Category Archives: Teenagers

Connect-Us Links Youth With MLK’s Dream

It’s quite a bit early to think about Martin Luther King Day.

Unless you’re Connect-Us.

That’s the Bridgeport-based, Westport-supported organization offering after-school opportunities for youngsters in need.

Connect-Us programs have 3 prongs.

Youth Leadership Team members learn public speaking, community organizing, and related skills. Over 100 young people auditioned for the team’s first talent show, which drew an audience of more than 450 in October.

Connect-Us Youth Leadership Team members promote a recent talent show.

C-U Onstage is a place where young people meet, create, produce performances, and learn to work as an ensemble. For some, it’s the first chance to earn community praise.

Connect-Us Academy is a 14-week series of workshops at companies throughout Fairfield County. Professional mentors — including Westporters Charlie Adams, Arlene Doherty and Deb Sawch — help teenagers learn about finance, law, advertising, retail, health and education administration. Graduates of the program are placed in paid summer internships.

“There’s a state of emergency in Bridgeport,” says Connect-Us executive director Pam Lewis. “The average 9th grader reads at a 4th grade level.”

She is gratified that so many people here “understand that kids need support, in school and after school. This really is Westport and Bridgeport — caring adults and young people — coming together and harnessing our human capital to impact and support entire communities. ”

Board chair Frances Rowland, plus Doherty and Joyce Eldh — live in Westport. Business partners from Westport include Matthew Burris (CFO of Marc Fisher Footwear), Rich Eldh (managing director, Sirius Decisions) and Chris Sawch (partner, Shearwater Creek).

The Connect-Us board of directors.

So about Martin Luther King Day: Connect-Us is sponsoring a special (and free) Klein Auditorium performance. Over 150 children and teenagers — multiracial and economically diverse, from throughout Fairfield County — will sing, dance, and recite poetry and monologues and raps. They’ll also read from letters they write to Dr. King, sharing their own dreams — or (sadly) why they’ve stopped dreaming.

The Klein is an inspiring — and inspired — choice. Dr. King spoke to full houses there twice, in 1961 and ’64.

Four days after his murder, in 1968, an overflow crowd jammed the hall for a memorial service.

Lewis is excited about the upcoming event. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Westport youth — and anyone else — interested in performing should email plewis@connectusct.org.

This is one way to honor Dr. King. It’s also a great way to “connect” with talented youths from nearby neighborhoods, around a common dream.

FUN FACT: Connect-Us is a great name. Not only does it imply connecting “us” and the “US” — but the logo highlights “CT,” as in “connect Connecticut.”

Dads And Daughters Make “Nutcracker” Sparkle

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

You know that, because this weekend “The Nutcracker” dances into town.

The Westport Academy of Dance‘s 36th annual production is set for tomorrow and Sunday (December 2 and 3) at Staples High School.

It’s an area-wide show — but Westporters figure prominently. Staples seniors Julia Rosier, Rachel Wolfe, Kelley Flynn, Jessie Parker and Izzy Chun are featured performers. They and their 120 fellow dancers began rehearsing in August.

Izzy Chun takes the spotlight.

It never gets old: This is the 12th “Nutcracker” for Julia and Rachel.

It’s also the 6th — and last — year that Rachel will dance with her dad.

In 2012, Michael volunteered for the role of “Father.” (The dance role, that is. He’d already fulfilled his biological and emotional roles.)

Michael has been all-in, doing something most fathers never think about — let alone follow through with. Two years ago, he wrote about the experience on his blog.

Michael and Rachel Wolfe.

But they’re not the only Westport father/daughter team. Jessie’s dad Greg has worked backstage for 7 years. Like Michael, he wanted to do what he could to share his then-little girl’s passion.

Everyone knows “The Nutcracker” story. But there are always stories behind the story.

For the final time this weekend, Michael Wolfe and Greg Parker will enjoy theirs.

(“The Nutcracker” will be performed tomorrow [Saturday, December 2] at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m. Click here for tickets.)

