Category Archives: Organizations

Andrew McConnell Serves Bridgeport Tennis

The list of top Fairfield County high school tennis teams is filled with places you’d expect: Staples. Greenwich. New Canaan.

It does not include Bridgeport’s Central High.

That’s a problem.

But Central tennis players are athletes. They don’t run from a challenge — they embrace it.

So does their coach.

Andrew McConnell

As area teams begin practice for the coming season. Andrew McConnell is eager to talk about his squad.

Coaching is his 3rd career. Teaching 9th grade social studies is his 2nd.

For 20 years, McConnell worked on Wall Street, for firms like Bear Stearns and Greenwich Capital. He moved to Westport in 1992, and has been here ever since.

In 2007 he decided to follow his dream — and do something his parents and 2 sisters already did: teach.

Earning certification through Sacred Heart University, the former financier requested an urban school. “It sounds trite,” he admits. “But I wanted to make the biggest impact I could.”

McConnell was worried that, as an older white man, he might not relate to city kids. A former Central principal who was one of his professors reassured him: “If you care, they know it.”

He interned at Central, and was hired there in 2010. After plowing through several principals, the school has flourished under Eric Graf. A former teacher and athletic director, he has boosted morale among staff and students.

But Bridgeport’s perpetual financial woes were exacerbated this year by the state’s. Recently, the superintendent of schools slashed $200,000 from the athletic budget. Gone were middle and high school programs in golf, lacrosse, fencing — and tennis.

That saved $2,600 stipends for Central’s boys and girls tennis coaches. Nevertheless, they swung into action to save their teams.

A collage of Central High School’s boys and girls tennis teams.

Stop & Shop donated Gatorade and bagels (home teams traditionally provide food for themselves and their opponents).

The Connecticut Alliance for Tennis and Education has pitched in with racquets.

One of the biggest costs is transportation. McDonnell — who is on the board of First Serve Bridgeport — got that after-school program to serve as a conduit for fundraising.

He had a bold idea: Buy a van. That would not only help with transportation fees (school buses are exorbitant to rent); it could also be used by First Serve throughout the year.

Last year’s Central High boys tennis team.

Tennis is an excellent vehicle for city youngsters, McConnell says. Despite its country club reputation, it’s relatively inexpensive. There are many courts in Bridgeport — including beautiful new ones at Central High.

It’s a lifelong sport. It teaches leadership and character. Because players call their own shots — there are no referees — it’s an exercise in sportsmanship.

That’s not just a cliche.

“The FCIAC (Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference) has 6 of the 8 best teams in the state. We’re not one of them,” McConnell explains.

“We don’t win a lot. But our kids love to participate. They have terrific attitudes. They try their best, work hard and have fun. Our competitors recognize that. We’ve won the league sportsmanship award several times.”

McConnell says that by interacting with players from other towns, his Central athletes form friendships they otherwise could not.

And sometimes the impact of tennis can be life-changing.

During his first 2 years at Central, Bashan Rosa had little focus. His grades were poor.

But he discovered tennis. To maintain academic eligibility, his grades rose — to honor roll level.

McConnell got him a summer job teaching the sport at the Cardinal Sheehan Center. Bashan also works for First Serve Bridgeport.

He can’t play for Central this spring. He’s a 5th-year senior, earning enough credits to graduate.

He’s still part of the squad, though. McConnell asked him to serve as an assistant coach.

On a team that — if McConnell’s fundraising efforts come through — serves as an FCIAC championship story. Even if they never win a match.

(To contribute to the Central High School tennis program via GoFundMe, click here.)

The O’Kane Family’s “Life On Mar’s”

For the first 10 years after moving to Kings Highway North, Yvonne and Neil O’Kane did not do much in the way of renovations.

They were busy with their careers. They were raising 3 kids. Besides, they liked the 1908 house in one of Westport’s most historic neighborhoods.

The small rooms were cozy. The Mexican tile in the kitchen reminded them of their years in Arizona. The house was home.

But 4 years ago they put in a pool. They terraced their yard. That added a grade, which didn’t look right. They started thinking about other changes.

