Category Archives: People

Remembering Jules Sprung

Jules Sprung — a Westport resident since 1976, and a noted swimming teacher — died March 6 in Norwalk Hospital, of kidney failure. He was 92.

Jules founded and ran 2 mail-order office supply companies, Hudson Pen and Sarand. He sold the latter in 1988, then worked as a marketing consultant.

In retirement Jules taught swimming classes for children for many years at the Westport YMCA. He was an honored presence at the pool until the pandemic.

He was also president of the Indian River Green condo complex on Saugatuck Road, where he and Barbara moved in 2002.

Born in New York City in 1928, Jules lived with his parents on the Lower East Side until the Depression forced them to move in with Jules’s grandparents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

At Stuyvesant High School he was elected class vice president, and was celebrated for scheduling dances with nearby girls’ schools.

Jules Sprung

After a year at City College he transferred to DePauw University in Indiana, graduating in 1949. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army National Guard from 1952, and worked for a time at the New York Post. He also spent some years as a marketing executive before founding Hudson Pen around 1969.

He was introduced to Barbara Rosenfeld, a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College,  in 1952. They married in 1953. Their daughter Sarah was born in 1956; son Andrew followed in 1959.

The Sprungs had a genuine feminist partnership. Jules supported Barbara’s work as an early childhood teacher in the 1960s, her pursuit of a master’s degree in education in the early ’70s, and her career as a nonprofit founder and early childhood curriculum producer in the decades following.

When Barbara co-founded the nonprofit Educational Equity Concepts in 1981, Jules generously provided office space to the startup at Sarand.

Jules had a strong creative streak, writing short stories and authoring an ambitious historical novel in his 70s. He also published a memoir of his early life and career. Jules was enormously well-read and enjoyed sharing his knowledge about topics like political history and the classics. He had a mischievous sense of humor, whose storytelling skills often made him the last person to finish dinner.

Having enjoyed working as a swimming instructor at summer camps in his youth, Jules reconnected with that early passion in his 70s. He was recertified as a Red Cross instructor, and putting his skill to work at the Westport Y for 15 years, until 2012.

A patient instructor who enjoyed children, he provided meticulous small group and one-on-one instruction.

In his later years the pool was a refuge from arthritis. He was a familiar presence at the warmer end, where he was accorded space to do his backstroke laps. He and Barbara also loved Compo Beach and visited regularly.

In addition to his wife, Jules is survived by his sister Helene Naimon; his daughter Sarah (Allan) and son Andrew (Cynthia); 5 grandchildren, 2 great-grandchildren; sister Helen Naimon, and a niece.

Donations in Jules Sprung’s memory can be made to the Connecticut Food Bank.

Justices Of The Peace: The Legacy Continues

Saul Haffner died in 2017. He was 87.

He served on the RTM, was a member of the Y’s Men, and taught photography and writing at the Senior Center and Norwalk Community College.

Saul was a US Army veteran. He was an engineer who worked on NASA’s Gemini program, and a professor of business and marketing at Sacred Heart University.

But he is best known as a justice of the peace. In fact, he may have been the nation’s foremost authority on the subject. In 2009, I profiled him for “06880.”

Barbara Jay and Saul Haffner

Saul and his wife Barbara Jay founded the Justice of the Peace Association (JPUS) in 2001. At the dawn of the internet age, they wanted to connect couples and officiants in a personalized fashion.

An early advocate of marriage equality, he and Barbara created professional conferences on all aspects of a JP’s role.

Saul and Barbara’s daughter Loretta Jay carries on their tradition.

The 1984 Staples High School graduate — now a Fairfield resident — wants her parents’ vision and network to continue. She’s still connecting officiants and couples. But she’s expanded her services to incorporate her own interests and professional work: underserved populations, and problems affecting young people.

Loretta Jay

JPUS became a founding member of the national Coalition to End Child Marriage. Last year, the organization helped run the first and only training about child and forced marriage and human trafficking for American marriage officiants.

Previous conferences have featured keynote speakers like Senator Richard Blumenthal and current Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz.

This year, the Justice of the Peace Association hosts a virtual conference. Set for March 13 (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), it’s a creative environment where civil officiants can reimagine weddings, learn new skills, and nurture relationships.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill will recognize Saul and Barbara, and JPUS’s 20 years.

