Category Archives: Teenagers

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.)

Charlie Capalbo’s Biggest Battle

Charlie Capalbo is not a Westporter. He’s a senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

But his ties to this town are long and deep. Everyone here knows his grandmother: writer/poet/storyteller Ina Chadwick. Her husband, Richard Epstein — Charlie’s grandfather — is a Westport native; his parents moved here in 1958.

Charlie’s mother, Jennifer Wilde Capalbo — Ina’s youngest daughter — is a Staples graduate. For many years, she worked at a Westport asset management company.

Charlie’s aunts are Nina Wilde and Becky Wilde Goldberg Jarit. Years ago — to support her former Staples boyfriend, who suffered from lymphoma — Becky began running in charity events. She completed her first New York Marathon this year, at 50.

Ina Chadwick’s daughters: Nina, Becky and Jennifer.

Charlie has led a pretty good life. This winter as a goalie, he helped the Fairfield co-op ice hockey team make history. For the first time ever, the Mustangs qualified for the FCIAC and state Division I tournaments.

But other parts of his life are not good at all.

A few years ago, his house burned down. And just a couple of weeks ago — after making 27 saves in Fairfield’s 5-2 state tournament loss to West Haven — Charlie was diagnosed with cancer.

Charlie Capalbo (Photo/Dave Gunn)

His tumor is located near his heart and lungs, and has spread to his lymph nodes. Doctors say right now, an operation is not possible.

Charlie has already had a 5-hour biopsy at Yale-New Haven. Many more procedures lie ahead. Chemo starts tomorrow.

The Fairfield community — led by his coach and teammates — have rallied around Charlie.

Charlie Capalbo’s teammates lend support, as he heads to the OR.

A GoFundMe page was created Sunday night. In just 3 days, it’s already brought in over $129,000.

And that’s without most of Westport knowing his story.

Now we do.

(Click here for Charlie Capalbo’s GoFundMe page.)

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.)

Arrivederci, Vespa. Welcome, The ‘Port.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… The ‘Port.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Neo-Nazi Story, In Westport

A police car sat outside The Conservative Synagogue of Westport. A police officer stood inside the front door.

Those are signs of the times. Near-daily bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers and Anti-Defamation League offices around the country.

But the only threat last night was to disrupt stereotypes and assumptions.

A full house heard Frank Meeink talk about his life.

Frank Meeink’s book cover shows a swastika tattooed on his neck.

At 13 years old, the Philadelphia native was a skinhead. By 18 he was roaming the country as a neo-Nazi recruiter. He hosted a TV show called “The Reich.”

In prison — convicted of kidnapping and beating a member of a rival skinhead gang — he befriended men he once hated. Slowly, his world view — and life — changed.

Today the 41-year-old is a noted speaker, author and founder of Harmony Through Hockey (he’s also a youth coach). He travels the country talking about tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding, in race, politics and throughout society.

Meeink — who has been featured in a film with Desmond Tutu, appeared in a music video with country singer Jamey Johnson and been interviewed by Katie Couric — was part of the inspiration for the movie “American History X.”

His talk last night was riveting. It was also preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone came to the synagogue hoping to have his or her neo-Nazi views reinforced.

But Meeink’s message of openness, and his story of how hatred can be turned to love, was powerful and inspiring. It was also eye-opening to hear his raw words spoken inside a temple, before an audience that included men in yarmulkes.

Frank Meeink speaking last night at The Conservative Synagogue.

Last night’s event was the culmination in a long day. Earlier, Meeink spent 2 hours with the sophomore and junior classes at Staples High School. They listened raptly as he discussed “The Truth About Hate.” After Meeink spoke, a number of students talked in an open mic session about their experiences with bullying — as bullies, victims and bystanders — and pledged to work toward greater acceptance for all.

Meeink later met with members of the Westport Police Department.

When he was 15 years old, Meeink tattooed a swastika on his neck. Two decades later, a resurgence of hatred sweeps our nation.

The police presence at The Conservative Synagogue last night served as a grim reminder of that. But Frank Meeink’s strong words — delivered to various Westport audiences all day long — overpowered every image of fear.

(Frank Meeink’s appearance last night was sponsored by The Conservative Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, TEAM Westport, Hadassah, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy and the Westport Inn.)

