Tag Archives: A Better Chance of Westport

Dream On: A Better Chance Changes Lives

Five years ago, Michael and Karen Wolfe were invited to A Better Chance of Westport‘s Dream Event.

They knew little about the organization, but were happy to support their friend. Michael expected a typical charity night: a fun cocktail party, silent auction and dinner.

Then the speeches began.

Two seniors were graduating from ABC — the program that brings academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color to Westport. They live in Glendarcy House on North Avenue, attend Staples High School, and take full advantage of the opportunity. But they give back to this community at least as much as they get.

That night, the young men spoke passionately about their 4 years with A Better Chance. Ruben Guardado talked about growing up in the San Diego barrio, and how coming to Westport opened his horizons to new worlds.

Khaliq Sanda spoke directly about overcoming metaphorical walls, and how ABC allowed his parents — immigrants from Cameroon — to fulfill their dreams of providing an excellent education for their son.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at the 2014 A Better Chance Dream Event.

Ruben was headed to the University of Southern California, Khaliq to Duke. The Wolfes were in awe, hearing how one organization touched and changed two lives, on such profound levels.

Almost immediately, Michael and Karen decided to become more involved. Fortuitously, Diane Johnson sat at their table. She ran the host family committee. (Each ABC scholar is paired with a Westport family, with whom they spend every Sunday and one full weekend a month. The broadening experience often leads to lifelong friendships.)

The Wolfes’ own children — Jacob and Rachel, twins about to enter Staples themselves — were all in.

Over 4 years, they watched Jarod Ferguson blossom from a shy freshman from Philadelphia into a strong, capable young man, now proudly attending the University of Pittsburgh.

Jarod Ferguson (far left) with the Wolfe family.  They had dinner together every Sunday. This was their final get-together, at Compo Beach.

Last year, Michael introduced Jarod at the 2018 Dream Event. He said, “All we did was share our home over the weekend. But Jarod was willing to share his heart, his mind and his dreams with us. For that, we’re eternally grateful to him, his amazing mother Angela, and to A Better Chance of Westport.”

Michael — now ABC’s vice president of fundraising — is getting ready for this year’s Dream Event. It’s set for Saturday, March 30, at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton.

As he learned 5 years ago, it’s far more than a charity fundraiser. It’s a inspiring, remarkable evening. And it can be as life-changing for attendees as ABC has been for the scholars.

Once again, 2 graduating seniors will speak from the heart.

David Li and Darby Aurelien, A Better Chance of Westport’s 2 graduating seniors.

Since joining ABC 4 years ago from Queens, David Li has been active in basketball, rugby and track. He excels in art, which ABC helped facilitate.

David says:

ABC has been very helpful in my growth and development as a person. Not only have I been able to mature and better myself, but I had the opportunity to continue to pursue my interests and further my creativity.

Since sophomore year I have taken art lessons with Roe Halper. She has helped me immensely, guiding me to perfect my craft and exposing me to new styles and techniques. I am very grateful for everything that ABC and the Westport community have offered me.

“Woman,” an ink drawing by David Li.

It’s hard enough for most ABC scholars to leave their homes in 9th grade — but at least they start as new freshmen with their peers. Darby Aurelien made the transition from Teaneck, New Jersey as a sophomore.

But he too has thrived. Staples fostered his passion for music and public service. Last year Darby traveled to the Dominican Republic with Builders Beyond Borders, where he helped build classrooms. Next month, he heads to Guatemala.

He says:

My time in ABC has been filled with action-packed and memorable experiences. What was once a yearning attempt to just attend a new high school has turned into amicable relationships, wholehearted support, and a growing maturity.

The ABC program provides lots of opportunities to volunteer and give back. With B3 I bond with other students, learn to immerse myself in a community culture, and adapt to living conditions. It is a delight to see what we accomplished as a team to better the lives of others — as A Better Chance of Westport has done for me.

Every year Westporters head to their first Dream Event, expecting just another charity fundraiser.

Like Michael and Karen Wolfe, they never dream of the impact it will make not only on the very special scholars’ lives — but on their own.

(A Better Chance of Westport’s Dream Event is set for Saturday, March 30 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. For more information and tickets, click here.)

Unsung Hero #58

There are Unsung Heroes.

And then there is Joanne Heller.

Her long list of important, hands-on activities includes:

  • Co-president of A Better Chance of Westport
  • Past president of the Westport Young Woman’s League; executive board member for 9 years; director of their Minute Man Road Race
  • Ran the Mad Hatter Tea Party for Bethel Recovery Center for many years
  • National Charity League board member
  • Veteran PTA member; creator of school directories on MobileArq
  • Staples Tuition Grants member
  • Volunteer at Bridgeport’s Read School
  • Coordinator of the Compo Beach playground renovation project
  • Westport Garden Club member
  • Former Girl Scout leader
  • Former communications head of Staples Service League of Boys (SLOBS).

Joanne did much of this while also working at ADP. She and her husband Grant have 3 children, who have kept her busy since leaving the paid work force in 2002. She’s about to become a grandmother.

Which means this week’s Unsung Hero will have a whole new generation of activities to lend her talent, energy and time to.

Joanne Heller

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

SLOBS’ Service Sunday

It’s great to be a SLOB.

SLOBS — it stands for Service League of Boys — is one of Staples High School’s most popular clubs. Over 250 boys volunteer at more than 75 community events in Westport, Norwalk and Bridgeport, providing thousands of hours of service.

They collect and deliver food, toys, books, clothes, sports equipment, school supplies, coats, hats, gloves, scarves and toiletries. They donate to Puerto Rican relief, and Staples Tuition Grants.

