Tag Archives: A Better Chance of Westport

Khalif Rivers: The ABCs Of Photography

School came easy to Khalif Rivers. It was not especially challenging.

In 8th grade, a teacher recommended the A Better Chance program. Like many youngsters, Khalif had not thought much about his future. But he trusted her, and the opportunity to be one of the people of color chosen to attend a top school sounded alluring.

He did not want to leave his native Philadelphia. But when he visited the Westport affiliate he liked the scholars at Glendarcy House, and the local program.

He was accepted by A Better Chance of Westport. Arriving here in 2004 was scary, and a culture shock.

Khalif Rivers

“I was a young Black kid trying to figure out where I fit in,” Khalif recalls. “I was homesick. I had to learn how to really study. I felt like I was under a microscope. I struggled.”

Over the course of 4 years, he succeeded. With the help of his “brothers” in the house — and many others in the community — Khalif had an “overall great” experience.

He graduated in 2008. He had been looking for a larger college, not too far away, but somewhere he would have “autonomy.” When ABC’s Harold Kamins drove him to West Virginia University, he knew he’d found his next home.

Khalif majored in sports psychology. He planned on earning a master’s in counseling. But despite scholarships, he’d had to borrow a lot of money. Not wanting to go further in debt, he returned to Philadelphia.

He got a great job as a field service engineer, installing tempered glass. It was physically demanding work, in all kinds of weather. It paid well, and Khalif traveled far.

But he hated it. He had no time for friends, relationships — or photography.

That was a passion he’d discovered at Staples. Khalif had taken Digital Darkroom to fill an elective. But he loved it, and moved on to Photography with Janet Garstka, then Digital Photography.

He was an excellent photographer. Whenever he had free time — anywhere in Westport, at athletic events, wherever — he brought his camera.

Now, back home — and older — Khalif looked around. “Philadelphia is beautiful,” he says.”But so many buildings wee being torn down. I realized I had to photograph them.”

At first he used his cell phone. He would hop on a bus, get off somewhere, and start taking pictures. “I was doing it for myself,” he recalls. “I just wanted to capture the city in all its glory.”

“Ben Franklin” (Photo/Khalif Rivers)

He saved up for a good Nikon. He taught himself to use it through YouTube videos. As he posted those photos — many of them sharp, strong, black and white — to his Instagram account, followers encouraged him to do more.

In the spring of 2017 Khalif started a side business, selling his images.

It was successful. Khalif began thinking of doing photography full time. But he was making good money at his day job. “It was a big unknown, to walk away,” he says.

“Respite” (Photo/Khalif Rivers)

When COVID-19 struck, Khalif was laid off. He spent a month reflecting. He’d put so much time and energy into his service engineering work. He’d never get that back.

He could get a similar job. But, he says, the industry is filled with divorced, unhappy people.

“I realized I couldn’t do it. It’s over,” he says.

Khalif wondered: “What if I put the same effort into my photography? I could be more than a weekend warrior. I could take it so much further.”

“Shooting Star” (Photo/Khalif Rivers)

He’s not sure if he would have quit his full time job. But he’s glad things worked out as they have. Since April, he has committed himself fully to his photography.

Right now he’s looking through the 15,000 images he shot during his travels. He’s moving into portrait photography too. He’s learning how to market himself — “just another challenge,” he calls it.

“This is still a work in progress,” Khalif says. “Every day I learn another aspect of running a business.

“But there’s no going back. I’m going to make this happen.”

(Click here for Khalif Rivers’ website. Hat tip: Katie Augustyn.)

Untitled (Photo/Khalif Rivers)

SLOBs Set A New Standard Of Service

For over a decade, SLOBs shined on the last Sunday in April.

The acronym stands for the Service League Of Boys. With over 300 students — plus hundreds of parents — it’s one of Staples High School’s largest, most active clubs.

SLOBs commit to a minimum of 10 hours of service a year (many do much more). And Service Sunday is their Super Bowl.

One scene from a previous SLOBs Service Sunday …

This year, they’d lined up volunteer efforts — landscaping, outdoor projects and the like — at sites all around Westport, Norwalk and Bridgeport. Work sites included A Better Chance’s Glendarcy House, the Audubon Society’s Smith Richardson Tree Farms, Homes with Hopes’ multiple locations, Aspetuck Land Trust, Green Village Initiative, Earthplace, Sherwood Island State Park, Wakeman Town Farm, Evergreen and Open Door.