The year before, Yvonne had met Mar Jennings. Now, as she visited his home during the Westport Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour, she asked the designer/stager/lifestyle expert/author/TV host for the name of a project manager to help plan a few renovations to her exterior, kitchen and bathroom. Mar said he’d take a look himself.

He stayed for 6 hours.

Mar Jennings at the O’Kanes’ house.

Yvonne — who is trained as an architect — felt something click. When Mar suggested doing the renovation as a makeover TV show, she got even more excited.

Neil agreed. But, he said, we won’t use our names. And though the house could appear on air, the family wouldn’t.

The next 18 months were, Yvonne says, “a magical fit of parts and pieces.”

The O’Kanes lived in their house throughout the renovation project.

The outside, kitchen and one bathroom were done. Then came beams, new doors and windows, insulation, new clapboard and a cedar roof.

The family room needed work, so that was next.

They added a deck off the master bedroom, then redid the bedroom itself.

After that were the kids’ bathrooms, and their son Teddy’s bedroom.

Dormers and library work opened up more space.

Dormer work added space in the bedrooms.

They turned an unused downstairs room into Yvonne’s studio. They added a laundry room.

When they were done, the only part of the house that remained untouched was the dining room.

It was as long and involved a project as it sounds. The O’Kanes were without a kitchen for 6 months, and a bedroom for 9. For a while they all lived together downstairs.

They loved it.

Neil, Caroline, Alexandra, Teddy and Yvonne O’Kane. (Photo/Carolinei O’Kane/Mercilie Chiarelli)

“It was a great experience,” Yvonne says, sitting in the sun-splashed living room, surrounded by furniture she and Mar found everywhere from Lillian August to Goodwill. (They shopped locally for nearly every item, and repurposed much of what was already in the house.)

The family grew closer during the adventure. As part of the TV show they went on a trapeze and to Six Flags. (It did not take long for Neil’s desire for anonymity to go out the newly designed window.)

“Mar was amazing overseeing the project,” Yvonne says. “He kept it running brilliantly.”

She was no slouch herself. And during it she even got her real estate license.

The exterior, at the end of a long driveway on Kings Highway North.

You might expect that in a project like this, everything that could go wrong, would.

Nope. There were very few surprises. And expect for a bit of structural work, all the surprises they encountered were good ones.

For example, workers discovered a hidden staircase. Mar and Yvonne promptly included it in their plans.

“We were a great fit,” she says. They named themselves “MY Team.” For Mar and Yvonne — get it?!

“I love every inch of this home,” Yvonne says. “The space works really, really well. We live in every room. The insulation is great. The kitchen is fantastic. Everyone has space, but we’re still together.”

Yvonne O’Kane loves her new kitchen. The family congregates there, she says.

Teddy — a Staples freshman — is still at home. Caroline — who lived through the renovation — is now a Fordham University freshman. Alexandra is a senior at Georgetown.

The TV show — said to be the first complete home makeover series filmed in Connecticut — took place while the house was still being renovated. Crews filmed Mar and Yvonne collaborating, shopping, and laughing together.

The first episode aired on ABC’s WTNH in New Haven. Twelve more followed, through last June. Despite competition from football and baseball games, the show earned excellent ratings.

Now it’s ready for prime time — that is, Amazon Prime.

You won’t forget the name. It’s called “Life on Mar’s.”

Jim Marpe Runs For Re-Election On His Record

Jim Marpe grew up in Canton, Ohio. After earning a BA from Case Western and an MBA from Wharton, he embarked on a career with Accenture that took him to Chicago and Copenhagen.

Transferred to New York in 1989, Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were attracted to Westport by the quality of education, amenities like Compo, and the beauty of Longshore. They also appreciated the town’s arts heritage. A performance at the Westport Country Playhouse sealed the deal.

They joined New Neighbors. The very first person they met was from the country they’d just left: Denmark.

That story illustrates everything Marpe loves about Westport. It’s also a reason why — as he completes his first term as first selectman — he looks forward to running for re-election.

