Tag Archives: Barbara Butler

Remembering Fran Reynolds

Fran Reynolds — for 25 years, Westport’s Department of Human Services senior services coordinator — died last week at 89. Longtime colleague Terry Giegengack sent along these thoughts:

Fran Reynolds passed away last Friday at Norwalk Hospital with her beloved daughters and family by her side. She will be remembered with loving respect by many — including those she worked with at Westport’s Department of Human Services.

Fran developed Senior Social Services many years ago. She was the heart and soul of the Human Services Department. As a young working mother for Senior Services, I appreciated her kindness and understanding, as well as her high standards of excellence in work performance.

The continuing professional education that I was fortunate to receive in Westport’s Human Services Department, from Fran and others noted below, provided the foundation for a lifetime of public social service. What I valued the most was Fran’s caring, thoughtful but honest assessments and evaluations of a situation. It challenged and delighted me when I could successfully anticipate all of her questions about a situation and have ready — all of the answers!

Fran treasured her family and friends with tender and loving care, helping us all to grow as better persons. She valued the learning experience, but it was her sense of humor that always made me smile and believe in tomorrow!

Fran Reynolds, with her trademark laugh.

Sue Pfister, Director of the Westport Senior Center, says that Fran was “forever giving of her time, spirit, self and soul to make sure everyone was taken care of, and their needs were being met. Her demeanor was always calm, slow but deliberate, effective and efficient. Her smile was contagious, right up to the end.

“She went peacefully, as she so well deserved. As a second mom to me, she will continue to live out all that she taught me, for I know she is watching over every step I take!”

Barbara Butler, former director of Westport Human Services and long-time friend, highlighted Fran’s tremendous respect for each individual and their right to make their own choices however much we might disagree.

“Fran instilled in all of us a respect and admiration for a person’s self- determination, including their feistiness. She was innovative, especially with the tax relief program. And how she could talk to a client long enough to convince them that a course of action they had initially opposed was actually their idea. Fran was brilliant!”

Fran Reynolds (2nd from left) with colleagues Terry Giegengack, Sue Pfister and Barbara Butler.

David Kennedy, former director of Westport Human Services and current COO, United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, adds,  “Fran was one of the most thought-filled leaders I have ever known. Every decision she made was rooted in values that always put others first — and herself after everyone else — and always with her special smile. Fran Reynolds was a true servant leader who touched my life — and thousands of others’ — deeply.

“Have you ever seen the plaque, ‘Faith-Family-Friends’ that sits in many homes? That was Fran. Her faith guided her in all she did and was the bedrock of her life.

“Family? The more the merrier and the more love she gave each and everyone.

“Friends? If you knew her, you were a friend for life. Neighbor, college classmate, client, volunteer, Compo Beach acquaintance, co-worker, and on and on. Everyone was welcomed into her arms and always treasured for who they were not for who they knew.”

May God bless you and keep you. Rest in peace, dear Fran. Love, Terry Giegengack

This Is ABC, Part 2: A Scholar, And A Founder

Yesterday, “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 scholar, and one of the founders.


CHARLES WINSLOW: SCHOLAR

Charles Winslow’s dad — a military man, and single father — always stressed the importance of education.

But through most of his elementary school years in Brooklyn, Charles’ main interests were basketball, video games, and hanging out with friends.

In 5th grade, a teacher recognized his academic potential. Encouraged, he began enjoying school and studying. He made the honor roll.

In 8th grade, a guidance counselor told Charles about A Better Chance. He wanted to stay in Brooklyn with his family and friends. But, he says, “I think God spoke to me. He opened my eyes to the opportunity ahead.”

Charles took the SSAT. The first ABC program to offer an interview was Westport. He loved the board members, was impressed with Staples High School — and appreciated the proximity to home.

When Westport offered Charles a spot, his father was fully supportive.

Charles Winslow, as an ABC scholar in 2008.

Yet the night before coming here as a freshman, Charles had second thoughts. He was scared, nervous and couldn’t sleep. “Reality hit me,” he recalls. “I was 13 years old. I asked myself, ‘Can I really do this?’

He would leave family and friends, going to a new, high-achieving school and community where few people looked like him.

“But I’m a very competitive person,” Charles notes. “I told myself, ‘Do the best you can.’”