There were school-related projects for Staples, the Maker Faire and the Read and Curiale Schools in Bridgeport, plus food and donation drives for Person to Person and Quest for Peace.

Yet with current COVID-19 restrictions in place, none of those places will benefit from SLOBs’ generosity.

… and another.

So the group figured out Plan B. They’ll take funds that would have gone to purchase materials for the Day of Service, and redirect them to charities with immediate needs.

None are strangers to SLOBs. They’ve already worked with all.

These organizations will receive $1,100 each: A Better Chance of Westport, Homes with Hope’s food pantry; the Open Door Shelter, Westport’s Department of Human Services COVID-19 Fund, and Person to Person.

SLOBs is keeping a bit of money in reserve, in case some of the planned events can be rescheduled for fall.

In addition, snack bags the students had expected to fill at their March meeting were instead filled by 2 executive board members, and dropped off at the Curiale School for its food pick-up program.

SLOBs’ 2019-20 executive board.

And the SLOBs Blast — a monthly email sent to all 300 members and parents — was reworked into a list of new coronavirus-related service opportunities, for the boys to work on on their own.

There’s no Service Sunday this year. It’s been weeks since the club has met. But — with the need greater than ever — they’ve found new ways to help.

SLOBs is pretty neat! (Hat tip: Beth Massoud)

A Better Chance Selection Process: Not As Easy As A-B-C

“Westport parents freak out when our kids go to college. These are boys 4 years younger, coming to a completely different environment. Homesickness is natural. But the kids — and their parents — handle it well.”

I don’t know if Daphne Lewis freaked out when her own 3 kids graduated from Staples High School. But now — as head of A Better Chance of Westport‘s scholar selection committee — she has an up-front, personal view of the amazing process by which academically gifted and highly motivated young men of color leave their homes and hometowns, live in Westport, and enter a new and very different high school as freshmen.

Then she watches with pride as — despite many obstacles and challenges — they thrive, graduate, and head confidently to college.

Lewis has spent 25 years in Westport. ABC has been an integral part of our town since 2002. But she did not know much about the organization until a few years ago when her youngest son James — now a senior at Yale — became good friends with a Staples track teammate, ABC scholar Luis Cruz. (He’s about to graduate from Boston College.)

Luis Cruz as a Staples High School senior, flanked by his track teammate and great friend Oliver Hickson, and his coach Laddie Lawrence.

As an empty nester, Lewis became ABC’s coordinator of volunteer drivers — men and women who take the scholars to various activities, doctors’ appointments, friends’ houses, or wherever they need to go.

In her new role she’s in the midst of finding the next 2 young men who will join ABC’s long list of smart, talented, creative scholars.

Getting chosen for the national ABC program is an arduous task for 8th graders. Yet it’s not easy for ABC of Westport to get the cream of the crop either.

There are 300 ABC programs in the US. But the vast majority are in boarding or private day schools.

Only 20 or so are in public high schools, like Staples.

That makes us attractive to ABC candidates and their families. With no tuition, they don’t have to worry about financial aid.

The living arrangements — 8 young men share Glendarcy House just down the road from Staples, with resident directors — and the opportunity to spend weekends with host families may be more personal than dormitory living.

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

But the names and cachets of private schools can be powerful drawing cards. In addition, the idea of “public school” may be anathema to boys and their parents whose own experiences with them may be less than positive.

Which is why the selection process — bringing the strongest candidates, and their families — to see our school and town for themselves is so crucial.

Some youngsters first find out about the national ABC program from guidance counselors. Sometimes their parents are searching for a better educational opportunity for their kids. Either way, the process begins more than a year before 9th grade.

The national staff reviews applications. This year, they sent 31 to Westport.

Lewis and her committee examined each closely. Which of these boys, they wondered, had the potential to survive the rigors of our academically challenging high school? Which were involved in activities that Staples also offered? Which seemed to be the types who could meet strangers easily, advocate for themselves, and adapt to the new, very suburban and white environment of Westport?

In his 4 years as an ABC scholar, Manny Ogutu became part of the Propp and Sherman extended family.

Of course, Westport was not the only ABC program that received those applications. Our top candidates are also being courted by private schools.

Lewis’ committee narrowed the list. Then they invited 12 applicants — and their families — to Westport. Ten accepted.

