Tag Archives: Abilis

Jay Petrow: Parenting Challenges Provide Inspiration For Art, Life

Jay Petrow has had quite a life.

He studied at Middlebury College (with a BA in studio art and biology), the School of Visual Arts, New York Botanical Garden and Silvermine School of Art. He’s both an artist and a landscape designer.

He’s also the father of an autistic son. Today he writes about the joys and challenging of parenting.

Fathering a son with autism has been the most difficult challenge of my life, but it’s also brought me to deep and unexpected places.

William, now 28, was born as perfect and loving as any child. Only when he failed to meet developmental milestones did we begin to wonder if something was amiss.

Unfortunately, our worry proved to be founded. In the many years since then we’ve dealt with William’s repetitive, sometimes merely aggravating, but at other times aggressive behaviors, on a daily basis, often making it a struggle to get through the day.

Jay Petrow, with William.

Yes, there were tremendous highs, such as when my son could finally say, “I love you, Dad.” Or when we would all laugh playing endless hours of UNO with any guest who happened to stop by.

But there were dark days, when William would bang his head against the floor because he was frustrated and had no words to tell us that. Later, there were other days when we had to call the police to help keep us safe from his rage-filled outbursts.

For years my emotions were raw, yet dulled, by the constant vigilance needed to keep William learning and safe. and his behaviors in check.

Eventually, as a survival strategy for my mental health, I returned to creating art as the outlet for expressing my emotions. After graduating with a fine arts major from Middlebury College, I had put aside being an artist to pursue a career in magazine design.

But 32 years later, I needed my art in a new way. This time I wasn’t interested in painting portraits or landscapes — or any real objects–as I had done in my earlier life. Now, I was compelled to explore what was going on inside of me. And there was a lot going on.

That’s how my journey into an abstract expressionist style of painting began. Throwing paint against the canvas and using my fingers and brushes to work the surface was exhilarating for me. Anger, hurt, fear, love and joy poured out of me.

Jay Petrow’s “Relentless” (acrylic on canvas).

Instead of painting inanimate objects, I was now painting who I am. In the moment. I had found meaning in my art, and I had put art back into my life.

My paintings develop on a subconscious level of interaction of my emotions and energy, and visualizing what’s happening on the canvas as I layer on colors and textures. Maintaining a conversation from within and without, the work becomes a place that I inhabit, and if successful, a place that others can venture into as well.

What I discovered about myself was more than just an untapped love for creating abstract paintings. Amazingly, through an often dark and winding path, I discovered the light within me. I will forever be grateful to William for giving me the greatest gift anyone could give: He showed me the light.

Jay Petrow, with “Metamorphosis” (acrylic on canvas).

It is because of my experience with William that I now pursue my art with great passion. I have been to 4 artist residencies over the last couple of years, and I recently took a lease on a studio space in Bridgeport’s American Fabric Arts Building.

As a way to give back to William and all those who support him, I am donating 20 percent of every painting I sell to Abilis (https://www.abilis.us/). Abilis manages the home where William now lives, and provides support and services to over 800 individuals with special needs in Fairfield County. My goal is to donate over $100,000 to Abilis during my lifetime (or afterwards) to help those families that need this kind of support.

I recently sold a large painting to 2 collectors in New Mexico, so the first step in reaching my goal has been taken. To see more of my work click here, jaypetrowfineart.com, or follow me on Instagram or Facebook.

And from now through June 7 you can see my work at 47 Main Street, a gallery for a rotating roster of artists from The Artists Collective of Westport.

Roundup: Bus Accident, Sundance, Itzhak Perlman …

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There’s a “For Lease” sign outside the old Post Road West building, near Wright Street.

But, Frank Rosen notes, the building is in disrepair. Paint is peeling; shingles are askew. It will take a lot more than a new tenant to bring back some of the beauty to this once-handsome mansion-turned-office.

Demolition by neglect?

(Photo/Frank Rosen)

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There was a school bus accident yesterday, on Easton Road near Bayberry Lane. In the photo below, a small car was wedged under the far side of the bus.

Sandy Rothenberg says: “I have traveled this intersection for the past 35 years. It has become increasingly dangerous. The sight lines are very limited, and cars fly around the curve on Easton Road towards Westport. A very small sign indicates ‘slow curve.’ I hope this brings needed attention and improvements to this road.”

