Category Archives: Westport life

Disabilities Commission: It’s Way More Than Ramps

The Americans With Disabilities Act — signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 — had many consequences.

Some were intended. Others were not.

It opened employment and educational opportunities for tens of millions of Americans with physical and emotional issues. Curb cuts and other design changes now benefit pregnant mothers, parents with youngsters and the elderly.

The ADA also impelled the state of Connecticut to create grants, allowing towns to fund initiatives studying the best ways to promote inclusion for people with disabilities.

In 2006, Westport and Wilton formed a task force. One recommendation was followed: Today our town has a designated official for disability issues (Sarah Heath, in Human Services).

One recommendation was not followed: the creation of a permanent commission.

Until now.

Jim Ross

Jim Ross

Earlier this month, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced appointments to Westport’s new Commission on People With Disabilities, which the RTM approved in July. Members include Marina Derman, Diane Johnson, Stacie Curran, LuAnn Giunta, Tom Holleman and Evan Levinson.

The chair is Jim Ross. A successful businessman, he’s also the former head of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee.

Ross is legally blind, and the father of 2 special needs children. “I live this every day,” he notes.

He became a voice for the disabled community in 2012, when  he helped pass legislation giving students access to epilepsy medicine when a school nurse is not present.

Along the way, he  met Human Services director Barbara Butler, who told Ross that the proposal for a town commission had never been implemented.

Ross went to work. Now — with Marpe’s help, and broad public support — it’s a reality.

Westport's former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

Westport’s former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

There’s a reason so many Westporters support the new commission. Twenty percent of the town’s population is directly affected by their own or a family member’s physical or intellectual disability. In a community like ours, that means all of us have neighbors, friends and fellow members of civic groups and congregations with disabilities.

“This is an exceptionally humbling opportunity,” Ross says of his post. “It’s a chance to take the ADA — a magnificent civil rights initiative — to the local  level.”

He notes that Westport — a “very socially aware town” — has already done good things. There are ramps everywhere. Compo Beach has a sand wheelchair. The Levitt Pavilion is quite accessible.

But, he adds, “this is about a lot more than ramps. It’s a 2-way conversation between people with disabilities, and the community as a whole. It’s a chance for businesses, organizations, the town and people to have a dialogue to create avenues, paths and bridges for everyone to come together.”

In many ways, Ross says, “people with disabilities are heroes. We can learn a lot about ourselves by including them, and letting them contribute to a more vigorous, dynamic environment. This is not about clubbing people over the head. It’s about everyone working together.”

Beach wheelchair sign

He mentions education, housing, transportation, recreation, employment, the arts and emergency preparedness as areas in which discussions involving people with disabilities can lead to “logistical and tactical benefits” for all Westporters.

He’s eager to get started. Ross calls the 7-member commission “a dynamite group. Everyone has a different area of expertise.”

The Commission on People With Disabilities will meet publicly the 3rd Thursday of every month. The 1st session is Thursday, January 19 (8:30 a.m.), at Town Hall.

Of course, it’s handicap accessible.

[OPINION] Former Westporter: “Entitled Attitudes” Sent Us Elsewhere

The other day, an alert “06880” reader — and former resident — emailed me. He now lives in Black Rock — the diverse, tight-knit and active neighborhood in Bridgeport, just across Ash Creek from Fairfield.

It was a private note — but his perspective deserves a wide audience. He asked for anonymity, so that the focus could be on his words, not on him. That makes sense.

He wrote:

Moving here has been a great experience. We know our neighbors, watch out for each other, enjoy walks through the neighborhood.

What a change from our old neighborhood in Westport. We had a great lot — lovely trees and expansive lawns. We remodeled, and settled in for nearly 30 years.

But older neighbors left or passed away. Over time we had less interaction with  our newer neighbors. Many homes were torn down, with huge new ones taking their place.

Big stone walls were raised, shutting out sightlines from one home to another. It was time for us to decide if we’d stay or go.

Michael Bolton wall

Big walls alter streetscapes.

Our kids went through the Westport school system, and on to great college. We never complained about the taxes, because we really got something in return. We got the education system, the services, Longshore, Compo, and the continuity of building our family in Westport.