Dr. Czuczka Hangs Up His Stethoscope

Al Beasley. Neil Lebhar. Jack Shiller.

Those are legendary names. Nearly every baby boomer growing up in postwar Westport went to one of those 3 pediatricians. They helped thousands of kids grow up, and calmed thousands of mothers’ nerves.

Peter Czuczka is a direct descendant of those doctors. He worked with 2 of them, then grew his own practice into Westport’s largest pediatrics group.

When he retires at the end of this year, he’ll join the ranks of beloved hometown doctors.

As a kid in Mount Vernon, New York, he loved science, people, and working with his hands. When he was just 8 years old, he knew he wanted to be a pediatrician.

His path to Westport took him from Brandeis University to Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  When it was time to apply for jobs, he searched the Yellow Pages for pediatrics practices everywhere.

He knew Westport as a “clean and green town.” So he was thrilled that Dr. Beasley — and his pediatrician wife Jean — had an opening.

He joined them in 1973. Several months later, Dr. Jean Beasley died.

Shiller and Al Beasley — with Czuczka — soon joined forces. “They were titans,” Czuczka says.

Dr. Peter Czuczka

They worked together at “The Willows” — the medical complex at the corner of Kings Highway North and Wilton Road known as Fort Apache. Seventeen years ago they moved to the former site of Chubby Lane’s, across from Athletic Shoe Factory.

Czuczka has been part of the community his entire working life. He and his wife Alice — a middle school teacher — bought their first house for $53,000. “We thought we were in over our heads,” he recalls.

They raised their own kids here, and sent them to the “great” Westport public schools.

His 45 years as a pediatrician have flown by. He watched babies grow into children, then teenagers. They went off to college, and got married. Some moved back. Now their children are his patients too.

He’s proud of that — and of the many patients who have gone on to become doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

Czuczka enjoys mentoring younger pediatricians and physician assistants. Yale and the University of Vermont send them to train with the Willows group. He appreciates teaching them all he knows, from how to talk to a child on his or her level, to thrill of diagnosis.

The pediatrician loves his partners. Drs. Laura Marks, Jeff Owens, Rachel Sheiman, Jonathan Sollinger and Janet Woodward — plus the newest addition, Lauren Allison — make each day joyful.

Willows Pediatrics group. Dr. Peter Czuczka is 4th from left.

“He’s an incredible teacher, mentor, friend and pediatrician,” Sollinger says. “He’s the kind of guy you want as a teammate and captain. Plus, he’s got a hilarious sense of humor.”

Besides his colleagues, Czuczka will miss interacting with parents, holding babies, and dealing with adolescents. Making teenagers feel comfortable has become one of his most favorite parts of his profession.

“Society today is so stressful,” he says. “Pediatricians play a much more active role in managing that than we used to.”

That’s one change. Another is technology. When Czuczka began, there was no MRI, CAT scan or ultrasound. Now he performs blood tests in his office, and uses a computer constantly.

The business of medicine has also changed. “I used to spend so much time with a family,” he notes. “Now managed care mandates all our administrative burdens.”

Czuczka seems amazed that he’s 73 years old, and has been practicing for almost 45 years. “A train stops!” he says, about his decision to retire now.

Every kid loves Dr. Czuczka.

Over the past few months, he’s cut back his work and eased into his new life. He’s had time to read for pleasure, and garden. He bought a small fishing boat, and named it after his wife: “Sea Alice.” (Say it out loud — get it?)

They’re staying in Westport. But now he’ll have time to visit his grandchildren. They’re nearby in Westport, and further away in Massachusetts and Maryland.

Still, it won’t be easy to leave a job he loves. “Not a day goes by without joy,” Czuczka says. “The best thing is the children. I think I’m a kid at heart.”

The Willows Pediatrics Group logo.

In a “Dear Willows Families” letter announcing his retirement last April, Czuczka wrote that from the happiest moments of welcoming a new baby, to the “ultimate heartache of grieving a loss together– and through each earache, stomach bug and strep throat in between” — it was a privilege to serve as their pediatrician.