(Photo/Sandy Rothenberg)

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Sundance has opened on Main Street — by appointment only, anyway.

A sign on the former Anny Taylor store instructs shoppers to scan a QR code, for a link to an email.

No word yet on when the physical doors will open.

(Photo/Amy Schneider)

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Don’t miss Itzhak Perlman in Westport!

Tickets are still available for the Westport Library’s “Booked for the Evening” event this Thursday (May 13, 7 p.m.).

This year’s livestreamed “Booked” fundraiser will include videos, live musical tributes, and a conversation with Perlman that is just for this audience. No recording will be made of the program.

Click here for tickets, and more information.

Itzhak Perlman

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Speaking of the Library: One of the “star attractions” of the transformed space is Verso Studios. The state-of-the-art audio and broadcast studios can help anyone become a music, podcast, video or audiobook star.

Yesterday, the library launched a new Verso Studios website. Click here to watch and listen to a wide variety of recordings, podcasts and videos — and to find out how to use the studios yourself.

Part of the Westport Library’s Verso Studios.

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In March, “06880” reported on a proposal by Abilis to turn 136 Riverside Avenue into a home for special needs affordable housing.

The Planning & Zoning Commission has granted a permit for a second floor addition, interior and exterior renovations, and site work for apartments for 4 special needs people, and another unit for an income-eligible staff member.

More approvals are needed. But this is good news for special needs individuals and their families. And it’s 5 more important affordable housing units for our town.

136 Riverside Avenue.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci and former 2nd Selectman/Board of Finance chair Avi Kaner shared a stage last night.

The New York Board of Rabbis honored both men with Humanitarian Awards , for their work during the pandemic.

Dr. Fauci’s contributions are well known. Kaner’s may be less famous. But the co-owner of Morton Williams Supermarkets was cited for the work his family-owned business did during the pandemic.

Morton Williams stores never closed. Employees kept working; senior executives ensured that the supply chain continued.

The company became a lifeline to New York. They worked with the CDC to adjust trucking regulations so that truckers would be comfortable making deliveries. They were among the first in the nation to set aside special hours for seniors and immunocompromised customers; they lobbied aggressively for mask use, and ensured that supermarket workers were included in phase 1B of the state’s vaccinations.

Click below for a clip of the introduction:

Click below for Kaner’s speech:

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Thomas Quealy spotted this on North Compo Road.

“Time to update our signs,” he says.

(Photo/Thomas Quealy)

He’s right. The Westport Arts Center moved over a year ago from Riverside Avenue to Newtown Turnpike.

In fact, it no longer exists. It’s now called MoCA Westport.

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Staples High School Class of 2019 graduate Anthony Salgado met Pierce Slutzky years ago, at Camp Laurel. Anthony says:

“Pierce was an amazing kid who was taken from us at age 17. He was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 14, and tirelessly fought medulloblastoma for 3 years.

“Pierce did not complain. He continued in high school, achieving an A average and making National Honor Society and Foreign Language Society.

“It is my honor to ask people to join in a CT Challenge bike ride to keep Pierce’s fight alive forever. I want to help those who are currently diagnosed, and those who may be diagnosed in the future.” Click here for the link.

Pierce Slutzky

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Today’s “Westport … Naturally” shot comes from Roseann Spengler. She spotted this cute couple by the Saugatuck River:

(Photo/Roseann Spengler)

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And finally … Lloyd Price died last week in New Rochelle, from complications of diabetes. He was 88.

He had “Personality.” He had many other hits, including “Stagger Lee” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” He’s a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. He led quite a life inside and outside of music. Click here for a full obituary.

 

Roundup: Aquarion, Abilis, Art …

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Do you know a person, business or organizations in Connecticut dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability?

Connecticut’s water utility wants to honor them, with an Aquarion Environmental Champion Award.

Winners will join previous honorees, including Sikorsky, Bigelow Tea, Pratt & Whitney, the Trust for Public Land and Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition.

Winners in the Adult, Non-Profit Organization, Large Business, Small Business, and Communications categories can select an environmental non-profit to receive a $2,500 grant. The winner of the Student category (grades 9-12) will receive a $1,000 award.

Click here for details.

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COVID has done 3 things, all related:

  • Postponed United Methodist Church’s annual giant tag sale for 2 years in a row.
  • Spurred many Westporters to clean their closets, cupboards and bathrooms.
  • Decreased donations to non-profits that provide items to clients.