 

You’re In Luck: “Urinetown” Opens Soon

When David Roth and Kerry Long saw “Urinetown” on Broadway in 2001, they thought it was one of the funniest shows they’d seen. They loved the story, writing, music and choreography.

The Staples Players co-directors waited eagerly for the first chance to stage it in Westport. It came 11 years ago. Roth says it turned out to be one of the most favorite musicals that group of actors ever did. Audiences loved it too.

For the last several years, Roth has wanted to reprise “Urinetown.” Months ago, he and Long decided on it as this spring’s mainstage production.

At the time, the presidential election was far in the distance. “We had no intention of it being a political choice,” he says. “But with the current unrest in the country, the cast really understands the satire.”

The 2017 Staples Players’ “Urinetown” — which opens Friday, March 17 and runs that weekend and the next — has a very different look than the previous incarnation. There’s a completely new cast, of course, but also a new choreographer.

Jacob Leaf as Officer Lockstock, and Georgia Wright as Little Sally. (Photo/Kerry Long)

So far, the choice has lived up to the directors’ intentions. “Students are throwing themselves into creating big, bold characters,” Roth says.

“Bits we’ve watched time and again in rehearsal still make us laugh,” Long notes.

The show has “a lot of great character parts,” Roth says, providing many opportunities for actors to shine. Among them: Remy Laifer, a Players co-president (hero Bobby Strong). Previously, he’s played either socially awkward people or old men.

The musical — which won 3 Tony Awards — is set in a dystopian city. A 20-year drought has caused a terrible water shortage, making the use of private toilets unthinkable.

Public restrooms are regulated by a single mega-corporation. Anyone failing to pay is sent to a penal colony called Urinetown. A hero emerges from the poor. He’s had enough, and plans a revolution to lead all the peons (ho ho) to safety.

Charlie Zuckerman as Bobby, outside “Amenity #9.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“‘Urinetown’ tells the story of political greed, and how corrupt governments affect the common citizen,” Laifer says. “It affirms that everyone should have a voice.”

Zoe Samuels — who plays Hope, Bobby’s love interest and daughter of the mega-corporation’s CEO — adds, “those who suffer continue to fight, because of ‘hope’ for a better future.”

Players shows often raise funds for good causes. “Urinetown” is no exception. Patrons will be given the opportunity to pay for “the privilege to pee” at intermission. Proceeds go to Water.org, an international non-profit that provides safe drinking water to millions of people.

Tickets are on sale now (see below). Act quickly. Don’t be pissed off at missing this chance for a very funny, cleverly staged show. Urine for a real treat.

PS: It’s rated “pee-gee.”

(“Urinetown” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, March 17, 18, 24 and 25, at 7:30 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, March 19. Click here for tickets. Any remaining tickets will be available at the Staples High School auditorium door 20 minutes before showtime.)

A Better Chance: Honoring 15 Years Of Success

In 2002, A Better Chance of Westport was just a dream.

In the 15 years since, the ABC program has fulfilled dreams. Young men have come from across America to Glendarcy House, on the corner of North Avenue and Cross Highway. They’ve attended Staples High School, and gotten deeply involved in school and community activities.

They’ve gone on to college, and embarked on careers. They’re already getting married. They’re success stories, and Westport should be enormously proud of them.

Steve Daniels sure is.

Steve Daniels

Steve Daniels

The longtime resident of Westport has led quite a life. He captained the University of Pittsburgh soccer team; been a high-level executive at RCA, TWA and Oxford Health; chaired the local United Way board; worked on senior housing with Westport’s Human Services Department, and served on TEAM Westport.

Now 77, he’s involved with his wife Cheryl Scott-Daniels’ real estate firm, CSD Select Homes.

But it’s his stints as president of A Better Chance of Westport that give him special insight into what this town means — to its residents, and those who come here from very different parts of the country.

“I love this place. Make no mistake about that,” Daniels says. “It’s much more welcoming than many other Fairfield County suburbs.”

Still, as an African American — even dressed in a suit and tie — he has been followed around in local stores. And he’s waited to be waited on, while employees ask white shoppers if they need any help.

“ABC is an important part of this community,” Daniels says. “A lot of the scholars come from circumstances that are different from Westport kids’. They have single parents. Their parents might not have degrees. They come from schools that are not as academically rigorous as Staples.”

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

In their new high school, they learn study skills. They choose from a broad range of subjects. They discover an array of college options. They work hard, join clubs and teams. Outside of school, they become involved in community activities.