Noting that he was confident in his decision to “hang up my stethoscope,” because of the strong Willows team, he finished with thanks “for entrusting the care of your children to me, and teaching me to be a better doctor and person.”

Peter Czuczka’s friend, former colleague — and neighbor — Al Beasley knows the feeling.

And somewhere, Neil Lebhar and Jack Shiller are smiling.

(Click here to read families’ letters of thanks to Dr. Czuczka.)

Pics Of The Day #218

Don’t mess with these girls.

Police and teenagers threw balls at each other’s heads — and cheered for each other — at tonight’s annual Dodge-a-Cop tournament in the Staples High School fieldhouse.

Sponsored by the Westport Youth Commission, Staples’ Teen Awareness Group, the Westport Police Youth Collaborative and PAL, it’s a chance for a couple of hundred kids and a couple of dozen cops to play dodgeball, eat pizza, win trophies, raise money, and hang out.

Teams came in costume. Police took off their holsters and cuffs. It was a great night for all.

Whether it’s Staples Wrecker blue, or the men (and women) in blue, the message was clear: Blue lives matter.

A typical team — with actual cops on the far left and far right.

Give Students A Break!

As they sit down for holiday dinners on Thursday, Staples High School students have much to be thankful for. Loving families, good friends, caring teachers, a wonderful community — those things don’t change.

But this year, they’ll give thanks for something else: No homework.

Principal James D ‘Amico sent this email last week:

I want to take the opportunity to remind everyone that this upcoming Thanksgiving break is a homework-free break.

As a school community we want our school breaks to truly be a break from school to the greatest extent possible. We value school breaks as an opportunity for our students, staff, and families to rejuvenate, spend time with friends and family, and generally find the time for much-needed rest.

School breaks are also a good time for those who may have fallen behind on their work to catch up, without more new assignments piling up.

Through our Collaborative Team of representative teachers, administrators, students, and parents, we developed the following simple definition of homework-free breaks:

  • No homework should be assigned over these breaks
  • Long-term project due dates, as well as tests, may not be scheduled for the first 2 days of school following one of these breaks.​

The December, February and April breaks will also be homework-free.

Additionally, we encourage everyone to take a technology break over Thanksgiving, and disconnect our devices and engage with each other.

On behalf of everyone at Staples High School I wish you and your families a happy, healthy, and restful Thanksgiving next week.

Hail To The Victors! Staples Field Hockey Wins State Championship

Last year, Staples and Darien tied in the state L (large schools) state title game. They were declared co-champs. That was quite an accomplishment.

But this year, there’s no sharing at all. The Wreckers edged the same team — the Blue Wave — 1-0 in the championship match, at Wethersfield High School.

Congratulations to coach Ian Tapsall, and his girls!

The 2017 state champion Staples field hockey team. (Photo courtesy of Sal Augeri)

They were not the only Staples team playing for a state crown today.

The girls soccer team — fresh off their FCIAC championship — fell 2-1 to Ridgefield, in the LL (largest schools) clash at West Haven High.

It’s very difficult to beat the same good team 3 times in one season. The Wreckers of coaches Barry Beattie, Mackenzie Pretty and Dave Sharpe had knocked off the Tigers twice before, in regular season and FCIAC tournament play.

 

Hallelujah! Candlelight Tickets Available Monday

Some things are timeless. Staples High School’s Candlelight Concert, for example, with its achingly beautiful “Sing We Noel” processional; its spectacular choral, orchestral and band music; its boisterous production number, and its show-stopping “Hallelujah Chorus” finale.

Some things are new — like using the internet to order of tickets.

This year — for only the 2nd year in a row — tickets are available online. Orders will be taken beginning 9 a.m. this Monday (November 20), at http://www.StaplesMusic.org. There is a 4-ticket maximum.

The 77th annual Candlelight Concert is set for Friday, December 15 (8 p.m.) and Saturday, December 16 (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.).

The concert is a gift to Westport, from the Staples music department. Tickets are free.

And priceless.