Always wanted to be a justice of the peace? Interested in marriage-related issues like equality and human trafficking?

Click here for more information, email lorettajay@JPus, or call 203-255-7703.

Melissa Bernstein Offers Hope For Anguish, Depression

In the toy industry, Melissa Bernstein is a rock star.

The world knows her as co-founder and chief creative officer — with her co-founder husband and fellow native Westporter — of Melissa & Doug. The $500 million company is legendary for its toys that encourage interactive, hands-on play, and spark the imagination of children in a way screens and high-tech never can.

Yet for most of her life, Melissa Bernstein did not even know herself.

She and Doug built the business from scratch. It was their idea, their execution, their 32 years of hard — yet very fulfilling — work.

Melissa Bernstein, with some of her creations.

They married in 1992. They have 6 accomplished children, ranging in age from 27 to 13. They built a beautiful home.

Yet all along — for as long as she can recall — Melissa lived with existential anguish and depression. It made her who she is.

And at times, it made her want to end her life.

Existential anguish and depression is not a DSM diagnosis. But her torment — a crisis of doubt and meaning — was frighteningly real. It was “the darkest nihilism. Life seemed absurd and futile.”

Her mother remembers Melissa screaming every day, for the first year of her life. It was not colic; these were terrifying shrieks. “I had no words or creative solutions to what I was feeling,” Melissa says.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein.

Melissa grew up with that pain. But she was creative too. She wrote verses, and was a musician. But in college, realizing she would never play professionally, she quit music cold turkey.

She sought solace in academic performance. Looking back, she says, that turn “took me out of my heart, and into my head.” She felt “completely and utterly worthless.”

It was a coping mechanism involving denial, resistance, avoidance and dissonance, Melissa realizes now.

She created a “perfect, fictitious world” in her head. She lived in that “blissful place, filled with imaginary friends,” for at least a decade.

To the outside world, Melissa projected a façade of perfection. She worked, volunteered with the Levitt Pavilion, Music Theater of Connecticut and July 4th fireworks. She ferried her children to every sport and activity. The biggest criticism of her as a parent, she says, was that she seemed “emotionless.”

Doug and Melissa Bernstein, with their 6 children.

“Part of my validation was being a martyr,” she says. “I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to think of my kids before me.”

Doug did not have an inkling of what Melissa was going through. But neither did she.

“I couldn’t let this demon come up,” she notes. “If I did, it would have taken me down.”

Five years ago, Melissa began to “connect the dots in a profound way.” She was exhausted. “I wanted to stop racing. It’s hard to resist everything you feel and are,” she says.

She listened to podcasts like “The Good Life Project.” She read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” She learned that “as humans, our number one motive is a search for meaning.”

Melissa says, “My heart stopped. With profound alacrity, I knew what I was afflicted with.”

The more she learned, the more she realized that highly creative people — Beethoven, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway — shared her anguish.

For the first time in her life, Melissa did not feel alone.

Understanding her hypersensitivity to “both the beauty of the world, and unbearable pain,” she cried for 3 days.

She had awakened a window into her soul. She came to terms that her creative blessing was also a curse.

Melissa Bernstein

All those verses she’d written; all the toys she’d developed — they were outward signs of who Melissa Bernstein is. Now, she knew, she had to accept internally who she is too.

She could not do it alone. With the help of therapist Loredana Trandu, she has learned to make sense of her life.

“My journey with her was arduous. It was the lowest I ever felt,” Melissa says. “But she was there every step of the way. She’d been to that spot. I wasn’t scared.”

Now, Melissa wants to help others.

First, she shared her story on Jonathan Fields’ “Good Life” project. Hundreds of listeners responded. Their words were soulful and heart-wrenching. One told Melissa, “you put words to what was ineffable and hidden.”

She emailed or called every one. She followed up in depth with nearly 100.

Now, she and Doug have developed LifeLines. An ecosystem — books, videos, podcasts, community — its goal is to “help frame those soul-searching questions that allow you to explore your authentic self and discover what makes you tick.”

Melissa Bernstein reads her “LifeLines” book.

LifeLines is based on 3 premises:

  • You are not alone
  • We all have the capacity to channel darkness into light
  • We will not find true fulfillment and peace until we look inward and accept ourselves.

