Category Archives: Organizations

Remembering JoAnne Siebrasse

Westport has lost another longtime civic volunteer.

JoAnne Siebrasse died last month. She was 93 years old.

She and her late husband Dick spent most of their long married life as enthusiastic Westporters. They came here after several corporate transfers, requiring 2- and 3-year semi-permanent relocations in the Midwest.

While Dick first commuted to New York as an advertising “Mad Man,” and later climbed the corporate ladder at CPC International in New Jersey, Westport remained their home for over 50 years. JoAnne invested her time and significant effort to make many long-term friends and community connections here.

JoAnne Siebrasse

Her primary focus in life was to be of service to others. She was active with the Westport Woman’s Club serving on its board  and with the Curio Cottage, Scholarship Committee, Yankee Doodle Fair and more.

JoAnne also was an avid, longtime participant in American Red Cross blood drives; Meals on Wheels; board member of Christian Community Action food pantry (now Person-2-Person); Westport Senior Center; Westport Historical Society, and community outreach at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Greens Farms Congregational Church.

Her son Tom says, “Never one to take direction well, she always served on the boards of the organizations she joined to make her voice and enthusiasm heard. She gathered countless friends and interesting companions along the way.”

Donations in JoAnne Siebrasse’s name can be sent to CT Food Bank, Fidelco Guide Dogs or Homes for Our Troops.

Rebecca Yormark: Abilis Ambassador

For 14 years, Abilis — the non-profit that supports hundreds of people with special needs, through education, advocacy, recreational activities, life skills support, job training and residential options — has sponsored a fundraiser.

There’s a 1-mile wheelchair and stroller accessible walk, a 5K run, children’s activities like face painting, crafts and a bouncy house, plus music and food. This year’s event is tomorrow (Sunday, October 20, 9 a.m., Tod’s Point, Greenwich).

Hundreds of folks will participate and watch. The walk will be led by Rebecca Yormark — a Westporter.

Rebecca Yormark

The 22-year-old is a great Abilis “ambassador.” The organization has helped her and her family transition from a residential school to a supported apartment.

Rebecca attends Abilis’ young adult LEAP transition program. She also volunteers in the community, and is getting ready for a job.

The walk is free to participate, but a donation to Abilis is appreciated. There is a $40 registration fee for the run for adults; $20 for children 11 to 17. Prizes are awarded for the top 3 men’s, women’s and children’s run finishers; team awards go to those with the most members, and who raise the most money. Creativity awards are given for the most unique run and walk outfits.

Rebecca will enjoy the day. So will her many friends and fans.

Congratulations, Rebecca, on leading Abilis this weekend!

Make A Difference — And Help For the Holidays

It started out as “Make a Difference Day.” Now, the Westport event spans the entire month of October.

The goal is for volunteers to help local non-profits. They register their projects; willing hands are then matched with needs.

Projects are updated regularly. They include painting, maintenance, helping with compost piles, collecting used eyeglasses and children’s clothes — you name it. Click here for a list.

To register a project — or volunteer for one — click here.

It’s a month-long event — but Saturday, October 26 is special. Volunteers will gather at Christ & Holy Trinity Church at 9 a.m. They’ll assemble toiletry bags for homeless men, comfort bags for abused women, arts and craft kits for children in need, and Hug a Senior bags.

Click here for the full Make a Difference Day Month website. For more information, call Barbara Pearson-Rac: 203-226-1390.

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Meanwhile, it’s not even Halloween. But Westport’s Department of Human Services is already thinking about the holidays.

They see a side of town most Westporters never do. The Town Hall staff knows our neighbors are coping with layoffs, reduced work hours, even foreclosures.

For years, Human Services has facilitated a Holiday Giving Program. It’s as important today as it ever was.

Residents can donate grocery and gas gift cards of any amount, as well as gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow for the purchase of last-minute gift cards for clients. Residents who wish to shop for a family’s actual gift requests can do so, at whatever level the donor feels comfortable.

Organizations — including non-profits, religious institutions and businesses — can donate too.

The more the “merrier,” for sure.

(To donate online, click here; select “Holiday Giving” in the the “Seasonal Program” dropdown prompt. Checks made payable to “DHS Family Programs” — with “Holiday” on the memo line — may be mailed to Human Services, c/o Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880, or dropped off there in Room 200. For more information, email familyprograms@westportct.gov, or call 203-341-1183. Families that need support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.)

Willkommen, Westoberfest!

If you’ve ever been to a German Oktoberfest — a real one — you know the drill.