Glendarcy House was a big change from Brooklyn. Charles had been very independent. Now, resident directors told him when to study, eat and clean.

Charles quickly realized that Staples was quite rigorous. “I had to work twice as hard as before, and twice as hard as other kids,” he says. “There were times I felt insecure.”

He was 13 years old. Hardly anyone understood what he was going through. But as he worked, he thought, “it doesn’t matter where I came from. What matters is grit.” He told himself to stop making excuses. “I became a better, more resilient person,” he explains.

Charles found support: his host family, the Kosinskis. Teachers. His ABC mentor, math teacher Maggie Gomez. “We had lunch once a week,” Charles says. “She got me through tough times.”

Math teacher Maggie Gomez was involved with A Better Chance of Westport from the start. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

He made the freshman basketball team. And then he met Bruce Betts.

The physical education instructor and volleyball coach encouraged Charles to try out for the team. “I realized basketball wasn’t really my thing,” Charles says. “Volleyball was.”

He went to a camp at Penn State with the volleyball team. He made varsity as a sophomore. By senior year, he was captain. That spring, he led the Wreckers to FCIAC and state championships.

Charles also managed the girls volleyball team. He joined indoor track, as a sprinter and high jumper.

He took part in several ABC-sponsored community service projects. A 5K charity bike ride led by Harold Kamins stands out. Charles also participated in mission trips with the Greens Farms Church. Working at an orphanage in Mexico was eye-opening. “It was so humbling,” Charles says. “It made me realize the importance of giving back.”

Each year with ABC, he notes, “I learned more about myself and my capabilities. I became more comfortable in my environment.”

Charles Winslow, in 2013.

However, he adds, “I was still always under the microscope, and different. People still didn’t understand where I came from. Every summer the kids at Staples went to summer camp, or on vacation. I went back to Brooklyn. We came from two different worlds.” One of the most important lessons, he says, was “I couldn’t be them. I had to be me.”

Academically, he continued to work hard and try his best. Charles knew “there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The older I got, the more apparent that was.”

That pot of gold was real. Charles was accepted at his first choice college: Cornell University.

The Ivy League school marked another rigorous academic milestone. “It was challenging. But I kept my balance,” Charles says. “There was less of a microscope. I could be more independent.”

He played club volleyball. He got involved with the black community. He joined Alpha Phi Alpha, an African American fraternity that emphasizes empowerment.

Charles majored in hotel administration. In addition to hospitality courses, he studied finance, marketing and communications.

After graduating from Cornell in 2013, Charles was hired by Goldman Sachs. As a senior analyst, he traveled the world. He led a global project in Tokyo. It was a great opportunity.

Charles Winslow, speaking at last year’s Dream Event. (Photo/Matthew Mintzer)

But after nearly three years, Charles realized his passion lay in education. Inspired by a college Semester at Sea — featuring travel to 13 countries around the globe — Charles and a Cornell friend founded Well Traveled. The company helps schools and community groups provide cross-cultural programming, and offers global education resources.

He also works with Acaletics, to help schools and children close achievement gaps.

As a consultant, Charles says, “I go to schools like the one I went to in Brooklyn. I help kids who were once in my situation reach their potential. They may not all be able to get into A Better Chance, but it’s important to provide as many opportunities as I can.”

Charles’ wife Monet is in medical school. Since meeting at Cornell, he says, “she has been my support.” They live in Orlando.

Though more than 1,000 miles away, Charles stays connected to A Better Chance of Westport. He remains friends with his Glendarcy House “brothers.” Many attended his wedding.

(From left) Charles Winslow, Khalif Rivers and Jonathan Choi, at an ABC event in 2013.

He stays in touch with former board members like Lori Sochol and Steve Daniels.

And in March 2017, Charles spoke at ABC’s annual Dream Event.

“Potential is universal,” he said at the conclusion of a powerful speech. “Opportunity is not.”

A Better Chance provided Charles Winslow with many opportunities. Now he helps provide it to countless others — in Westport, Brooklyn and the world.


BARBARA BUTLER: CO-FOUNDER

Barbara Butler recognizes a good idea when she hears one.

She honed that skill in a host of Westport positions: president of the League of Women Voters; second selectman; co-founder of the Project Return group home for girls, and — for over 20 years — director of the town’s Human Services Department.