First Selectman Jim Marpe

When he ran 4 years ago, Marpe — who had retired from Accenture as a senior partner — believed he could use his business skills, his experiences on the Board of Education (interim chair and vice chair) and Town Plan Implementation Committee, as well as his leadership roles with the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Homes With Hope, Westport Rotary Club and Greens Farms Congregational Church, to help his town.

“I love this place as much as anyone here,” he says.

He cites his accomplishments: improving town finances; keeping property taxes flat; upgrading Compo and Longshore; beautifying downtown; promoting Westport as an attractive place for business; updating tax policies for senior citizens, and improving the Senior Center; creating a Commission on People with Disabilities, ensuring the town remains inclusive for all residents (and their families).

He’s running again, he says, because there is still work to do. “Hartford has placed problems in our laps. We’ve made great strides in creating a budget to address the lack of any significant revenue coming from the state, and any new bills or taxes we can try to mitigate.”

First Selectman Jim Marpe and Westport Library director Bill Harmer, at work in the first selectman’s office.

Marpe adds, “Hartford’s problems are huge. They won’t get solved in one year. We’ll have to keep our own financial house in order for many years. We’ve been conservative in dealing with town finances. We have to work even harder at that, so Westport continues to be an attractive place to stay in, or move to — one of the most active and exciting communities in the country.”

For example, the first selectman says, a public hearing next month will examine rehabilitating the Compo bathhouses in a way that is “acceptable to all, at a cost we can afford.” Similarly, while the Longshore golf course rehabilitation has made it one of the top 8 public courses in Connecticut, the Inn and other parts of the property can also be improved.

Marpe says he is in “total agreement” with his potential challenger, fellow Republican Mike Rea, about the need for continuous improvement. “That’s what I’ve built my professional career on,” Marpe notes. “We can never rest on our laurels. We have to keep what Westporters hold dear, and make sure this is a town we’re all proud of.”

Personally, he is proud of his administration’s non-partisan approach to problem-solving. Marpe says he has “staffed committees and given assignments to the best qualified people, regardless of party. That’s how Westporters like to address issues.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe, with their daughter Samantha.

Second selectman Avi Kaner will not run for re-election, due to increased demands of running his family business. But he’ll chair Marpe’s campaign, and will continue to work on special projects.

Marpe lauds Kaner’s work, and is “thrilled” that Board of Finance member Jennifer Tooker joins his ticket. “With her background, which also includes the Board of Education, she understands the financial challenges, and the important impact education has in Westport.”

Third selectman Helen Garten was Marpe’s Democratic opponent in 2013. “We’ve worked together as a team,” he says. “All three selectmen play to our strengths. That’s helped make our administration a success.”

He looks back on the past 4 years with satisfaction. Little moments stand out: thank-you notes sent after he attended local events; Memorial Day parades and ceremonies that honor individual citizens, the town and our country as a whole.

Nearly 30 years after moving here, Marpe, his wife and his daughter Samantha — a product of the Westport school system — appreciate more than ever all that Westport is, and does.

Right now for instance, he’s preparing for a panel on April 1 about Syrian refugees.

“Not many communities this size would have that discussion,” he notes. “But in Westport, we have debates like this. Some of them are heated. But when they’re over, we all go to the Black Duck together.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe outside the Black Duck, during last year’s Slice of Saugatuck.

(Democratic State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has set up an exploratory committee to examine a run for first selectman. He declined an interview, citing his state legislature commitments on the budget.)

Eno House: The Sequel

Yesterday’s post about LandTech’s plan to save the Eno Foundation building generated plenty of comments.

Some referenced the handsome waterfront estate directly across Saugatuck Avenue. Owned by Foundation founder William Phelps Eno — the father of modern-day traffic devices like stop signs, pedestrian crosswalks and 1-way streets — it was one of the most majestic mansions in Westport.

Yet as several commenters noted, it met an inglorious end.

Here — with research help from alert “06880” reader/amateur historian/ace realtor Mary Palmieri Gai — is the back story.

I could not find any photos of William Phelps Eno’s Saugatuck Avenue estate. Here is what the property looks like today, after subdivisions.

