Category Archives: Teenagers

Susie Basler’s “Return” To Westport

Early in her working career, Susie Basler served as an Illinois parole and probation officer.

That served her well in what became her life’s work: volunteering for, then running Project Return, Westport’s well-respected group home for teenage girls and young women.

Basler — who has a master’s degree and is a licensed clinical social worker — enjoyed working with that population. They had issues that prevented them from living with their families — but Susie and her staff offered counseling, love (tough and soft), a chance for an education and, ultimately, a fresh start in life.

But about 3 years ago, the state stopped funding Project Return. Homes With Hope took it over. It’s now focused on supportive housing for homeless young women, 18-24 years old, providing individualized case management, and employment and educational resources.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Basler retired as executive director. But she was not ready to stop working. She spent a year as president of Westport Rotary. It was fulfilling and important.

Yet she missed helping young women grow.

“I’d gained knowledge and wisdom, and seen just about every behavior an adolescent could do,” she says.

Borrowing a friend’s office on Black Rock Turnpike, she worked with a woman whose daughter was troubled. Basler helped the mother appreciate her child’s strengths. Together they strengthened the relationship.

When her friend and fellow Rotarian Rick Benson bought 29 East Main Street — the former Temenos building — Basler saw an opportunity. She rented one of the offices, and is now seeing clients.

Susie Basler

Most are parents of teenage girls and young women.

“I love working with adolescents,” Basler says. “But I realize they may want someone younger and cooler than me. There are a gazillion therapists in Westport. But not a lot of them are working the parents. And parents are the ones who can have a huge impact on girls.”

She adds, “No one teaches us how to be a parent. We learn — good and bad — from the way we were parented.” One of her strengths, she says, is that she’s a non-judgmental listener.

“Knowing we are accepted and loved for who we are — that’s what heals and leads to growth,” Susie adds.

Her role with parents is to provide empathy; help them understand the needs of teenagers, while setting healthy boundaries; provide guidance in raising children in an affluent community, and reduce anxiety, while navigating blind spots and roadblocks.

“My passion has always been helping kids — especially those who are hurting,” Basler says.

“The best way I can do that today is by helping their parents understand and love them better, be better able to tolerate their feelings, and be less reactive to their behavior.

“I’m a good believer in people. I’m their best advocate. I partner with them in their efforts to become whole and succeed. This was what I was at Project Return, at my best.”

Susie Basler knows teenage girls. Now she’s helping parents get to know their own daughters a little bit better too.

Staples Players’ Marvel-ous Pilot

In 2017, Staples Players produced “Newsies.” It was a pilot for Disney. The mammoth entertainment company wanted to see what a high school production of that long-running Broadway show would look like.

They liked what they saw. (As did night after night of sold-out audiences, of course.)

Disney executives were so pleased, in fact, that they approached Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long with another idea:

How about piloting 2 new plays? Both are part of a new collaborative series between Disney and Marvel Comics. Written by established playwrights, they use Marvel characters as teenagers dealing with typical teen problems.

Which is how this weekend, the Staples High School Black Box theater is the site of world premieres of 2 very exciting shows.

(From left): Erin Lynch, Macey Lavoie, Derrick Adelkopf, Sammy Gutharz and Tobey Patton in “Peter Parker and the Kid Who Flew.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Peter Parker and the Kid Who Flew” is about teenage suicide. “Hammered” — by Tony Award-winning actor Christian Borle — focuses on sibling rivalry and competition.

The plays are a stretch for Roth and Kerry — and their young actors.

The timing did not fit in with Players’ traditional schedule. So Roth is using the pilot as a project for his Theater 3 (advanced acting) class.

Disney and Marvel representatives — and possibly a playwright or two — will be on hand. They want to see what works well (and what doesn’t).

Daisy Brackett and Josh Havemann in “Hammered.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“We usually do plays that have been produced many times,” Roth notes. “It’s interesting — for me, Kerry and the kids — to get them while they’re still going through the process of being written.”

After beginning the project, Roth received a completely revised version of the “Peter Parker” script. A number of changes had been made, on the advice of experts on teen suicide.

