Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero #286

Mitzi Lyman writes:

It’s quite an accomplishment to start a business. It’s even more remarkable to keep it going for over 30 years.

Fitness Works is the Westport gym that Jo Rasmussen started in 1993. It was a tiny workout space she opened with a partner behind Albe Furs.

A few years later she moved across the Post Road to another small space on the lower level of Playhouse Square, below what was Silver Ribbon (now The Granola Bar).

She enlarged the gym over the years, making it into a large bright space. She has  provided dance (and belly dance) classes, yoga, Pilates and many other programs, along with personal training by herself and others.

Jo brings her own personality and passion to what she does. I am one of many people who have benefited from her keen attention, and determination to get everyone to be physically fit.

Jo is a fascinating person with an amazing personal story.

She is also an exceptional golfer, with shelves of trophies. She coaches the Ridgefield High School teams.

On April 15, Fitness Works celebrated 30 years in business. Congratulations, Jo!

Congratulations for sure! Quietly but with passion and professionalism, Jo Rasmussen has changed many lives. She is this week’s Unsung Hero. 

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Unsung Heroes #285

Longtime Westporter and Saugatuck activist Carolanne Curry writes:

Life has not been easy for neighbors on Hiawatha Lane Extension. For 20 years we’ve fought a developer, to keep away his 187 “market rate” apartments.

And for the past year the Connecticut Department of Transportation has sent massive dump trucks, long tractor trailers and huge backhoes here, creating dangerous and damaging potholes.

Hiawatha Lane pothole. (Photo/Carolanne Curry)

After enduring this punishment for several months, today I found the potholes filled.

I don’t know who did it, or how.

But to the unsung hero out there: Our whole road says “thank you.”

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Unsung Hero #284

Danielle Dobin wears many hats in Westport. One that most folks never see is her volunteer efforts helping Staples High School’s “We the People” team prepare for state and national competitions.

From her front row seat, she nominated social studies teacher Suzanne Kammerman as this week’s Unsung Hero. Danielle writes:

After placing 2nd in Connecticut and earning a spot at the national competition, Staples’ “We the People” team just returned from a trip to Virginia and Washington.

Suzanne Kammerman

[NOTE: “We the People” is part of the Advanced Placement Politics & Government curriculum. Kammerman took the course more than 25 years ago as a Shelton High School student. It made such an impact, she helped introduce the course at Staples.

[It’s a huge commitment outside of class. Students spend hours forming teams, researching questions, developing answers, then arguing them in front of judges who are professors and constitutional experts. Those who take the course are passionate about government — and Kammerman stokes that fire.

[There are 6 units of questions, on topics like political philosophy, theory and the Federalist Papers. Specific examples include “Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System” and “What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the 21st Century?”

[Working 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.]

While Virginia’s Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies from Richmond placed 1st in the country overall, the Unit 1 team from Staples — juniors Emerson Briggs, Alyssa Lee and Dylan Fiore — earned the highest recognition for their study of the philosophical foundations of America’s founding documents and institutions.

The Unit 1 national winners (from left): Emerson Briggs, Alyssa Lee, Dylan Fiore. (Photo/Danielle Dobin)

All of the “We the People” students are committed to excellence. Ms. Kammerman (affectionately known as Kamm) dedicates endless hours outside of school to prepping, practicing and inspiring her students.  The entire “We the People” program exists in Westport due to her tireless dedication.

Andy Laskin has had 2 sons participate. He says, “I have seen how Kamm magically plants the seeds of legal knowledge, and inspires students not only to learn but to express themselves persuasively. The future is bright for those fortunate students who learn from Suzanne.”

The 2023 We the People team, at the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo/Danielle Dobin)

As one of the many parent mentors (like Andy) she recruited over the years, I want to highlight Kamm’s phenomenal support of her students, and her deep commitment to engaging young people in the study of civics. She is a real hero.

As her Unit 1 students would say: “Kamm truly embodies the classical republican ideal of civic virtue!”

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Unsung Hero #283

Alert — and active — “06880” reader Marcy Sansolo writes:

This morning, as I ran 4 of the slowest miles on the Staples track, while carefully avoiding being hit by a lacrosse ball, I noticed a woman and her dog out of the corner of my eye.