According to a January 7, 1996 New York Times story, Eno’s estate commanded a sweeping view of the mouth of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound. However, the 119-year-old, 15,000-square foot, 32-room 1877 Colonial Revival — featuring an inside hall with 8 fluted columns, a ballroom with an octagonal entryway, built-in organ, and bathrooms tiled in marble — had been unoccupied for 9 years. In wretched condition, it was being offered for a bargain price.

One dollar.

The only caveat: “Cash and carry. You buy it, you move it.”

Oh, yeah: It could not fit under the nearby railroad bridge. So it would have to be put on a barge — all 200 feet of it — and floated down the Sound.

Over the following months the Maritime Center, Anthony Quinn and Diana Ross all expressed interest. But the $500,000 moving cost — and $1.7 million price tag for restoration — scared them off.

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation tried to shop the mansion for use as a museum, B&B or inn.

Sherwood Island State Park was interested too. On November 19, 1996, the Times noted that thanks to loans, gifts and pledges, the Eno mansion would be floated 2 miles away, to Sherwood Island State Park.

Sitting on land donated by the state, it would be open to the public for exhibits about Connecticut’s historic homes, as well as conferences and celebrations. The top floors would be used as offices by non-profit preservation and environmental groups.

Sherwood Island State Park: one possible site for the Eno mansion.

A house mover was hired. He planned a system of pulleys to tug the house to the barge. At Sherwood Island, huge dollies would pull it a mile inland. The process would take 3 months.

But, the Times reported 2 months later, the State Department of Environmental Protection reversed its initial approval. After 200 people signed a petition opposing the move, the DEP acknowledged there were too many questions about the impact on wetlands and wildlife.

And that was that. Eventually, the house was demolished. The land was subdivided into five 1-acre lots.

Today there is nothing left of William Phelps Eno’s estate. Fortunately — thanks to LandTech — his Foundation across the street will not meet the same fate.

Oh yeah: According to Westport architectural historian Morley Boyd, some of the house’s elaborate interior was salvaged by volunteers.

“Those materials did hard time in a trailer upstate,” he says. “But the last I knew, they were being woven into the restoration of another structure by the same architect.”

[UPDATE — CORRECT VERSION] Westport Women On The Move

I posted the wrong version of this story earlier today — and omitted photos. The correct date of the march is next Sunday — March 26. Here is the version with photos. My apologies!

It seems like decades. But it’s only been a few weeks since the beginning of the Trump administration.

That’s when Darcy Hicks was getting tired of her worldly concerns being confined to Facebook feeds.

She knew a few others. Soon, 10 friends assembled in her Westport home, to write postcards to politicans.

That grew to a group of 40 Westporters. All said the same thing: How can we be more active?

A couple of days later, “06880”‘s Friday Flashback highlighted Kathie Motes Bennewitz’s story about the Equal Franchise League. Way back in 1913, women demanded suffrage — and marched — right here in Westport.

As Darcy’s postcard group grew into (yes) a Facebook page — DefenDemocracy of CT — a few members reacted with nostalgia. As they met in kitchens, they shared stories of their own pasts as activists, and the role of Westport and Connecticut in activism.

Lauren Soloff, Lisa Bowman and Darcy Hicks, all actively engaged.

Lauren Soloff Malowitz — Darcy’s neighbor when she moved back here 23 years ago — had marched for women’s right to choose. Lisa Bowman — who drove to Pennsylvania with Darcy 8 years ago, to knock on doors during Barack Obama’s first presidential run — had grown up marching with her parents, against nuclear weapons.

Nita Prasad had been very active as a Berkeley student. She helped shut down the San Francisco Bay Bridge after the Rodney King verdict, and raised funds for Oxfam.

Darcy Hicks (front right) demanded that Smith College divest from South Africa — and made the cover of this Newsweek campus publication.

As a student herself, Darcy helped take over the Smith College administration building, until trustees divested from the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The women are still active, in a variety of ways.

Nita — a professor of world history at Quinnipiac University — helps mobilize students and faculty in support of the national popular vote project.