The 2 pilots are full productions, complete with lighting, sound and costumes. They’ll be presented this Friday (January 11, 7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (January 12, 3 and 7:30 p.m.). Click here for tickets, and more information.

(NOTE: No children under 10 will be admitted. Parental guidance is suggested; material is appropriate for middle school audiences and above.)

Shane Lozyniak Lights Up The Workforce

It’s not exactly stop-the-presses news: Westport is a town of high expectations.

Parents expect that their kids will go to college — the more prestigious, the better. Kids expect that they’ll spend time in high school polishing their transcripts and resumes.

Everyone expects the “college process” to be a stressful time. They’re right.

There seem to be few options for young Westporters who want a different path. Fortunately for Shane Lozyniak, he found his own.

His family has lived in Westport for generations. Shane went to Greens Farms Elementary School, Bedford Middle and then Staples High. From a young age he loved using his hands. Motors, old electronics — if he could mess around with them, he did.

At high school he was not involved in extracurricular activities. He did not have to be. He had Mike Sansur.

Shane Lozyniak wired this electrical panel in Mike Sansur’s class.

Shane had heard about the Technology Education class from his older brother. As a freshman, he took TechEd 1. Sansur’s course introduced him to things he’d never had a chance to do in school. He turned a lamp on a lathe, and built a shelf.

Shane took Sansur’s classes every year. During free periods and other extra time, he headed back to the lab.

When Shane’s school counselor, Christine Talerico, mentioned to her colleague  Victoria Capozzi that Shane looked her in the eye, and said he was not interested in a traditional 4-year college — he preferred something more hands-on — both women took note.

That’s rare at Staples. It’s also important, and refreshing.

Capozzi — who calls herself “a hands-on girl” — asked Shane to take the lead role in building a mobile cart. The department uses it around the school, as a “branch office.” It’s a hit with everyone.

Vicki Capozzi, Shane Lozyniak and the mobile cart he built for the school counselors.

Capozzi notes that she and her fellow counselors sometimes hear Staples graduates say they’re leaving college to pursue a trade, enter a certificate program or do other work.

“Having a kid like Shane know in advance of his desire to learn a trade and work is very refreshing,” she says.

(In fact, last week the guidance department held a post-secondary school planning meeting for parents of juniors. “We told them there are lots of pathways that don’t involve a 4-year college,” Capozzi says.)

Shane was particularly fascinated by electronics. It was “sparked” when Sansur — whose Tech Ed program caters to a diverse population of students and interests — introduced Shane’s class to electrical theory and schematics. They create and test a variety of circuits commonly found in homes.

The chance to work hard at something, then see it all come together — literally lighting up a room — was very satisfying.

Shane eagerly and adeptly turned electrical theories into reality. He designed and fabricated a steam generator that set a school record for greatest voltage produced.

He also tore down and rebuilt a small gas engine. He then used that knowledge to repair mowers that other students brought in.

Shane Lozyniak

For his senior internship, Shane spent a month with Yankee Electric. It was a way to see if that’s what he really wanted for a career.

It was. He liked the experience so much, near the end he asked about an apprenticeship. They were delighted to have him.

Several months into the 4-year process, Shane says he’s “really learning the basics of the trade. There are a lot of basics.”

At night, he’s taking a class at Lincoln Tech in Shelton. He’s been helped by a Mike Rowe Scholarship.

The Rowe Foundation’s mission is to “help close the skills gap by challenging the stigmas and stereotypes that discourage people from pursuing the millions of available jobs. We’re redefining the definition of a good education and a good job, because we don’t think a 4-year degree is the best path for the most people.”

Shane heard about the fund when a Lincoln Tech rep came to Staples. As part of the application process, he had to make a video.

“I’m not a big talker,” Shane says. But Capozzi convinced him to do it. He was chosen as one of 182 recipients nationwide.

The class he’s taking — after a full day of work — does not leave much time for anything else.

That’s fine with Shane. He’s pursuing something he loves.