Over 15 years ago Dave Driscoll retired from a career spent in strategic planning, at Kraft. Looking for a volunteer project in Westport, Dave — who knew the Wilton A Better Chance founder — thought about starting a similar program here.

He called his friend Barbara Butler. She knew it was a good — no, great — idea.

Barbara and Dave assembled a small planning group, including Lisa Friedland, Peggy Kamins, Ann Pawlick and Unitarian Church minister Frank Hall. They reached out to organizations like the Westport Woman’s Club, and religious social action committees. They held coffees at private homes.

Some of the ABC of Westport founders (from left): Lisa Friedland, Dave Driscoll, Peggy Kamins, Barbara Butler, Ann Pawlick.

Slowly, the plan picked up steam.

It was a mammoth undertaking.

First they had to introduce the public to the idea. That was not easy.

“A group of people in town believed that instead of bringing kids here, we should concentrate on making their home schools better,” Barbara recalls. “They said we’d be drawing away the cream of the crop.”

The organizers’ answer: We have to help however we can. Any opportunity to give young people a boost in life is important.

There were concerns that bringing in scholars would burden the school system. “Adding two kids in each grade has not forced Staples to hire one new teacher,” Barbara says.

Then the founders had to raise money. And buy property.

Steve Daniels and his wife, Cheryl Scott-Daniels, found a house on North Avenue, not far from Staples High School. The mortgage came through. The dream was suddenly much closer to reality.

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

Working with the national organization, Westport’s A Better Chance identified their first group of scholars. They created a network of host families, mentors, tutors and drivers.

Finally, Glendarcy House was ready to open.

Barbara remembers that first barbecue. “We looked at the boys and their families. We thought, ‘What a responsibility!’ Their parents were entrusting their sons to us, in the hopes they’d have better futures.”

Barbara has enormous respect for the scholars. “These kids are as good as gold,” she marvels. “They can’t do things other teenagers do, like go to parties where there might be alcohol.

“They were top performers in their old school. Then they get here, and there’s catching up to do. But they represent themselves and the program so well.”

There were challenges along the way. A couple of neighbors worried about living near a house with eight teenage boys. That never proved to be a problem.

Early on, there was criticism about taking the scholars to a Broadway show. “People called it frivolous,” Barbara says. “But we were just giving these kids opportunities that others have.” Today, activities like those are an important part of the A Better Chance experience.

Barbara Butler (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

In the beginning, she notes, “people thought this was something Westport could do for others. It took a while, but now they realize what ABC does for Westport.”

For example, the scholars “get to know their host families, and their friends — and they get to know the scholars. The kids bring their experiences to Staples, which adds a lot for Westport students and teachers. Plus, they’re role models.”

Barbara credits much of ABC’s success to the careful process of choosing the right scholars. They must have plenty of academic potential, but also strong characters and supportive parents.

Despite all that, coming to Westport — and staying — is not easy. “Some of the kids have tough times,” Barbara admits. “But seeing them pull through — and go on to succeed at colleges like Yale and Duke — is tremendously gratifying.”

Yet the real payoff, Barbara says, comes at the annual Dream Event. “Boys have become young men. They’ve graduated from college — even grad school. They have jobs, girlfriends, wives and children.”

Barbara sees something else at the Dream Event: ABC board members, host families, tutors, drivers and resident directors she doesn’t know. New generations take over from the founders. A Better Chance of Westport moves forward, with ever-stronger community support.

That long-ago good idea turned out to be a great one.

 (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.)

The Rich History Of Westport’s Poorhouse

Did every old structure in Westport start somewhere else?

Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Birchwood Country Club clubhouse and Bedford Hall at the Westport Woman’s Club are 3 examples.

This coming Monday (May 1, 3 p.m.), Project Return takes the spotlight.

The North Compo Road home — a converted 8-bed farmhouse that since 1983 has housed scores of girls and young women from Westport and surrounding towns — will receive a historic significance plaque.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Turns out the building — sitting handsomely but unobtrusively between Little League fields and the Town Farm tennis courts — has quite a history.

It started out in what is now Playhouse Square, nearly 200 years ago.

In 1901 it became the town “poor house.”

More than a century later, it still serves folks in need.

Bob Weingarten — WHS house history chair — says the structure was built in 1824. A decade after that, it became part of the Kemper tannery. In 1930, that land became the Westport Country Playhouse.