But their big event occurs every spring: Service Sunday. Today — for the 9th year in a row — SLOBS and their parents worked on a variety of projects. They were everywhere in town. They also donated over $5,000 in supplies to the Read and Cesar Batalla Schools in Bridgeport, and a sexual assault crisis center in Stamford.

Among the SLOBS and their sites:

Weeding, mulching and planting at A Better Chance of Westport’s Glendarcy House.

Repairing deer enclosures, cleaning the butterfly garden and bird areas, and improving trails, plus moving lots of dirt and wood to get Earthplace ready for spring and summer.

Cleaning, weeding and planting at the Green Village Initiative community garden in Bridgeport.

Cleaning a playground and pumping up bicycle tires; managing a Wii tournament for kids, and organizing the resource center and clothing area at Open Door Shelter in Norwalk.

They also weeded, mulched, planted and cleaned outdoor toys at 3 Homes With Hope properties on Wassell Lane; planted shrubs and small trees at the Smith Richard Preserve; hauled and spread compost in planting beds, turned soil, and laid irrigation lines at Wakeman Town Farm, and helped ready shopping bags for a food drive organized by postal workers in Norwalk.

So how did you spend your Sunday?

This Is ABC, Part 5: A Driver, A Tutor, A Friend

This week, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post — the final in the series — features a volunteer driver, a tutor, and a friend of an ABC scholar.


SHERYL LAWRENCE: DRIVER

Hundreds of volunteers make A Better Chance run smoothly.

There are host families, tutors, administrators, Dream Event organizers and many more.

But it’s people like Sheryl Lawrence who — quite literally — go the extra mile.

Sheryl is an ABC driver. Her own children are no longer at Staples. But her daughter Lilly had taken a science course with Dr. Nick Morgan. At the time, he and his wife were resident directors at Glendarcy House. He often talked with his students about his wonderful experience there.

Meanwhile, Lilly shared nearly every class — for all 4 years — with A Better Chance scholar Shamir Clayton. She watched with admiration as he became an important and much-loved member of the school community — and, after graduation, moved on to Emory University.

Sheryl’s son entered Staples. For 3 years, Dr. Morgan was his Authentic Science Research teacher. He was still an ABC house parent — and still spoke often about the program.

“It stuck in my head after my kids were in college,” Sheryl says. “I realized, I have a car, and I have time. Driving seemed simple to me.”

The idea was “a no-brainer.” But, Sheryl adds, “I know it means a lot to kids who need to go somewhere.”

The process is simple. Every weekend, drivers get an email listing rides needed for the coming week. One boy might go to the YMCA at 3 p.m. on Tuesday; another might need a ride from Staples to the Westport library, then back to school for chorus. There are trips to the barber, dentist, skating rink, a classmate’s home to work on a school project, tutoring at Freudigman and Billings — pretty much the same as any other Staples kid without a car. (Even scholars who have a license are not allowed to drive. Nor are they permitted to walk from Staples to Glendarcy House after dark.)

Sheryl looked forward to getting to know the scholars. She says, “I know as a parent, you hear things in the car — from your own and other kids — you wouldn’t hear otherwise.”

Sheryl Lawrence (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

But she quickly learned there was far more to driving than just slipping behind the wheel, and keeping quiet.

“Once you start driving, you can’t not do it,” Sheryl insists. “We live in a wonderful area here. These kids are wonderful too. But this is a foreign land to them. The weather is cold, and the neighbors are all white.”

As she drives, Sheryl and her rider chat. They discuss families, pets, backgrounds and goals.

“It’s not delving,” she notes. “It’s a nice conversation with kids I wouldn’t have a chance to know otherwise.”

She got to know Manny Ogutu especially well. He liked to go to Winslow Park to walk. And every Friday, he treated himself to Chipotle.

“That was our thing,” Sheryl says. “I drove him every week. We got really close. We still keep in touch.”

She pauses. “Manny was my dad’s name too.”

Manny Ogutu developed a special relationship with Sheryl Lawrence.

When the scholars return from a college visit — sometimes driven there by board members — Sheryl hears their reactions. “College is a world I’m used to,” she says. “But I appreciate seeing it through other kids’ eyes.”

When they get accepted — sometimes as the first person in their family headed to college — she shares their enthusiasm and joy. She hears their concerns, and answers their questions.

They are always very appreciative of the rides. And the conversation.

“This is the most painless, easiest thing I can do,” Sheryl says. “Every person in the suburbs lives in their car. We go everywhere, all the time. Why wouldn’t I want to share my ride with someone?”

Sheryl downplays her role, with a little joke. “I’m just a cog in the wheel,” she says.

But every teenager needs wheels. Without her — and her many fellow volunteer drivers — our A Better Chance scholars would just be stuck in neutral.


KEVIN GREEN: TUTOR

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tutor A Better Chance scholars.

But Kevin Green is one.

Literally.

A former financial analyst, University of Chicago researcher, and physics and astronomy professor at the University of Connecticut-Stamford, Kevin now teaches physics at the University of New Haven. He also works part-time as a solar project consultant.

He can talk about quantum theory, black holes and gravitational forces with anyone, any time. But he especially loves talking about them with the young men at Glendarcy House.

Kevin has been a science and math tutor there for 4 years. He volunteers his time and talents 2 nights a week.

Every night is different. Some boys come in with solid backgrounds. Others do not. All, he says, face the “cultural shock” of adapting to a new school, with rigorous academic standards.

Kevin Green works one-on-one with a scholar at Glendarcy House. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Surprisingly though, freshmen tend to ask the fewest questions. “I got it,” they tell Kevin. Juniors are most active in seeking his aid.

Physics is the hardest subject for many. “It’s always a treat to see when they suddenly grasp a concept,” he says.

Kevin helps with homework. But he avoids giving answers. He teaches the scholars how to learn independently.