Completely free — funded by the Bernsteins — it’s about to roll out nationally. Major media like the Washington Post, USA Today, People, Elle magazine and “Good Day New York” are covering LifeLines this week and next.

Westporter David Pogue airs a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend (March 14).

David Pogue tapes a segment with Melissa Bernstein, in her Westport home.

LifeLines has become Melissa’s life. She has recorded nearly 3 dozen podcasts, and oversees every aspect of the project. Yet she still takes time each day to speak to individual men and women — people just like her, who feel the same overpowering existential anguish and depression.

Being on the national stage — and speaking to strangers — is important. But Melissa is our neighbor. Sometimes the hardest part of baring our souls is doing it to those who know us well.

The other day at a Staples basketball game, a woman looked away when they met. Then she said, “I’m so sorry.”

Melissa felt badly that the woman felt so uncomfortable.

“We need a huge education program,” she says. “We know what to say, and not say, when someone dies. Now we need a new national conversation on how to talk about mental health.”

It’s taken Melissa Bernstein her entire life to discover herself, and open that internal dialogue. Now, with LifeLines, she’s opening up to the world.

The chief creative officer of one of the world’s leading toy companies is playing for keeps.

(PS: On Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m., the Westport Library hosts a conversation with Melissa — and me — about her journey. Click here to register.)

 

Compo Canines: Jim Boisvert’s Best Shots

Jim Boisvert loves dogs.

He also loves photographing them at Compo Beach.  Westporters have noticed Jim and his partner Jamie Grandison — also a dog photographer — taking shots of any canine that wants its picture taken.

Jim and Jamie live in Cheshire. But they come often to Compo and Longshore.

Jim Boisvert and Jamie Grandison.

Jim likes chatting with the walkers on the beach, and takes a photo of any veteran who agrees.

“Good, friendly people,” he says. “I love coming here.”

In warm weather, Jim bikes through the backwoods of Connecticut taking images of wildlife and beauty.

He does not accept payment for any dog photos or prints. That would take the fun out of it, he says.

He does post photos on Facebook and GuruShots.

Jim and Jamie have one request: a donation to the Cheshire Community Food Pantry. Paying it forward, one bark at a time.

(All dog photos/Jim Boisvert)

 

MLB’s Lou Gehrig Day: The Local Connection

June 4 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Lou Gehrig. The legendary New York Yankees’ 1st baseman — “The Iron Horse” — died 17 days before his 38th birthday, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The disease now bears his name.

This June 2, all 30 Major League Baseball teams will inaugurate an annual tribute to Gehrig, and recognize the fatal illness. All players and managers will wear a patch with his #4. “4-ALS” logos will be displayed around stadiums.

MLB will use the occasion to raise money and awareness to battle the disease, and pay homage to advocacy groups like the LG4Day committee.

That group was responsible for the league-wide initiative. Co-chair of the committee was Chuck Haberstroh, the former Staples High School basketball star whose mother Patty is afflicted with ALS.

Well-known to Westporters through many activities, including her work with the Department of Human Services, Patty was diagnosed in 2017. She has inspired her family — and many others throughout town — since then.

Haberstroh, songwriter Bryan Wayne Galentine — who was also diagnosed with ALS in 2017 — and Adam Wilson spent 2 years persuading MLB to honor Gehrig with a day, as it does Black pioneer Jackie Robinson and Puerto Rican humanitarian Roberto Clemente.

Hall of Fame statues (from left): Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente.

Various teams held their own ALS Awareness Days, but Haberstroh and his group wanted more. They had to convince all 30 clubs to sign on. The breakthrough came in October, when the presidents of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins agreed to email the presidents of nearly 2 dozen teams that had not yet pledged support.

Within minutes, it was done. Sadly, Galentine died 2 days later.

Patty Haberstroh

That galvanized Haberstroh to work even harder to raise ALS awareness — along with funds to find cures and treatments. The family has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through the #ALSPepperChallenge.

“Lou Gehrig Day will increase awareness of ALS year after year,” Haberstroh says.

“And it will give hope to those with little today — somethin Mom has always cared about as a social worker in town.

“Someone diagnosed today receives the same prognosis — 100% fatal — as Lou got over 80 years ago. That’s unacceptable.”