In 1864, Charles Kemper Sr. moved it to property he bought from Samuel Gorham on North Compo.

The town of Westport purchased it in 1901, for use as an almshouse. At that point, by renting space in individual homes, we were spending more money on indigents than surrounding towns. Buying the entire farm, including the house of 13 rooms, for $2,750 could save us at least $1,000 a year.

“Town Poor House,” circled on a 1911 map.

In 1927, a man named Alfred Violet — the same person who gave his name to the road off Myrtle Avenue? — found sanitary conditions there “absolutely unbelievable.” Chimneys were crumbling; windows furnished “practically no protection at all against the weather … and the grounds have been used for the past years as a garbage dump.” Approximately 15 children lived there.

It’s uncertain how long the “town farm” operated as a poorhouse. The site was considered for a town garage. From 1975-83 it was rented to James Drought, a noted writer.

After he died, the house deteriorated. Kate McGraw — assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system — had the idea to use it as a residence for girls whose parents could not keep them at home.

Renovation $100,000. Many local organizations and individuals contributed funds, labor, materials and furniture.

1st Selectman Bill Seiden championed Project Return. 2nd Selectman Barbara Butler — later named town human services director — helped negotiate a $1-a-year lease.

That contract is still in effect. Project Return pays for all interior and exterior maintenance, and utilities. The town pays for tuition of each girl, while parents pay residential costs.

The safe, nurturing home has helped over 160 girls rebuild their lives. Project Return has evolved with the times — most recently last year, when the state stopped funding group homes for youth. Homes With Hope merged with the organization, ensuring a seamless transition.

Monday’s plaque presentation will include representatives of the town of Westport, Project Return and Homes With Hope, plus Kate McGraw’s daughter Sarah and 2 of James Drought’s children, Hank and Sarah.

It will be a fitting tribute to an important town structure — one that, like so many others, has ended up in a very different place than it began.

Literally.

Clothes Make The Families

For more than 30 years, Laurie Vogel ran stores in Westport: Joan & David. Country Road. Plaza Two.

Three years ago, she moved here. She also made a slight career change: She became a wardrobe consultant.

Vogel was not the type to encourage clients to just buy more. She helps women organize their closets, to maximizing the clothes they already own — and getting rid of those they do not need.

Laurie Vogel

Laurie Vogel, hard at work.

Around the same time, Barbara Butler — a friend and Westport’s former human services director — introduced her to Lynn Abramson, the head of Homes With Hope‘s mentor program.

Vogel became a mentor. “This is not about giving advice,” Vogel notes. “Mentoring is listening, encouraging, suggesting, making them strong enough to make it on their own.”

Vogel learned that some Homes With Hope clients needed clothes. So she began collecting items — including children’s clothing — for them. In addition to her own clients, she calls around for donations, then delivers them herself.

Vogel describes the clothes she collected for a 3-year-old girl. In addition to regular clothing, there were dress-up items.

Homes With Hope“She was overwhelmed with excitement,” Vogel says. “She never dreamed she’d get a chance to play with clothes like any other little girl.”

“People here want to do good,” she says. “But a lot of times they don’t know how. Or they don’t have the time.”

Like so many of us, Laurie Vogel is busy. But not too busy to help.

Now you can too. To learn more about donating clothes, email lvogel236@optonline.net.

Thank You, Barbara Butler!

A star-studded cast filled the Senior Center this afternoon, to honor Barbara Butler. Town and state officials, longtime volunteers, and the heads of the library and Y — among many others — paid tribute to the head of Westport’s Human Services Department.

But calling Butler — who retires tomorrow, after 27 years of service to the town — a department leader is like calling the Beatles “a band.”

Barbara Butler (right) shares memories with RTM moderator Eileen Flug.

Barbara Butler (right) shares memories with RTM moderator Eileen Flug.

In nearly 30 3 decades here, Butler has overseen every age group from teenagers (Youth Commission, Toquet Hall, Staples High School outreach) to seniors (Senior Center, Baron’s South elderly housing task force).

She’s been involved with tax relief, casework, career coaching and emergency preparedness. She’s helped homeowners pay for oil, and provided suits and dresses for needy Staples grads.

Butler helped found Project Return and the A Better Chance of Westport program.