After a long career in broadcasting, Lisa has been a fundraiser for the Democratic State Central Committee and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

Lauren, a lawyer, fundraises for Homes With Hope. Darcy teaches children in Bridgeport and New Haven in Visual Literacy, an arts and language skills program she developed at Yale.

Darcy’s group wondered what their own kids — and others — who are so addicted to social media were learning about activism and social engagement. They decided that if a group of Westport women could march in 1913 — despite what must have been formidable obstacles — then they could do the same.

So on Sunday, March 26, a “CT on the Move March to Defend Democracy — One Small State, One Big Voice” march is set for downtown Westport. It begins at noon at Jesup Green, and ends at Veterans Green. Senator Chris Murphy is the keynote speaker.

“The idea is to celebrate Westport’s history of fighting for change,” Darcy says.

“Westport has often lived up to Connecticut’s ‘Constitution State’ nickname. From our revolutionary history to the examples we set advocating for abolition, women’s rights, civil rights and more, we are a community that does not stay quiet when we want change.”

This is more than a political rally, Darcy explains. “Really, it’s a reminder to all of us that we are part of a very special community — one that is fortunate, but that cares for those who aren’t. That is patriotism.”

Since first publicizing the march, Darcy’s group has joined with many others, new and established: Indivisible, Love in Action, 203 Action, Pantsuit Nation CT, the Westport Democratic Town Committee, and Staples High School’s Young Democrats and Social Activism clubs.

Darcy and her band of once-and-future activists are excited to be back in action.

They’re even more excited that younger folks — like Staples senior Lulu Stracher — are joining them.

“This is one generation showing a younger one that real change needs to happen outside of social media,” Darcy says.

“Engagement lives on. We look forward to passing the torch!”

(For more information, click here or email darcyhicksdtt@gmail.com)

Lauren Soloff at a Planned Parenthood rally, back in the day. She’s third from the left (not counting President Reagan), standing next to Vice President Bush.

[UPDATE — CORRECT VERSION] Westport Women On The Move

I posted the wrong version of this story earlier today — and omitted photos. The correct date of the march is next Sunday — March 26. Here is the version with photos. My apologies!

It seems like decades. But it’s only been a few weeks since the beginning of the Trump administration.

That’s when Darcy Hicks was getting tired of her worldly concerns being confined to Facebook feeds.

She knew a few others. Soon, 10 friends assembled in her Westport home, to write postcards to politicans.

That grew to a group of 40 Westporters. All said the same thing: How can we be more active?

A couple of days later, “06880”‘s Friday Flashback highlighted Kathie Motes Bennewitz’s story about the Equal Franchise League. Way back in 1913, women demanded suffrage — and marched — right here in Westport.

As Darcy’s postcard group grew into (yes) a Facebook page — DefenDemocracy of CT — a few members reacted with nostalgia. As they met in kitchens, they shared stories of their own pasts as activists, and the role of Westport and Connecticut in activism.

Lauren Soloff, Lisa Bowman and Darcy Hicks, all actively engaged.

Lauren Soloff Malowitz — Darcy’s neighbor when she moved back here 23 years ago — had marched for women’s right to choose. Lisa Bowman — who drove to Pennsylvania with Darcy 8 years ago, to knock on doors during Barack Obama’s first presidential run — had grown up marching with her parents, against nuclear weapons.

Nita Prasad had been very active as a Berkeley student. She helped shut down the San Francisco Bay Bridge after the Rodney King verdict, and raised funds for Oxfam.

Darcy Hicks (front right) demanded that Smith College divest from South Africa — and made the cover of this Newsweek campus publication.

As a student herself, Darcy helped take over the Smith College administration building, until trustees divested from the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The women are still active, in a variety of ways.

Nita — a professor of world history at Quinnipiac University — helps mobilize students and faculty in support of the national popular vote project.

After a long career in broadcasting, Lisa has been a fundraiser for the Democratic State Central Committee and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

Lauren, a lawyer, fundraises for Homes With Hope. Darcy teaches children in Bridgeport and New Haven in Visual Literacy, an arts and language skills program she developed at Yale.

Darcy’s group wondered what their own kids — and others — who are so addicted to social media were learning about activism and social engagement. They decided that if a group of Westport women could march in 1913 — despite what must have been formidable obstacles — then they could do the same.