His style is Socratic. “I push them toward the solution,” Kevin says. “They need to find it themselves.”

It’s important too to “raise the bar for them. They’re young, bright kids. They need to know how much they can achieve.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how much potential each A Better Chance scholar has.

But being one sure helps.


BEN KLAU: FRIEND

Growing up in Westport, Ben Klau had little exposure to diversity. He met A Better Chance scholar Jarod Ferguson when both were freshmen football players. Ben’s mom was a volunteer driver, and gave Jarod rides home. The 9th graders played basketball together too.

Their friendship grew through radio. They did shows together on WWPT — Staples’ FM station. After Jarod left the football field for the radio booth, he announced Ben’s games.

They spend a couple of hours prepping for each broadcast — researching teams online, talking to coaches, figuring out what they’ll say and how they’ll say it. They work together setting up the equipment. After each game, they break the equipment down.

“Jarod is a lot of fun to work with,” Ben says. “He’s got a great radio personality. He’s energetic and passionate.”

Jarod Ferguson and Ben Klau in Staples High School’s WWPT-FM studio. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Their friendship extends beyond radio. They hang out after school, play basketball at the Y, and are in the same fantasy football league.

Thanks to Jarod, Ben understands a lot about ABC. He admires the scholars. “They’re all great kids,” he says. “They take full advantage of the opportunity. They really make the most of it.”

Ben has watched the scholars make friends, join sports and clubs, and adapt to Westport life. He’s learned too about Jarod’s life in Philadelphia. This summer, Ben will visit him there.

“I’ve gotten to hear about life outside the Westport bubble,” Ben says. “It’s given me an eye on how privileged we are. I’ve really gotten to see how special Staples is — the programs, the teachers, the way people care.”

Ben says, “most Staples kids think all the ABC kids come from dangerous places. That’s not always the case. But they do come here to get the best education they can. Maybe at home they don’t have all of Staples’ opportunities.”

A Better Chance, Ben says, “gives these guys a chance to be all they can be. And it gives us a chance to benefit from their perspectives.”

He pauses. “It’s amazing the trust their parents place in us.”

 (For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

This Is ABC, Part 4: Resident Directors, And A Board Member

This week, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.

————————————————

RODNEY AND LATISHA WILLIAMS: RESIDENT DIRECTORS

Rodney and Latisha Williams’ road to Glendarcy House began elsewhere in Fairfield County.

Latisha — who worked in New Canaan as a teacher’s assistant, and in Greenwich as a Kids in Crisis counselor — met the resident director of New Canaan’s A Better Chance program. That led to helping out at the Wilton boys and girls’ ABC houses.

“Those kids were so cool!” she says.

Three years ago, she and her husband Rodney — a social worker – heard about an opening for house parents in Westport.

“I rode here on her coattails,” he says, as the couple sit on a comfortable couch in the North Avenue home they share with 8 scholars — and their own 2 children.

As a longtime basketball coach in New Canaan, Rodney saw great community support for A Better Chance. That’s replicated in Westport, where “they really allow us to function family-style,” Rodney says. “The town embraces these guys.”

Latisha and Rodney Williams, at last year’s Dream Event. (Photo/Matthew Mintzer)

A typical weekday begins with 6:15 a.m. wakeup. Rodney and Latisha chat with the boys as they grab breakfast. The scholars (and their own kids, Helen and RJ) go off to school. The couple goes off to work.

At night, there’s dinner together. “You never know where that conversation will go!” Rodney says.

The resident directors make sure too that homework gets done, and chores finished.

Saturdays are spent hanging out. Board games are a popular evening activity. “These guys are busy!” Rodney says. “Downtime is precious.”

Latisha and Rodney Williams

Eight teenagers keep Rodney and Latisha active. They support the scholars’ extracurricular activities. The night before we spoke, for example, Latisha was at Staples High Schools’ Candlelight Concert, watching Diego and Yoel perform.

Glendarcy House functions differently than most Westport families. “These guys are away from home, out of their comfort zones,” Rodney explains. “They try to problem-solve on their own. If they can’t get it done on their own, they come to us.

“We’re not Mom and Dad. But we’re the closest thing they’ve got when they’re here. Once we earn their trust, it’s something.”

Latisha adds, “We do have relationships with their parents. And they do have a lot of support on the academic side. Teachers contact us directly. That takes some of the pressure off.”

Latisha Williams checks the daily chore board. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Each boy, of course, has his own personality. Rodney and Latisha’s job is to make sure that every in the house — including their own 2 children — “function as a unit.” The resident directors have to manage all those personalities, ensure that everyone has personal space, and deal with occasional homesickness.

But, Latisha says, “we have a great bunch.”

“We’ve got sports guys, bookworms, guys into music,” Rodney adds. “They really are something!”

Rodney and Latisha may not be the boys’ biological parents. But at milestone moments — like when Manny and Sam walked across the stage at graduation last year — they get emotional. “We were part of that!” Latisha said with pride.

After graduating, Rodney says, “They still call and text to say hi. To hear their appreciation, and see them use the tools we gave them, is very powerful.”

The scholars benefit greatly from A Better Chance. They grow and mature, thanks to the guidance and love of their resident directors. Westport benefits just as much, from having the ABC scholars in our midst.

Two other people benefit from the program: Helen and RJ Williams. “They enjoy having the boys around every day,” Latisha says.

RJ plays basketball and chess with the scholars. As for Helen: “The guys in the house like having a little sister.”


ERIC SEIDMAN: BOARD MEMBER

Suzanne Sherman Propp helped convince Eric Seidman to move to Westport.

She’s also one of the reasons he’s spent nearly 8 years on the A Better Chance board – including 4 as president.