Volks enjoy beer from steins the size of kegs, and sausages larger than pigs. They dance in lederhosen to oompah bands. It is quite a party, no?

Westport is not Munich. But if you want great fun without a passport, Westoberfest is the place to be.

The 2nd annual event — set for this Saturday (October 19, 1 to 5 p.m., Elm Street) — builds on the success of last year’s inaugural event.

A slew of restaurants, businesses and non-profits joins together for this fun afternoon in the heart of downtown.

A scene from last year’s Westoberfest.

It’s family-friendly, but let’s start with beer. Beginning at 2 p.m., over 30 New England craft breweries will offer more than 50 pours, for unlimited tasting.

But man does not live by beer alone. Rothbard Ale + Larder (of course!) and Kawa Ni (surprise!) provide traditional brats and pretzels, and untraditional spicy miso ramen, tofu pockets and sesame noodles.

Live music comes from StompBoxTrio. Nearby, there’s a classic car rally.

Meanwhile, kids enjoy pumpkin decorating, face painting, apples and a live animal exhibit.

Westoberfest is sponsored by the Westport Downtown Merchants Association, with support from The Grapevine, Westport Farmers’ Market, Air-cooled Car Company, Earthplace, Westport Museum of History & Culture, Artists Collective of Westport, One River, Gault, Princeton Review, Southern Tide, Lux Bond & Green and the Goddard School.

Prost!

(Advance ticket prices are $40 for 1, $70 for a pair, $320 for a party pack of 10. Click here to purchase. Single tickets are available for $45 at the gate.)

Sgt. Nikki Elder Catches A Lift

It’s easy to ignore Veterans Day.

Sure, banks and the post office are closed. But many offices — and the stock market — are open. School is on.

Westport is not exactly a military town. The veterans who live here served mostly in long-ago wars. We’re almost entirely untouched by the endless battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. That conflict — and the men and women who fight there — is out of sight, out of mind.

But it sure isn’t for those who were wounded there.

The Catch a Lift Fund is a lifeline for those “other people.” Created by a woman whose brother volunteered after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan, it provides gym memberships and home gym equipment to help wounded post-9/11 service members heal physically and mentally, through physical fitness.

Thanks to one Westporter, however — and his dedicated crew of friends and supporters — Catch a Lift has become a prized, and very special, “local” organization.

In just 5 years, Catch a Lift’s Veterans Day event has become one of the year’s most important fundraisers.

I went to my first one 2 years ago. It was among the most moving nights of my life.

Catch a Lift veterans, at last year’s Birchwood Country Club event.

Adam Vengrow is the inspiration behind this inspiring evening. The next one is Friday, November 8 (7 p.m.), at Birchwood Country Club.

There’s great food and beverages. There’s a DJ, and a video.

But all that pales in comparison to the guests of honor. More than a dozen veterans will be there, mixing and mingling. One will speak. The room will fall silent. It’s a life-changing experience.

The men and women include double and triple amputees. Some are in wheelchairs; others use canes. But this is no pity party. The spirit, energy, life and joy in the group is astonishing.

These veterans are not your typical Westporters. They enlisted just after — or during — high school. They’ve seen things you and I can’t imagine (and, because the war is so distant, never read about).

They have suffered unfathomably — for their country, and us. Thanks to Catch a Lift, they’ve rebuilt their lives. Next month, they’ll honor us with their presence.

Sgt. Nikki Elder (ret.) was at Birchwood last year. She did not speak. This year she will.

Sgt. Nikki Elder

The upstate New York native joined the Navy, and worked as a cryptologic technician with the National Security Agency.

She got out — and then, after 9/11, Elder joined the Army National Guard. In 2004 and ’05, she was deployed to Afghanistan.

She medically retired in 2013. Elder went to grad school, earning a master’s in nutrition. That’s her job now. So is being a single mother to 2 sons.

For years, she battled PTSD. She thought she could conquer it on her own. One day, at a retreat, a fellow veteran told Elder “you have to get your life together.” She mentioned Catch a Lift.

The organization connected Elder with a squad leader, who held her accountable. It took a while — “I fought it,” she admits — but CAL stayed with her.

“I got a lot more out of it than a gym membership,” Elder says. “They believed in me, when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

Nikki Elder (5th from left), at a Catch a Lift event.

Last year she went to Birchwood Country Club, for the 4th annual Catch a Lift fundraiser.

That was the turning point.

“I hadn’t realized the support that was out there, until I saw it in Westport,” Elder recalls. “I had been fighting it. I was guilty, ashamed, depressed, angry. Catch a Lift, and the people in Westport, made me realize I wasn’t broken.”