On Saturday, May 15 and Monday, May 17 (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), there’s a solution to all 3. That’s when you can drop off items at the church (49 Weston Road).

Here’s what’s needed:

Gently used items: baby clothes, children’s clothes (ages 4-10), youth clothing for teenagers (desperately sought!), men’s and women’s suits, pajamas, jackets, t-shirts, dress shirts, shoes of all sizes and designs (dress, sneakers, sandals, etc.), socks, dishware, cups, glasses of all sorts, suitcases, traveling bags.

New items: hair products (shampoo, conditioner), skincare products, deodorant, toothpaste, floss, sunscreen, nail clippers, razors, soaps, lip balm, moisturizer, lotion, hairbrushes, shower gel, shaving cream, mouthwash, wet wipes, diapers, canned foods, Jersey Mike’s gift cards worth $10 and $20 (for homeless youth).

Items should be sorted (gently used, new), packed into large plastic garbage bags, and labeled clearly (for example, “Children’s Clothing” in one bag, “Shoes” in another).

They’ll be distributed to Person to Person, Bridgeport Rescue Mission, Summerfield United Methodist Church, and agencies working with the Greater Bridgeport Council of Churches.

Questions: email ganderson24@optonline.net or kbrumit@optonline.net.

United Methodist Church, 49 Weston Road. (Photo/Dan Woog)

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People with disabilities face many challenges. So do their siblings.

Abilis — the non-profit that helps hundreds of special needs families — holds a “Sibshops” workshop on May 19 (5 to 6:30 p.m., Zoom). It’s open to area children ages 10 to 14 whose brother or sister has a disability.

Sibshops are “high-spirited, fun workshops that combine recreation, discussion and information.” They provide safe spaces for siblings to share thoughts and feelings, while meeting others in similar circumstances and learning about the services their brother or sister receives. Click here to register. Questions? Email schulte@abilis.us.

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Art has helped many people through the past (very difficult) year.

A new virtual exhibit — “The Healing Power of Art” — shows viewers exactly how that happens.

It features works from 18 artists, including Westporters Rebecca Fuchs, Dorothy Robertshaw and Lisa Stretton.

Art can be purchased directly through the website, at various prices. Click here for the virtual show; click here for a video on how to navigate through it.

“Sherwood Umbrellas,” by Ceal Swift

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Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada, offered a devastating view of fashion publishing. Her 6 books have sold over 13 million copies.

Her newest — Where the Grass is Green and the Girls are Pretty — goes on sale May 18. The night before (May 17, 7 p.m., Zoom), she’ll chat virtually with Westporter Jennifer Blankfein about her latest book, and the women — a TV anchor with everything, and her stay-at-home supermom sister — in it.

The conversation is sponsored by the Westport Library. Click here to register.

Lauren Weisberger

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Friends of Sherwood Island’s annual general meeting will “bee” very special.

A presentation titled “Pollinator Pathways & The Green Corridor:
Improving Biodiversity on Protected Land in Our Own Yards” is set for May 23 (4 p.m.).

Click here for more information. Questions? Email lizannlwv@gmail.com or call 203-451-5755.

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And finally … happy 70th birthday to Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club drummer, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, producer and right-across-the-Fairfield-line neighbor Chris Frantz.

Roundup: Outdoor Dining, GG & Joe, “In Death” …

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Starting today, outdoor dining returns to Church Lane.

Now through late fall, restaurants like Spotted Horse, Manna Toast, Pink Sumo and Amis are serving underneath the stars.

The Westport Downtown Association plans live mellow dinner music on weekends, starting soon.

Dining al fresco, last year.

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Around the corner, GG & Joe is closed — but only temporarily.

A sign on the door notes that due to a COVID exposure, they’ve shut their doors for a few days. They reopen Thursday, April 22.

Better safe than sorry. And kudos to the acai bowl-and-coffee-and-more spot in Parker Harding Plaza — which opened last spring, as the pandemic raged — for their concern for all customers.

(Photo/Amy Schneider)

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In Death, The Gift of Life — the powerful anthology of 10 Westporters who embraced death on their own terms — has won two 1st place awards in the Connecticut Press Club’s annual communications contest.

The honors were for editing (Dan Levinson and Alison McBain) and design (McBain and Miggs Burroughs). The book now moves on to national competition.

A community-wide book launch will be held at the Westport Library this fall.

