Category Archives: Children

By The Book: Cathleen Schine

Every Sunday, the New York Times Book Review section runs an author Q-and-A. The questions are often probing; the answers, intriguing.

Yesterday’s was also local. And for me, it was personal.

Cathleen Schine

Cathleeen Schine — Staples High School graduate, and best-selling author of novels like The Three Weissmanns of Westport — was the subject.

To the question “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?” she responded:

The Phantom Tollbooth. Our teacher read it to us in 4th grade. It changed my life. Words are real!”

She’s right. Too bad though that she did not give her teacher — Burr Farms Elementary School’s immensely talented, much loved, died-way-too-early Annette Fournier — a shout-out by name.

How do I know?

I was in that class too.

(Click here for the entire interview. Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

R.L. Stine To Star At Saugatuck StoryFest

When Alex Giannini told his mother that R.L. Stine was coming to Westport — he’s the keynote speaker for the Westport Library’s Saugatuck StoryFest next month — she said, “That’s all you read as a kid.”

“I know,” the library’s manager of experiential learning said. “He’s one of the main reasons I read the authors I read today.”

R.L. Stine (Photo/Dan Nelken)

Alex is not alone. Nearly every American under the age of 45 or so was weaned on Stine’s works: the dozens of “Goosebumps” books — and many other fiction/horror/ thriller works — by the man called “the Stephen King of children’s literature. He has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide.

On Saturday, September 28, his many fans of all ages get a chance to see him in the flesh. Stine will speak for half an hour in the Forum, answer questions, and autograph copies of his latest book, “Slappy World.”

Stine’s appearance was confirmed only recently. Library officials learned he was coming the morning their Saugatuck StoryFest brochure was going to press.

He joins an impressive list of authors and others appearing at the 2nd annual event. Co-sponsored by the Westport Public Schools, it’s an innovative, immersive 3-day experience, celebrating a wide variety of genres and interests.

Last year’s celebration of writing and stories drew more than 3,000 people, from around the tri-state region. This year’s event — held entirely at the newly transformed Library — builds on that foundation.

The theme for Thursday, September 26 is “Beyond Our Earth.” The StoryFest starts with a 6 p.m. “Gravity” show by new media artist Balam Soto. Using the Forum’s video wall, he’ll help participants “move planets” and “shape the fabric of space-time” with their fingertips.

He’s followed by Ray Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller, and Kate Howells, the author of “Space is Cool as Fuck,” who takes audiences on an interplanetary adventure far beyond our galaxy. The library can’t say it quite this way, but it will be exactly what the title promises.

Friday, September 27 — the only day of the 3 that is not free — features Mallory O’Meara (author of “The Lady from the Black Lagoon”), Broadway’s Rob Rokicki (“The Lightning Thief”), illustrator Dave O’Neill and the cast of Broadway performers for Rokicki’s “Monstersongs,” a rock musical song cycle celebrating literary monsters.

Joining Stine on Saturday, September 28 for a full day of panels and book signings are Tiffany Jackson, L.L. McKinney, Stoker Award winners Gwendolyn Kiste and Paul Tremblay, Hugo Award winner Seanan McGuire, horror editor Ellen Datlow, bestselling thriller writers Lynne Constantine and Wendy Walker, and more.

Saugatuck StoryFest promises to be an entertaining, fun, family-friendly 3-day celebration.

It’s enough to give you goosebumps.

(For more information on Saugatuck StoryFest — including panels and times — click here.)

Pic Of The Day #845

Kids like Lily Josephine Katchmer are timeless at Compo (Photo/Melissa Gai Katchmer)

Unsung Heroes #110

A couple of weeks ago, “06880” put out a call. Earthplace had lost its longtime supplier of food. They needed $14,000 to feed their raptors.

Readers responded immediately. But 2 young people went waaaaay beyond the call of duty.

Sienna DeSantis organized a lemonade stand on the hottest Sunday of the year. She raised $250.

Sienna DeSantis, and her lemonade stand.

Rising Staples High School senior Emma Borys works in the Earthplace Animal Hall. She donated her salary from 2 holidays — July 4th, and this coming Labor Day — to the campaign.