I commuted for many years. My wife was active in many community service organizations. We were well-integrated in Westport. We still belong to our church there.

So moving to Bridgeport was a very big step.

But little things happened. At the train station I’d pick up trash that people casually left. A guy once asked if I worked for the town. “Nope,” I said. “I’m a commuter like you. I just don’t like seeing garbage lying around, waiting for someone else to remove it.”

A familiar sight in Westport.

A familiar sight in Westport.

That was part of what rankled — the entitled attitude of so many fellow commuters. Perfectly fit men would leave their coffee cups on the railing, rather than walk 10 steps to the bin.

One morning I said to a guy, “Please put that in the trash.”

“What’s it to you?” he asked.

“I live here too,” I replied. “I don’t expect anyone to pick up after me.”

Grudgingly, he threw it away.

I was really angry. I saw him as a representative of entitlement — someone who typified a “type” that had moved into “my” town.

That was just part of it. I’d had enough of the super-wealth that had come to Westport, changing its ethos with a less-than-communal attitude — or so it seemed to me.

So when it came time to sell our home and  move elsewhere, we just happened to find ourselves in a neighborhood that seemed friendly and accommodating. We weren’t pressured to “keep up.” Rather, we were welcomed for whatever expertise and contributions we could make to our new community.

We jumped in with both feet.

The Black Rock section of Bridgeport. (Photo/Gregg Vigliotti for the New York Times)

The Black Rock section of Bridgeport. (Photo/Gregg Vigliotti for the New York Times)

All the problems are here too — and more. But the entitlement attitude — born of great wealth and expectation — is not.

There’s anger at the “haves.” There’s prejudice that comes from poverty and need. There’s vast deficits in opportunity and vision.

But there’s no shortage of need and desire for a better chance.

All the best for a more harmonious 2017, for all who live on this precious planet we share.

It’s Raining. There’s A Lot Of Traffic. So I’ll Just Park Here …

… and I won’t even do it close, or straight.

(Photo/Matt Murray)

(Photo/Matt Murray)

Happy New Year!

earth

Here’s wishing all of us — the world, Westport, and (especially) the “06880” community — a happy, healthy and inspiring 2017.

Dissenting opinions are, of course, welcome.

Dig We Must!

The winter’s first snow is gone from most sidewalks.

Thank Mother Nature for that. Not your fellow Westporters.

Several days ago — after a few inches fell here — alert “06880” reader Tracy Yost ventured out. She calls her journey on Cross Highway and Main Street “harrowing.” Only 4 homeowners had shoveled their sidewalks.

Cross Highway ...

Cross Highway …

The next day she tried to walk at Compo Beach. Those walkways were not clear either.

This being 2016, Tracy did the natural thing: She posted on Facebook. She described her frustration, and asked what she could do about it.

Reaction was swift. Several people thought that homeowners are required to clear “one shovel width” of their sidewalk. Others noted that in Norwalk and Fairfield, that’s definitely the law.

Tracy followed up with Westport town and officials. Lo and behold: The same 15 guys who plow are responsible for clearing sidewalks. They begin with schools and town buildings, so regular sidewalks are clearly not Priority 1.

... and the new Main Street sidewalk. (Photos/Tracy Yost)

… and the new Main Street sidewalk. (Photos/Tracy Yost)

Tracy suggests that homeowners do the right thing anyway, and shovel the walks in front of their homes.

“For some people — the elderly come to mind — walking is the only way to exercise, see people, get food, go to the doctor,” she says.

“For others — like me —  it’s a way to walk the dogs, check in on neighbors, use the car less.”

For everyone, of course, safe streets — including clear sidewalks  and slow driving — make for a better community.

Or, as Bridgeport mayor Jasper McLevy famously said when asked when his city would begin plowing: “God put the snow there. Let him take it away.”

4 Stony Brook, 5 Golden Rings

It was always a tense moment.

We gathered in the cozy living room of the Bacharachs’ house on Stony Brook Road. We’d caught up on each other’s lives, had a bit of food, sung a few warm-up Christmas carols.