I saw her first near the baseball field. Then I spotted her on the bleachers, then the track. I also saw her on the hill going towards Bedford Middle School.

She had a white trash bag. At the end of my run I caught up with her, her dog and a trash bag that was now so filled to capacity that she dragged it.

I asked if she picked up other people’s trash often, and she said “yes!” She collects trash when she’s running or walking with her dog.

She told me: “This is my backyard. This is my home. Why wouldn’t I pitch in?”

Her name is Adriana Jardim. She was at first reluctant, but I can be persuasive. She allowed me to take her picture.

Adriana Jardim and friend. (Photo/Marcy Sansolo)

She’s got a fabulous dog, and two kids at Staples. She’s originally from Brazil, but has called Westport home for 18 years.

What a great candidate for Unsung Hero! And if this story inspires other Westporters to be like Adriana, all the better. 

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Unsung Heroes #282

There are many Unsung Heroes at Homes with Hope — Westport’s supportive housing agency. Here are 3 of them.

At the suggestion of Lynn Abramson, Brie Garrison writes:

06880’s most recent Unsung Heroes came in in the guise of the Easter bunny. Just ask the children and families of Homes with Hope. They will assure all doubters that the Easter bunny is real!

Every spring for the past 10 years, Sharon and Sam Carpenter have organized friends and family to put together spectacular personalized Easter baskets, Easter meals, and other treats for the children who attend ASAP (Homes with Hope’s after-school program), and the families who live in HwH’s supportive housing.

This year, they outdid themselves with Easter goodies for 18 families and 35 children.

From left: Homes with Hope program manager Lynn Abramson, Sam Carpenter, Sharon Carpenter.

Members of the supporting team provide individual items like gift cards to Stop & Shop, and Saugatuck Sweets. Others send cash to help purchase other items.

This year, in addition to the traditional chocolate bunnies and other Easter candies, each child received PJ’s, socks, a water bottle, a beach towel, and assorted toys and art supplies.

Their moms received beautiful flower arrangements from Compo Farms Flowers along with a ham or turkey and all the fixings needed for a celebratory dinner.

A huge effort is required to organize and personalize the baskets by family, age, dietary restrictions, etc. After they are artfully assembled and delivered to Homes with Hope, our case managers have the privilege of delivering them to the lucky recipients.

The staff and families of Homes with Hope salute Sharon, Sam and their friends, and thank them for making the Easter holiday such a joyous one each year!

Our other Homes with Hope Unsung Hero is …

Pat Wilson. She began working part time at Homes with Hope 20 years ago: in April 2003.

Ever since, she has been a familiar and happy face at the Gillespie Homeless Emergency Center. She is kind, considerate, and has a passion for her work.

In addition to Westport, Pat works full time in a Stamford shelter.

Residents and staff at the Gillespie Center know Pat is there to support them. They look forward to the days she works.

Homes with Hope CEO Helen McAlinden ( and vice president Paris Looney (standing, from left) honor Pat Wilson.

Homes with Hope CEO Helen McAlinden calls Pat “a real team player. She is always available to pitch in. She is a gem.”

For those reasons — echoed by so many others — Pat Wilson joins Sharon and Sam Carpenter as our “06880” Unsung Heroes this week.

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Unsung Hero #281

When Julia Berg began volunteering at ASAP — Homes with Hope’s After School Academic Program — the summer after freshman year, she noticed that many of the children said things like, “I can’t do this” or “I’m no good at that.”

Julia wanted more positive messaging. She did some research, and found exercises to help. She realized that saying something as simple as “You can do this!” paid dividends.

She introduced “growth mindset vocabulary,” and outlined steps the boys and girls could take to establish goals, and change negative self-talk to positives talk.

Kids smiled more. And their schoolwork improved.

She spread the word to other volunteers. Now, Julia says, that positivity is an important part of the ASAP program.

Julia Berg

She then created a second program. It targets problem-solving skills, and helps participants manage frustrations. The program includes self-evaluation, teaching the importance of understanding thoughts and feelings, and connecting that with decisions.

