Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #44

When the 7th annual Maker Faire takes over Westport this Saturday (April 21), there will be something for everyone.

A record 12,000+ attendees — tech lovers, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science geeks, artists, authors, students and exhibitors — will share what they’ve made, see what others have created, teach, learn, be inspired, and inspire others.

And have tons of fun.

It’s a massive undertaking. Planning began the moment last year’s Maker Faire — which drew “only” 10,500 people — ended.

Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. But none of it would be possible without Mark Mathias.

Mark Mathias

Westport’s event– part of a worldwide movement (and of all 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, among the top 5% in attendance) — was his brainchild.

In September 2011, his kids were fascinated by the New York Maker Faire.

Seven months later — thanks to Mathias’ work with the Westport Library, Sunrise Rotary and Downtown Merchants Association — we had our own “Mini Maker Faire.”

The “mini” is long gone. Now — with activities spread across the Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green — it’s as maxi as it gets.

But the Maker Faire is not Mathias’ only local contribution. He’s in his 15th year on the Board of Education; is an active member of Saugatuck Congregational Church (with a particular interest in their mission trips), and when his daughter Nicole was at Staples High School, he was an avid supporter of the music department.

Mathias — whose professional background is in IT — is president of Remarkable Steam. The non-profit promotes innovation and creativity in the areas of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

This is Mark Mathias’ busiest time of year. Hopefully, he’ll take a few moments out of his hectic day to accept our thanks, as this week’s Unsung Hero.

Robots galore at last year’s Maker Faire.

(For more information on Westport’s Maker Faire, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #43

Unsung Heroes come in many forms. “06880” honors many who do wonderful work in Westport.

This week’s Unsung Hero is a Westporter who does amazing things thousands of miles from home.

Ten years ago, Anne Wells created the Unite the World with Africa Foundation. The goal was to bring education — and a loving community — to orphans in Tanzania.

Since its founding, the organization has branched out. It now tackles women’s health issues, provides scholarships for higher education, creates jobs for tribal women and artisans, offers micro-finance loans, and runs a host of other initiatives for marginalized women and youth.

Anne Wells in Tanzania.

It’s a far cry from Providence, where Anne grew up. Or Kenyon College, where she studied anthropology.

But Africa always fascinated her. A semester in the bush with the Masai sold her on the love and joy of the continent — filled with “the best people on earth.”

It also opened her eyes to the vast inequalities of wealth across the globe.

Anne earned a graduate degree from the University of California School of Journalism, and joined Time Warner as a writer/editor. She was transferred to New York, where she met her husband. They moved to St. Louis, and had 3 daughters.

Anne’s corporate communications career prospered. She wrote books about parenting. It was not the type of life she’d envisioned for herself.

Yet the pull of Africa remained strong. In 2007 she traveled to Tanzania. A priest said his people needed a light shone on their plight.

Anne Wells, with a Tanzanian friend.

“I was desperate to serve the people,” she says. “But I didn’t know how. I’m not Angelina Jolie.”

Anne found a way.

Or rather, many ways.

Westport is a vast ocean away — in so many ways — from Tanzania.

Unsung Hero Anne Wells is doing her best to build a bridge across it.

(For more information on the United the World with Africa Foundation, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net. Hat tip: Colleen Crowley)

Unsung Hero #42

Across Fairfield County, Food Rescue US volunteers are gearing up for April 25. That’s when the non-profit — which delivers extra food from restaurants, grocers, bakeries and caterers to soup kitchens, food pantries and other hunger relief organizations — throws its annual fundraiser. “Food For All” features amazing food and fun from over a dozen great restaurants, including Amis, Kawa Ni and Match Burger Lobster.

One of the volunteers working hardest on the event is Nicole Straight. But that’s no surprise. In the 4 years she’s been involved with Food Rescue US (formerly known as Community Plates), she’s saved untold tons of food.

And helped feed countless county residents.

A private chef, cookbook author and creator of Time to Eat! — a longtime cooking class for busy parents — Nicole is passionate about her volunteer work.

“In a community as fortunate as ours, it’s easy to oversee the invisible and sometimes uncomfortable hungry in our towns,” she told fellow food rescuer Ria Rueda.

“They are in Westport, Fairfield, Norwalk, New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Bridgeport. In the current culture, many people feel overwhelming powerlessness, a what-can-I-do feeling?”

Nicole Straight, rescuing food.

For Nicole, service means “boots on the ground” small acts. She loves helping her immediate community, easily and in under an hour.