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In the early days of the pandemic, Stan Witkow started an online bingo game. Winners — Westporters, former residents and friends across the country — donate their pots to a non-profit of their choice.

The most recent recipient is Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Service. Jennifer Pressman donated her $250 to the organization. Her son is a former WVEMS volunteer. Bingo!

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Abilis is hiring. The non-profit, which serves more than 800 people with special needs and their families — holds a job fair on Saturday, May 1 (9 a.m. to 5 .m., 50 Glenville Street, Greenwich).

Full- and part-time positions include management and assistant management roles, day program and residential roles. Click here to see open positions. Prospective employees should bring resumes. For more information,  call 203-531-1880.

May 1 is also the date of Abilis’ 70th anniversary gala (6:30 p.m., virtual). There’s family entertainment, with comedians, actors, musicians and dancers.

To learn more, register for the show link, see “Giving Garden” needs, check out the online auction or by art by Abilis clients, click here.

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An “06880” reader sits for a 4-hour infusion once a month at Norwalk Hospital. It is often cool in the room, so patients are given a hospital blanket.

The other day, she received a real blanket,  made by a group at Staples High school called Lovee’s Charity. They’re usually given to pediatric patients, but sometimes they’re handed out in the infusion room.

“It was so nice, soft and comforting,” the reader says. She emailed faculty advisor Natalie Odierna, letting her know how much joy the blanket brought.

Now thousands of other “06880” readers know about the joy Lovee’s Charity brings too.

A Lovee’s Charity blanket.

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Major League Soccer has kicked off its 26th season. And for the 5th straight year, Elliot Gerard was commissioned to create the opening day graphic.

The Westport resident Gerard is a founder and creative director with Heartlent Group, a social strategy and creative content agency.

This year’s concept is “Where’s Waldo?” Gerard worked with eMLS to hide Easter eggs in the artwork (below). The campaign is interactive, giving fans the chance to make their own versions on Instagram stories. A customizable background is available. Click for Twitter and Instagram links.

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And finally … I got my 2nd COVID vaccine today. Just sayin’ …

Special Needs Housing Planned For Riverside Avenue

One of the Westport’s greatest needs — supportive housing for people with special needs — is moving through the regulatory pipeline.

136 Riverside Avenue is a 12-room 1880 Colonial Victorian just north of Saugatuck Elementary School. Owned by the town, it’s used now by the Board of Education.

A few years ago it was considered for special needs housing. That opportunity has come around again.

Rick Redniss — principal at Redniss & Mead, a surveying, civil engineering and planning firm — has been exploring possibilities for “off-site affordable housing” for developments like 41 Richmondville Avenue and The Residence at Westport for several years.

That’s the process by which approval is granted for new market-rate housing at one location. In exchange, builders create affordable housing units elsewhere in town.

136 Riverside Avenue.

Redniss has met with parents of special needs individuals and Westport’s Commission on People with Disabilities to determine the best design. Based in part on a Darien model, he realized that if individual units include a private bath, kitchenette (to help with independent living) and deed-restricted lease, they count toward the town’s moratorium points (granted for showing that a municipality is actively building affordable housing).

The current plan would convert 136 Riverside to 5 apartments. Four would be for people with special needs; one would be rented to a staff member, who also would qualify under regulations for affordable housing.

Abilis — the 70-year-old nonprofit serving over 800 people with special needs — sees this as an excellent opportunity. They’ve been collaborating with the 41 Richmondville Avenue developers to make this a reality. Redniss has met with neighbors, and continues to address concerns.

The proposal — which includes remodeling that respects the original architecture, and enhanced landscaping — is going through the 8-24 (municipal improvement) and special permitting process. It’s on the agenda for the Architectural Review Board’s March 23 meeting.

If approved, 136 Riverside heads to the Planning & Zoning Commission, Board of Finance and RTM, for lease oversight.

Roundup: Parks & Rec Signups, Playhouse, Help Wanted …

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Registration for Westport Parks & Recreation spring and summer programs begins online on March 22 (9 a.m.). Click here for all offerings, including sports, Camp Compo and RECing Crew. Click here to register.

The Parks & Rec office remains closed to the public. Staff is available via email (recreation@westportct.gov), phone (203-341-5152 weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) and mail (260 Compo Road South, Westport, CT 06880).