Now it was time for “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Slips of paper would be passed out. Which “day” would you get?

There were a few dozen of us — old and young, relatives and friends, from near and far — but 12 days is a lot. Each of us would have only 3 or 4 other singers to help out.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs' house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the early 1970s.

All ages gathered at the Bacharachs’ house for the annual carol sing. This photo is from the 1970s.

If you were a good singer — and many of the Bacharachs and their guests were — you were happy to get the 1st day: “a partridge in a pear tree.” Another prize was “5 golden rings.” You could draw that one out like Enrico Caruso.

I love music. Unfortunately, my voice does not. I always hoped for “12 drummers drumming.” Inevitably, I got “2 turtle doves.”

I thought of all that recently, when a group of former Bacharach carol singers got together. I was with some storied Westport names — Anne Leonard Hardy, Suzanne Sherman Propp — and the more we chatted, the more we realized those holiday gatherings were more than just a fond memory.

They were transformative moments in our lives.

The Bacharachs' library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

The Bacharachs’ library, where generations gathered to sing. (Photo/Robert Colameco)

It wasn’t just the warmth of the Bacharachs’ home — a 1796 farmhouse with a 3-sided fireplace in one of the oldest sections of town, that could have come right out of colonial New England central casting.

It wasn’t the warmth of the annual holiday party either, with its cherished traditions: the smiling patriarch Jim Bacharach leading everyone in song; his wife, the equally delightful DoDo, carving up ham and ladling out egg nog; the tree in the same spot every year, unchanging amid the turbulence of the world around.

And it wasn’t the guest list: the Bacharachs’ friends and neighbors; their 5 kids’ friends; girlfriends, boyfriends, college friends — the more the merrier. Jim and DoDo embraced them all.

DoDo Bacharach

DoDo Bacharach

All those memories came flooding back, as Anne and Suzanne and a few others talked. But it was something else that made those particular carol sings such a powerful piece of our past.

Among the folks always in the Bacharachs’ home were adults we knew from Staples High School: teachers we admired and respected. Phil Woodruff, the next door neighbor. Dick Leonard. Dave and Marianne Harrison. All were there, year after year.

At first we were a little intimidated by them. Singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” with the same people who handed out homework and gave us grades was — different. But socializing with those adults in that way made us feel a bit like adults too.

As we grew up, we grew in other ways. We graduated from Staples, and entered college. Returning to the Bacharachs’ for the carol sing, we had new things to talk about. We told them what we were studying. We offered our opinions. We were probably a bit pretentious, but our former teachers listened.

Relating with them on that level validated us. Those adult-type conversations — respectful, honest, about real issues — were some of the first times I felt like an adult myself.

At the same time, as I looked around at the many “kids” there, I saw younger versions of myself. I realized I had once been like them. For the first time I understood what it meant to grow up. I recognized with clarity that at that point, my life was poised between my past and my future.

As we moved on into the “real world” — with real jobs — we kept returning to that carol sing. Now we were the adults. The Bacharachs, Leonards, Shermans and others got married, and started families. And every year, they brought their own children to the annual Christmas party.

The Bacharachs' next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily.

The Bacharachs’ next door neighbor John Woodruff, with his young daughter Emily at the carol sing.

The Bacharach carol sing is no more. Sadly, the house was torn down, replaced by something far less warm and much less meaningful.

But the memories remain, as strong as ever. It was a joy to share those memories the other day, with good friends who remember those great days.

Something else is strong too: My sense of self, nurtured so lovingly by those adults years ago, when I was a teenager trying to figure the world out.

Over ham, over egg nog — and yes, over the dreaded “12 Days of Christmas” — I tasted Westport at its best.

Take The Bus To The Train? Here’s What Westporters Think.

Last night, the Westport Transit District released the results of last month’s survey on its services, and public satisfaction with them.

It’s a mixed picture, for sure.

According to Julien Beresford of Beresford Research, who explained the numbers last night at Town Hall, 1539 surveys were collected. Thirty-nine were from employees living outside of Westport. They were excluded from the analysis — so the results are based on exactly 1,500 answers.

The survey provides an interesting snapshot of commuting patterns.