That’s not the only volunteer work the Staples High School junior does. She spends time at Norwalk’s George Washington Carver Community Center too, helping youngsters hone their educational and social skills.

She created a blog about the center, combining her interest in psychology, photography and writing while sharing the impact of Carver’s enrichment program.

In her spare time — when she’s not doing all that, and collaborating and competing with teammates on Staples’ robotics team — Julia is compiling a database of local programs. The goal is to help people locate needed resources easily, using categories like food pantries, shelters, medical clinics and public transportation.

Last year, during an Independent Learning Experience at Staples, Julia studied embedded systems theory. She created an alarm mechanism that plays tones and songs at specific intervals, as reminders for students with attention issues to get back on track.

Students like Julia make Westport, and neighboring communities, better places. That’s why she is our Unsung Hero this week.

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Unsung Hero #280

Jane Ferreira is not a Westporter.

She does not serve — directly, anyway — Westport residents.

But when she steps down next month as president and CEO of Mercy Learning Center, Ferreira’s impact on our town will have been profound.

Jane Ferreira, at Mercy Learning Center.

In her 21 years of service to MLC, she transformed the lives of tens of thousands of people. The Bridgeport non-profit offers literacy and life skills training for women with low incomes

Coming from 40 different countries, they study English, math, science, health, civics, computers, and employment and life skills.

They are supported by an early childhood education program; social services including case management, mental health counseling, health and financial screenings; job and counseling advice, and enrichment opportunities.

Mercy Learning Center clients earn high school equivalency diplomas; learn job skills, and get help finding work; receive assistance applying for college, job training programs and scholarships, and prepare for US citizenship exams.

The Bridgeport building buzzes with activity. The women who study, learn and are supported there are hard-working, committed, and driven to succeed.

In a county filled with organizations doing great work, MLC stands at the top of any list.

But Ferreira’s impact extends far beyond the countless people she has helped.

Jane Ferreira

Mercy Learning Center’s success is due in part to a large corps of volunteers. Men and women teach classes, offer expertise, act as role models, provide friendships, and donate generously too.

Ferreira’s work has affected them too. They have gotten a close look, and gained important insights, about a world just a few minutes away from Westport. Their horizons have been broadened, and their own lives enriched, through the center that Ferreira has dedicated more than 2 decades of her life to.

In an email announcing her retirement, she wrote:

It has been an honor and privilege to serve the women and children of Mercy Learning Center. I treasure the relationships that I have made with so many beautiful, gifted, and unique women and their families.

It has been a tremendous experience working with so many generous donors and dedicated volunteers over the years.  Your dedication and support have been incredible and most appreciated. You have made MLC a remarkable place.

I leave with great confidence knowing that Mercy Learning Center is structurally sound, programmatically and financially, to move forward with a new leader.  Please know that I will carry the mission of Mercy Learning Center forever in my heart, to “Educate a woman… Educate a family!”  I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this critical mission and to have worked with you.

Thank you, Jane Ferreira, for your service to Mercy Learning Center. You have made Bridgeport — and Westport — better places, by far.

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Unsung Hero #279

In October 2015, the Staples High School boys soccer team I was coaching played Stamford.

At halftime — as usual — Wrecker fans came down off the hill, and kicked around in front of the goal.

Suddenly there was a commotion. Andrew Ingber — a Staples student — had suffered cardiac arrest.

Mark Gudis — father of a player — saw what happened. He raced to his car; an AED was always in the trunk.

Someone alerted Staples’ athletic trainer, who was at a field hockey game on the adjacent field.

AEDs — with clear instructions on how to use them — save lives.

She raced over, and used the AED. The “automated external defibrillator” is an easy-to-use device that analyzes a heart’s rhythm and, if needed, delivers an electric shock that jump starts it.

It worked. Andrew — who had no pulse — came back to life. Today he is fine, and thriving.

But it was one of the scariest events I’ve ever seen.

In the aftermath of that near-tragedy, Gudis and his wife MaryGrace donated 100 AED boxes. Working with Norwalk Hospital, they’re now installed at athletic fields, gyms and other facilities throughout the area the hospital serves. There are 20 in Westport.