So on Sunday, March 26, a “CT on the Move March to Defend Democracy — One Small State, One Big Voice” march is set for downtown Westport. It begins at noon at Jesup Green, and ends at Veterans Green. Senator Chris Murphy is the keynote speaker.

“The idea is to celebrate Westport’s history of fighting for change,” Darcy says.

“Westport has often lived up to Connecticut’s ‘Constitution State’ nickname. From our revolutionary history to the examples we set advocating for abolition, women’s rights, civil rights and more, we are a community that does not stay quiet when we want change.”

This is more than a political rally, Darcy explains. “Really, it’s a reminder to all of us that we are part of a very special community — one that is fortunate, but that cares for those who aren’t. That is patriotism.”

Since first publicizing the march, Darcy’s group has joined with many others, new and established: Indivisible, Love in Action, 203 Action, Pantsuit Nation CT, the Westport Democratic Town Committee, and Staples High School’s Young Democrats and Social Activism clubs.

Darcy and her band of once-and-future activists are excited to be back in action.

They’re even more excited that younger folks — like Staples senior Lulu Stracher — are joining them.

“This is one generation showing a younger one that real change needs to happen outside of social media,” Darcy says.

“Engagement lives on. We look forward to passing the torch!”

(For more information, click here or email darcyhicksdtt@gmail.com)

Lauren Soloff at a Planned Parenthood rally, back in the day. She’s third from the left (not counting President Reagan), standing next to Vice President Bush.

Westport Links With America’s Oldest Synagogue

You wouldn’t think that a recent “06880” story on an antique New York City map would lead to a Westport connection with the oldest synagogue in North America.

Then again, you wouldn’t figure that Luis Gomez was Jewish.

The piece focused on Westporter Robert Augustyn, and a 1740 map his company acquired. It was the first to show that synagogue, on Manhattan’s Mill Street.

Benjamin Gomes, great-grandson of Luis Moses Gomez.

Robert Jacobs quickly responded. He and his cousin Joel Treisman — both Westporters — are direct descendants of Luis Moses Gomez. The Sephardic Jewish immigrant, whose parents escaped the Spanish Inquisition, led the drive to finance and construct Shearith Israel — that first-ever New York congregation, founded in the late 1680s — and served as its first parnas (president).

But Jacobs’ story goes much deeper.

He is not a religious person. Yet in 1973, his family got a call from the owner of a house in Marlboro, New York. He was selling his property, which originally belonged to a direct Jacobs ancestor: Gomez.

In 1714, he had purchased 1,000 acres near Newburgh, New York. Later, with his sons Jacob and Daniel, he bought 3,000 more.

Gomez built a fieldstone blockhouse to conduct trade and maintain provisions in the Mid-Hudson region.

“Everyone thinks of the early settlers in this region as Dutch and English,” Jacobs says. “But there were some very important Jewish settlers too.” Gomez arrived in New York City in 1703.

Jacobs adds, “Jewish immigrants were not just the Ashkenazis and Russians of the late 1800s. Sephardic Jews were here too.”

They were world traders. Gomez’ family was involved in chocolate, potash, furs and other commodities. They also quarried limestone, milled timber — and donated funds to rebuild New York’s Trinity Church steeple.

Jacobs was just 27 when the Gomez house went on the market. He called his cousin, Treisman.

Robert Jacobs and Joel Treisman.

As they researched its history, they learned that Gomez was not the only fascinating character. During its 300 years, “Gomez Mill House” served as home to Revolutionary patriot Wolfert Ecker; 19th-century gentleman farmer and conservationist William Henry Armstrong; artisan and historian Dard Hunter, and 20th-century suffragette Martha Gruening.

Six years after buying the property, Jacobs’ family created a non-profit. In 1984 the Gomez Foundation purchased the Mill House, and established it as a public museum.

The Gomez Mill House today.

The house is being preserved as as a significant national museum. The oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobs’ foundation also offers programs about the contributions of former Mill House owners to the multicultural history of the Hudson River Valley. Over 1,000 children tour the museum each year.