Emma Borys at work.

The ravens, owls, hawks and eagles thank you!

(Hat tip: Sophie Pollmann. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Broad Horizons At Wakeman Town Farm

It always feels good to attend a fundraiser for a local organization. (And there are many fundraisers and groups in Westport.)

You eat and drink well. You’re entertained, and can win cool auction and raffle items. Plus, you’re contributing to a worthy cause.

However, you don’t always know exactly where your money goes.

If you attended last fall’s Harvest Fest at Wakeman Town Farm though, read on. (Keep reading if you didn’t go too, of course.)

Some of those funds went to support Horizons at Sacred Heart University. The tuition-free academic enrichment program serves low-income Bridgeport students in kindergarten through 8th grade. It’s one of 60 national chapters.

Thanks to Harvest Fest, more than 170 youngsters came to WTF last week. They learned about life on a farm, and got hands-on experiences with animals and plants.

Learning about life at Wakeman Town Farm.

On Friday, they had a huge pizza party. Volunteers fired up the new wood oven, donated by Robin Tauck (with stone from the Gault Family, and a gas grill by the Wormser family). Transportation was underwritten by Bankwell Westport.

But none of it would have been possible without help from Harvest Fest.

Remember that the next time you head to a fundraiser. The catered food and fancy wine is wonderful. Tickets to a Yankees Stadium suite, or a vacation at someone’s Caribbean home, is nice.

But the true joy comes when your money is put to good, real, important use.

Every kid loves pizza. Every counselor worries about the time. (Photos/Robert Osgood)

Project Concern: 40 Years Later, Memories Live On

Eve Potts is a longtime Westporter. She’s been active in the arts, history, education and much more. Today, she shares a special encounter with “06880” readers.

Those of us who have been in Westport a long time remember vividly when there was a great deal of discussion (not all of it positive) about inviting a group of youngsters from Bridgeport to join classrooms in Westport. The program was known as Project Concern.

Over 40 years have passed since those first eager kids jumped off a bus from Bridgeport and were enrolled in Westport elementary schools. My 2 daughters were in the lower grades at Burr Farms. They were excited to welcome one of the girls, Anjetta Redmond, to stay at our house overnight each Tuesday so she could be part of the special early morning music rehearsals.

Eve Potts painted Anjetta Redmond’s portrait 40 years ago, when she was a guest in their home.

A couple of months ago — after all these years — we had a wonderful reunion with Anjetta Redmond Holloway and her close friend, Lisa Jones Mendenhall, who often joined Anjetta at our house overnight.

The conversation was lively. Besides getting reacquainted and sharing photos of kids, grandkids and husbands, we talked a bit about their Westport experience.

Both talked frankly — and enthusiastically — about what a great experience it had been for them. They were emphatic that coming to Westport, and learning about this other world, had impacted their lives.

We asked how they were treated back in Bridgeport after they enrolled here. They said there was teasing, and some pretty derisive comments from some of their friends.

Both women insisted that they honestly never felt any prejudice from their Westport schoolmates, even as talk of recalling the Westport Board of Education chair swirled and became reality here in Westport.

There was a lot of reminiscing — about funny happenings, and about Lisa’s brother Leonard who had been accepted into the program because an older sister had suggested it would be good for him. Leonard was a favorite at Burr Farms School for his incredible ability to walk on his hands and do other acrobatic feats.

The women mentioned the treats that were available in Westport, like Baskin- Robbins, that weren’t available in Bridgeport. Amy remembered how her Bridgeport friends brought Now & Laters — candy not available in Westport — to school to sell to kids here.

It was a wonderful morning: very loving, very happy, and very nostalgic.

Both Anjetta and Lisa have had very successful careers and marriages. Anjetta has had a long career at People’s Bank, and is a research representative. Lisa, who also worked for years at People’s Bank, is now employed by the Board of Education in Bridgeport. She is involved in discussions about the validity, balance and fairness of magnet school policies.