Apart from train riders, only 21% of other Westporters commute more than 10 miles to work.

Of those whose commute is longer than 10 miles, 63% ride Metro-North. Another 34% drive their own car. That leaves only 2% to take the Coastal Link bus, 1% who carpool, and 1% who answered “other.” (Bike? Uber? Boat?)

Commuters using the Westport Transit District shuttle service.

Commuters using the Westport Transit District shuttle service.

Respondents are generally aware of the scheduled bus service to and from Westport’s train stations (81%), but much less so for door-to-door on-request bus service for seniors (28%) and for those with disabilities (25%).

Just under half of train riders (47%) have considered taking the bus to the train stations. Of those who have “considered” it, 66% have actually done so.

68% of bus riders are “strongly satisfied” with the service. Another 26% are “somewhat satisfied.” That’s 94% of all bus riders, in total.

The top 5 reasons for riding the bus:

  • The cost is reasonable (94%)
  • The scheduled bus service meets my morning train (67%)
  • Contributes to reducing traffic congestion (59%)
  • I don’t have to drive (57%)
  • The scheduled bus service meets my evening train (57%)

But 38% of bus riders dislike riding it, because buses meet only certain trains. Another 35% say that “sometimes the bus isn’t available when I need it.”

Nearly 3/5ths (57%) of train riders who do not take the bus believe one of the routes could benefit them.

westport-transit-district-logo

Just over half of train riders (53%) are aware of free parking at the Imperial Avenue pickup/dropoff lot. Learning about free parking interests 28% of those who were previously unaware of it. 22% would be more likely to try it if the bus were also free.

Of the 73% who are “not at all likely” to try the Imperial lot — and the 15% and 9% “slightly” or “moderately” likely, respectively — the overwhelming reasons were “it takes less time to drive myself” (68%) and “don’t want to drive, then take bus/train” (53%).

As for public bus service: It’s not a major reason for new residents to move to Westport. The top reasons 5 cited (and remember, this was a commuter survey):

  • Compo Beach (82%)
  • Train service to New York City (76%)
  • Public school system (72%)
  • Distance to New York City (54%)
  • Specific property purchased/rented (46%)

Regarding the value of low-cost bus service to the community, 63% feel that service is “quite” or “extremely” important for persons with disabilities. Support is lower — just 43% — for seniors.

Finally, 59% agree that the commuter bus service should be supported by town funds. 29% disagree.

1,500 Westporters have spoken. To add your voice, click “Comments” below.

Westport Transit District bus

 

Westport Bids Tina Goodbye

Some wore suits or dresses. Others wore jeans and wool caps.

Some were politicians, social service workers, police officers and Westporters who live in very comfortable homes. Others live at the Gillespie Center.

Ushers from Homes With Hope showed down-on-their-luck folks to their seats. Clergy from 3 different congregations conducted the service. The 1st selectman gave a reading. So did a Westport police officer, who spent much of his own youth in shelters.

Over 150 people — some from as far away as Baltimore and Brattleboro — filled Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church this afternoon, for a funeral service honoring a woman some never met.

tina-wessel-funeral-program

Tina Wessel died last month. A homeless woman with a pronounced limp, she was a longtime fixture in downtown Westport.

In her life on the streets — and in the shed near the Senior Center where her body was found — she touched many hearts.

“She gave a lot of people the finger. She dropped a lot of f-bombs,” one woman said. “But look at all these people. They saw beyond that.”

They did indeed. As one woman related in remarks after the service, Tina had another remarkable side. An hour after receiving a donation of food, Tina knocked on the agency’s door.

“Here’s what I don’t need,” she said, returning some of her goods. “Can you give it to somebody else?”

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Rev. Peter Powell — who founded and served as the first CEO of Homes With Hope — delivered a powerful, challenging sermon.

“Tina touched many of us in ways that would probably surprise her,” he said.

He noted that many of the readings at the service mentioned bringing bread to the hungry, and giving homes to the homeless.

“She was a challenge to work with,” Rev. Powell acknowledged. “But Tina had a role in Westport — one that we all need to think about.”

Rev. Peter Powell before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green's Farms Congregational Church.