Today, Jacobs says, “Freedom, tolerance and opportunity is one of the missions of Gomez Mill House.” The foundation’s work seems particularly timely today.

One of the lovingly restored rooms in the Gomez Mill House.

Jacobs and Treisman serve on the board. They’re joined by fellow Westporter Andrée Aelion Brooks. The former New York Times writer — an expert on Jewish history — lectures frequently for the foundation.

Not many people — even Jews — know about Luis Moses Gomez.

But Robert Jacobs, Joel Treisman and their family have spent 40 years getting to know their ancestor. The story they share is fascinating.

And Gomez Mill House is just an hour and a half away.

(For more information on Gomez Mill House, click here.)

Building Bridges, From Staples To Syria

Kion Bruno’s mother — eye surgeon Dr.  Aryan Shayegani — is a 1st-generation Iranian American.

Neighbors on their road here in Westport include a 1st-generation Palestinian neurosurgeon, a Pakistani man, and a family that hosted Iraqi refugees.

“They’re all pillars of society,” Kion says. “And they’re all Middle Eastern.”

Kion Bruno

At Staples High School — where the 11th grader is a varsity tennis player, and founder of the squash team — he hears occasional terrorist “jokes.”

“With the current presidential administration, there’s been a definite increase in xenophobia,” Kion says. “We need to bridge the gap.”

He’s doing his part. Along with several others, Kion started a Building Bridges club at Staples. Already they’ve brought in a few speakers: Iranian American women, to talk about their lives in Iran (very similar to the US, Kion says); Palestinian neurosurgeon Dr. Khalid Abbed, who grew up very poor and whose son now goes to Staples, and Tarek Alasil, a Syrian refugee training to be an ophthalmologist.

The group also arranged a Skype call with teenagers in Iran.

Now they’re reaching out to audiences beyond Staples. On Saturday, April 1 (3 p.m., Staples auditorium), Building Bridges will sponsor a screening of “Salam Neighbor.”

It’s directed by Greens Farms Academy graduates Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, who lived in a Syrian refugee camp. The film provides an intimate look at that horrific humanitarian crisis.

Congressman Jim Himes will be featured in the panel discussion that follows the screening, along with First Selectman Jim Marpe.

Other panelists include a Syrian refugee, being hosted in Westport; Ali Majeed, an Iraqi refugee who was hosted here and is now training to be a dentist; Claudia Connor, president and CEO of the International Institute of Connecticut resettlement program; John McGeehan of Westport Interfaith Refugee Settlement, and Megan Laney, a Westport native studying in Syria who was evacuated when the war began.

Senator Chris Murphy is sending a personalized video.

The suggested donation is $10. All proceeds benefit local and international refugee agencies and charities.

“Our community has the choice to stand by passively,” Kion says. “Or we can unite, and act to make a difference.”

He and his organization of teenagers have already built a bridge to the Middle East. Now the rest of us must cross it.

 

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.)

The British Were Coming! Jono Walker Was (Almost) There

Some Westport residents have been here a few years. Some grew up here. Some trace their local history back even longer.

Jonathan Walker is a 10th-generation Westporter. He traces his local ancestry to 1662. Three centuries later, Walker grew up in a house on the very same road — South Compo — where that pioneering Bennett family lived.

But that’s not even the most remarkable part of this story.

Walker — nicknamed Jono, as a member of Staples High School’s Class of 1970 — has just written his first book. “A Certain Cast of Light” is a tale of the Bennett and Walker families’ lives here in Westport during the Revolutionary War, and beyond.

Jessie "Gigi" Bennett -- Jonathan Walker's great-grandmother -- was born in 1862.

Jessie “Gigi” Bennett — Jonathan Walker’s great-grandmother — was born in 1862.

It’s fiction. But it’s based on a story Walker heard growing up, from his great-grandmother Jessie “Gigi” Bennett.

And it was told to her by her own great-grandfather. In other words, Walker spoke to someone with a living link to a time before the United States was even born.