In a town of high expectations, Shane Lozyniak is already well on the path to success.

Alan Hershey’s Legacy: Be An Exchange Student In Japan

In 1974 Alan Hershey traveled to Japan, as a Youth for Understanding exchange student. He was 16 years old.

The experience had a profound effect. Alan became fluent in Japanese, and remained close to his host family for decades.

The exchange program inspired Alan’s career in international banking. He returned to Asia dozens of times.

Alan passed his passion for world travel on to his children. As Staples High School students, both Caroline and Brian Hershey became YFU Japanese exchange students too.

Alan’s goal was to visit all 192 countries in the world. In 2017 — while exploring an ancient city in Uzbekistan, his 136th country — he died suddenly.

Alan Hershey in 1974, as an exchange student in Japan.

Alan’s children and his wife Jennifer knew the best way to honor him was through YFU.

Several scholarships are available now to high school students, for this summer’s program. The Hershey family hopes area teenagers will apply, so they can meet in person.

The program is very close to the Hersheys’ hearts. Last year, one of the exchange students had roots in Uzbekistan — a remarkable and poignant connection.

For more information, and a link to the application form, click here. The deadline is January 21.

(NOTE: The Hersheys will cover application fees, in the case of severe financial hardship. To contact the family directly, email jenniferphershey@gmail.com)

New England Patriots Make Sara Deren A Winner

Whether you love the New England Patriots or loathe them, you gotta like this story.

Last Sunday, during halftime of the regular season finale versus the New York Jets, the team honored volunteers who make a difference in the world.

During every home game this year, they recognized a “Patriots Difference Maker of the Week.” On Sunday, each received a $5,000 grant to support the nonprofits for which they volunteer.

And guess who got a special $20,000 grant — sort of a Super Bowl championship for all Difference Makers?

Sara Deren of Westport.

Jon and Sara Deren, and their children, at the Gillette Stadium halftime ceremony last Sunday.

She and her husband Jon founded Experience Camps. Headquartered right here in town, the organization runs summer camps for children grieving the death of a parent or sibling.

In just 10 years Experience Camps has grown from one site and 27 youngsters, to a network of 5 camps nationwide. Last summer, 200 volunteers served 600 boys and girls ages 8 to 18.

Doing all the typical camp activities — and, guided by clinicians, remembering the loved one who died while developing the tools they need to work through grief — Experience Camp campers enjoy life-affirming, life-changing opportunities.

The New England Patriots Foundation receives hundreds of nominations for Difference Makers each year.

When the Foundation — along with Pats chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett — honored Sara on Sunday, it was a moment when, for once, Patriots and Jets fans could stand and cheer together.

Sara Deren is definitely a winner.

PS: So were the Patriots. They beat the Jets 38-3.

Cyclocross: Unique Sport Attracts Tough Competitors

Cyclocross is one of those under-the-radar sports.

Combining the endurance of cross country running and the explosive speed and intensity of sprinting, with the finesse and bike-handling skills of mountain biking and road cycling — and done in heat, snow, rain and mud on grass, sand, rocks, pavement and dirt — it is not for everyone.

Okay, it’s probably not for most people.

But it’s a sport that has enthralled Eneas Freyre, Caden Freyre and Alex St. Andre.

Alex St. Andre (left) and Caden Freyre, at the dry start of a cyclocross race.

The trio — owner of TTEndurance on the Post Road, his son and a Bedford Middle School 7th grader respectively — recently returned from Louisville, Kentucky.

They competed in the US Cyclocross National Championship. It was rough, tough — and hugely fulfilling.

There — as in other events — crossers rode, pushed and carried their bikes up and down steep hills, over barriers and other obstacles, in grueling 30- to 60-minute races.

In Louisville, over 2,000 athletes, ages 9 (!) to 85 (!!) vied in age-class and elite/pro level races. Eneas Freyre competed in the Masters 40-44 group; his son Caden in 11-12, and Alex St. Andre in the 13-14-year-old class.