Food rescue can be done alone, or with family or friends. An app allows anyone to find out when a food run is needed, 7 days a week.

“I love this job because it humanizes and connects me to people in our community I might never have met,” Nicole says.

Since becoming site director in 2016, Nicole has increased the volunteer base from 300 to 500.

But food rescue is not all she does.

Nicole volunteers weekly at the Cesar Batalla School in Bridgeport.

Nicole Straight, with students at Cesar Batalla School.

And she teaches poker at Westport’s Senior Center.

Which is just one more reason we are proud to “hand” this week’s Unsung Hero award to the very aptly named Nicole Straight.

(For more information on the “Food for All” fundraiser, and tickets, click here. For more information on Food Rescue US, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #41

We can dump on the Connecticut Department of Transportation all we want.

And we do.

But we also give shout-outs when shout-outs are due.

The other day, Westporter Rob Feakins had a blowout on I-95. He pulled over to the shoulder, and started to change the tire.

Intimidated by tractor-trailers flying by — 2 feet away, at 65 miles an hour — he got back in the car and called AAA.

They said it would be 2 hours before a service truck could come.

After half an hour, Rob got out and started loosening the lug nuts. It took a while, because he kept glancing nervously over his shoulder.

As he was pulling the jack out, a big orange DOT truck pulled up behind.

The driver — Nelson — offered to change Rob’s tire.

At no charge.

Rob said, “But you’re not from AAA.”

No, Nelson replied. DOT offers Patrol Assist. And its trucks patrol I-95 constantly.

Nelson waved off Rob’s offer of help.

Then he waved off Rob’s offer of a tip. He’s a state employee, he told Rob proudly.

Nelson may have just been doing his job. But to Rob — and countless other motorists — he and his co-workers are unsung heroes.

DOT’s Patrol Assist changes tires, jump starts batteries, troubleshoots — and finally, if necessary, calls a tow truck.

The service is underwritten by State Farm, and runs weekdays from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Besides 95, it’s available on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, I-84, I-91, I-291, I-395, and Routes 2, Route 7 and Route 8 and Route 15. For more information, click here.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #40

Last month, Karin Kessler opened Backspace — a vintage typewriter sit-and-hang-out shop behind Little Barn.

It’s a great new venture. It’s warm, welcoming — and welcome.

Of course, her mail carrier might not think so. He’s the guy who has to deliver all those heavy packages to Karin.

Fortunately, Karin’s carrier is Kevin Logue.

She says:

I have the best mailman. Kevin has delivered hundreds of typewriters to me with kid gloves.

He has such a thankless job. He could easily be disgruntled, and throw my boxes into the garage. Yet he neatly places packages close to the door, and has never commented on the weight or how many he delivers.

Kevin Logue, in his truck.

Kevin has only inquired with excitement about my collection, how my store was coming together, and when it was opening.

He even showed up late afternoon after work to check it out. And he was as excited as I was when I heard from Tom Hanks.

Kevin is a part of the community. He’s much more than just a delivery person. He cares.

Thanks, Kevin! We hope you know that “06880” — the blog and the community — care about you! 

(Readers: To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #39

When an alert “06880” reader recommends someone as an Unsung Hero, I pay attention.

When 2 alert readers make the same recommendation on the same day, I start writing.

Last week — the day before the snow — both Joelle Malec and Michael Ryan noticed the same thing. Joelle says:

I often walk around the Saugatuck River. I always think that some day I should bring bags and pick out the trash from our river’s banks.

Well, some day was today for this woman. On her own she’d filled half a dozen bags, because she couldn’t stand to run by the trash one more day!

(Photo/Joelle Malec)

I stopped, thanked her and hugged her for doing such a great thing.

She allowed me to take her picture, but did not want me to share her name for “06880”‘s Unsung Heroes.

She is my hero today!

(You too can recommend an Unsung Hero! Just email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Heroes #38

It’s hard to love big box stores.

But it’s easy to love Barnes & Noble — at least, the Westport one.

Sure, since it opened here more than 20 years ago it’s knocked off independent bookstores, plus toy stores and music stores and gift shops. But the selection is so good, and the managers are so community-minded, that we don’t really blame Barnes & Noble itself for all that.

The store reaches out to local authors, and treats them exceptionally. Barnes & Noble also is there for every school fundraiser and educators’ event — and not just for Westport schools, but the truly needy in Bridgeport too.