The traditional “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Read All About It: Reid Thompson Makes “Newsies”

When audiences pack the auditorium this weekend for “Newsies” — Staples Players’ eye-popping production of the Tony Award-winning show — they’ll rave about the Broadway-quality singing and dancing.

They’ll give standing ovations for the high-energy pit orchestra. They’ll congratulate directors David Roth and Kerry Long as one of the first high schools in the country to pioneer the musical.

They’ll notice the set, too. But unless they’re intimately involved in theater, they won’t understand how much the scaffolding, backdrops — and over 1,500 newspaper bundles — contribute to “Newsies”‘ success.

There’s a lot going on during Staples Players’ “Newsies” — including the set. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Reid Thompson knows. He’s the Players grad — and professional set designer — who helped bring the New York newsboy strike of 1899 to life in 2017 Westport.

As a student in the mid-1990s, Staples’ art wing was Thompson’s refuge. Legendary tech director Joe Ziegahn asked the budding artist to paint horses for “Carousel.” The rest is theatrical history.

Thompson continued painting for Players’ productions of “West Side Story,” “Runaways” and “The Tempest.”

He trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, Roth and Long asked him to work on summer musical sets at Danbury’s Richter Park.

That led to work with Players shows like “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Hello, Dolly!” At the same time, Thompson painted Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including “The Lion King,” “42nd Street” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” A 5-year stint painting for the Metropolitan Opera House followed.

Reid Thompson painting “Der Rosenkavilier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Commuting back to Westport, Thompson moved from painting sets to designing them. He created the jury room cage for Players’ “Twelve Angry Men,” and the illustrated storybook for “Guys and Dolls.”

But Thompson wanted to learn more about set design, so he applied to Yale School of Drama. His Staples portfolio helped gain admission to that very competitive institute. Working there with directors, actors, stage managers and techies, he forged bonds that brought him important New York work (“The King and I,” “Fiddler on the Roof”).

Thompson continued to work with Players, on “Music Man” and — yes — “Fiddler.”

Reid Thompson

Then came “Newsies.”

Beginning last summer, Thompson and the directors talked about period, context and themes. They researched the history of the newsboy strike, its importance to the labor movement and protections for children. They talked about characters.

Thompson looked at historical photos and artwork. Newspaper collages struck a particular chord.

Staples’ huge casts need space to move and jump. Scenery must provide a setting, but flow seamlessly during transitions so audiences are transported into the sweep of the story.

There are other challenges. Can everyone in the audience see the action? Can the singers see the conductor, and vice versa? And of course, what’s the budget?

Thompson set to work using a scale model. He focused on a collage of period newsprint that evokes turn-of-last-century New York: vertical, a bit grimy, sensationalistic. Scaffolding represents tall buildings, and period ironwork.

“Newsies” is a show about kids. Thompson wanted audiences to see their perspective. Thus, much of the set looks upward — “large and overwhelming,” the designer says.

The newsies’ world was black-and-white — literally and metaphorically. Much of the set is too. But when Jack Kelly, the lead character, is in the vaudeville theater, he feels safe. Thompson added vivid colors there.

“That’s Rich,” performed in the theater that Jack Kelly loves. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The stage manager and lighting designer worked from Thompson’s ground plan and drawings.  Technical director Pete DiFranco and student carpenters built sets based on Thompson’s construction drawings. Steelwork was done in a professional shop.

Thompson created the collages himself, using period newsprint sent to a digital printer in Brooklyn.

Large newspapers form a backdrop for “The Bottom Line.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Conceptualizing — then realizing — a show like “Newsies” takes enormous work. Thompson likens it to an architect working with clients and contractors to produce a building.

When we look at buildings, most of us don’t think of the people who designed it. The same with theater sets. Even audience members who admire the design and detail don’t always realize how, say, moving pieces of scenery on and off stage contributes to the flow of the show. Or that the designer pored over hundreds of photos before creating a certain scaffold, then positioned it just so.

“Newsies” has earned a place as one of Players’ most storied productions ever. It will be talked about for years.

Audiences will remember the singing, the dancing and the acting. They may not recall Reid Thompson’s sets.