She’s been a member of the TEAM Westport diversity group, and served with Positive Youth Development and the United Way. She’s a past president of the League of Women Voters.

Next month, the RTM votes on the formation of a new Commission on People with Disabilities. Butler spent her final weeks on the job helping launch that project.

In her spare time, she runs. And rows.

Guests at today's party signed a card for Barbara Butler. That's her in the center, rowing.

Guests at today’s party signed a card for Barbara Butler. That’s her in the center, rowing.

The Senior Center was packed today with her bosses (past and present), colleagues, friends, family and fans.

But if organizers invited everyone Barbara Butler helped over the past 27 years, they would have needed Yankee Stadium.

And still turned folks away.

Commission On Disabilities Moves Toward Reality

Over the past 40 years, great progress has been made at the federal and state levels protecting and advancing the rights, awareness and support of people with disabilities.

At the local level: not so much.

Jim Ross is well aware of the work that’s been done — and how much remains. He’s chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee, a group that among other tasks helps connect disabled people with transportation options.

He himself has a disability: He’s lost his vision. (That does not prevent him from working in the financial services field, building electronic equity marketplaces.)

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Ross is also involved in a new initiative. For the past 2 years, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Barbara Butler — the soon-to-retire director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — have spearheaded an effort, with a steering committee, to investigate the creation of a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The new group would ensure that this is a town where people with disabilities — whether physical or mental — have the opportunity and support to enjoy full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity, inclusion and self-determination.

Ross notes, “This is not about putting in ramps. It’s about involving and including people in meaningful ways.” In other words, it’s about creating policies and environments that welcome all Westporters.

“It’s a 2-way street,” he adds. “We want to help everyone here — politicians, businesses, organizations, citizens — have a meaningful dialogue about disabilities.”

Ross says that many people with disabilities excel in many areas. “They can teach us a lot,” he says. “We do a disservice to society by not having them participate fully in town activities.”

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Specifically, he explains, the commission could examine the services that Parks and Recreation provides. By looking at needs and wants, it could help the department help all physically and intellectually challenged Westporters.

In another area, he says, the commission could spark a discussion about how to provide housing for people with disabilities.

Transportation has been “very humbling” for Ross, the Citizens Transit Committee chair. “As great as our transportation strategy is for commuters, seniors and people with disabilities, we have to message it better,” he admits.

At an RTM meeting in June, Marpe and Butler took the first step toward making the Westport Commission on People with Disabilities a reality. A vote may be taken in July. No funding is involved.

Ross says that about 12% of Westporters live with a disability (including learning disabilities).

If he and town leaders have their way, that 12% will be part of the 100% of Westporters who participate fully and meaningfully in every aspect of town life.

Susie Basler Steps Down; Leaves Project Return Legacy

The year was 1980. Susie Basler had a great life in Evanston, Illinois: good friends, a supportive community, a food co-op she loved. She did not want to move to Westport, Connecticut.

But her husband’s job beckoned. The Baslers pulled up stakes. And the course of Susie’s entire life changed.

Kate McGraw was a new neighbor. As Westport’s assistant superintendent for special education, she knew plenty of girls in crisis. McGraw wanted to launch a group home.

She enlisted human services worker Barbara Butler. And — because newcomer Basler had a master’s degree in social work, had studied residential facilities and worked in the juvenile justice system — McGraw asked her to help too.

Basler was on the founding board of what became Project Return. With tremendous energy and enthusiasm — but no site or money — the group forged ahead.

Butler convinced First Selectman Bill Seiden to give the dilapidated Town Farm house on North Compo Road — slated for demolition — to the organization, for $1 a year.

Project Return today.

Project Return today.

The building — between Little League fields and tennis courts — was infested with racoons, squirrels and mice. But with plenty of hard work — and the help of grants writer Barbara Heatley, architect Ed Campbell and carpenter Ed Canning — the dream became a reality.

Project Return welcomed its 1st girls 30 years ago this month. The part-time director — who had 3 young children, and lived in Stamford — left 3 months later.

Basler stepped in, temporarily.

She never left.

Until now.

Basler — now 73 years old — has announced her retirement as executive director. She’ll be honored on Saturday, April 2 (7 p.m) at Project Return’s annual Birdhouse Auction and Gala, at the Fairfield Theatre Company Warehouse.