It’s excellent preparation for “being around people who don’t look like you,” Daniels says — which is what happens after they graduate, head to college, get a job.

“It’s a tough program,” Daniels admits. “They may wonder if it’s worth it.”

In its first few years, ABC directors and many volunteers throughout Westport had to take it on faith that it was worth it.

A Better ChanceNow they know. Since A Better Chance of Westport began, 18 scholars have earned college degrees. Eight more are still in college. Three are in grad school: law, medicine and business.

But the benefits flow both ways.

“Westport is a bit of a bubble,” Daniels says. “We don’t have the worldwide diversity kids will enter into after college. When you grow up here, you can have a misperception of minorities.”

Staples students (and their younger siblings) get to know the ABC scholars. As friends, teammates and through host families, they hear the young men’s stories. They learn about differences — and the similarities they share.

As president, Daniels says, his biggest challenge was “getting young men to understand their potential.” They’d never been exposed to things like how to study; importance of networking; what a “good” college is, or how to do well on SATs.

But, Daniels notes, “they learn they can compete with kids who have much more than they do.”

ABC's Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

ABC’s Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

In its 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has accomplished much. It’s given — literally — a better chance to more than two dozen fine young men. They in turn have positively impacted their high school, and the entire town.

Now they themselves are giving back. They’ve formed their own alumni network. They return to Glendarcy House, and are available by phone and email to help the scholars who have followed them to Westport. “That building block is very solid,” Daniels says.

But what’s a success story without a celebration?

Every March, ABC holds a “Dream Event.” This year — on March 25 — the gala honors the organization’s past presidents. Besides Daniels, they’re Lee Bollert, Gail Cohen, Dave Driscoll, Harold Kamins and Eric Seidman.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year's graduating seniors.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year’s graduating seniors.

There’s dinner, an auction and entertainment. But the real draw is the ABC scholars themselves.

There are heartfelt speeches from the graduating seniors (this year: Sam Larkin and Manny  Ogutu). A couple of alumni add their own — now adult — perspectives.

Hearing them speak, I always tear up.

And I always leave feeling good — about these young men, my town, this program, and the importance of the work that so many people like Steve Daniels have done, for 15 great years.

(This year’s “Dream Event” is set for Saturday, March 25 [Birchwood Country Club, 7 p.m.]. For tickets and more information, click here, then scroll down. The online auction goes live on March 17, at the link above.  To donate an item or service to the auction, click here.)

Here’s a look at the day in the life of ABC House:

Staples Students: “We The People”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” Do you agree or disagree with Justice Holmes? Why?

That’s a tough question. It takes a ton of work just to understand what Holmes said — let alone figure out what you think, then devise arguments for or against it.

It’s especially hard for a teenager. But this question — and 17 others like it — have inspired an entire Staples High School class, for months.

And at the end of April, they head to Washington to argue those 18 questions, in a national competition that’s a proving ground for future leaders of the free world.

In just their 3rd year of existence, students in Suzanne Kammerman’s “We the People” Advanced Placement Government course finished 2nd in a statewide contest. That qualified them for the DC event.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government "We the People" class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government “We the People” class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

More than 20 years ago, as a student at Shelton High, Kammerman herself participated in “We the People.” It was so powerful, she helped introduce the course to Staples. Though the high school offers 9 sections of AP Government, this is the only one that includes the contest component.

It’s an added commitment — students spend hours outside of class forming teams, researching questions, developing answers, then arguing them in front of judges who are professors and constitutional experts — but students who are passionate about government embrace it. They compete in “We the People” in addition to their other coursework — which includes preparing for the regular AP exam.

According to Milton Friedman, “The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the ‘rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.” To what extent, if any, are Friedman’s ideas seen in the development of capitalism in western civilization?

There are 6 units of questions, on topics like “Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System” and “What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the 21st Century?”

we-the-people-logoWorking in groups of 3 or 4, students explore 3 questions each, in astonishing depth. Using critical analysis skills, they respond in writing to all 3 questions. They then respond to judges’ questions — without notes.

“I’m amazed at how much these kids have to know,” Kammerman — who meets with them on weekends, at the library and Barnes & Noble — says.

“And they really look at the Constitution with genuine civic dialogue. They’re not hyper-partisan. They all have points of view about politics, but they push them aside. It’s very impressive.”