It rained — hard. In fact, it was the muddiest and most difficult course Alex ever raced on. Still, he says, “I had a blast! It was a fantastic experience, a fun race and a great trip.”

The muddy course made it tough for Alex St. Andre (blue) to ride …

As difficult as it was — and as great as these athletes are — the national championships did not get much attention.

In Europe, pro cyclocross races draw tens of thousands of fans, and massive TV coverage.

The cyclocross community is “incredibly supportive,” says Alex’s father, Jim St. Andre. The young Westporter has found a home there.

Alex has participated in many sports. But, Jim says, he has never been pushed harder — physically and mentally. And he’s never felt more fulfillment than through cyclocross.

Freyre helped immensely. His TTEndurance offers specialized training for cycling, running, triathlons and strength. He is a great role model: In addition to cyclocross, Freyre holds the record (with Westporter Park Pattinson) for the 2-man bicycle Race Across America, and has won several Mount Washington Bicycle Hillclimbs.

Freyre introduced the St. Andres to cyclocross 3 years ago. They’ve been all in ever since.

… and even tougher to haul his bike up a hill. (Photos/Jim St. Andre)

TTEndurance supports youth and adult teams. They practice indoors at the studio above the old Great Cakes, and outdoors at Sherwood Island and other spots.

Freyre provides bikes and helmets for first-timers. “All it took was one practice for Alex to get hooked,” Jim St. Andre says.

Cyclocross is definitely not for everyone. But you’ll never know until you try.

Hallelujah! Enjoy Today’s Holiday Gift.

Santa has his elves. The Staples High School music department has Jim Honeycutt.

Though he retired in 2016, the video production teacher returned this month to coordinate video coverage of the Candlelight Concert.

Now — with help from Mike Phillis, Kevin Maxwell and 6 mics hung around the auditorium — Candlelight fans around the globe can enjoy the 78th annual show.

Highlights include the traditional “Welcome Yule” and “Sing We Noel” processional, in slightly different staging; a superb orchestral arrangement of “Stille Nacht”; a lovely vocal version of “O Tannenbaum”; a clever original production number, and of course the finale: the “Hallelujah Chorus,” complete with hundreds of musicians and many alumni.

Merry Christmas! Unwrap this gift carefully. It’s precious!

Senior Citizens And Staples Teens Share Stories. And Lunch.

Besides their grandparents, most Staples High School students have little contact with older Westporters.

Some grandparents live far away. And others are no longer living.

But senior citizens and Staples seniors (and  juniors) share more than this town. They all eat.

So food in its many forms — cooking, meals, restaurants — was on the menu last week. The Senior Center hosted its 2nd annual Intergenerational Writing Workshop.

Teenagers and men and women 4 and 5 times their age sat down together. They read what they’d written. They commented on each other’s memoirs and fiction. Then they dug into lunch — and kept talking.

One view of collaboration during the “Shared Voices” event …

The project is a collaboration between the Senior Center’s Writing Workshop and Staples’ English elective, “Reading and Writing Fiction.” Both are immensely popular — and both are well known for turning people who think they can’t write into agile, insightful writers.

David Stockwell teaches 2 sections of the class. To prepare for the day at the Senior Center, the high schoolers wrote about food. Writing Workshop instructor Jan Bassin’s students did the same.

“It’s universal,” Stockwell explains. “There are so many topics: food at the holidays. Families and food. Cooking. Restaurants.”

Whatever trepidation the teenagers and senior citizens may have had melted away as soon as they sat together, at small tables. They read, commented, laughed, told stories, then rotated to another group.

For more than 2 hours — without a cellphone in sight — the writers read.

One man wrote about tinned pineapple rations during the Korean War. They did not look appetizing. But an Army buddy told him to eat; pineapple is good for you. He did — and remembers that day more than half a century later.

Another Senior Center writer described a traditional English breakfast: pudding, bangers, ham, and 2 cups of tea. “Even the terminology made it come alive,” Stockwell says.

… and another. (Photos/David Stockwell)

An English breakfast was the same topic chosen by a Staples senior. His perspective was different — but equally intriguing.