Word has just gotten out about the June 2 4-ALS Day. The nation will hear more about it in the months ahead.

For Chuck Haberstroh and his family, that makes every team a winner.

Click below for an ESPN SportsCenter highlight, featuring brothers Chuck and Steve Haberstroh:

Ian O’Malley: Hear, Hear!

Ian O’Malley is a noted Westporter. A 30-year New York radio personality (currently on Q-104.3) and a realtor with Compass Group, he’s on the board of directors of Homes with Hope. Many “06880” readers remember him for raffling off a bottle of single malt for Experience Camps.

Ian speaks frankly about his hearing loss. Yesterday was World Hearing Day. To celebrate, he sends along these thoughts:

If I can positively affect even one person by writing this, it will be worth it.

An old adage about music is: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!” That’s a bunch of nonsense.

Ian O’Malley

During my long tenure in radio and TV, I’ve been exposed to “loud” a lot. It’s primarily from the constant use of headphones, whether for radio shows, voiceovers, or privately listening of music.

Yet without question the real culprit for me is concerts. I’ve never counted how many I’ve attended, but it has to be north of 1,000.

Much of the music I love doesn’t have excessive volume, such as big band/swing, classical or even blues. But my love of rock, and even more so heavy metal, definitely does.

Until I met Debbie, I had never worn ear plugs to a concert. I now realize that was pure insanity, with a price to pay: significant hearing loss.

Lack of proper hearing is something I’ve dealt with forever. My go-to relief was simply to turn things up. When I couldn’t do that, I suffered through whatever situation I was in.

I got adept at reading lips, leaning in during conversations to try and hear what was being said, and/or frequently asking someone to repeat themselves.

This could be especially nerve-wracking when meeting with potential real estate clients. Retaining information during an interview is our number one priority.

Yet especially in a restaurant or setting with plenty of background noise, I might as well have been trying to listen Charlie Brown’s teacher. It got to where I just made a point of laughing when the person speaking across from me did. They could have been saying “Ian, you are such an idiot.” I would have replied “Yup!’ and laughed along, completely clueless and not hearing a word.

My wife Deb finally got me to bite the bullet and get my hearing tested. She had repeatedly urged me to. Half was genuine concern for my well being. The other half was for her sanity.

Even though husbands are genetically predisposed to tuning out their better half on occasion, clearly I was not hearing her much of the time.

I finally got tested at the Audiology & Hearing Center in Fairfield. Though not as bad as Brian Johnson of AC/DC — whose doctors told him he could never be near concert amplification again unless he wanted to go completely deaf — my own hearing was very damaged.

Brian Johnson of ACDC, rocking on (and loudly).

Was I a candidate for hearing aids? I asked.

Yes.

Like the vast majority of folks, I always associated hearing aids with the elderly. I’m no spring chicken at 56 years old, and knew I would have to pony up for all those Van Halen concerts eventually.

Still, I was guessing more along the lines of 75 when I would have to come to terms with things.

Linda, a lovely and smart audiologist, suggested I try on a demo pair, use them for a week and get back to her with my thoughts. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I said sure. She put the hearing aids on me (which are all but invisible) and pressed the “on” button.

There was a wonderful video on social media a few years back. It shows a deaf baby getting fitted with hearing aids for the first time, and the reaction when they are turned on. The kid’s eyes go as wide as pie plates, and he  smiles. The same happened to me.

(Another analogy: It’s like the first time watching your favorite TV show or sport on HDTV.)

Back home, I walked into the kitchen where Deb was standing. She talked to me without knowing I had the hearing aids in (unless you’re inches from my head you can’t see them). I immediately got weepy. I’d honestly never heard her voice properly before.

She could tell they were tears of joy and relief. Realizing my hearing was now assisted, she said, “You idiot, I told you to get these years ago!”

Deb and Ian O’Malley, with their sons. (Photo/Xenia Gross)

For the next 10 minutes I stood on our porch, listening to the true sound of wind rustling through the leaves and birds chirping. It was like living in a whole new world. Not an hour goes by still without a “Wow!” moment.

My ego, pride and fear got in the way of something that clearly needed to be addressed. I’m so glad I did.

I probably could have said nothing about wearing hearing aids, and no one would have noticed. But I know that someone reading this is either like me, or knows someone suffering like I was for so long.