The real reason we love Barnes & Noble though, is the people. It’s rare these days — especially at big box stores — but the staff genuinely cares about helping customers. Plus, they know their stuff. That’s a winning combination.

In 2016, youngsters enjoyed Barnes & Noble’s Harry Potter trivia event.

The other day, I had a rare issue with a return. I contacted Tricia Tierney, the community relations coordinator I’ve known for years.

Almost immediately, she made things right. She figured out the problem, and solved it. Then she went waaaaay beyond, making sure I was okay with the solution, and apologizing on behalf of her staff.

It’s fashionable these days to think the only folks who care about customers are local mom-and-pops. It’s important, every so often, to acknowledge the Big Guys when they show small-town service.

For well over 20 years, Barnes & Noble has been a big part of Westport, in all the little ways that count.

Oh, yeah: Thanks for bringing back those comfy chairs too!

For over 20 years, a familiar sight in Westport.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Unsung Hero #36

On Super Bowl Sunday, alert “06880” reader Beth Saunders asked her husband to run to Whole Foods for cilantro. (You know: guacamole.)

He had just played squash. Not until he left the store did he notice his wallet had fallen out of his gym pants.

He headed back inside. Someone had already turned it in — with $500 still inside.

He told Beth the story. She peppered him with questions.

“Who do you think was so kind? An employee? A shopper? A woman? Didn’t you ask? Who was at the desk? And who carries $500 in their wallet?”

There were still no answers.

So, Beth says, “I’m just throwing out a ‘thank you’ to the universe.”

We don’t know who this week’s Unsung Hero is. But as John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is looking.”

Or she.

Unsung Hero #35

Happy Valentine’s Day!

There’s a lot to love in Westport. At the top of anyone’s list should be Le Rouge by Aarti.

Aarti Khosla — owner of the luscious handmade chocolate shop on Main Street — is always looking for ways to give back to the community. Last year she raised nearly $10,000 for hurricane relief, children’s cancer research and various charities.

This year, she’s reprising her “Give a Little Love” chocolate heart campaign.

The idea is simple: Buy a selected item, and 10% of the proceeds go to a different charity — every month throughout the year.

“Give a Little Love” with these chocolates.

Included are one-of-a-kind hand-painted chocolate portraits, champagne truffles (for her), bourbon and ale truffles (for him), hand-painted heart puzzles, moulded chocolate purses and cars, open truffle flowers, preserved rose truffles and ganache cake — and anything for sale in Le Rouge’s red heart box.

There’s a lot to love about Aarti.

On Valentine’s Day, and every other one.

(Le Rouge by Aarti is at 190 Main Street, beneath the former Sally’s Place.)

Aarti Khosla, in her red-and-black-themed chocolate shop.

Unsung Hero #34

Audrey Sparre joined Homes with Hope — known then as the Interfaith Housing Association — in 1999. She was one of their first professionally trained case managers.

Audrey initially managed men at the Gillespie Center shelter, and the adjacent Hoskins Place women’s shelter. She grew with the agency.

As Homes With Hope built permanent supportive housing, she added responsibilities. Working first at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, then at the permanent headquarters on Richmondville Avenue, she supervised the HwH counseling staff (currently 10 professionals).

For the last decade, Audrey has overseen all programs, and all program directors, at Homes with Hope. Her title is VP and chief operating officer.

While she appeared at nearly all their functions since 1999 — and was a regular at Castles in the Sand, Stand Up for Homes With Hope, Project Return lunches and “Summer Night” parties — Audrey kept a low profile. She preferred hands-on care of clients.

In her early years, Audrey Sparre attended an Interfaith Housing Association event with a younger Jim Marpe.

On February 16, Audrey — a longtime Westporter — retires. It’s a huge loss for Homes With Hope — and Westport.

“She represents the best of what this community is all about,” says president and CEO Jeff Wieser.

“She raised her daughter here, nurtured many people in her various roles at HwH, She’s been the glue that makes our social work function efficiently and effectively. She has kept our clients, staff and community safe and caring.”

Audrey’s retirement will be interesting. She has property in upstate New York, where she hopes to pursue her equestrian activities. (She’s a member of St. Lawrence University’s Athletic Hall of Fame!) And, Wieser adds, she’ll raise yaks.

The other day — in the midst of intense activity at the Gillespie Center — Audrey looked around and said, “I can’t believe I’m leaving all this!”

Homes with Hope can’t believe she’s going either. This week’s Unsung Hero will be sorely missed.