And so it went: stories about eating watermelon. Descriptions of chocolate. Thanksgiving dinner. Anyone can write about food — and everyone did.

But food was just a starting point. As they chatted, a student asked an older woman if she had known what she wanted to do with her life when she was in high school.

No, the woman said. But she described how her life unfolded, and advised the teenager to pay attention to what she loved most from an early age on.

Another Workshop participant realized that she had worked for the father of one of the students for nearly 10 years.

All that reading and talking made them hungry, of course. Lunch — pizza, veggies, hummus, chips and dips — was welcome. It was also a chance to get to know each other even better.

Pizza also helps bring the generations together. (Photo/Alison Wachstein)

“In today’s world, there is little opportunity for seniors to share fascinating and valuable life experiences with these emerging adults, or for the younger generation to ask questions and seek perspective and guidance from those who have lived long and varied lives,” Bassin explains.

At the same time, she says, the topic she and Stockwell picked “de-emphasizes the age gap. We can all relate to food.”

The Senior Center Workshop writers were impressed with the Staples students’ writing and demeanor. The teens were awed by the seniors’ sometimes humorous, sometimes tearful stories of war, loss, hardships and lessons learned.

And the pizza was just topping for the day.

Sing We Noel: Staples’ Spectacular Candlelight Concert

From an achingly beautiful “Stille Nacht” to a stirring Nigerian carol “Betelehemu” — bookended of course by the haunting traditional “Sing We Noel” processional, a hilarious production number and the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” — last night’s 78th Candlelight Concert was one of the best ever.

Staples High School’s hundreds of singers, orchestra and band members and instructors put their remarkable talents on display, in a packed auditorium. It is the music department’s gift to the town — and no amount of money could provide a finer present.

The Candlelight Concert continues this afternoon and this evening. All tickets for both performances were claimed weeks ago.

(Photo/Paul Einarsen)

Handsome decorations in the Staples High School auditorium lobby.

Chamber musicians play as concert-goers arrived.

Antonio Antonelli carries on the “Sing We Noel” tradition.

The Choralaires’ joyful rendition of “Betelehemu.” Dr. Robert Kwan is the accompanist.

Carrie Mascaro debuts as Staples’ Symphonic Orchestra conductor.

Don Rickenback’s hilarious production number includes a “Fiddler on the Roof”-style introduction about “Tradition” …

… and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s much lesser-known daughter.

Choral director Luke Rosenberg, orchestra conductor Carrie Mascaro and band leader Nick Mariconda take well-deserved bows. (All photos/Dan Woog unless otherwise noted)

Tip O’ The Top Hat For Music

Westport schools do a great job of introducing young students to music.

Some jump all in, eager to become the next Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma or Eric Clapton.

Others are somewhat interested, and want to learn more. But they — or, more accurately, their parents — are not yet ready to shell out the going rate for private lessons.

Now that niche is filled.

Top Hat Tutors is a service owned, operated and run by Staples High School students, for youngsters ages 5 to 18. The 1-to-1, peer-to-peer model has proven successful and popular.

It’s also less expensive than the professional, adult, we-have-to-make-a-living tutoring that’s so prevalent throughout town.

Nick Denton Cheng is a senior cellist at Staples. He’s also Top Hat’s music director. That’s their newest offering — their first foray into a non-science/math/ English/social studies/world languages subject.

Nick Denton Cheng

“It’s an untapped market,” Nick says. “Lessons are very expensive. This is a great great alternative.”

It’s an untapped market for tutors as well as tutees. Nick had more applicants than he could use. He’s selected 18 Staples musicians so far. Many already taught informally. Some are section leaders in orchestra or band; helping younger musicians is part of that gig.

“We all love music,” he notes.

Top Hat’s new program is aimed at youngsters ages 5 to 12 or so, who are just starting to develop their skills.

The most popular instruments so far are violin, guitar and piano. But Top Hat is already tutoring a couple of budding bass players and oboists. They’ll accommodate any instrument.

The cost is $40 an hour. Click here — then toot with your tutor away.