Susie Basler

Susie Basler

When Basler took over, 2 girls had already run away. Two staff members were ready to quit.

“I realized my entire life had prepared me for that moment,” Basler says.

She instituted core principles that were revolutionary at the time. She made sure that social workers — “our best staff” — spent most of their time not in meetings, but with the girls.

“Kids are hungry for feedback,” Basler says.

Basler has “enormous respect” for each girl who has come to Project Return. They cope with so much.

“The human spirit is resilient,” Basler says. “There is such a push for growth. Many times, I am in awe.”

Of the many things she is proud of, Project Return’s organizational model — circular, not hierarchical — tops the list.

“Our direct care staff is a team,” Basler explains. “We make decisions via consensus. We’ve created, I think, a wonderful, respectful, supportive environment and culture.”

Westport has noticed. Local support — both financial and volunteer — for the group home is “a beautiful story,” Basler says.

Project Return logo

Basler’s work is not easy. Girls arrive at Project Return from abusive or neglectful homes. They’ve been let down by their families.

“A group home is not a girl’s first choice,” Basler notes. “They’ve angry. They don’t want to open up. They’re afraid of being hurt again.”

It’s hard, she says, for even the most committed staffer to “love girls who exhibit unlovable behaviors.” In a group setting, that’s especially tough.

But — thanks in large part to Basler’s leadership — it works. “I’ve always treated the staff the way I want them to treat the girls,” she says simply.

She has done much more at Project Return, of course. She created HEAL (Heal, Empathy, Altruism, Love) — an after-school community service project for at-risk girls. She organized an annual educational conference for mental health professionals. She established an aftercare program to ensure the girls’ continued emotional and financial support.

That last initiative is particularly dear to Basler’s heart. Former residents call aftercare coordinator Renee Gold at all hours — including 3 a.m. — with questions ranging from “How long do you cook an apple pie?” to “How can I handle my boyfriend?”

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Basler and Gold are in touch with nearly 100 former Project Return residents. This summer, they attended the wedding of one.

Another Project Return graduate just had a baby.

“Growing up, she watched her father throw knives at her mother,” Basler says. “She’s in her early 30s now, and never thought she’d have children. When she got pregnant, she was so worried about being a parent. But she fell in love with her child when she saw the ultrasound.”

Basler is justly proud of that woman — and many others. Some have even gotten their own social work degrees.

“Project Return has changed my life,” she says emphatically. “I’ve learned so much: patience. That crises will pass, and we should celebrate good moments. That all of us are constantly growing.”

Basler has also learned “the importance of saying goodbye.”

As she says goodbye — after 30 years in charge — she will face the challenge of “how to be an elder in a community.” She hopes to share her wisdom, so that parents can understand their children better.

At 73, she has her own children — and 3 grandchildren. She is a child herself, with a 97-year-old mother. She plans to spend time with all of them.

But she’ll still have time for one activity. Susie Basler says, “I’ll remain Project Return’s biggest cheerleader.”

(For information on Project Return’s April 2 Birdhouse Auction and Gala — where Basler will be honored — click here.)

Remembering Chris Lemone

Staples High School was rocked today by the death of Chris Lemone. The 49-year-old Bethel resident passed away yesterday, of an apparent heart attack.

As the town’s Human Services Department’s student outreach counselor since 1998, Lemone touched many students. He was a strong, steady presence for those who had personal issues. He was also the guidance force behind the Teen Awareness Group. One of the most visible organizations on campus, TAG is best known for its annual sponsorship of Grim Reaper Day. Coming just before proms and graduation, it’s a crucial reminder of the dangers of drunk driving.

Just last week, TAG led a campaign against texting while driving.

Chris Lemone

Chris Lemone

Between his work with individual students and his tireless efforts with TAG, he saved countless lives. The exact number can never be known — but Lemone’s impact on Staples is clear and strong.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said Lemone “will be sorely missed by his co-workers, high school parents and, most importantly, the many students at Staples High School for whom he was an outstanding source of comfort and guidance.”

Human Services director Barbara Butler added:

TAG has become a part of the fabric of the Staples High School community, and Chris was justifiably proud of the TAG students and what they accomplished year after year. His thoughtful guidance was a key element in the group’s success. Chris was a wonderful man, teacher, counselor, mentor, and friend.