For registration, check your online account tnow. Log in, then click “Manage Family Members” on the bottom right. To view more details, click the name of a specific family member. Make any changes, then hit “save.” For address changes, email recreation@westportct.gov.

If you cannot log into your online account, do not create another profile. Email recreation@westportct.gov, or call 203-341-5152.

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Speaking of recreation:

These residents were spotted yesterday on Longshore’s first fairway.

They had not asked to play through. Nor were they wearing proper attire. Sad!

(Photo/John Richers)

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Alisyn Camerota is starring in a new role.

The Westport resident — a journalist, author, and anchor of CNN’s morning show “New Day” — has been elected as a Westport Country Playhouse trustee.

Camerota led a community conversation 3 years ago on “Female Power Unleashed:  Politics and Positive Change.” She was featured in a documentary celebrating the theater’s 90-season history last fall, and has been a Playhouse subscriber and supporter for several years.

She’ll serve with artist, economist, producer, fellow Westporter — and new board chair — Anna Czekaj-Farber. Former chair Barbara Streicker of Westport remains on the board.

Playhouse managing director Michael Barker lauds Streicker for her leadership during the pandemic

The 2021 season is scheduled to begin in April — online and in-person. Safety guidelines will be announced soon.

Alisyn Camerota

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4-year-old Elodie Kubik was born with Epidermolysis Bullosa. She is missing a critical protein that binds the layers of the skin together, making it extremely fragile and causing severe pain and wounds. There are no treatments for this life-threatening disease.

Elodie’s mom’s friends organized a Plunge for Elodie n 2018. It grew into an international movement, raising $700,000 to fund critical research aimed at curing EB and other rare diseases.

This year’s virtual Plunge (March 28) honors the life of Sophia Ramsey, who died just after her 1st birthday. She was the daughter of Westport Public Schools employee Tricia Lash’s friend and coworker. Click here for details.

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Finding Westport — the great local listing location, with both a website and social media posts — is starting a “Help Wanted” section. If you’re a business looking for help, contact Jillian@findingfairfieldcounty.com.

And if you’re looking for work, click here.

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Very quietly —  but for 70 years — Abilis has helped people with special needs throughout Fairfield County. The non-profit currently serves over 800 people — and their families.

Last year, COVID forced them to hold their biggest fundraiser online. They raised over $400,000. This year’s goal: top that.

It’s virtual again. Comedian Brett Walkow (“The Tonight Show,” Seinfeld’s “Comedian,” Comedy Central, much more…) hosts the May 1 (6:30 p.m.) show. It’s 90 minutes packed with entertainment, laughs, and a live auction.

The event is free (though of course there are many opportunities to donate). To register, click here (button is on upper right — hard to find!). For sponsorship information, call 203-531-1880 ext. 161, or email flatow@abilis.us.

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And finally … John Philip Sousa died on this day in 1932. He was 78.

Roundup: Fatheads, Steve Lyons, Abilis, More

 

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The Staples boys basketball season starts (finally) soon. COVID restrictions prohibit fans in the gym. But they don’t say anything about cardboard cutouts with faces ono them.

The parent booster club hopes to fill the gym for every home game with “fathead” images of family, friends and classmates.

It’s a clever fundraiser — and easy. Just click here and attach a selfie (or more).

The deadline is Wednesday (February 4). Act quickly, fatheads!

Stephh Curry does not play for Staples. But here’s his fathead.

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Earlier this month, “06880” learned of the tough times Steve Lyons has faced.

The talented artist was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and closed Bankside Contemporary, his Post Road West gallery. During treatment in California, he and his partner of 36 years, Peter Demers both contracted COVID. On January 10, Peter died.

Heartbroken, fighting for his life and 3,000 miles from home, Steve continues to make progress toward recovery. His many friends hope he can do that in his longtime, beloved Chatham, Massachusetts.

Travel in his condition is challenging and costly. It requires a complex plan, including on-board medical services and monitoring from door to door.

His friends say: “If you have enjoyed Steve’s company, delighted in his captivating artwork in your home, or if you are simply compelled by this harrowing story, we ask you to consider donating to our effort to bring Steve home.

Click here to donate to his GoFundMe page, or to send words of encouragement.

Peter Demers and Steve Lyons.

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Now 70 years old, Abilis supports over 800 people with special needs, and their families, throughout Fairfield County. Abilis Gardens & Gifts is their store — a training site where participants gain retail experience, on their way to obtaining community jobs in sales and production.