In a speech to his fellow Virginians in 1775 Patrick Henry noted, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” What lessons from history and experiences led the colonists to develop and structure their legislatures and their relationships to their executives and judiciaries the way they did in their new state constitutions?

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

At the qualifying competition in December, held at Central Connecticut State University, questions were asked about 4th Amendment issues like privacy and search and seizure, in the context of schools. Judges were so impressed with the Staples students’ responses that they continued talking, long after the 6-minute timer went off.

Right now, the class is preparing for the national contest. They’re excited at the chance to participate in mock congressional hearings, and see the sights in Washington. Kammerman has also arranged a meeting with Senator Chris Murphy.

But besides studying for some very tough questions, the “We the People” class has another task. The cost of the trip — including transportation and hotels — is nearly $30,000.

They received a very generous $15,000 donation from the law firm of Koskoff Koskoff and Bieder. But they need more.

If you’d like to help the next generation of leaders, contact Kammerman (skammerman@westport.k12.ct.us) or Staples principal James D’Amico (jdamico@westport.k12.ct.us).

What do you think Thomas Jefferson meant when he included the right to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence instead of the more commonly used “right to property”? Where might the concept have come from?

The Constitution

The Constitution

Mark Hennessy’s Covenant With Chicago

It’s never easy being homeless.

But for 2,000 or so young people, being homeless in Chicago is especially tough.

The city has experienced high rates of violence. The weather is often bad.

Aged out of foster care, escaping dysfunctional homes, Chicago’s homeless young people try to sleep on trains. At McDonald’s. Or with dangerous folks who take them in — often for sex.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy loves Chicago. It’s where he grew up; where he and his wife Tracey started a family; where their kids Jack and Mollie now live.

Hennessy is passionate about helping young people. He did it during his family’s 13 years in Westport, often through his children’s sports teams.

He did it on a larger scale too, as a longtime board member of Covenant House International. That’s the wonderful organization that offers housing, counseling and much more, through 30 programs in the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America.

Hennessy is a tireless volunteer. But he does much more than strategize. Every November, he takes part in the Covenant House “Sleep Out.” Spending a night on the street — as he’s done in 3 different cities — helps raise both money and awareness of the plight of homeless youth.

It’s an empowering event. “The stories I’ve heard, the kids I’ve gotten to know, the people I’ve met who are committed to this cause — it’s so worthwhile. And it really reminds you how difficult being homeless is.

Mark Hennessy heads to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Mark Hennessy heads to the Lincoln Tunnel for his first “Sleep Out,” 5 years ago.

A couple of years ago, Covenant House launched its first expansion in 17 years. Board members studied 11 cities. Chicago was identified as the most urgent.

Hennessy — who retired in 2015 after 34 years with IBM, most recently as general manager — has worked ferociously to make Lawson House a reality. Located on the corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Dearborn Street, it opened February 10.

Covenant House Illinois serves breakfast and lunch. It offers showers, laundry, storage, legal aid, mental and physical health services, drug and alcohol counseling, and educational opportunities.

Immediately, staff members went to work. A girl who showed up the first day has already been placed in long-term housing. A boy who came hours later is now receiving substance abuse treatment.

On the 2nd day, 14 youth showed up before noon.

All that happened even before the official ribbon-cutting, on Valentine’s Day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many aldermen, and leaders of Chicago’s key service providers and foundations were there.

The mayor and many others have been steadfast supporters of Convenant House, Hennessy says.

So have a number of Westporters. Hennessy asked for help — “time, treasure and talent” — and they responded. “I’ve been so impressed by the love and compassion of this community,” he says.

He used “love” again, describing Covenant House’s philosophy.

“We treat every young person with unconditional love and support,” Hennessy says. “The kids at Covenant House are like kids everywhere. They just need a chance.”

Covenant House logoChicago has gotten a bad rap lately, in the national press. But Hennessy sees much that is good in his home town.

“In these times, what we’ve done with the help of the city and so many private groups is a great example of people stepping up to make a difference,” he says.

Lawson House has been open only a few days. But Hennessy is already looking  ahead.

Covenant House Illinois will team with an adult jobs program, and the University of Chicago, to develop job training for 18-24-year-olds.

He adds, “We’d really like a new facility, for residential services. We have a lot of innovative ideas.”

And, he knows, the need is definitely there.

(To learn more about Covenant House, or to donate, click here.)