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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.