Eric and Suzanne were classmates at Colgate University. The woman who became his wife sang with Suzanne in an a cappella group. When the Seidmans relocated to Fairfield County for work, they looked for a home here because they knew how much the Propps loved the town.

After ABC opened Glendarcy House, Eric thought he might get involved – some day. A few years later he left his job in the food industry, and began working for himself at home. He went to the ABC website, clicked on “Volunteer,” and became a driver.

His very first rider was Charles Winslow. “He was incredibly impressive,” Eric recalls. Jahari Dodd made a great impression too. Eric was hooked.

At the end-of-the-year meeting, Eric chatted with board member Lee Bollert. He mentioned his only frustration: the scheduling process for drivers.

“Like any good leader, she immediately asked me to find a better way,” he laughs.

Eric discovered an online program. It was a marked improvement.

Two years later, he joined the board. His work with finance caught the eye of president Steve Daniels. He quickly identified Eric as a potential successor.

For nearly a year, Eric served on every ABC committee. He learned each facet of the organization. Particularly important, he says, is scholar selection. Everything A Better Chance does flows from that process.

Eric Seidman (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

“It’s really hard work,” Eric says. “We bring in 6 to 10 families, for 36 hours each, over a period of 2 months.” That — along with host families and the resident directors — are linchpins of the program.

He notes, “It’s really hard to ask young men to leave their families, and come here where they’re one of the few students of color.” As he was by Charles and Jahari, Eric is awed by the scholars.

“Most of them are extraordinarily smart. They may not have had the rigor of our middle schools, though. It’s our job to help them adjust, and keep them safe.”

Being president, Eric notes, is “a huge responsibility. It’s like having eight teenagers. There are lots of phone calls. Most of them are good ones. A few are difficult.”

One of his key roles as president, Eric says, was to ensure “a strong bench. We have to make sure our board is dedicated and passionate, willing to put in the time to keep us moving forward.”

He assumed his post when most of the founders had left the board. Recruitment of new members – men and women with drive, and diverse skill sets – was a high priority.

As he nears the end of 8 years on the board – term limits prevent him from serving longer – Eric realizes that a key strength of A Better Chance is the relationships forged between board members, scholars, teachers, principals, Board of Education members, and everyone else involved with and touched by the program. “I’m really proud of the town, and what it’s done,” he says.

A community of volunteers helps Glendarcy Hosue function like a true family. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

He praises too the resident directors — “they do an unbelievable job, in a real partnership with us” — and all the other people who make ABC what it is.

“We probably don’t talk enough about how important someone like Merrill (Boehmer, the chef) is. And we sometimes overlook our wonderful tutors.”

If Eric has been surprised by anything, he says, it’s “the unwavering passion of the board members, who volunteer so much time. They really want to help kids, and bring a new perspective to the town of Westport.”

Yet he is not afraid to address a criticism he sometimes hears.

“People have said, ‘You spend so much time and money on 8 kids. But 2 towns away there is poverty, and poor schools.’

“My reply is: We have a lot of problems in this country. There is no one solution. We do spend a lot of money. But it’s working. It’s very positive. We do change lives. This is money well spent. I know we’re doing good work.”

Which is why he — and so many other board members — continue to commit their time, energy and money. They do all they can, however they can, to help A Better Chance of Westport flourish.

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

This Is ABC, Part 3: A Host Family, And An Advisor

On Monday, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.

——————————————

THE PROPPS: HOST FAMILY

Suzanne Sherman Propp grew up in Westport with 3 siblings, in a close-knit family. She and her husband Peter have 2 children, Rose and Bennett. As a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School, her life is filled with kids.

So when a friend suggested she and her husband would make a great A Better Chance host family, they considered it. But the timing was not right.

Then 6 years ago, Eric Seidman became president of ABC’s Westport board. He and Suzanne had been classmates at Colgate University. The Propps got to know the organization well.

One day, Suzanne saw Rose at a Staples High School football game. She was hanging out with Khaliq Sanda, an ABC scholar. “He was like a magnet,” she says of his outgoing personality.

She and Peter thought again about being a host parent. Rose and Bennett were all in.

The application process included questions about how the family spends typical weekends. Hiking, concerts, movies, hanging out, occasional trips to New York, they wrote. They were approved, and looked excitedly toward meeting Manny Ogutu.

“It was love at first sight,” Suzanne recalls of that first day at Glendarcy House. “He gave us the warmest, nicest hug!”

He spent his first weekend — Labor Day — at their house. That’s when she discovered he loves apples. A lot. Little things like stocking the kitchen counter with apples went a long way.

Manny Ogutu, with an apple.

For 4 years, Manny spent 3 Sundays a month — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — with the Propps. One weekend a month, they shared the entire weekend. (A second family hosted Manny whenever the Propps could not.)

Manny and the Propps developed comfortable routines. Peter and Manny bonded over a shared love of superhero films. They also plowed through the original “Star Trek” series.

Manny is “a good kid with a great heart,” Suzanne says. Time together included “eating, crashing, homework, hanging out.” Peter taught Manny how to ride a bike, and make a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. They took him to Six Flags, and “Kinky Boots.” When Manny went to the prom, they took photos.

But Manny was more than a member of the Propp family. He joined the extended Sherman clan too. Suzanne’s siblings, nieces, nephews and parents get together often. Manny was embraced by all. He returned the love.

Manny Ogutu (rear), with the extended Propp and Sherman families.

Manny called Suzanne’s parents by their nicknames: Papa and Savta. He wrestled with the cousins, and did a Final Four bracket with everyone. “He’s like a mensch!” Suzanne marvels.

Manny developed a special relationship with Suzanne’s father, Larry (“Savta”).

In the same way, she and Peter became part of Manny’s family. They spoke every week with Manny’s father Nash, and his mother Stephanie. Suzanne sent photos galore.