But without them, this remarkable show would not go on.

(To learn more about Reid Thompson’s work, click here.)

Westport Scores For Bridgeport Tennis

Last March, “06880” featured an unlikely sports story.

Bridgeport’s Central High School had boys and girls tennis teams. Had is the right word — budget cuts eliminated funds for both sports.

Andrew McConnell swung into action.

Andrew McConnell

His story is as unlikely as his team’s. The longtime Westporter spent 2 decades on Wall Street. But a decade ago he switched careers. He’s now a 9th grade social studies teacher at Central — and the tennis coach.

Because tennis was life-changing for some of his players — it builds confidence, and teaches leadership and character — he set out to save Central tennis.

Stop & Shop donated Gatorade and bagels (home teams provide food for themselves and their opponents). The Connecticut Alliance for Tennis and Education 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.

McConnell set up a GoFundMe page. The “06880” story brought an outpouring of donations, including a substantial gift from Westporters Mike and Becky Goss.

That helped purchase — and renovate — a van.

Then, First Serve Bridgeport endowed the team with its first college scholarship. Girls captain Phonsavanh Keophannga now attends Fairfield University.

But there’s more: FCIAC coaches honored the girls team with the league’s Sportsmanship Award.

And McConnell was named Boys Tennis Coach of the Year.

Voicing support for Central’s program was Staples state champion boys coach (and former FCIAC awardee) Kris Hrisovulos. He cited the Bridgeport school’s effort, sportsmanship and character.

McConnell returns the compliments. “My team and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to compete with the best teams in the state — and more importantly, to allow our players a chance to excel on and off the court,” the Westport educator/coach/mentor says.

(Click here to learn more about First Serve Bridgeport.)

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

Madison Lemone’s Theater Links

Chris Lemone was Staples High School’s beloved outreach counselor. His death 2 years ago from a heart attack — at age 49 — left a hole in the lives of countless students who found his office to be a warm and welcoming place for advice, support, compassion, love (tough and gentle) and laughter.

It also ripped a hole in his family. Chris’ middle daughter Madison was a Bethel High School sophomore when her dad died suddenly that October weekend.

Madison’s passion was always dance. Ballet, tap, jazz — she did it all with Broadway Method Academy. The Fairfield-based non-profit offers classes, private coaching and performance opportunities to children and teenagers interested in acting, singing and dancing.

One of the Broadway performers Madison worked with was Westport star Kelli O’Hara.

Madison Lemone

After her father died, Madison says, “I struggled a lot. But BMA helped me through a really tough time. The arts have always been there for me, and it was one place I could really express myself. It was like an encouraging community that kept me sane.”

So Madison is especially pleased that BMA is now the Westport Country Playhouse‘s resident conservatory.

The partnership will help the Playhouse offer musical theater training, masterclasses and a mainstage show.

The collaboration began in July with 3 days of seminars, panels and activities, all focused on the technical world of theater prior to the Playhouse production of “Grounded.”

The Westport Country Playhouse.

For the upcoming November 27 “Broadway Sings” fundraiser, BMA students will share the Playhouse stage with Broadway talents.

During the mainstage production of “Evita” (January 28 through February 11), professional actors will team up with BMA students.

Also ahead: a 6-day March masterclass.

“My dad had a strong influence on Westport,” Madison says. “I’m really excited to see how my world combines with his in Westport.”

She adds, “I know I’m not the first person with a story. BMA allows each person to come out of their shell. A lot of times, we hide what we’re feeling. BMA lets each student show what they’re going through. It allowed me and others to heal, onstage and off.”

Now, through the Playhouse, Madison says, “I’m excited to see BMA influence other kids, in Westport.”

An enthusiastic Broadway Method Academy performance.

She has found a home in Broadway Method Academy. She looks forward to feeling grounded at the Playhouse too.

Madison graduates from Bethel High in June. She’s applying to musical theater colleges. If that doesn’t work out, she may study psychology.

“My dad loved shows,” Madison says. “But he really knew a lot about people too. We’re a lot alike.”