You don’t have to suffer. If your sight was headed south you’d go get glasses, right?

Maybe the term “hearing aids” has a stigma. Kind of like suggesting that if it’s too loud, you’re too old….

Meanwhile, if anyone has any questions, please reach out to me (ian.omalley@compass.com; 646-709-4332).

I’ll hear you loud and clear!

Remembering Khaliq Sanda

The A Better Chance program has brought some remarkable teenagers to Westport. They, in turn, have enriched our town beyond measure.

None is more remarkable than Khaliq Sanda.

Arriving here in the fall of 2010, he immediately made his mark on Staples High School, and the entire community.

Khaliq Sanda

With a magnetic personality, an insightful mind, a welcoming spirit and a heart of gold, he made friends everywhere. Staples students, younger siblings, teachers — all were drawn to Khaliq.

Lori and David Sochol met him when the ABC home on North Avenue was being renovated. They and their neighbors, Laurie and Dave Gendell, each hosted 3 scholars.

The Sochols’ friendship with Khaliq grew stronger as he grew older. They were proud of his successes in the classroom, and the passion with which he got involved in Westport life.

Khaliq took 10 AP classes. He tutored. He worked at Internal Medicine Associates. He volunteered with Key Club, and served on Student Assembly.  

He touched everyone he met.

After graduation he headed to Duke University. He took pre-med courses. He wanted to be a psychiatrist.

In May of 2016, Khaliq was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Quickly, it metastasized to his brain.

The Sochols, and many other Westporters, stepped up to help. They made him comfortable, and ensured he had access to the best treatment at Sloan Kettering,

Following a trip to London and Barcelona with friends hee returned to Duke as a junior, and continued treatments there.

After graduating in 2018, Khaliq got a job and apartment in New York. When COVID hit, he moved in with the Sochols.

Khaliq Sanda at a formal dance, with great friends Roscoe Brown, Emily Korn and Elizabeth Camche.

In November, he lost the use of his legs. David found him an apartment in New York. School friends raised funds for the 2-bedroom place. Aides came during the day. At night, Westport and Duke friends helped.

Some were 3 years older; others, 2 years younger. “Everyone at Duke knew him,” Lori says. “They all said he changed their lives. Some said he saved their lives.”

Khaliq was hospitalized on Thursday. Over 100 friends came through over the weekend, to say goodbye.

This morning, with his family by his side, Khaliq Sanda died.

He leaves a remarkable legacy.

“He saw the best in us — even when we didn’t — and made us want to be better, and do better,” says David Sochol.

“His loving friendship quietly motivated us — again often without us even realizing it — to live up to our ideals and achieve our promise.

“Khaliq defined courage, character and grace. He faced unimaginable adversity with extraordinary humor, patience and strength. He will be missed, but his memory will endure in the actions of all who knew him and loved him.”

A college scholarship fund for Sloan Kettering patients will be set up soon to celebrate his many achievements. Details will be announced on “06880.”

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In 2014, Khaliq spoke at the A Better Chance Gala. 

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at the 2014 A Better Chance Dream Event.

Hundreds of Westporters mingled with ABC House graduates, and were gratified to hear updates on their highly accomplished lives. There were silent and live auctions. The food was excellent.

The highlight of the evening was speeches by graduating seniors. Khaliq Sanda and Ruben Guardado talked about their difficult journeys to, and through, Westport. They graciously thanked all who had helped them so far, and promised to help others who follow them.

Here is part of what Khaliq said:

Almost exactly a decade before I was born, President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was speaking literally about the barrier that separated East and West Berlin. I want to talk about metaphorical walls.

When my parents were in their 20s, they emigrated from Cameroon to the United States. Their motivation was the same as most immigrants: they wanted their children to get the kind of education that is unavailable in the country they come from. Their move to a strange and unfamiliar country — through checkpoints and gates and then up and over an invisible wall — was a sacrifice that I think about every day. My parents’ American lives and the fact that I am standing here in front of you today are proof that these walls can be scaled. But climbing over them requires more than just the usual factors, like perseverance, determination, adaptability, hard work, and good luck. It requires, above all, a human ladder to help you vault over the barricade.

