The Birthday Bash this coming Saturday (February 4, 12-4 pm) features a carnival with games, crafts, face painting, raffles and entertainment. The event takes place at Kolbe Cathedral.

Performers — many of whom are from Westport and Weston — include Jamie Mann (who has performed as Billy Elliot in 60 shows from New Hampshire to Florida), Stephanie Greene, Zoe Lieberman, Claire Vocke, Brody Braunstein, Chloe Manna, Lola Lamensdorf, Cate Steinberg, Leif Edoff (8-year-old pianist), Jasper Burke, Isabelle Katz, Lucas Lieberman, the award-winning Westport Dance Center company and more.

All proceeds benefit the Leah Rondon Memorial Scholarship Fund. It’s awarded to a graduating female Kolbe Cathedral student. For more information, click here.

And if you can’t make it to Leah’s Birthday Bash but want to donate to her fund, click here — then scroll down just below “Events” in the center of the page.

The Y’s Very Special Swimmers

Special Olympics is a special program. Since its founding in 1968, the non-profit has transformed countless lives through sports. Nearly 5 million athletes in 169 countries — and over a million volunteers — participate each year.

But the Westport Weston Family YMCA‘s Special Olympics program is extra special.

It began just over a year ago, as a dream of Westporters Marshall and Johanna Kiev. Working with Y officials and members, it quickly grew to include a basketball program (13 special needs athletes and 13 partners practiced weekly, and competed at a Holiday Sports Classic). A track and field team will be added soon.

But it’s the swim program that’s really made waves.

Having fun with the Westport Y's Special Olympics swim program.

Having fun with the Westport Y’s Special Olympics swim program.

Two dozen youngsters, of varying physical and intellectual abilities, practice every Sunday — under the guidance of real, professional swim coaches. They’re one of the few Special Olympics teams anywhere that does that.

Barbara Bachuretz has spent 30 years training swimmers. Erin Ritz is a Westport Y Water Rat coach.

They’re backed by a corps of dedicated volunteers. The group includes former Amherst swimmer and water polo player Peter Nussbaum, and Hopkins School freshman Henry Fisher. Both live in Westport.

In June — proudly bearing the name Water Rats — 24 swimmers traveled to the Summer Special Olympics Games at Southern Connecticut State University. They were the only team there whose special needs youngsters swam all 4 laps of the relay. All other relay teams included unified partners.

The Water Rats Special Olympics team amassed over 30 medals. It was a great event for the entire group.

The Westport Weston Family YMCA Water Rat Special Olympics team (with coaches) (and friends!).

The Westport Weston Family YMCA Water Rat Special Olympics team (with coaches) (and friends!).

But individual stories stand out too.

Y senior program coordinator Jay Jaronko remembers a 14-year-old who was very nervous. Jay and his coaches assured him he could watch other swimmers before his race, to feel comfortable about the event.

But when they got to the meet, the boy was scheduled to race first. Casting aside his fears, he focused directly on his lane. He got in the water, stared straight ahead — and finished first by an astonishing half pool length.

Then he headed off with teammates to the concession stand. His amazed parents told Jaronko, “he’s never done that in his life.”

“I was hooked on Special Olympics before that,” Jaronko says. “But that was the point when I really, truly got it.”

Smiles all around on the Y's Special Olympics swim team.

Smiles all around at the Special Olympics swim meet.

Another story: After the Summer Games, a father told Jaronko that teammates would be at his son’s upcoming birthday party. That too was a first.

This year, Jaronko reports, that boy is swimming and playing water polo for his high school.

“We’re doing a lot more than just teaching kids to swim,” the program director says proudly.

Here’s something even more special: The entire Y Special Olympics program is free.

There’s no registration free, no charge for apparel — nothing. Even meals are covered.

The Y covers all the funds. The Kiev family has been great, throwing fundraising parties to help.

This year’s budget is $46,000.

The program is worth every penny.

(For more information on the Westport Y’s Special Olympics swim program, click here; call Jay Jaronko at 203-226-8983, or email jjaronko@westporty.org.  To read more about the Kievs and their daughter Chloe, click here.)

This is what the Westport Y's Special Olympics Water Rats program is all about. (Photos courtesy of Westport Weston Family YMCA)

This is what the Westport Y’s Special Olympics Water Rats program is all about. (Photos courtesy of Westport Weston Family YMCA)