During the college process, the Propps took Manny to schools like Colgate and (with Nash) Union. Nash came from Bayonne, New Jersey to join Manny and the Propps for special events like Passover, Shabbat dinner and bat mitzvahs.

Over their 4 years together, the relationship evolved. In the beginning, Peter says, “we didn’t know if we were there for support and kindness, or if we should insert ourselves more in his life.”

They struck a balance. When Manny mentioned difficulty seeing a clock, the Propps worked with ABC to make sure he saw an eye doctor, and got new glasses.

Manny enjoys Halloween with the Propps.

Sometimes they followed his lead. When Manny was interested in doing the AIDS Walk in New York, they joined him.

“Manny is naturally happy and content,” Suzanne says. “I’m not sure how much we really did for him. I think he knows a lot of people in our family care for him, and he felt very comfortable with us. And he got a lot of support from many other people in Westport too.”

As for the hosts, Suzanne says, “I got another kid to love like crazy.”

Suzanne Sherman Propp, and Manny Ogutu.

“We love this area. But there’s not a lot of diversity,” Peter notes. “We believe it’s important to get to know a ton of people. You have to get involved personally to affect change. Getting to know Manny helped us. He inspired me to do more entrepreneurial work in Norwalk. And Manny showed me the importance of embracing opportunities and relationships.”

Being a host family is satisfying. But it takes work.

“You can’t be passive,” Peter explains. “You have to be willing to get involved. When your kid is around, he should be a priority — just like with your own child. You have to make sure he gets discipline, quiet, sleep, transportation and food.”

“You can’t project your own image onto him,” Suzanne explains. “You have to find out what makes him happy. And then support him as much as you can, no matter what the challenges.”

Peter Propp helped Manny learn to ride a bike.

Manny is now a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota. He and the Propps text and call often.

Suzanne says, “Manny was a gift. He was the perfect addition to our family. I cry every time I think about it.

And, she adds, “There’s always a bed for him here.”

Manny with part of the Propp and Sherman extended family, at the holidays.


MAGGIE GOMEZ:  TEACHER/ADVISOR

In 2004, A Better Chance was a new organization. Board member Mary Lou Huisking — a Staples High School staff member — asked newly hired math teacher Maggie Gomez to serve as a one of the first ABC “mentors.”

It was an inspired choice. After graduating from Greenwich High School and Union College, Maggie taught in Barbados, then served in Malawi with the Peace Corps. She was used to helping in any way she could.

Maggie was matched with Charles Winslow. He was also one of her 9th grade students. “We were both new to Staples,” she recalls. “We figured things out together.”

They ate lunch once a week, in the math office, throughout his 4 years at Staples. Steadily, their relationship grew.

“He gave me great insight into A Better Chance,” Maggie says. “The boys make it seem easy, but I got to understand their struggles. What they do is really, really hard. They’re always under the microscope. Not many teenagers would leave their friends, and go to a foreign environment where they’re always scrutinized. I give them lots of credit.”

Their bonds remained strong, long after Charles graduated. When he got married in Florida, Maggie was there.

So were the scholars he had shared Glendarcy House with, and his host parents. The connections forged in Westport reinforced for Maggie the importance of A Better Chance, for everyone involved.

“I was so flattered to be invited,” she said. “This is what it’s all about: a great support system, and seeing how it continues.”

Maggie Gomez meets with an ABC scholar. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

The program gradually phased out teacher mentors. But Maggie remains involved. She’s now the “faculty academic liaison,” serving as a bridge between Staples and the ABC board.

Part of her role is speaking with the scholars’ teachers, especially before ABC’s academic standards committee quarterly meetings.

Almost always, she says, teachers compliment the students. “They’re so well-spoken and reflective,” teachers tell Maggie.

“Even the freshmen,” she marvels. “And even with the less-than-stellar stuff. These kids are held to really high standards. I’m astounded how well they do — and in hard classes. Then they run track, or play in the band. Their time management skills are really impressive.”

She checks in with the scholars too, asking about classes and making sure seniors are on track with college application processes.

Maggie is also involved in the selection process for new scholars. She helps organize tours of the school, making sure to pair Student Ambassadors with prospective students who share their interests and personalities.

But she’ll always have a soft spot in her heart for Charles. Maggie’s first mentee spent a Semester at Sea while attending Cornell University. He gave Maggie a picture of himself, standing in front of the Taj Mahal.

“I see it every day,” Maggie notes. “It reminds me of the amazing things he’s doing, and how important this program is for so many people.”

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

This Is ABC

For over 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has provided academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School. Our scholars have benefited enormously – but our community has been enriched at least as equally by their presence.

The ABC story is wonderful, and compelling. It deserves to be told to an audience beyond those most immediately involved – the scholars, and the many volunteers who dedicate untold hours to making the program work.

What better way to tell it than through the words and images of members of the A Better Chance of Westport family?

Study time at Glendarcy House — the A Better Chance of Westport residence on North Avenue. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

My sister Susan Woog Wagner is a very talented professional photographer in White Plains. She’s particularly good with kids. She is always on the lookout for great new projects. When I told her about how important ABC is to our community, she suggested working together on a photo essay.

Starting last fall, I talked with scholars and their parents, host families, resident directors, tutors, drivers, founders, board members, the chef and others. Sue took their pictures. (We also collected photos from previous years.)

The result is “This is ABC.”

Glendarcy House, on North Avenue. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

This project takes many forms. I’m posting my interviews and Sue’s photos here on “06880.” Each day, I’ll post a different story or two. It’s something very different for this blog. Then again, ABC is a very special program.

A video version will be shown on Saturday, March 17 (7 p.m., Rolling Hills Country Club). Staples grad Connor Mitnick and audio instructor Geno Heiter helped produce that compelling piece.

