Category Archives: YMCA

Debbie Stewart’s Indomitable Spirit

Nearly every Westport Y member knows Debbie Stewart.

She’s the woman with long dreads and boundless enthusiasm. She popped in and out of Zumba and cycling classes; chatted with employees and members, and lit up every corner of the building with her presence.

Now, Y staffer Midge Deverin has told her story.

It’s astonishing.

A Jamaica native, her mother died of breast cancer when Debbie was 6. Her father soon left her and 3 siblings alone. Debbie graduated from high school, moved to Florida, and became a certified nursing assistant.

She worked in Brooklyn and Connecticut. Soon she was hired as a caregiver for Libby Nevas. She and her husband Leo were noted Westport philanthropists.

Debbie quickly became an important part of the family. She never left Libby’s side, Midge writes. “They were inseparable; talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company until the day Libby Nevas died while Debbie, her ‘angel,’ held her hand.”

Debbie Stewart (middle row, 2nd from right) and the Nevas family.

Debbie Stewart (middle row, 2nd from right) and the Nevas family.

Debbie planned to return to New York. But Leo — “strong, healthy and exceedingly independent” — asked Debbie to stay. She accompanied him to plays and concerts in New York, and meetings in California.

Debbie charmed “statesmen, ambassadors, authors,” Midge writes, “with her easy banter and informed opinions.”

Debbie Stewart and Leo Nevas.

Debbie Stewart and Leo Nevas.

Suddenly, in 2003 — while studying to become a dental assistant — Debbie underwent emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumor.

It continued to grow. She endured 2 more operations. The last, in 2009, resulted in debilitating side effects.

Debbie was left with short-term memory loss. Her brain is no longer aware of the entire left side of her body, or surroundings.

Throughout all her surgeries — and her “tremendous physical and emotional turmoil” — the Nevas family was there for her.

In May of 2009, Pat Pennant was hired as Leo’s housekeeper. She met Debbie, who needed round-the-clock nursing care.

A few months later, Leo died. His daughter, Jo-Ann Price, promised Pat that when Debbie was out of crisis, but needed a companion/caretaker, Pat would get the call.

Three years later, it came.

Pat Pennant and Debbie Stewart.

Pat Pennant and Debbie Stewart.

“Many might say that from that time till now, Debbie has led a compromised and limited life,” Midge writes. But anyone who’s had “the pleasure and honor of really knowing Debbie” knows otherwise.

Her “enthusiasm and joie de vivre” followed her everywhere: from volunteering 3 days a week at the Notre Dame Convalescent Home in Norwalk, to Compo Beach, the Levitt Pavilion, museums, dancing, trips to New York, shopping at TJ Maxx and Home Goods — and of course the Y.

A few weeks ago, however, Debbie’s inoperable tumor grew again. She is now virtually immobile.

The other day, Midge visited Debbie at her Westport home. She was propped up by Pat, but Debbie’s welcoming smile filled the room.

She asked Midge about her Y friends. They visit often.

In typical fashion, Midge writes, Debbie did not talk about her problems.

Instead, she told Midge, she’s determined to be back.

Meanwhile, Midge misses Debbie at the Y. She misses her shimmying down the hall. She misses her irrepressible energy. Most of all, she misses her unwavering spirit, which “stares at both life and death with a smile.”

(To read Midge Deverin’s full story about Debbie Stewart, click here.)

Midge Deverin and Debbie Stewart, not long ago.

Midge Deverin and Debbie Stewart, not long ago.

Changing Of The Guard

As he promised, David Waldman retained the facade of the old Westport YMCA Bedford building.

But as his Bedford Square project nears completion — it’s slated to open this spring — changes are evident.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

After 94 years, the lintel no longer says “YMCA.”

Welcome to 2017.

The Y’s Very Special Swimmers

Special Olympics is a special program. Since its founding in 1968, the non-profit has transformed countless lives through sports. Nearly 5 million athletes in 169 countries — and over a million volunteers — participate each year.