The weekend “blew me away,” Elder says. “I didn’t know what to expect. But people came up and started talking. I had not been comfortable being complimented, or called a hero. But they genuinely appreciated what I did. It was amazing. I started being okay with thank-yous.”

Vengrow, his fellow organizer Andy Berman, and others were “so enthusiastic. They believed in us. They said ‘you can do this.’ There was no doubt in their minds. They sparked something in me that hasn’t stopped. They gave me confidence I hadn’t felt since I was in the service.”

Today, she has lost 140 pounds from her maximum of 264. She is off all her PTDS medications. “I’m myself again,” she marvels.

Nikki Elder (right) with a fellow Catch a Lift veteran.

She looks forward to returning to this year’s gala. “I want to support Westport, because Westport supported me,” Elder says.

For the past year, she has kept in touch with some of the people — veterans and civilians — she met here. They still encourage each other.

“It’s contagious. It’s infectious. I love it!” she says.

Westport loves Sgt. Nikki Elder, and all her Catch a Lift colleagues, too.

(In addition to Sgt. Nikki Elder, the November 8 event features 2-star General Charles W. Whittington and Catch a Lift founder Lynn Coffland, plus food, drinks and music. Click here for tickets. The next day, the veterans pay it forward by helping MyTeamTriumph, a program for people with disabilities who otherwise could not participate in endurance events like triathlons and road races.) 

Signing Up A Thief

Lawn signs — which really should be called “traffic island signs,” but that takes too long to say — are an easy, cost-effective way of advertising a political campaign, non-profit fundraiser, school play or sports tryouts.

Plenty of Westporters don’t like them. They clutter the landscape. Plus, many individuals and organizations ignore town regulations governing their placement and duration.

But one person really hates them. He (or she)* deliberately removed several signs from the North Avenue traffic circle at Long Lots Road. Others were taken from Bulkley Avenue and Greens Farms Road.

We can’t tell whether the vigilante took signs for non-profits, candidates, or both. All the evidence is gone.

Well,  not all. The metal frames remain.

The traffic circle at Long Lots and North Avenue.

That’s a deliberate act.

You can love the signs. You can hate them.

But you can’t take them.

And you sure can’t take them, leaving only the frames behind.

That just advertises you’re a jerk.

* Though for some reason I’d bet anything it’s a guy.

Thanksgiving Feast Is On The Marc

It’s one of Westport’s greatest traditions: the Community Thanksgiving Day Feast.

For decades, it’s happened organically. Members of the sponsoring Saugatuck Congregational Church — and many others — sign up to bring food, or help elsewhere. Over 200 people show up, alone and with families. There’s music, fellowship and fun.

Every year, many hands help create Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Feast.

Sometimes there are tweaks. Sign-up Genius now makes it easier to assign tasks. When a fire rendered Saugatuck Church unusable, Christ & Holy Trinity stepped into the breach.

Last year brought a big change. Marc Weber and Anthony Miami took over the turkeys.

Plus the stuffing, gravy, potatoes, salads, vegetables, desserts — everything about the meal from, well, soup to nuts.

They were not simply volunteers. Weber owns OnTheMarc Catering. Miami is executive chef of the Inn at Longshore.

These guys are pros.

Marc Weber

Five years ago Weber — a Culinary Institute of America graduate who began as a private chef, then grew his business to include clients like the Warehouse at FTC, Audubon Greenwich and Hudson Loft — partnered with the Longshore Inn.

He works all over Fairfield County, Westchester and New York City. But he lives in Westport.

And he wants to give back.

He’s on the board of an organization that helps local families find volunteer opportunities. At Longshore, he works with non-profits like Sunrise Rotary and Tiny Miracles.

His mother — a philanthropic adviser — emphasized the importance of “skills-based” volunteerism: contributing not just money, but talent and expertise.

Last year for the first time, Dan Levinson and Monique Bosch of Main Street Resources coordinated Westport’s Thanksgiving Feast. They asked Weber to help. He and Miami fed nearly 300 people, at very low cost.

“We know how to do it,” Weber says simply.

This year (Thursday, November 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), they’ll do it again.

Once again, they’re doing it gladly.

“I was so impressed by the number of families who volunteered,” Weber says of last year’s event. The first selectman helped serve. High school kids transported food from the Inn.”

That’s right: Now, the food is cooked off-site. It’s a big step up from the former potluck-type planning.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws hundreds of people.

Of course, Weber and Miami can’t do it all alone. Westport Rotary, the Senior Center, Gillespie Center, Homes with Hope, the Unitarian Church, United Methodist Church, Bedford Middle School and Coleytown Elementary School all participate.