Here’s what Lisa posted on Facebook when she got home:

OK. So the year is 1971. There’s a program called Project Concern being introduced to inner city communities. Myself, along with my friends Anjetta Holloway and Wanda Thompson-Mosley, to name a few, were allowed the opportunity to attend.

We joined Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We played the flute and clarinets, mastered cartwheels and splits, and went to sleepaway camp. Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was good eating (no Arthur Treacher’s in Bridgeport), and we were completely fascinated with Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.

Fast forward. It’s 2019 and you receive a friend request from Amy Potts. Hmmm. Amy and Abby from Westport — could it be?  Yes, it was, and this morning after 40-plus years we met for breakfast with Amy, her mom, and her auntie.

What a great time we had reminiscing of how great life was way back then. Life is good. Always cherish each moment.

(For more “06880” stories on Project Concern, click here, here and here.)

Backpacks For A Cause

Back-to-school shopping is seldom the grinning, hand-holding experience portrayed in TV and print ads.

backpacksKids worry they’ll have the “wrong” notebooks or pens.  Parents fear they’ll forget something important, and their kid’s teacher will think they’re idiots.

Other Westporters have a deeper, more realistic fear:  They can’t pay for everything their kids need.

Fortunately, Westport’s Human Services Department is on the case.

Its annual Back to School program, offering supplies to eligible families, is underway.

The program provides new backpacks and gift cards (Staples Office Supply, Walmart, Target) to income-eligible families with children in the Westport schools. Cash donations to the program are welcome too.

Last year, 181 boys and girls received assistance. Director of Human Services Elaine Daignault estimated the number as equivalent to 10 classrooms of kids.

“A growing number of Westport families face the burden of financial hardship,” she notes.

“Back-to-school time can be particularly stressful on a family budget. Thanks to generous Westporters, our department provides discreet assistance to families who want to give their children the best possible start to the school year.

“Parents can share in the excitement of back-to-school shopping with their children. And donors can be confident that 100% of their donations benefit their Westport neighbors.”

The program depends entirely on the generosity of individuals and organizations.

There’s a new online donation portal: click here. When you get to “Seasonal program name if applicable,” click “Back to School program” from the drop-down menu.

Tax-deductible monetary donations of any amount made payable to “Family Programs Fund” (memo: “Backpacks”), as well as gift cards, can be sent to: Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

New backpacks and gift cards can be dropped off at the department offices, Room 200 in Town Hall, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., now through August 12.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, call 203-341-1050, or email emilton@westportct.gov.

Fine Arts Festival: Calling All Kids (And Adults)!

Westport’s Fine Arts Festival draws painters, photographers, sculptors — and art lovers — from around the country.

Plenty of residents browse stroll the stalls on Main Street.

But for a town that prides itself on its arts heritage, the number of local artists showing is limited.

This weekend (July 20 and 21, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), we’ll get our fill.

Following last year’s successful pilot, the Artists Collective of Westport hosts 2 activity tents for kids and parents. Set up at at Brooks Corner, they’re a spot for kids to show off their creatives sides. Drawing, rock painting, origami — you name it, it’s there for children to do.

Action in last year’s Fine Arts Festival children’s tent.

New this year, the Collective will set up a giant Art Experience tent on Taylor Place, near Tiffany.

Over 20 Collective artists have volunteered. There will be several at a time, leading interactive projects and demonstrating techniques and media. Among them: clam shells, eggs, ceramics, murals, wire, camera-less photos, Band-Aids, folded paper, paint and more. Susan Fehlinger is the Collectivist in chair.

Westport Artists Collective co-founder Miggs Burroughs remembers when he was a boy. His father Bernie was president of the Westport Artists Club. Miggs, his brother Trace, and many other local kids grew up surrounded by art. Illustrators, cartoonists and painters seemed to be everywhere — always giving back to the community.

“I have a great sense of pride carrying out his legacy, in some small part, by helping the Collective keep the visual arts alive and lively for generations to come.”

Some of this art may be featured in the Experience Tent.

Miggs will be in the tent, at the 46th annual Fine Arts Festival. He and many others will be working with youngsters at  Brooks Corner too.