But the Westport Weston Family YMCA‘s Special Olympics program is extra special.

It began just over a year ago, as a dream of Westporters Marshall and Johanna Kiev. Working with Y officials and members, it quickly grew to include a basketball program (13 special needs athletes and 13 partners practiced weekly, and competed at a Holiday Sports Classic). A track and field team will be added soon.

But it’s the swim program that’s really made waves.

Having fun with the Westport Y's Special Olympics swim program.

Having fun with the Westport Y’s Special Olympics swim program.

Two dozen youngsters, of varying physical and intellectual abilities, practice every Sunday — under the guidance of real, professional swim coaches. They’re one of the few Special Olympics teams anywhere that does that.

Barbara Bachuretz has spent 30 years training swimmers. Erin Ritz is a Westport Y Water Rat coach.

They’re backed by a corps of dedicated volunteers. The group includes former Amherst swimmer and water polo player Peter Nussbaum, and Hopkins School freshman Henry Fisher. Both live in Westport.

In June — proudly bearing the name Water Rats — 24 swimmers traveled to the Summer Special Olympics Games at Southern Connecticut State University. They were the only team there whose special needs youngsters swam all 4 laps of the relay. All other relay teams included unified partners.

The Water Rats Special Olympics team amassed over 30 medals. It was a great event for the entire group.

The Westport Weston Family YMCA Water Rat Special Olympics team (with coaches) (and friends!).

The Westport Weston Family YMCA Water Rat Special Olympics team (with coaches) (and friends!).

But individual stories stand out too.

Y senior program coordinator Jay Jaronko remembers a 14-year-old who was very nervous. Jay and his coaches assured him he could watch other swimmers before his race, to feel comfortable about the event.

But when they got to the meet, the boy was scheduled to race first. Casting aside his fears, he focused directly on his lane. He got in the water, stared straight ahead — and finished first by an astonishing half pool length.

Then he headed off with teammates to the concession stand. His amazed parents told Jaronko, “he’s never done that in his life.”

“I was hooked on Special Olympics before that,” Jaronko says. “But that was the point when I really, truly got it.”

Smiles all around on the Y's Special Olympics swim team.

Smiles all around at the Special Olympics swim meet.

Another story: After the Summer Games, a father told Jaronko that teammates would be at his son’s upcoming birthday party. That too was a first.

This year, Jaronko reports, that boy is swimming and playing water polo for his high school.

“We’re doing a lot more than just teaching kids to swim,” the program director says proudly.

Here’s something even more special: The entire Y Special Olympics program is free.

There’s no registration free, no charge for apparel — nothing. Even meals are covered.

The Y covers all the funds. The Kiev family has been great, throwing fundraising parties to help.

This year’s budget is $46,000.

The program is worth every penny.

(For more information on the Westport Y’s Special Olympics swim program, click here; call Jay Jaronko at 203-226-8983, or email jjaronko@westporty.org.  To read more about the Kievs and their daughter Chloe, click here.)

This is what the Westport Y's Special Olympics Water Rats program is all about. (Photos courtesy of Westport Weston Family YMCA)

This is what the Westport Y’s Special Olympics Water Rats program is all about. (Photos courtesy of Westport Weston Family YMCA)

 

Olympic Swimmer Hits The Y

Chad le Clos is a swimmer.

But not just any swimmer. The South African is an Olympic and Commonwealth Games champion. He’s ranked 1st in the world in the 50, 100 and 200 meter butterfly — and is the current world record holder in both the 100 and 200 meter butterfly

He heads soon to Windsor, Ontario for the FINA World Swimming Championships.

If he wins, he’s got the Westport Weston Family Y to thank.

For the past few days, he’s been training there. He has a connection with a Water Rat family, so the Wilton Road facility seemed a great fit.

Chad le Clos (in the water) with Westport Y Water Rat swimmers.

Chad le Clos (in the water) with Westport Y Water Rat swimmers.