So do over 80 volunteers. They decorate, set up, greet, serve, clean up, even drive attendees who need transportation.

Monique and Dan hope for the usual donations of turkeys from Stew Leonard’s, pies from Temple Israel,  bread from Sono Bakery and s’mores from Westport Boy Scouts. Other generous donations traditionally include floral arrangements from Westport Garden Club and greeting cards from Coleytown Middle School,

Somehow, it all comes together. It’s a true community feast.

But now the turkey and trimmings are prepared by true pros.

(To volunteer at Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Day Feast, click here. If you need a ride, call the Saugatuck Church: 203-227-1261. For more information, call Monique Bosch: 203-858-8829.)

“Andrew’s Army”: Video Documents A Life Well Lived

From the time he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma — a very rare childhood cancer — at age 5, until his death 15 years later, Andrew Accardi battled hard.

He was a valued member of the Staples High School golf team. He vowed to walk across the stage on Graduation Day, 2011 — and did. He amassed a legion of friends and admirers, with his big heart and even bigger spirit.

Andrew Accardi

Andrew died on October 31, 2013. His friends — in Westport and at Villanova University, where he was a finance and marketing major — and family members, who called themselves “Andrew’s Army,” had already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for neuroblastoma research.

In the 6 years since, they’ve done even more.

The latest: On Saturday, October 26 (6:30 p.m., Town Hall), there’s a special screening of a documentary, “Andrew’s Army.” A reception at Tavern on Main follows.

It was a labor of love by Sam Bender, a longtime classmate and friend. The talented filmmaker created it as his senior thesis at Emerson College. (At Staples, he earned renown as the first videographer for the boys soccer team.)

Sam Bender (left) and Andrew Accardi, in high school.

The 30-minute film touches on the personal and private parts of Andrew’s life. He kept quiet about his health struggles. He was adamant about being treated “normally” by his peers.

Andrew never asked for sympathy or preferential treatment; he only wanted to live his life to the fullest. The documentary shows how hard his fight was — and how hard he fought.

Sam interviewed Andrew’s family, Westport and college friends, the Villanova president, and doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia who treated him so long and loved him so much.

It’s an inspiring story. Andrew’s Army marches on!

(Click here for tickets to the October 26 film screening at Town Hall, and reception at Tavern on Main. All proceeds go to neuroblastoma research at Children’s Hospital. You can also donate on Venmo: @andrewsarmy.)

Unsung Hero #118

Little things mean a lot.

For many years, Gerry Cataldo has worked at the Senior Center. His is a thankless — and often unnoticed — job.

Gerry sets up each room for meetings, educational programs, games, lunches, exercise activities and more.

When he’s not moving partitions, tables, chairs, and sports equipment, he’s cleaning halls and restrooms. When he’s not doing that, he’s helping any way else he can.

Gerry Cataldo makes sure that everyone at the Senior Center has a ball. Or two.

Every day — Monday through Saturday — 30 to 50 different events take place at the Senior Center. Gerry makes sure that each one is ready to go.

When it’s done, he makes sure the next one follows smoothly.

Senior Center regulars and staff know they could not function without him. Gerry Cataldo is truly an Unsung Hero!

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

Rach’s Hope Reaches Out

Rachel Doran graduated from Staples High School in 2015. The Cornell University rising senior — a National Merit Commended Scholar, talented Players costume designer, and founder of “Rachel’s Rags,” a company that makes intricate cotton and fleece pajama tops and bottoms — died 3 years later, from complications of 2 very rare diseases.

Her family honored her memory by creating Rach’s Hope, a not-for-profit foundation that helps families weather the storm of critical illness, with lodging, meals and transportation. A Westport family is among those already helped in the tri-state region.

Rachel’s sister Ellie — now a Staples senior — keeps her memory alive at school. She started Rach’s Hope Club. Over 200 students have signed up to help.

Rachel Doran (right) and her sister Ellie.

Their first fundraising event is this Sunday (October 13, 3 to 6 p.m., Rothbard Ale + Larder restaurant). It’s a “Beatles Cocktail Hour,” with music by Tim Palmieri.

The club also runs social media for Rach’s Hope, and is helping plan the 2nd annual PJ Gala on February 29.

Rach’s Hope Club is not the only group keeping Rachel’s memory alive at Staples. On Tuesday, October 15 (4 p.m.), the girls varsity volleyball team dedicates its game to Rach’s Hope.

Of course, they’ll gladly accept donation to this great cause.