Graduating seniors Khaliq Sanda (left) and Ruben Guardado (right) pose with Anthony Soto at the 2014 A Better Chance gala. Anthony — the MC — was the 1st Westport ABC alum to earn a graduate degree.

It was not easy for Khaliq to enter Staples as a freshman. He did not know a single person, but every classmate seemed to know everyone else. “I was on one side of the wall,” he said. “Everyone else was on the other.” He wondered if the next 4 years of his life would be like that.

He found refuge in — “of all places” — Karen Thomas’ geometry class. Her dedication to teaching — and to him — was profound. Khaliq found other “amazing” educators at Staples — Heather Colletti-Houde, Will Jones, Christina Richardson, Suzanne Kammerman, and more — and he flourished.

Other strong arms lifted him up.

My host family, the Mathiases, was indispensable. Kim and Mark, your compassion, care, and willingness to make me a part of your family are the greatest gifts you could have given me. Nick and Nicole, you are the younger brother and sister I always wanted but would have treated really badly if you actually were my younger brother and sister. This way is better: I love you and I like you. If you ever need me, know I’m only a phone call away.

Khaliq Sanda with his host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq Sanda with his A Better Chance host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq also thanked the resident directors at ABC House; his fellow residents; ABC board members and volunteers, who provided a home away from home, rides and much else.

He spoke of his bonds with Michael Newman and the Peer Advisors group. In fact, he said, Michael is the reason he wants to study neuroscience. He thanked Kim Freudigman, for helping him reach his dream of studying at a university he once would never have dreamed of applying to.

Then, the once friendless Khaliq — now one of the most popular students at Staples — said:

If you’re going to climb a really massive, imposing wall, you’re going to need to stand on the shoulders of giants — young giants. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to make it through this program without my best friends and their families. Roscoe Brown, Grant Heller, Cooper Shippee, Jeremy Langham, Austin Nicklas, Joey Schulman, Charlie Leonard, Henri Rizack, Eliza Yass, Annie and Lauren Raifaisen, Elizabeth Colwell, Emily Korn, Elizabeth Camche and Caroline O’Brien — thank you. You have been there for me through thick and thin. When I have needed someone to talk to or share a laugh with, you were my first choice, my early decision. You have been crucial in my life beyond what any of you will ever understand or I could put into words. Without revealing anything that could get us all in trouble, let me just say… I don’t think there’s been a single dull moment.

Without sounding boastful, Khaliq described his life in Westport: 10 AP classes, a job at Internal Medicine of Westport, volunteer work with the Key Club, “advocating for students on Student Assembly, and trying to maintain the façade of a well-rested, happy-go-lucky, not-a-care-in-the-world, totally color-coordinated teenager.”

He concluded by reaching back to his original reference to walls.

When President Reagan asked President Gorbachev to tear down the wall, East Germans and West Germans had been separated for nearly 30 years. You can imagine — I can imagine — what they were thinking: the people on the other side of the wall are not like me. Their lives are not like my life. Their problems are not like my problems.

A Better ChanceThat’s what I thought when I first moved here. From my side of the wall, Westport seemed like a picture-book town. The reality is much more complex. I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived here for 4 years, but I also feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in Queens and Lawrenceville, Georgia, and to have been born into my amazing family. We don’t have a Range Rover in the driveway, but there is always a home-cooked meal on the kitchen table. And our house isn’t 11,000 square feet, but it’s filled with the people I love most in the world, filled with laughter and joy.

My journey these last 4 years is similar to the one my parents took when they were only a little older than I am now: moving to a place unlike your home, starting over with no family or friends to support you, and having to stay strong even when things were rocky. I think my parents would say that every moment of their journey was worth it, and every day, I am amazed by how strong, courageous, caring, and wise my parents are. Mom and Dad, you mean the world to me, I thank you again for having the confidence in me, and I hope I’ve made you proud. I love you guys.

Thank you all for helping me climb over the wall.

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And now, to bring a smile to your face: Here’s a video from 2013. With his usual spirit and zest, Khaliq and good friend Roscoe Brown asked 2 girls to the junior prom:

“Know A Good Therapist?” Lauren Barnett Does.

COVID has exacerbated the American mental health crisis. But when people seek help — for their children or themselves — it’s tough to find the right person. Often, the defaults are Google (“therapist near me”) or Facebook (“Does anyone know a therapist? Asking for a friend”).