This evening, he raced an exhibition 100 yard butterfly there.

Chad le Clos, on the Westport Y starting block.

Chad le Clos, on the Westport Y starting block.

Plenty of Water Rat swimmers, parents and alumni showed up to cheer him on.

Stop the presses: He won.

I'm no swim racing expert. But I'm sure that's a very, very good time.

I’m no swim racing expert. But I’m sure that’s a very, very good time.

Bedford Square Takes Shape

For months, Westporters have watched as Turner Construction dug and built a foundation for Bedford Square. There was not a lot to see.

Now — every day — there’s something new at the project that promises to dramatically change downtown Westport.

The view from Elm Street. A parking garage -- with room for 100 vehicles -- is in the center.

The view from Elm Street. A parking garage — with room for 100 vehicles — is in the center.

David Waldman — 1 of 4 partners — says the bulk of construction will be completed by January. Then comes interior work.

He anticipates all tenants will move in by April. That’s 2 years after work began — right on schedule.

Anthropologie has already leased the YMCA’s original Bedford building, and the old firehouse.

Another 30,000 square feet will include retailers like restaurants and entertainment.

The 24 rental units — 4 of them listed as affordable, under state guidelines — will be marketed soon. (Serena & Lily, across the street, is furnishing the model unit.)

The other day, David took me on a tour. He’s proud of the big, dramatic way that Bedford Square will unify and tie together downtown, from Church Lane and Elm Street through to the Post Road and Main Street.

He’s also proud of small details. For example, the Flemish bond “will be here forever.” And the relief of little children is an exact negative of the fascia boards that graced — often unnoticed — the old YMCA.

David Waldman, with Flemish brick and the "little children" relief.

David Waldman, with Flemish bond and the “little children playing” relief behind him.

Interior space is important too. A public plaza will be open to businesses — restaurants, a chocolate shop, a juice bar — while residents can gaze down on it below. David likens it to a larger version of the one between Saugatuck Sweets and the Whelk.

Bedford Square 3

This is the plaza. The photo shows the back of the old YMCA — soon to be the site of a full-service Anthropologie store. Terrain — owned by Anthropologie — is designing a garden.

To the right of the photo above is the old Bobby Q’s restaurant. It’s not part of Bedford Square. But the owner will turn it into rental space — with the 2nd floor extending onto the plaza.

There’s a lot going on inside too, including new supports, windows, skylights — and 100% flood-proofing. The old Y gym (shown below) is 4 feet higher than before.

Bedford Square 4

The rental units range from 700 square feet to 2,200. Some are duplexes. Most have balconies. This one (below) has a killer view of Christ & Holy Trinity Church:

Bedford Square 5

Bedford Square offers many ways in and out of the rest of downtown. The archway below fronts Main Street:

Bedford Square 6

Around the corner the outside of the Y’s 1923 Bedford building remains the same:

Bedford Square - 9

In front, however, improvements are made (photo below). Bricks will match the new sidewalk on the rest of Main Street. The extended sidewalk will ease the merge from Church Lane onto the Post Road — and make crossing the Post Road easier for pedestrians too. The dedicated turning lane onto Main Street remains.

Bedford Square 7

(For more information on Bedford Square, click here.)


Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Seniors, Y Tussle Over Silver Sneakers

Silver Sneakers is an insurance benefit included in more than 65 Medicare health plans. For a fee to a for-profit company called Healthways, seniors can visit fitness and wellness centers. Medicare and private insurers call it “preventive medicine.”

Silver Sneakers logoOver 13,000 participating locations nationwide offer all basic amenities, plus group exercise classes geared specifically toward “active older adults.”

The Westport Weston Family Y is not one of those locations. According to alert — and angry — “06880” reader David Meth, every other Y in Fairfield County is.

Meth provided the names of over a dozen seniors who would like our Y to include Silver Sneakers as part of its membership program, and introduce more  programs specifically for seniors.