Rev. Peter Powell (center) before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green’s Farms Congregational Church.

He recalled similar Westporters whose funerals he officiated at  — though one had only 3 mourners. He told their stories, and mentioned them all by name. They may have been homeless, but they were not faceless or nameless.

“Tina died cold, sick, alone and homeless,” Rev. Powell said. She — and others like her — should be remembered not because they needed us, but because “we need them.”

The town of Westport, police and Homes With Hope tried to help, Rev. Powell continued. Westport — “an amazingly generous town” — does far more for its homeless citizens than virtually any other affluent suburb in the country.

Tina did not accept some of that help. “Her reasons make no sense to you. But they did to her,” Rev. Powell explained.

“It’s not enough to love prodigiously, if people are cold or alone. We admired her pluck, her nature, her independence. But we could not find a way to house her as she wished.”

Calling Tina “an apostle,” Rev. Powell said that she has enabled us to “discover ourselves.”

When the service ended, Tina’s ashes were honored outside, in the church courtyard. It’s in the midst of downtown, where she spent so much of the last years of her life.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina's ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina’s ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Then everyone — social service workers, police officers, Westporters in very comfortable homes, residents of the Gillespie Center, and anyone else who knew Tina (or wished they had) — gathered downstairs. They shared food and coffee together.

And they remembered Tina.

(Donations in Tina’s name may be made to Westport Animal Shelter Advocates or Homes With Hope.)

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy -- when both were young -- were displayed on a board in the church's Branson Hall.

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy — when both were young — were displayed on a board in the church’s Branson Hall.

Tina’s Cat

Following the sad death of Tina Wessel — the homeless woman well known by nearly every Westporter — many “06880” commenters expressed concern for her beloved cat.

Third selectman Helen Garten reports that — thanks to great work by the Westport Police Department and Animal Control — the cat was found, and is safe.

Schulhof Animal Hospital is temporarily boarding Tina’s pet.

Westport Animal Shelter Advocates is soliciting donations for the cat’s medical examination and care. President Julie Loparo writes:

WASA thanks the Westport Police Department, particularly Chief Foti Koskinas; Animal Control officer Gina Gambino; Dorrie Harris, co-founder of TAILS; the staff of the Senior Center, particularly Tom Saviano, and the staff of Schulhof Animal Hospital for working together to humanely “trap” and provide care for Tina Wessel’s cat.

Westport Animal Shelter Advocates

The cat is calmly waiting in his/her crate for an exam. It is wonderful to live in a town with the compassion to want to do right by one of its long-term residents. This joint effort ensures that Ms. Wessel’s cat won’t be left to fend for itself.

WASA, with the kind assistance of the Schulhof staff, will oversee the cat’s care. When the time comes, it will secure a home for Ms. Wessel’s friend and furry family member.

If you would like to assist WASA with this effort, please visit www.westportwasa.org and click “Donate.” Please note on the form that you are donating in memory of “Tina’s cat.”  WASA is a 501c3 organization.

Many Westporters want to do something to honor Tina’s memory. This is one way to help.

tina-wessen-cat

Tina’s cat. (Photo courtesy of Westport Police Department)

Be Careful Out There!

“06880” has addressed this topic before. But with the holiday season here — and traffic increasing dramatically* — it’s worth mentioning again. A reader writes:

On Saturday afternoon, I thought I made the right call walking to and from Playhouse Square. It’s 10 minutes in nice weather — what could happen?

Unfortunately, the lady in the Mercedes SUV who drove right into me ruined that idea. I had the right of way. She just yelled “I couldn’t see you!” and sped off.

pedestrian-and-car-accidentThankfully I just have a minor scrape. Somehow I wasn’t injured, despite getting intimate with the grill of her car. Not that she stopped to see how I was doing or anything…

I didn’t get her license plate. It all happened in 4 seconds. A friend thinks I should make a statement to the police in case there was a traffic cam (I doubt it).

I strongly feel Westport should take notice of the insane effect of so many tiny parking lots, and people going 75 mph on the Post Road. It’s gotten so bad! I used to feel safe walking this town (or driving). Not anymore.

*Hard to believe, but true.