In addition, the Adam Greenlee Foundation provided another 75 AEDs for Westport. Adam’s life was saved at Bedford Middle School by an AED, and the quick action of staff members.

Over time, those AED boxes have shown wear and tear. The other day, “06880” posted a photo of one at Winslow Park.

The AED was removed from its box during the cold winter months. It had become an unofficial lost-and-found items.

Lost and found at Winslow Park … (Photo/Dick Truitt)

Now they look great.

Judy Panzer spent the past few weeks working her way around town, cleaning up all the boxes.

It’s a labor of love.

Her son is Andrew Ingber — the teenagers who, had it not been for the quick thinking of Mark Gudis, and the AED in his car might not be here today.

So to Judy Panzer, Mark and MaryGrace Gudis, and the Adam Greenlee Foundation: Thank you! You’re all our Unsung Heroes.

PS: Extra thanks go to Norwalk Hospital Emergency Medical Services. They’re exploring a phone app that will alert users to the location of the nearest AED – and enable them to provide feedback on the condition of the devices they see.

Clean AED at Winslow Park. Sometimes, when they are locked, the code is actually 911 — try that before the time-consuming step of calling 911 to find the code.

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Unsung Hero #278

If you’ve been to a Staples High School sports event in the past dozen or so years, you’ve seen Mikey Bregman.

Or a Staples play. Or concert. Or just about anything else involving the school he graduated from 14 years ago.

He’s “Mr. Staples.” No one comes close.

Alert “06880” reader Lauren Barnett wants to give Mikey a shoutout. What a great idea!

Mikey Bregman, from the 2009 Staples High School yearbook.

She writes: “Whether you are a parent, a student, a participant or a Staples graduate, Michael is always there to say hello, and greet you genuinely and kindly.

“You can find him at every game cheering on every athlete of every sport, at every concert supporting all musicians, and at every performance sitting proudly in the Players audience and congratulating performers before and after every production.

“There is no detail he doesn’t remember, and no loved one he forgets to ask about. Thanks, Michael, for being everybody’s number one fan and for reminding us what being a part of a community is all about.”

Congratulations, Mikey. You are our Unsung Hero this week!

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Unsung Heroes #277

Westport’s calendar is packed with fundraising events.

Each week, there are galas to choose from. They feature food, drinks, silent and live auctions, and entertainment.

Westporters support them all generously. We pay good money, for great causes.

But these events don’t just happen. They take a ton of behind-the-scenes work, by corps of hard-working volunteers. Committed to the non-profits they serve, they spend countless hours making sure everyone has a good time (and buys tickets, bids on items, etc.).

Some are singled out for thanks. Many are not. Of course, that’s not why they help. They just want to make our community a better place for all.

Last Saturday’s “Fashionably Westport” was one of those very important benefits. Organized by the Westport Downtown Association, to raise funds for Homes with Hope — our wonderful supportive housing and food pantry organization — the 2-day event includes shopping and store promotions.

The centerpiece was a fashion show at the Westport Library. Over 60 models showcased apparel from 21 local businesses. Hair and makeup was done by 6 salons. Restaurants and spirit shops provided food and drink.

On the runway at Fashionably Westport. (Photo/Dan Woog)

It was an enormous undertaking, involving months of preparation and attention to detail.

Sometimes things go wrong. Saturday’s MC rubbed some attendees the wrong way. She mocked some merchants, made inappropriate “jokes,” and sent at least a dozen people to early exits.

Yet none of that detracts from the real heroes of the event: the men and women who worked tirelessly to put on a great fashion show (and more); the many local businesses who donated goods and time, and the Westport Downtown Association and Homes with Hope, who partnered for a crucial cause in a creative, fun (and fundraising) way.

“06880” salutes all the individuals, businesses and organizations that make “Fashionably Westport” — and so many other events like it — so successful. You are our Unsung Heroes of the week.

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Coming May 10: the 17th annual “Taste of Westport.” The Inn at Longshore event benefits CLASP Homes.