Meth believes the Westport Y views older members as not a good business model.

He says that CEO Pat Riemersma told him a program like Silver Sneakers would bring in too many seniors. Part of the reason, he says, is that Riemersma told him of an agreement with the Planning and Zoning Commission that limits the total number of members. Meth says that Riemersma said the Y “needs to understand the trend before signing this type of agreement” (like Silver Sneakers).

A "First Friday" koffee klatch, organized by the Y's Aqua Fitness group.

A “First Friday” koffee klatch, organized by the Y’s Aqua Fitness group.

Feeling that seniors are less valued than younger families, Meth combed the Y’s website looking for senior programs. He found a “gratuitous” photo on the mission statement page, of seniors having lunch. There also is a senior aquatics program.

Of course, Riemersma told him, seniors are invited to participate in classes and programs open to all Y members.

“Yes, get on the same floor with 20-30-year-olds and try to keep up,” Meth replies.

“That’s it. Not another program dedicated to seniors: no fitness programs, no yoga, Pilates, weightlifting, walks in the beautiful woods, etc., just to name a few that are absent. Not even a link or page for seniors to direct them to the one program available.”

Meth is upset too about the special monthly fee of $57 for seniors. He says that is “double the price of any other local fitness center.”

YMCA logoRiemersma replies: “Silver Sneakers is not a business model recognized by the national YMCA. It’s run by a for-profit entity. Seniors pay a fee to Healthways, and Ys get reimbursed based on the number of visits by an individual. We are a cost-driven organization.”

Regarding Meth’s assertion about the P&Z stipulation, Riemersma says, “We are limited to the number of members, but it has nothing to do with seniors. We want to stay within the agreement.”

She says that financial assistance is available to everyone — including seniors who cannot afford the reduced rate.

A seated yoga class, at the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

A seated yoga class, at the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

Riemersma vigorously denies Meth’s assertion that the Y does not value seniors.

“We serve all members, regardless of age,” she says. She cites programs like Senior Fridays, pickleball and chair aerobics, while pledging to do a better job of publicizing senior offerings on the website.

And, she says, “many members are actually offended by the phrase ‘active older seniors.'”

She says she would love to have a face-to-face or phone conversation about this with Meth.

He counters that he will communicate only by email.

Y Special Olympic Swimmers Splash To Success

Just 6 months ago, “06880” announced that the Westport Weston Family YMCA was forming a Special Olympics swim team.

The group came together quicker than Michael Phelps churns through pools.

This weekend, 16 athletes travel to Hamden and New Haven, to compete in Connecticut’s Special Olympic Games.

Their ages range from 10 to 18. Some need assistance to swim 15 meters. Others race on their own for 50 meters.

All have a fantastic time. All practice once a week. And all are supported by a wonderful team of coaches and volunteers.

Good luck to all. Of course, they — and the Y — are already winners.

Westport YMCA senior program director Jay Jaronko (2nd from left), and Special Olympics athletes, coaches and volunteers.

Westport YMCA senior program director Jay Jaronko (2nd from left), and Special Olympics athletes, coaches and volunteers.

(Hat tip: Marshall Kiev)

Y I Was Wrong

For years  — during the decade-long rumble over the Westport Weston Family YMCA‘s proposed move — I stood firmly in the stay-home camp.

I was convinced the Y belonged where it had been for 8 decades: downtown. Losing such a vital organization, I thought, would be as mortal a blow to Main Street as the closing of the Fine Arts movie theaters had been a few years earlier.

I dreaded the traffic jams I “knew” would clog Wilton Road. I freaked out about cars backed up all the way to Kings Highway, all hours of the day.

I thought the Mahackeno property — wooded, beautiful, on the banks of the Saugatuck River — would be cut, leveled, ruined forever.

I was convinced the Y should stay downtown -- its home since 1923.

I was convinced the Y should stay downtown — its home since 1923.

The new Y has been open for a year and a half. And guess what?

I love it.