And the photos and interviews will be compiled into a brochure, to give interested Westporters — including potential volunteers — a sense of the depth and breadth of the program.

“This is ABC” tells the story behind the story of an important, enduring institution – one that impacts Westport, and the world far beyond our borders. Enjoy!


NASH OGUTU: SCHOLAR PARENT

In his native Kenyan village, Nash Ogutu milked cows and tended goats. He ran to school, where he was entrusted with the prestigious task of bell-ringing.

He listened to country singers like Dolly Parton. “America is the best place to live,” he and his friends thought. Nash’s dream was to study with “those greatest people.”

He became a registered nurse. But when a missionary group offered the chance to go to America, he instantly said yes.

Nash enrolled in college in New Jersey. At the same time, he worked several jobs. He earned re-certification as a registered nurse here. While supervising a local health department in North Carolina, he was asked to work as a project developer at New York University.

The year was 2001. Nash had custody of his 1-year-old son, Mannasses. He made the move.

It was not easy. Nash worked, continued his studies, and raised his son. He made sure that Manny kept a strong relationship with his mother. And he instilled in Manny a reverence for education.

“Back home, as poor as we were, education worked well,” Nash explains. “Boarding school is the way out.” In fifth grade, he had been selected to go away to school. He studied hard, and succeeded in that very competitive environment.

Nash and Manny Ogutu.

In America, Nash fought for Mannasses to enroll in a gifted and talented program. When his son was in seventh grade, Nash began looking at boarding school opportunities. Someone told him about A Better Chance.

He explored every opportunity for his son. While Mannasses was on the waiting list at prestigious New England boarding schools, father and son traveled to Westport for an ABC interview.

“It was so impressive,” Nash recalls. “I was in tears seeing how involved and interested everyone there was.”

At the end of the interview, Manny was asked if he was interested in Westport. He said yes, and withdrew his applications to boarding schools.

Nash had to convince Mannasses’ mother it was the right move. He also had to deal with his own emotions.

“It was tough. We had been together since he was 1,” Nash admits. “But I always felt I could not allow an opportunity for him to ‘study with the greatest’ to pass by. I believed he needed to be in that environment to be challenged. I did not want to be selfish.”

Saying goodbye was extremely difficult. Nash wanted to drive from Bayonne to check on Manny often, but was told he could not come too soon. The first time together, Nash took him to dinner. Each shared how tough the separation and transition had been. But Nash encouraged his son to work through the difficulties. It was another defining moment in their long journey.

Manny bonded quickly with his host family, the Propps. This photo was taken during freshman year.

Manny fared poorly during his first semester at Staples High School. He was devastated.

But father and son spoke by phone nearly every night. When they could not talk, they texted. That daily connection kept them both going.

So did Mannasses’ growing relationship with his host family. Peter and Suzanne embraced him, physically and emotionally. So did their children, Rose and Bennett, along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

On one of his first weekends, Suzanne took Manny to a Seventh Day Adventist church in Bridgeport. “We’re not staunch followers,” says Nash. “But that meant so much to him. It helped him keep going.”

It was just one of many small gestures that helped Mannasses feel welcome – and reassured Nash that his son was in good, warm hands.

As the months and years passed, Nash watched his son grow and thrive: academically, emotionally, interpersonally. A major reason, the father says, was “the holistic approach. You can’t get that at any boarding school. Westport did it.”

Nash has 13 siblings. But his relatives live in Kenya. With the Propps, Manny became part of a large, close-knit family.

So did Nash. He was invited to join Manny and all the relatives at a Passover Seder. It soon  became an important tradition. Nash looks forward to going each year – even if Manny can’t get back from college.

Nash Ogutu and Manny’s mother Steph, with Suzanne Sherman Propp and Peter Propp, at last year’s Dream Event. (Contributed photo)

When he describes what A Better of Chance has meant, Nash becomes emotional. “I speak from deep in my heart. Westport is a unique experience. Thank you for being my son’s friend. You inspire us to become better people.”

He laughs as he describes Mannasses’ freshman year at Carleton College. As soon as he got back to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, the first thing he wanted to do was go to Westport.

Back in Kenya, Nash Ogutu had a dream. He wanted to study with “the greatest people” in America.

He did that. Then he passed on his love of education to his son, and watched with joy as it was nurtured here.

His voice thick with emotion, Nash notes, “I achieved my dream of coming to America – when I became involved with Westport.”


MERRILL BOEHMER: CHEF

Merrill Boehmer has come full circle.

She was born and raised in Westport. She graduated from Staples. She ended up as a cook. Now she is the very talented, much loved chef at Glendarcy House. She nourishes the stomachs (and souls) of eight scholars — who (of course) attend Staples

Like the boys’ routes to Westport, Merrill’s was not direct. After Staples (Class of 1990), she majored in art history, and minored in psychology, at Tulane University. But she’d always loved cooking — and kids.

After college she worked at Café Zanghi, the high-end restaurant at National Hall. She moved to Newport Beach, California for a change of scene — and careers. She spent more than eight years as a fashion show producer.

But Merrill missed things like the changing seasons. In 2005 she came back to Connecticut. She joined Velocity Sports, helping plan events like Super Bowls and tennis tournaments.

When the stock market tumbled, she realized she wanted to get back into food. She started her own company: Cooking-In.

The same week her business cards arrived, she heard A Better Chance needed a new cook. Alison Milwe Grace — who Merrill had worked with, and who taught culinary arts at Staples (another high school connection!) — recommended her highly.

She was hired. Almost immediately, she had to prepare the August welcome back party. To her delight, everyone loved it. And they all loved Merrill.