Odds are good they’ll inspire at least one young artist. In 2083 — at Westport’s 109th Festival — he or she may be giving back to the next generation, just like Miggs and his very talented colleagues will do this weekend.

(The Fine Arts Festival — and the Westport Artists’ Collective participation in it — is a partnership with the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. For more information on the Festival, click here.) 

Westport’s World Champion Taekwondo: Winners In More Than Their Name

When Andrew Keisman was in kindergarten, a friend asked if he wanted to take a Taekwondo class.

The other boy soon stopped. Six years later, Andrew is a national champion.

He’s not the only local winner. Westport’s World Champion Taekwondo team — that’s the name of the school; they have not yet won a world title — returned recently from the US tournament in Minneapolis. Ten athletes, ages 10 to 17, competed in board breaking, forms/poomsae and sparring.

Among their luggage: 6 gold and 5 bronze medals.

Westport World Champion Taekwondo’s nationals team. Front row (from left): Ishr Bhullar, Andrew Keisman, Emily Xue, Olivia Saw, Srish Popuri, Matthew Saw. Rear: Master John Han, EJ Herrmann, Matthew Lee-Chin, Master Emalee Weiss, Meher Bhullar, Rhys Aron, Head Master DongHyun Jang.

Andrew’s mother Allison praises World Champion Taekwondo — one of 13 franchises in Connecticut — for offering him a home away from home. The masters at the Franklin Street institute have given him “self-confidence, goal-setting and camaraderie,” she says.

It’s not easy growing up here. Taekwondo has been a stable part of his life, Allison adds. And Andrew is far from alone.

He and his fellow taekwondo enthusiasts progress from beginner to black belt. Each goes at his or her own pace. But they always strive to improve.

Allison likes the diversity of ages and backgrounds at the WCT school. Classes are coed, and grades are mixed. (There are adult classes too.)

Allison appreciates the respect for each other, and the sport, that the masters instill. The parents have formed a supportive community too, she says.

Andrew earned his 1st degree black belt in 2nd grade. Now — four years later — he’s working on his 3rd degree.

Thanks to an instructor training program, black belts 11 or older help masters teach younger students — at the same time learning leadership, mentoring and volunteer skills.

The school-year program includes movie nights, and Halloween and birthday parties. WCT offers week-long summer camps too.

“This is a hidden gem in Westport,” his mother says gratefully. “It’s a special place for us.”

Take Michelle Out To The Ball Game …

Michelle Mechanic is a Westporter. On Facebook she calls herself a “mom, policy advisor, artist, lawyer (in no particular order), and general lover of life.”

She is not a baseball player.

She always wanted to play. She even made her high school softball team. But her parents made her quit after one day. They worried it would distract from her fine arts work, and her goal of getting into the Rhode Island School of Design.

Michelle did get in. But she never learned to play ball.

Her son Abe Gutkowski learned early — and well. Just 9 years old, he’s already played travel baseball with The Clubhouse in Fairfield.

His Little League team won the 10U championship this spring. Abe pitched 5 innings, and gave up just 1 hit. He sounds like the next Chad Knight!

Abe Gutkowski is a Little League champ.

Michelle’s 5-year-old, Myles, is just starting to throw and hit off a tee. He prefers soccer, she says, but wants to be like his big brother.

Michelle wants to do all she can to share Abe’s passion with him.

So — while he’s at sleepaway camp for the next 4 weeks — she decided to learn how to hit, catch and throw. She wants him to return to — surprise! — a mom who can literally play with him, rather than watch from the bleachers.

She called The Clubhouse and asked about lessons.

The woman at the desk said Michelle was the first woman — ever — to make that request.

Michelle Mechanic and Abe Gutkowski.

Rich Garcés — “El Guapo,” a former Major League pitcher who has coached Abe — said he could probably do it. But the receptionist said they’d first need permission from Clubhouse owner Mike Porzio.

Mike — a Westport — quickly said, “Sure!” In fact, he added, everyone is always welcome to learn there.

Michelle can’t wait to get started. She’s even more excited to play baseball with Abe when he returns.

Come to think of it, maybe she is the next Chad Knight.