ABC of Westport pays for the visits: transportation, meals, and an overnight stay at the Westport Inn.

In January, the first group arrived. They began with lunch at the Senior Center. There was an introduction to Westport’s ABC program, and informal meetings with board members and host parents.

A tour of the town followed (students and parents were taken separately). Then everyone gathered at Glendarcy House, to meet the current scholars and resident directors. The boys stayed for dinner; parents were taken to a restaurant.

The current scholars’ impressions are an important part of the selection process, Lewis notes.

The 2019-20 A Better Chances scholars.

On Monday, the students went to Staples. They spent the day visiting classes with the school’s Ambassadors (fellow teenagers).

“They feel very welcomed at Staples,” Lewis says. “They talk to a lot of people. They are very positive about that experience.”

Afterward, there were interviews in private homes with committee members. Meanwhile, their parents were given a tour of the school. (Full disclosure: I led the tour last month, and will give the next 2. If the applicants are half as amazing as their parents, in terms of motivation, insightful questions and energy, we’ve got a great group to choose from.)

It’s a whirlwind 28 hours. Then the ABC board really gets to work.

They need to make sure their offers are to boys who will fit in well — with the house, the school and the town. But they also need to make them soon enough, so they’re competitive with the private schools.

The process is sometimes completed by early April. Sometimes it’s not finalized until late May.

“It’s a lot of work,” Lewis says. “A lot of thought goes into it. We don’t take these decisions lightly.

“But it’s so much fun meeting the boys and their families. And it’s so difficult to choose.”

For nearly 2 decades, A Better Chance of Westport has chosen well. And the young men they’ve chosen, who then choose to come here, have gotten a great deal out of their decision.

But even more, they enrich our school and community beyond measure.

(Funds to bring potential scholars and their families here — and to run Glendarcy House, and the rest of the A Better Chance of Westport program — come almost entirely through donations. This year’s Dream Event annual major fundraiser is set for Saturday, March 14, 6:30 pm at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. Click here for tickets. Among the highlights of the dinner: speeches by graduates and alumni. Click below to hear then-senior Emerson Lovell’s talk.)

Emerson Lovell: ABC Grad Earns Historic Law School Honors

Since its founding nearly 20 years ago, A Better Chance of Westport has had many success stories.

Graduates of the program — through which academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color attend Staples High School, live together with house parents on North Avenue, and give back as much to the town as they get — have gone on to top colleges, and careers in law, finance, business, medicine and the non-profit world.

“06880” has joyfully chronicled many of those achievements.

Add Emerson Lovell to that remarkable list.

Yesterday in Washington, DC, the 2012 Staples and 2016 Duke University political science graduate did something no Howard University School of Law student has done in nearly 10 years.

He graduated first out of 137 students in his class, with the highest academic honor distinction: summa cum laude. The few Howard Law students who earned the same distinction include Goler Teal Butcher in 1957, and Ritu Narula (2010).

At Howard, the Harlem native was vice president of his class, a senior staff editor for the Howard Law Journal, and a student attorney for the Investor Justice and Education Clinic.

“It seems to me it would be difficult to remain humble and quiet and just do your work,” says associate dean of academic affairs Lisa Crooms-Robinson. “But that’s exactly what he did. So unless you were paying really close attention, it’s like ‘surprise!’ I’m incredibly happy for him. He earned every single point.”

“This is a moment of pride for the entire law school community,” adds Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard Law.

“Emerson dedicated himself for 3 years to achieve this goal. His tremendous commitment and talent have paid off. The Howard Law community celebrates this moment with Emerson and his family.”

Emerson says the people around him gave him what he needed to earn the top spot in his class.

“My professors challenged me to be great both inside of the classroom and in life,” he said. “My colleagues ignited my competitive nature and cheered me on. The faculty members always provided a listening ear to help soothe my mind when the challenges of the real world felt like too much.”

Emerson Lovell, during his ABC days in Westport.

He notes the importance of a support group. It should be diverse, and include “colleagues, mentors inside and outside of the field, and family.”

ABC was part of that support group. David and Lori Sochol — Westporters who have long served in leadership roles in the organization — were in Washington yesterday, proudly watching Emerson’s hisoric graduation.

The next step: he has been hired by Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton, the global firm specializing in financial law. He’ll work in their New York office.

Congratulations and good luck, Emerson.

And kudos to your ABC family too!

(For more information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here.)

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.

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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.)