Of course, there are plenty of professionals. Sometimes, too many: psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, you name it.

Many are excellent at what they do. But they are not businesspeople. They do not have websites — or if they do, they don’t include a lengthy bio, including education, specialty, technique and treatment philosophy.

How can a potential patient find a therapist. And how can a therapist get his or her name in front of people needing help?

Well, click on Family Consultants of Westport.

Lauren Barnett

The site is the brainchild of Lauren Barnett. A Westchester native who “escaped” Florida 12 years ago when her husband’s work brought him to the area, she had a brainstorm last year.

Lauren spent 25 years in the mental health field. She was a middle school guidance counselor (“I love kids that age!”) and the director of a Berkshires girls summer camp.

She watched with concern as the emotional and psychological needs of youngsters grew — particularly in the last 5 years. She has 2 teenagers of her own.

“People are drowning,” she says. “They don’t know how to get the right help for their kids, or themselves.”

The mental health landscape is vast. Which means it’s intimidating to navigate — particularly during tough times.

Besides Google and Facebook, people can ask pediatricians and guidance counselors. Lauren is a “huge advocate” of their help. But, she notes, “they jump through so many hoops to meet the needs of kids with issues. They don’t have the time to vet everyone who’s out there, or match the right therapist with what a certain kid needs.”

Which is where she comes in.

Lauren curates a list of people who can help. It includes not just psychologists, psychiatrists and trained therapists, as well as recovery specialists, nutritional counselors, educational consultants and more. They address a broad range of behavioral, social and psychological concerns.

When she speaks to a client, she determines the type of help needed — and the type of personality that’s the best fit.

She uses herself as an example. “I might be drawn to someone boisterous, or with a sense of humor. But that might turn off someone else.”

Lauren makes 3 matches. She tells those 3 professionals to expect a call. Then she tells her client to call all 3, and make the decision that feels right.

“I do the legwork. I make the calls, so they can get help when they need it,” she explains.

Lauren has approximately 25 categories of professionals, with 25 or so names in each.

She speaks with new clinicians every day. They appreciate her service as much as clients.

Her initial interview takes about an hour. She learns about their background and training, and assesses their personality.

Lauren Barnett, with her family.

As they talk, they often mention the names of others. “She’s great with younger adolescents,” the might say. Or “he’s really good with social anxiety.”

“I want a broad network,” Lauren notes. “Therapy is not ‘one size fits all.’ You need the right fit for personality, approach and comfort level.”

Family Consultants of Westport is not just for parents needing help with their children. One client was “paralyzed” by her daughter’s issues. After finding Lauren, she realized she needed help too.

Lauren describes herself as “a sounding board, a point person, home base. I’m where you start, right at the beginning. The last thing you need is to waste hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars, with the wrong therapist.”

(Click here for the Family Consultants of Westport website.)

Remembering Bob Comstock

Robert “Bob” Comstock — a legendary New Jersey reporter and journalist, who moved to Westport nearly 20 years ago to be near his daughter and grandsons — died earlier this month, from complications of COVID-19. He was 93.

He was active here in the Unitarian Church and Y’s Men. But many Westport friends may not have known of his background.

Robert Comstock (Photo/Bob Brush for NorthJersey.com)

He was editor of The Record for more than a decade; press director for Governor Brendan Byrne; associate professor at Rutgers University, and a public relations executive.

According to The Record: 

Described by one former reporter as running The Record’s newsroom with “an iron fist and a velvet glove,” Comstock oversaw the newspaper in the pre-internet age when print was still king. His tenure at the helm of the paper covered everything from the Iran hostage crisis to President Ronald Reagan being shot to the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s.

Former governor Tom Kean called Comstock “a first class guy. He did a tremendous job for the paper and the state. He was not a Republican, so we had some disagreements along the way. But always in friendship. You could disagree with him/ But you never lost respect for him.”

A New York City native, his mother had come to the US from Australia to tour on the the vaudeville circuit with her sister and parents. His father was an insurance salesman during the depression.

After graduating from Ridgewood High School he joined the Navy, shortly before World War II ended. He then attended Rutgers as a journalism major. Doing presswork for summer stock theater in Corning, New York he worked withBurt Lahr, Kim Hunter, June Havoc, Zasu Pitts and Jerry Orbach.