Bennett’s great-grandfather claimed that — as a boy in 1777 — he climbed a tree and watched the British land at Compo Beach. He then saw them march past his South Compo house, on the way to burn an arsenal in Danbury. A few minutes later, Bennett witnesssed the skirmish near the Post Road.

Bennett told Walker’s great-grandmother that 3 wounded British soldiers were brought to his house. The reason: The Bennetts were Tories.

As Walker researched this fascinating tale, he discovered that the injured men were not “Redcoats,” as he’d always assumed. They were “Greencoats” — provincial loyalists who joined the British fight, with the promise they’d be granted land in Mississippi.

They were at the front of the column that day for 2 reasons. They knew the way to Danbury. And they knew which homes — including the Bennetts’ — belonged to Tories.

The story Walker heard included details like this: One of the injured men, Capt. David Lyman from New Haven, was operated on in the Bennetts’ house. Supposedly his leg was amputated, and the bone remained in the cellar.

Deliverance Bennett's house still stands on South Compo Road. It's where wounded British soldiers were taken, and "given succor."

Deliverance Bennett’s house still stands on South Compo Road. It’s where wounded British soldiers were taken, and “given succor.”

There was more to the lore. The owner of the Bennett house — the Tory named Deliverance — had 9 children. One was Gigi’s great-grandfather. But Deliverance’s brother, Joseph Bennett, lived up the street. He was a patriot — and a captain in the rebel American Home Guards.

How could one family be so divided? Walker always wondered. How did Joseph Bennett end up in Deliverance’s bigger house by the end of the war? Why was Deliverance — despite losing his standing in the community, and his property — allowed to remain here, and not flee to Nova Scotia like other Tories?

Those questions are at the heart of Walker’s new book.

In it, a fictional character — 13-year-old Haynes Bennett — climbs that tree and watches the British land. Defying his father, he joins the patriots. The book is written in Haynes’ voice, 50 years later, as the narrator tries to imagine why his Tory father acted as he had.

In writing “A Certain Cast of Light,” Walker says he drew on fights with his own father, Bill, over the Vietnam War.

Jonathan Walker

Jonathan Walker

The 1820 and ’30s — when Haynes “writes” the book — was a fraught time in Connecticut. Walker made his narrator an abolitionist. It was not an easy position to advocate. Like his father, he was tormented by neighbors.

Walker did his homework. He studied the privateers and “skinners” who roamed Long Island Sound, ensuring that New York City’s trade in tea, cotton, china — and slaves — could continue without interruption. In Fairfield County, emotions on both sides of the slave trade ran so high that neighbors poisoned each other’s wells. During the 1700s, Walker says, the Bennett family owned slaves.

Like the Bennetts’ history in Westport, Walker’s book spans many years. He started it during the 1970s, as a student at Union College. He’d heard stories, but that was the first time he actually thought about what it meant to be a Tory family during the Revolutionary War. Even then, he says now, he did not realize how dangerous that was.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this "poor man's farmhouse," across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this “poor man’s farmhouse,” across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

In pre-internet times, Walker did his research at the Westport and Pequot libraries, and in New York City.

He figured he’d take 2 years to write his novel. But he got an MBA, became a father, and real life took over.

Three years ago — after retiring from a career in business — he returned to his book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker's new book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker’s new book.

Historical accuracy was important. Walker researched sailmaking, and apple tree farming. A book of 18th-century slang provided expressions like “that tarnal idiot,” and enabled him to write dialogue for college-educated Bennetts, as well as those who were farmers.

But one thing always bothered Walker. Though his ancestors were as important to Westport as families like the Burrs, Sherwoods, Coleys and Stapleses — in fact, Narrow Rocks Road was once called “Bennetts’ Rocks” — nothing here remains named for them.

Delving into the past, and writing his book, he realizes one thing: “We were on the wrong side of history.”

(Next month, the Westport Historical Society celebrates the 240th anniversary of the British landing at Compo Beach, march to Danbury and subsequent Battle of Compo Hill. As part of its programming, on April 18 [7 p.m.], the WHS hosts a talk by Jonathan Walker, and a book-signing. “A Certain Cast of Light” is available on Amazon and Kindle.)