The building is as beautiful as a Y can be. It complements the woods. Inside, it’s bright, airy and welcoming. The views from the fitness center are stunning. The halls are wide. Even the locker rooms — the major design mistake — have been improved.

Traffic is no problem. In fact, the new location — snuggled up against Merritt Parkway exit 41 — has goosed membership nicely. Plenty of new users don’t live in Westport or Weston. They’re commuters, popping in and out on their way to or from work. It’s great to have them (and their membership dollars).

As for downtown: Bedford Square will add more to downtown than the Y did (at least, in its later years). The retail/residential complex promises to bring new folks, new life — even new traffic patterns and perspectives — to a somewhat tired, but still vital, part of Westport.

The view from the Y's fitness center is pretty spectacular.

The view from the Y’s fitness center is pretty spectacular.

No, the Y did not put me up to this. They have no idea I’m writing it.

I just thought about how wrong I’d been the other day, when I finished my workout, walked past the new cafe and kids’ club, outside by the blooming trees and bushes, into the spacious parking lot. The old Y had none of that.

So yeah, I was totally, completely wrong. My bad.

Now how about you?

If there’s a Westport issue or controversy that today — in retrospect — you’ve changed your tune about, click “Comments” to share.

I can’t be the only guy in town who ever made a mistake.

2016 Art Show Roots Reach Waaaaay Back

As signs go, the ones advertising this weekend’s art show may not be the most artistic:

Art show sign

So Westporters may be forgiven for not realizing that for several reasons, this year’s event is special.

For one, it’s dedicated to Howard Munce and his wife Gerry, a longtime WWC member and community volunteer.

When Howard died recently at 100, his place as one of Westport’s foremost artists was secure.

Howard’s roots here date back to the Great Depression. At that time, Westport supposedly had the largest per capita population of unemployed professional artists in the country.

Many were married to Woman’s Club members. To help, the WWC held art shows in Bedford House, the 2nd floor of the downtown YMCA.

Howard was no starving artist. He went on to great fame. But he showed his appreciation for the Woman’s Club by participating in art shows through the 1980s, long after the organization moved to its 44 Imperial Avenue home.

In 2007 — when the WWC celebrated its centennial — Howard designed the logo.

Gerry and Howard Munce. This weekend's Westport Woman's Club art show is dedicated to them.

Gerry and Howard Munce. This weekend’s Westport Woman’s Club art show is dedicated to them.

Howard and Gerry were friends with another civic-minded local family, the Burroughses. Bernie (an artist) and his wife Esta (of Remarkable Book Shop fame) raised 2 artist sons, Miggs and Trace.

This weekend’s art show — curated by Miggs — will be held in the Woman’s Club’s new Bedford Hall. It’s a few steps — and many years — away from the Y’s old “Bedford House.”

The Westport Woman’s Club art show venue has changed, since the Depression.

Howard Munce — for the first time since then — won’t be there this year.

But the show itself hasn’t changed much. It’s still fun, and still an important fundraiser.

And Howard and Gerry will be there for sure, in Westport arts colony spirit.

Bo Did Westport

Westport’s musical history is well noted.

Mark Smollin wrote a book about all the 1960s bands that played at Staples: the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds, Animals and many, many more.

Linda Eastman — before she was McCartney — photographed Jeff Beck in the high school choral room.

A video of Steve Tallerico — before he was Steve Tyler — plays in an endless loop at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In it, he talks about the incredible influence this town had on his musical career.

But before the Byrds, Peter Frampton and Sly and the Family Stone played here — and all the rest — there was a different kind of teenage music. And Westport was at the center of it then, too.

Michael Friedman today, in his Weston home.

Michael Friedman today, in his Weston home.

Michael Friedman was there. Now 72, he’s had several intriguing careers. He’s been an antiques dealer, and a restaurant owner.

He produced “Hello, It’s Me,” and managed Todd Rundgren and Kris Kristofferson — as well as (with Albert Grossman) the careers of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Band, Odetta, and Peter Paul & Mary. He did publicity for the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermits.