They’ve got a wide variety of gifts and flowers available for Valentine’s Day: bouquets of roses and flower arrangements (pre-order by February 3 for pick-up February 12 – 14); love-themed home decor items; handcrafted candles, soaps and bath products; books, games and puzzles for children, and more.

Shopping can be done in their Greenwich store, online, or by phone for pick-up. To order online and place pre-orders for flowers, click here or call 203-531-4438.

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One bright light in this dark winter is the wolf moon. Westporters may not have heard wolves howling last night — the reason for its name — but they sure did enjoy watching it rise.

Joel Treisman captured this shot, at Compo Beach:

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And finally … today is the 52nd anniversary of the Beatles’ last public performance: the now-famous impromptu concert on the roof of Apple Records in London. It was broken up by the police.

 

Roundup: Special Needs Siblings, New Restaurants, More


When Connecticut moves into Phase 3 of reopening on October 8, restaurants can operate at 75 percent capacity. Right now, it’s 50 percent.

It’s a tough time to open a new spot. But 2 restaurants are trying.

Capuli — featuring “California-Mediterranean” cuisine — takes over the former Westport Pizzeria (and before that, Joe’s and S&M Pizza) Post Road East location, across from Design Within Reach.

Gabriele’s replaces Positano, next to the Westport Country Playhouse. That’s a storied locale. It’s been the site of The Dressing Room (Paul Newman and Michel Nischan’s venture), and other popular mainstays like Player’s Tavern.

Both openings are set for the fall. (Hat tips: Amy Schneider and WestportNow.)

Capuli comes here soon.


Colleen Palmer resigned in 2019, after 3 turbulent years as superintendent of schools.

She’s still in education. Today’s New York Times story on a population boom in small-town Vermont — driven by families escaping COVID in other states — includes this quote:

At the (private) Mountain School (at Winhall) there are 39 new students in a student body of 83, nearly all from what Colleen Palmer, the head of school, calls “Covid families.” They have brought with them, she said, “a real influx of terrific energy, enthusiasm, vitality, diversity.”

Click here for the full story. (Hat tip: Tracy Porosoff)

Colleen Palmer


Abilis — the non-profit that supports over 700 people with special needs, and their families — launches “Sibshops.”

The program is for children ages 10 to 14 who are siblings of someone with a disability. The fun workshops and events combine recreation, discussion and information, and are safe spaces to share ideas and feelings while meeting others in similar circumstances.

Participants enjoy recreational activities and play games, while learning about the services their brother or sister receives. Sibshops begins this Wednesday (September 30), and runs through December 16. Meetings are virtual, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Registration is $40 per child; the first 2 meetings are free. To register, click here. visit abilis.us/calendar. For more information, email schulte@abilis.us.


And finally … “Who By Fire” is Leonard Cohen’s 1974 version of the Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef,” chanted on Yom Kippur.

The prayer Cohen heard as a child in the synagogue describes God reviewing the Book of Life and deciding the fate of every soul for the year to come – who will live, who will die and how.

The Day of Atonement — the holiest in the Jewish religion — begins today at sundown.

Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

Rebecca Yormark: Abilis Ambassador

For 14 years, Abilis — the non-profit that supports hundreds of people with special needs, through education, advocacy, recreational activities, life skills support, job training and residential options — has sponsored a fundraiser.

There’s a 1-mile wheelchair and stroller accessible walk, a 5K run, children’s activities like face painting, crafts and a bouncy house, plus music and food. This year’s event is tomorrow (Sunday, October 20, 9 a.m., Tod’s Point, Greenwich).

Hundreds of folks will participate and watch. The walk will be led by Rebecca Yormark — a Westporter.

Rebecca Yormark

The 22-year-old is a great Abilis “ambassador.” The organization has helped her and her family transition from a residential school to a supported apartment.

Rebecca attends Abilis’ young adult LEAP transition program. She also volunteers in the community, and is getting ready for a job.

The walk is free to participate, but a donation to Abilis is appreciated. There is a $40 registration fee for the run for adults; $20 for children 11 to 17. Prizes are awarded for the top 3 men’s, women’s and children’s run finishers; team awards go to those with the most members, and who raise the most money. Creativity awards are given for the most unique run and walk outfits.

Rebecca will enjoy the day. So will her many friends and fans.

Congratulations, Rebecca, on leading Abilis this weekend!