On behalf of the Town of Westport, his fellow employees, and the numerous young people who Chris worked with and inspired, we mourn with Chris’ wife, children and family.  As a community, we will work together to give them our support during this difficult time in the same way that Chris supported the children and families of Westport throughout his career.

Details on services are incomplete.

Westport Mulls Commission On Disabilities

Yesterday (Sunday, July 26) marked the 25 anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

You may have missed it. If you’re non-disabled, you probably never think of it. If you have a disability, you may have been out on a glorious Westport day. Perhaps you were at the beach or Longshore, or enjoyed a night at the Levitt — all easily accessible for everyone.

As a town, Westport has enabled access, supported transportation and provided programs and services that promote inclusion for people with disabilities.

When the beach wheelchair was delivered 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

When a new beach wheelchair was delivered 3 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Now, the town hopes to do more.

First Selectman Jim Marpe, and a steering committee headed by Barbara Butler (director of Westport Human Services) and Jim Ross (chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee) are considering a proposal to create a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The group would serve as a resource for people with disabilities and their families, as well as offer guidance to town officials on the development of programs and policies enabling residents to participate fully in community life.

The steering committee has created a short survey, seeking feedback on the initiative. They ask all “06880” readers to click here to participate.

High School And Homeless In Westport

Staples students are spending this summer in many ways. Some have paid jobs; others are interns. Some travel, or take courses. A few sleep in every day.

Brian Saunders was homeless.

Until recently, the rising senior lived in a comfortable Westport home. He still does.

But for a full week, he wandered around Westport. He ate cheap or free meals wherever he could. He slept in a car, a doorway and a baseball dugout.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian did all this willingly. Inspired by an AP English reading assignment — Into the Wild — he wanted to experience life without all the possessions he’d grown used to. Homelessness and isolation were foreign concepts to him. A week on his own — in his home town — seemed like a way to gain insights into himself, and others.

Brian — whose extracurricular activities include Kool To Be Kind, Young Democrats and the Circle of Friends program with special needs children — talked to Barbara Butler and Sarah Cocker at Human Services, and Pete Powell, former president of Homes With Hope.

Brian spoke with a Westport police officer, who was not happy with his plan. Neither were school and religious officials, who said he could not sleep on their property because of liability.

His parents were not thrilled either.

But Brian embarked on his mission. He spent hours in the Westport Library. He trudged all over town, carrying a change of clothes in a trash bag. (An actual homeless man scoffed, “We use backpacks. This is not New York City. We blend in.”)

He ate meals at McDonald’s and the Gillespie Center. With only a pillow and blanket — no sleeping bag — he spent uncomfortable nights in a friend’s car, the Coleytown Elementary School Little League dugout, and the doorway of a fitness center.

Brian befriended other homeless people. There was an alcoholic, with 2 children in college. “He’s my parents’ age,” Brian says. “Things just broke down for him.”

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some were regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some are regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

There was a school bus driver who lost his home in the mortgage crisis, and now lives in his car. A former cocaine dealer. And a construction worker who — like many homeless people — shuttles between Westport and neighboring towns.

One man kept telling Brian, “go home.”

Brian learned that — contrary to popular belief that the Gillespie Center kitchen serves up wonderful meals every day, of cast-off dinner party delights —  the reality is far different. The food can be microwaved chicken patties, the social issues fraught, the noise level loud.

“This was really tiring. The nights were cold. But it energized me. It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve done,” Brian says. “It’s made me think about my life, and what I want to get out of it.”

One day, he sat on the lawn next to Restoration Hardware. “It was incredible. I was watching $100,000 cars fly by, talking to a former drug addict with lupus and hypertension who can’t get to a doctor. There was such a contrast between myself, him, and the town.”

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

Brian says his week on the streets provided “a chance for me to slow down, look around, and get some clarification before I move on in life.”

In college he may study neurology, psychology or biomedical engineering. Before that comes senior year at Staples.

Right now, he’s appreciating life back home.

The first thing he did after leaving the street was take a shower. That — and sleeping in his own bed — were “incredible.”

Since then, he’s looked around at all his “stuff.”

“I feel calmer now,” Brian says. “I think I have a better sense of what I want. And what I want to ignore.”