Chef Merrill Boehmer, hard at work. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

She returns the love. Seven years after joining ABC, Merrill calls this “the best job ever!”

She appreciates the freedom. She shops — eyes trained equally on nutrition, taste and budget — and creates her own menus.

In her first two years at Glendarcy House, Merrill never repeated a meal. She had Chinese, German and Mexican nights. She taught the boys about food — and learned a lot herself.

“They’re teenage boys,” she notes. “They love burgers, lasagna, pasta.”

But, she discovered, they also love kale salad, brussels sprouts and sautéed spinach. Who knew?

You can’t keep teenage boys out of the kitchen. Chef Merrill Boehmer welcomes the company. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

She cooks Monday through Friday, shopping Mondays and Wednesdays. She’s proud of her ability to base menus around the deals in a Shoprite flyer — and that all the meat, produce and fish guys there know her.

“I’m frugal,” she notes. “I’m very conscious that we’re a non-profit.”

She’s in the kitchen when the scholars get off the bus. They help unload groceries. In the bags are breakfast foods, like granola bars, yogurt, oatmeal and bananas; lunch foods (for those who want to make their own lunches), dinner foods and snacks.

She cooks in the afternoon. Some of the boys grab snacks and leftovers before heading off to study. Some linger to chat.

At 6 p.m. Merrill sets out dinner, buffet style. Each dinner includes greens, protein, a starch and dessert. If she’s serving a heavy entrée like steak, there’s fruit for dessert. If it’s fish, she offers cake or brownies.

Dinnertime! (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Meals can be quiet — or filled with laughter. “They’re teenage boys, in a stressful school,” Merrill says. “When I hear them being kids, I love it.”

For weekends, she makes sure there are plenty of eggs, bacon, waffles, bread, milk, juice and cider in the refrigerator and pantry. Saturday dinners are often takeout. On Sundays the scholars eat with their host families.

Merrill has an easygoing relationship with the scholars. On their birthdays, they can choose the dinner menu.

But, she adds, “I’m the recycling queen. The boys know that. And they know how to recycle.”

It’s clear what the ABC scholars get from Merrill: great, nutritional and filling meals. What does she get?

“I love my job. Everyone’s taken me under their wing. The boys are cool, fun and silly. They keep me young. And they’re very appreciative. They always tell me they love my food!”

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

 

Congratulations, Staples Graduates!

The Staples High School Class of 2017 is now history.

Over 450 members of the 130th graduating class received their diplomas amid the usual pomp and circumstance in the fieldhouse. 

It was a day of celebration, joy, pride — and relief, sentimentality and longing.

Graduates and their parents looked ahead — and back.

And of course, everyone took photos.

For weeks, seniors have filled a large poster with their post-high school plans. Today it was on display for all to see.

Fabian Becerra waited for the ceremony to begin…

… and so did salutatorian Christopher Scherban and valedictorian Emily Schussheim.

The processional into the fieldhouse isn’t a red carpet — but at graduation it can seem like one.

Some seniors decorated their caps with messages. St. Andrews is in Scotland.

Class speaker Megan Hines had a wonderful message. She described never taking AP or honors classes, but finding herself — thanks to caring friends, guidance counselors and teachers. “You are never alone” at Staples, she said.

Listening intently to the student speakers were (from right) superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer, principal James D’Amico, 12th grade assistant principal Pat Micinilio, assistant principal Rich Franzis, and and assistant principal (and proud father of graduate Jimmy) James Farnen.

Shelby Lake got special congratulations from big brother (and Staples Class of 2011 graduate) Court Lake.

Brooke Wrubel posed with her family in the courtyard.

A celebration isn’t complete without some good cigars.

A Better Chance scholars Manny Ogutu and Sam Larkin enjoyed a post-graduation party at Glendarcy House with their proud parents — and a host of well-wishers.

A Host Of Reasons To Help ABC

Alert — and proud — “06880” reader Michael Wolfe writes:

On a recent weekend in suburban Chicago, I shrugged off beautiful spring weather to sit in a dark auditorium with other proud Westport parents and their kids. We watched as over a dozen Staples students received prestigious John Drury High School Radio Awards.

Jarod Ferguson with one of his John Drury awards.

As each student collected their honor, we heard extra-enthusiastic cheers from the mom or dad in attendance. So when Jarod won not 1 but 2 awards, I gave him the loudest acknowledgment I could.

But there was one major difference between me and the rest of the Westport parents that day: Jarod isn’t my son. In fact, I’ve known him less than 3 years.

Yet that morning I felt as excited for him as I would have for my own 2 kids.

In a way, that’s what he’s become.

Jarod Ferguson, born and raised in Philadelphia,  is one of 7 boys from around the country living in Westport through the great local chapter of an incredible national program.

A Better Chance Of Westport was founded 15 years ago to provide academically gifted, highly motivated and economically disadvantaged young men of color (African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American) the opportunity to live in our community, and study at Staples.

In fact, one of Jarod’s Drury Radio Awards was for a broadcast about leaving his home and coming to Westport as an ABC Scholar.

ABC’s Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

Imagine this: A 9th grade boy leaves his own family and friends behind, moves to Westport to live in a home with several other boys, and is supervised closely by resident directors who live with them and help keep them on the path to success.

They are given educational opportunities they would not otherwise receive — but must give up the daily connection to family that so many of us take for granted.

That’s why the host family program is so important.

Upon entering ABC of Westport, each scholar is assigned a host family (and a 2nd alternate family). Each Sunday during the school year — and once a month, for an entire weekend — the scholar spends the day with members of the host family (usually, but not always, including other children). That family’s role is to provide comfort and support outside of the ABC house, and a connection to the kind of family life the boys have left behind in their hometowns.

Each Sunday morning at 9, we pick Jarod up at the ABC house. He comes to our home, and joins our family. We are not his babysitters, nor do we provide entertainment.