But even before that — when he was a student at Long Lots Junior High, and a member of Staples High’s Class of 1961 — Friedman was part of Westport’s thriving music scene.

In 1958 — as a “self-taught, left-handed, not-so-great drummer” — he joined saxophonist Rick Del Vecchio and guitarist/singer Mike Youngman in a group called the Schemers. Friedman calls them “Westport’s 1st garage band.”

They were young. But the 4th member was even younger. Barry Tashian brought great guitar chops — and an amazing voice, and plenty of showmanship — to the foursome.

Bo Diddley was heard in Westport.

Bo Diddley was heard in Westport.

The Schemers covered songs by hot artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They knew Diddley especially well: He played in Westport “a number of times,” Friedman says. They were dance shows, at places like the YMCA.

Once, Diddley’s drummer was too drunk to perform. Friedman took his spot.

Another act that came to Westport was Harvey and the Moonglows (“Sincerely”). Once again, the drummer drank too much. Once again, Friedman stepped in.

Only one local band was bigger than the Schemers. Bridgeport’s Dick Grass and the Hoppers — featuring 350-pound lead singer Bobby Lindsay — had a regional hit with “Mr. John Law.”

A few years later, Tashian went on to far great fame. With fellow Westporter Bill Briggs — and 2 Boston University classmates — the Remains took Boston by storm. They toured with the Beatles, appeared on “Ed Sullivan” and “Hullabaloo,” and were (in the words of Jon Landau) “how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.”

Unfortunately, the Remains broke up. But that’s another story.

Westporters and Remains Barry Tashian (left) and Bill Briggs flank Staples music director John Ohanian in 1966.

Westporters Barry Tashian (left) and Bill Briggs of the Remains flank Staples music director John Ohanian in 1966.

Tashian was not the only Friedman-era Stapleite to go on to musical fame. Mike Borchetta brought musical acts to Westport while still in high school. One was Dave Baby Cortez (“The Happy Organ”).

Borchetta later became a noted music promoter — first in Los Angeles, then Nashville. He went on to start his own label — and discovered a 16-year-old Taylor Swift.

Don Law was another Staples musical mover and shaker. His father — also named Don — was “Mr. Nashville.” He produced Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,”Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” as well as many Johnny Cash records.

His son — Friedman’s friend — was a Boston-based promoter. The Boston Globe says Law “virtually controlled the live music scene throughout New England for almost four decades.”

And who can forget Rusty Ford, who went on to play bass with the psychedelic, theremin-heavy, influential but now forgotten Lothar and the Hand People? Ford and his wife Karen have lived in Westport since 1992.

Lothar and the Hand People. i'm not sure which one is Rusty Ford.

Lothar and the Hand People. Rusty Ford is 2nd from left in this photo by Richard Avedon.

Friedman’s own career took a couple of detours. He sold Americana and folk art, and owned the Ash Creek Saloons in Fairfield and Norwalk, along with Darien’s Goose restaurant.

But music was always his first love.

“I’ve had a fun life,” he says, sitting in his Weston home. He’s surrounded by memorabilia, like an acetate from the Beatles’ recording of “Help!”, a 1948 snare drum head signed by Levon Helm, and a photo he took of Janis Joplin just before she performed for a few thousand Hell’s Angels.

Yet of everything he’s done — including dating Linda Eastman — “the Barry and Bo Diddley years were the best. There’s nothing better than playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Michael Friedman knew Levon Helm when he was in the Hawks -- the band that preceded The Band. The drum head says: "Michael. You & me brother. They wouldn't believe us if we told it. Love & respect, Levon. Sept. '09."

Michael Friedman knew Levon Helm when he was in the Hawks — the band that preceded The Band. The drum head says: “Michael. You & me brother. They wouldn’t believe us if we told it. Love & respects, Levon Helm. Sept. ’09.”