At The Record, former columnist John Cichowski said, “He was the political editor and a damn good one. He had such insights into how politics worked. Who all the movers and shakers were. He was able to straddle those boundaries between how to present the news objectively, yet still use the solid contacts with these people.”

Robert Comstock with President Carter.

Stints with Byrne, Rutgers and in public relations followed. Comstock was a member of the NJ Public Broadcasting Authority, the NJ Committee for Humanities, the advisory committee on Judicial Conduct of the NJ Supreme Court, and a trustee of the Bergen Museum of Art and Science.

Comstock was predeceased by his wife Barbara Corner Comstock, to whom he was married for 59 years, and sister Doris Auger. He is survived by daughter Kate Comstock Davis; son Eric Taylor Comstock; grandsons Alexander, Benjamin and Theodore Davis; his son, Eric Taylor Comstock, and his sister, Margot Comstock Tommervik.

A memorial celebration will be held in the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the ACLU or Rutgers University Scholarship Fund.

(Click here for Bob Comstock’s full obituary.)

Barbara and Bob Comstock.

Serendipity Chorale’s Serendipitous 45 Years

In 1975, the Norwalk Symphony Organization planned a concert version of “Porgy and Bess.” Composer George Gershwin had stipulated it could only be performed by Black artists.

Gigi Van Dyke knew many Black singers in the area. She was asked to recruit a choir of 40 or 50 voices, teach them the score, and rehearse them.

Gigi called choir members from Norwalk to New Haven. She credits “serendipity” with finding all the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses needed.

Gigi Van Dyke

The story goes that the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra told Gigi to bring “her people” to the concert hall for a technical rehearsal. When the members — all well prepared and ready — showed up, there were more commands like “get your people to…” and “your people had better…” 

Gigi told the NSO that she could not be involved with the project. The choir did not want to go on without her.

The Norwalk Hour got wind of the exit from a sold-out performance. The headline was something like “Porgy and the Norwalk Symphony: It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Members of the pick-up choir did not want to disband after enjoying singing together, with Gigi playing piano and directing. They continued rehearsing.

Again by serendipity, opportunities to perform kept coming Gigi’s way.

Hundreds of men and women singers have been part of the group — now called the Serendipity Chorale — over the past 45 years. They performed with Pete Seeger, Andy Williams, Betty Jones, (and the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra), among others.

Peter Jennings and ABC News recognized Van Dyke and the chorale in 1998 for its “service to all mankind.” In 2000, Governor Jodi Rell honored the Chorale as a “Connecticut Treasure.”

The Serendipity Chorale’s last live performance was last February 23, at the Darien Library. The repertoire of show tunes, pop standards, folk songs and gospel spirituals was to have kicked off a busy year celebrating their 45th anniversary.

The pandemic shattered those plans. Instead, Chorale members and friends decided to sponsor the production of a solo piano CD featuring Gigi.

Finding the right piano, recording site and engineer was difficult. Finally Gigi’s longtime friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Edward Thompson — minister of music at Westport’s Unitarian Church in Westport — suggested recording in the now-empty sanctuary, on the church’s Steinway Grand.

Gigi Van Dyke at the Unitarian Church’s Steinway. (Photo/Lynda Shannon)

Congregation member Alec Head — a recording engineer and producer — heard Gigi play. He quickly signed on.

The sanctuary was booked for 4 hours in September. Recording took just an hour.

“Artists always tell me they can do their piece in a single take,” Alec said. “It just doesn’t happen. Except that with Gigi it did.”

Head remastered the CD, titled “It’s Love.” It was created not as a Chorale fundraiser but as a gift to Gigi, and from her to churches that could no longer have live music, as well as to senior centers and other organizations where she and the Chorale had often performed.

Recording and production costs were underwritten by donations. Copies were sent to singers who have been part of the Chorale’s life and spirit for 45 years.

The Serendipity Chorale looks forward to singing together again — perhaps this year.

In the meantime, they can hear Gigi at the piano playing her favorite hymns and songs.

For the past year, the choir could not sing. But — without missing a beat — they shared the magic of music anyway.

(Hat tip: Lynda Bluestein)