Instead, like we do for our own 2 kids — also Staples juniors — we provide encouragement, attention and support for Jarod’s activities and interests.

Jarod with the Wolfe family, and his mother Angela.

We offer a bit of guidance from time to time (which, as with our own teenagers, is often met with an appropriate level of eye-rolling).

We give Jarod enough space to explore his own needs and feel like a regular kid. Then, on Sunday nights at 6 when we sit down for our family dinner, Jarod takes his place at the table. He’s one of our own.

We had encouraged Jarod to explore opportunities at WWPT. It seemed like a natural for a sports nut like Jarod. It took him a while to find his way there, but his recent awards sparked a real passion. He hopes to continue with the station next year, and perhaps pursue a career in sports journalism.

It’s been less than 3 years since we began hosting Jarod. They’ve flown by.

The shy and unassuming child has grown into a more confident and outspoken young man. I hope our presence in his life has had something to do with that.

But honestly, hosting him has given back to us as much as we may have given him.  My own kids have a better understanding of the world outside the Westport bubble that they’ve grown up in. They have learned the importance of giving back, and have made a friend I hope can last beyond their years here.

And my wife and I have been graciously allowed by Jarod’s mother to share in his life and achievements. We’re not quite his parents, but we feel a stake nonetheless.

All of this comes from letting an eager and humble student join us for part of our weekend. Not a bad trade-off at all.

ABC of Westport is always looking for families interested in hosting a scholar like Jarod. I encourage everyone to learn more. For more information, email abchostfamilies@gmail.com.

It’s an experience you and your family will never forget.

A Better Chance: Honoring 15 Years Of Success

In 2002, A Better Chance of Westport was just a dream.

In the 15 years since, the ABC program has fulfilled dreams. Young men have come from across America to Glendarcy House, on the corner of North Avenue and Cross Highway. They’ve attended Staples High School, and gotten deeply involved in school and community activities.

They’ve gone on to college, and embarked on careers. They’re already getting married. They’re success stories, and Westport should be enormously proud of them.

Steve Daniels sure is.

Steve Daniels

Steve Daniels

The longtime resident of Westport has led quite a life. He captained the University of Pittsburgh soccer team; been a high-level executive at RCA, TWA and Oxford Health; chaired the local United Way board; worked on senior housing with Westport’s Human Services Department, and served on TEAM Westport.

Now 77, he’s involved with his wife Cheryl Scott-Daniels’ real estate firm, CSD Select Homes.

But it’s his stints as president of A Better Chance of Westport that give him special insight into what this town means — to its residents, and those who come here from very different parts of the country.

“I love this place. Make no mistake about that,” Daniels says. “It’s much more welcoming than many other Fairfield County suburbs.”

Still, as an African American — even dressed in a suit and tie — he has been followed around in local stores. And he’s waited to be waited on, while employees ask white shoppers if they need any help.

“ABC is an important part of this community,” Daniels says. “A lot of the scholars come from circumstances that are different from Westport kids’. They have single parents. Their parents might not have degrees. They come from schools that are not as academically rigorous as Staples.”

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

In their new high school, they learn study skills. They choose from a broad range of subjects. They discover an array of college options. They work hard, join clubs and teams. Outside of school, they become involved in community activities.

It’s excellent preparation for “being around people who don’t look like you,” Daniels says — which is what happens after they graduate, head to college, get a job.

“It’s a tough program,” Daniels admits. “They may wonder if it’s worth it.”

In its first few years, ABC directors and many volunteers throughout Westport had to take it on faith that it was worth it.

A Better ChanceNow they know. Since A Better Chance of Westport began, 18 scholars have earned college degrees. Eight more are still in college. Three are in grad school: law, medicine and business.

But the benefits flow both ways.

“Westport is a bit of a bubble,” Daniels says. “We don’t have the worldwide diversity kids will enter into after college. When you grow up here, you can have a misperception of minorities.”

Staples students (and their younger siblings) get to know the ABC scholars. As friends, teammates and through host families, they hear the young men’s stories. They learn about differences — and the similarities they share.

As president, Daniels says, his biggest challenge was “getting young men to understand their potential.” They’d never been exposed to things like how to study; importance of networking; what a “good” college is, or how to do well on SATs.

But, Daniels notes, “they learn they can compete with kids who have much more than they do.”

ABC's Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

ABC’s Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

In its 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has accomplished much. It’s given — literally — a better chance to more than two dozen fine young men. They in turn have positively impacted their high school, and the entire town.

Now they themselves are giving back. They’ve formed their own alumni network. They return to Glendarcy House, and are available by phone and email to help the scholars who have followed them to Westport. “That building block is very solid,” Daniels says.

But what’s a success story without a celebration?

Every March, ABC holds a “Dream Event.” This year — on March 25 — the gala honors the organization’s past presidents. Besides Daniels, they’re Lee Bollert, Gail Cohen, Dave Driscoll, Harold Kamins and Eric Seidman.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year's graduating seniors.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year’s graduating seniors.

There’s dinner, an auction and entertainment. But the real draw is the ABC scholars themselves.

There are heartfelt speeches from the graduating seniors (this year: Sam Larkin and Manny  Ogutu). A couple of alumni add their own — now adult — perspectives.

Hearing them speak, I always tear up.

And I always leave feeling good — about these young men, my town, this program, and the importance of the work that so many people like Steve Daniels have done, for 15 great years.

(This year’s “Dream Event” is set for Saturday, March 25 [Birchwood Country Club, 7 p.m.]. For tickets and more information, click here, then scroll down. The online auction goes live on March 17, at the link above.  To donate an item or service to the auction, click here.)

Here’s a look at the day in the life of ABC House: