Tag Archives: Dan Levinson

Westport Food Fund: The Sequel (Hint: Westport Rocks!)

Yesterday, “06880” announced the opening of a Westport Food Fund. The aim was to raise money for the 4% of our neighbors — 1,200 or so — who face food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis.

The goal was $50,000. A couple of generous contributions had seeded the fund. But there was much more to raise.

Within 12 hours, that lofty goal was reached.

Organizers were ecstatic — and inspired. The new goal: $75,000.

Department of Human Services director Elaine Daignault says:

We don’t know how much longer and to what extent this crisis will affect the community. But we do know the challenges are significant.

Our mission is to ensure that Westport’s most vulnerable have food on their tables in the coming weeks, and perhaps months. The funds raised in just 24 hours will ensure that their most essential nutritional needs are met.

Our call volume increases every day. We now have more resources to help, thanks to the awe inspiring generosity and compassion of our town.

She  loved the hashtag in one of the comments: #westportstrong. Though she prefers a new one: #westportwow!

 

New Food Fund Eases Anxieties

In fewer than 4 weeks since the coronavirus struck, calls to Westport’s Department of Human Services quadrupled.

Residents worry about countless things. But the most common fear is food insecurity.

“Between our established clients whom we’ve worked with for years, and new callers who find themselves unable to make ends meet, anxiety and panic is setting in for many,” says director Elaine Daignault.

“A lot of them already face tough decisions between putting food on the table, and paying household expenses.” Already, it is estimated, more than 4% of Westporters face food insecurity.

That’s around 1,200 people. Many are seniors and children.

And, Daignault warns, as social isolation continues and unemployment rises, those challenge will be felt by people who never in the past faced financial difficulties.

This photo symbolizes the fears of a rising number of Westporters.

A single mom with 3 kids has kept only one part-time job. But her rent is due. Without enough savings to stock up at the grocery store, she must stop in 3 times a week. That increases her risk of exposure, causing further despair.

One Westporter relies on the gig economy; his wife is disabled. Suddenly, his income does not cover the cost of food, rent and medications.

A senior citizen has worked part-time as a grocery clerk to supplement his Social Security income. Fearful of exposure to infection, he quit working. He can afford food — but he’s stopped paying his cell phone and electric bills.

An elderly, ailing couple have depended on the Senior Center for their daily hot, nutritious meal. The rest of the time, the wife prepares simple canned soups and frozen dinners.

Elaine Daignault

Daignault is proud of her small staff. They  offer connections, support and resources to residents in need. They make personal phone calls, and are working harder now than ever.

They’re providing grocery gift cards to Westporters, and collaborating with the school district to help families access the free and reduced lunch curbside pickup program.

Human Services has a rainy day fund. But there is a limit to their financial resources.

“We can’t wait for state and federal programs to kick in,” Daignault says. “People are hungry now.”

Dan Levinson shares her concerns. A longtime Westporter who years ago helped organize the original Green Village Initiative, he gets things done.

Quickly, he and other concerned residents created a Food Fund. The money they raise will be administered by Westport’s Department of Human Services.

The goal is ambitious: $50,000. But generous contributions jump started it nicely.

Daignault welcomes the support. She calls the Food Fund “a great example of how we as a community can express compassion, and use our skills and creativity to benefit others. It also shows how we are all in this together.”

Senior Center director Sue Pfister adds, “My heart broke when my colleagues in Human Services began to worry about not having resources needed to handle the calls they were getting about folks needing basic food and grocery money.

“I knew if the word got out the community would rise to the occasion, and see to it that not one human being went hungry in Westport. Dan Levinson loved the mission, and ran with the concept. 72 hours later, we were halfway to our goal!”

Click here to donate. For more information — including how to benefit from food funds — call 203-341-1050.

Thanksgiving Feast Is On The Marc

It’s one of Westport’s greatest traditions: the Community Thanksgiving Day Feast.

For decades, it’s happened organically. Members of the sponsoring Saugatuck Congregational Church — and many others — sign up to bring food, or help elsewhere. Over 200 people show up, alone and with families. There’s music, fellowship and fun.

Every year, many hands help create Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Feast.

Sometimes there are tweaks. Sign-up Genius now makes it easier to assign tasks. When a fire rendered Saugatuck Church unusable, Christ & Holy Trinity stepped into the breach.

Last year brought a big change. Marc Weber and Anthony Miami took over the turkeys.

Plus the stuffing, gravy, potatoes, salads, vegetables, desserts — everything about the meal from, well, soup to nuts.

They were not simply volunteers. Weber owns OnTheMarc Catering. Miami is executive chef of the Inn at Longshore.

These guys are pros.

Marc Weber

Five years ago Weber — a Culinary Institute of America graduate who began as a private chef, then grew his business to include clients like the Warehouse at FTC, Audubon Greenwich and Hudson Loft — partnered with the Longshore Inn.

He works all over Fairfield County, Westchester and New York City. But he lives in Westport.

And he wants to give back.

He’s on the board of an organization that helps local families find volunteer opportunities. At Longshore, he works with non-profits like Sunrise Rotary and Tiny Miracles.

His mother — a philanthropic adviser — emphasized the importance of “skills-based” volunteerism: contributing not just money, but talent and expertise.

Last year for the first time, Dan Levinson and Monique Bosch of Main Street Resources coordinated Westport’s Thanksgiving Feast. They asked Weber to help. He and Miami fed nearly 300 people, at very low cost.

“We know how to do it,” Weber says simply.

This year (Thursday, November 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), they’ll do it again.

Once again, they’re doing it gladly.

“I was so impressed by the number of families who volunteered,” Weber says of last year’s event. The first selectman helped serve. High school kids transported food from the Inn.”

That’s right: Now, the food is cooked off-site. It’s a big step up from the former potluck-type planning.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws hundreds of people.

Of course, Weber and Miami can’t do it all alone. Westport Rotary, the Senior Center, Gillespie Center, Homes with Hope, the Unitarian Church, United Methodist Church, Bedford Middle School and Coleytown Elementary School all participate.

So do over 80 volunteers. They decorate, set up, greet, serve, clean up, even drive attendees who need transportation.

Monique and Dan hope for the usual donations of turkeys from Stew Leonard’s, pies from Temple Israel,  bread from Sono Bakery and s’mores from Westport Boy Scouts. Other generous donations traditionally include floral arrangements from Westport Garden Club and greeting cards from Coleytown Middle School,

Somehow, it all comes together. It’s a true community feast.

But now the turkey and trimmings are prepared by true pros.

(To volunteer at Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Day Feast, click here. If you need a ride, call the Saugatuck Church: 203-227-1261. For more information, call Monique Bosch: 203-858-8829.)

In Death, The Gift Of Life

Like many others, Dan Levinson moved from New York to Westport when his children were young. He thought it would be a great place to raise kids.

He was right. He grew to love the town, and has been active in many non-profit organizations here and in Bridgeport.

Like some others, his father — Peritz Levinson — moved in with the Levinsons late in life. He too learned to love the beach, Longshore, the library and Senior Center.

Peritz died a year later. Unlike many others, however, his death was not frightening, painful or brutal.

Instead, it was powerful. It was meaningful.

And now it’s become the impetus for an intriguing, important book project.

Peritz Levinson spent his life in Cincinnati. That’s where he took care of his own parents, until they died.

Peritz Levinson, with a very young Dan.

A psychiatrist, he came to Westport when he was 90. His wife had died, and he was ailing. He did not want to impose on his son.

Peritz need not have worried. He had prepared to die. During the last year of his life, he “became transcendent,” Dan says. “He was less present, but more brilliant.”

As they heard Dan talk about his father’s death, people who befriended Peritz during his last year — Sue Pfister at the Senior Center, Bill Harmer of the Westport Library, Sharon Bradley at Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County — encouraged Dan to write about the experience.

Peritz and Dan Levinson take a selfie.

He realized there were other stories out there, of “good deaths.” He decided to find them, find writers to tell them, and collect them in a book.

“Beautiful Exits: Sparking Local Conversation on Dying Well” will be “hyperlocal,” he says, featuring 10 stories from Westport.

“It’s not a book for the world. But I think it can influence a lot of people.”

For much of history, Dan notes, death was seen as a natural part of life. People died at home, surrounded by loved ones. But advances in technology and medicine have made us think we need to “fight and scrap,” to put off the inevitable end of our days.

Peritz Levinson, enjoying his son Dan’s back yard.

Peritz Levinson had thought for years about death. He was a founding member of Exit International. The non-profit organization wants to ensure that all rational adults have access to the best available information, so they can make informed decisions about when and how they die.

“My father wanted to be present as he died,” Dan says. “He was calm. He had clarity.”

The final 3 months in particular were “spectacular.”

Dan took his father to meaningful places. Peritz loved the beach. At Elvira’s, Stacy gave him rice pudding. When they drove through the golf course, people waved. Dan’s son Jesse — Peritz’s grandson — was around for much of the time too.

Peritz Levinson, surrounded by (clockwise from lower left), his grandchildren Andie, Adam and Jesse, plus Andie’s fiance Steve and Adam’s girlfriend Hayley.

“It was beautiful,” Dan says. “We had quality time, and closure. There was acceptance and peace.”

Dan is fully aware that his family’s experience is rare. Part of the reason for the book is to spark conversations about dying.

He’s identified many of the 10 stories — and 10 writers — for the book. He only needs a couple of both.

Estelle Margolis, longtime activitst and a Westporter who prepared well for her own death.

Longtime civic volunteer and political activist Estelle Margolis, for example, prepared well for her own death. Her grandson will write her story. Rev. Alison Patton and her husband Craig would like to tell the story of someone still living, now making preparations before death.

“Beautiful Exits” will also include a short piece by assistant town attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug framing the history and legal issues, and another by State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, a proponent of a proposed law that would allow a terminally ill patient with 6 months to live to take his or her own life.

Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Frank Hall may also contribute a piece about death and dying.

Artist Miggs Burroughs might create some of his young-and-old lenticular images for the book.

Someone told Dan, “Your father gave you his life. And he gave you his death.”

Now Dan Levinson is passing on that gift, just as his dad did: with honesty, clarity, grace and love.

GVI Expands Beyond Its Roots

Remember the Green Village Initiative?

Ten years ago Dan Levinson, Monique Bosch and a group of passionate Westporters founded the organization. They restored the Wakeman Town Farm and Sustainability Center, established edible gardens in schools, and launched a film and lecture series throughout Fairfield County.

Today WTF is thriving. The schools gardens in Bridgeport used lesson plans created by Sacred Heart University that tie into the curriculum.

GVI got its start at Wakeman Town Farm.

And 10 years later, GVI is now Bridgeport-based. Its mission is more focused: to grow food, knowledge, leadership and community through urban gardening and farming, creating a more just food system.

GVI believes that economic development is fostered when a community has the ability to grow, sell and purchase the food it chooses to, conveniently.

With 3 full-time employees, paid interns and summer Bridgeport student employees, GVI grows, sells and donates over 5,000 pounds of fresh, organic produce each year. More than 200 families grow their own food at community gardens, and 0ver 500 students seed, maintain and harvest their school gardens.

A new Urban Farmer Training Program — launched with the University of Connecticut — helps gardeners grow food. The group — including Westporter Cornelia Olsen — is now a vendor at Bridgeport farmers’ markets.

Other Westporters have worked hard to make this happen too. Every year hundreds rebuild and clean gardens, and farm with the GVI team.

Volunteers include Staples High School interns, Staples Service League of Boys (SLOBS) student and parents, and Builders Beyond Borders.

Westporters and Bridgeporters work together with GVI.

In addition, Westport League of Women voters members join GVI board member Pippa Bell Ader and her friends, coordinating annual Bridgeport elementary school trips to Reservoir Community Farm.

Those volunteers and supporters were honored the other day, at a party at Patagonia in Westport. Local law firms Cohen and Wolf and Berchem Moses were key sponsors.

Next up: a “Harvest Bits & Booze” fundraiser November 13 (6 to 9 p.m., Read’s Art Space, 1042 Broad Street, Bridgeport).

Trattoria ‘A Vucchella caters, with meat and vegetables from Connecticut farms. All proceeds go to GVI’s programs. Click here for tickets and more information.

A lot has blossomed over the past 10 years. Congratulations to GVI, as it celebrates a decade of growth!

Breaking News — GVI Returns Wakeman Farm To The Town

Green Village Initiative and the Town of Westport just released this news.  “06880” will report further news as it becomes available. 

The board of directors of the local nonprofit Green Village Initiative and the office of the Westport Selectman announced today that GVI will end its lease of the Wakeman Town Farm & Sustainability Center.  “The farm and its improvements” will be returned to the town.

Over the past 2 years, the press release says, GVI has invested over $150,000 in the farm.  It has also arranged “in-kind donations from local businesses and (organized) thousands of volunteer hours between the GVI team, Staples interns and Builders Beyond Borders students.”

“We are grateful to GVI for its wonderful generosity in gifting the improvements and for the work it has done to restore the property to a working farm,” said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.

“Through the application of funds and volunteers, and with the support of literally hundreds of families and local businesses, GVI in two years transformed the Farm into a new historical, refurbished facility that benefits the entire town.”

Added Selectwoman Shelly Kassen, “GVI has never wavered from its commitment to this community.  They are a gem that we can all be proud of.”

Three former GVI board members will continue providing support to the farm by assisting the town with its management.

GVI’s remaining 19 board members will “resume the work of carrying out the group’s mission.”

GVI chairman Dan Levinson said, “we at GVI have decided that the town is the best steward for this project long-term while we dedicate our efforts to other community-building and environmental projects in Westport and surrounding towns.  This outcome is best for the community, best for the farm, and best for GVI.”

Peter Wormser and Liz Milwe — GVI board members who left the board in the controversial decision not to renew the contract of “town farmer” Mike Aitkenhead — will stay active with the farm.

The couple said, “we think this is a great gift that should work extremely well long-term for the farm and the town.  It also works to keep the community and especially the kids involved with the future of The Farm.  GVI’s gift to the Town will be appreciated for generations to come.”

Over the past year, the press release said, the farm “has been managed by Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead, who are departing The Farm.”

The release added:

“The Aitkenheads were a great couple for The Farm and GVI is forever grateful for their hard work and enthusiasm and their good accomplishments at Wakeman’s,” said GVI board member Sal Gilbertie.

“They leave with our sincerest thanks and very best wishes for their continued success and good example to the Westport community.”

Homeward Bound

Growing up in Westport is one thing.

Coming back here to live is something else entirely.

That was the consensus, a couple of weeks ago, at a Green Village Initiative event attended filled with students from Staples’ Advanced Placement Environmental Science classes.

They were skeptical — if not downright incredulous — that anyone could ever return to Westport without first making incredible amounts of money in the materialistic world.

So GVI organized a meeting with Westporters who had done just that  — that is, came back home without a pit stop on Wall Street.

One of the panelists was Justin Miller.  The 2001 Staples graduate described why he left Westport after college — and why it was important to return.

It’s tough to make a career as a choral music performer, he said.  He got his start as a choral director in California.  And while he knew that teaching music was the way to go, the Golden State was not the place to do it.

He also knew he wanted to eventually raise a family here.  When the Staples choral directing job opened up last spring, he went through the rigorous application process — and got it.

“You should go away,” Justin told the students.  “Get a grasp on the rest of the world.

“I was excited to leave.  As I went, I learned and appreciated what Westport has to offer.”

When GVI leader Dan Levinson opened the floor to questions, the discussion veered to money.  Because the classes had been discussing sustainable local economies, the issue of mom-and-pop shops arose.

Justin pointed out that many small businesses exist — but are often overlooked.

And Mitchells — the high-end clothing store — is actually a grandma-and-grandpa business.

Driving home later, Justin said, he realized that the town is filled with places like Fortuna’s, Angelina’s and Westport Pizzeria.  Even Planet Pizza and Bertucci’s are small chains.

In any other town, he noted, the equivalent of the Post Road would be lined with Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters.

“The world has changed,” he said.  “In some respects, Westport has had slower change — in terms of a close-knit community aspect — than many other places.”

He was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students’  questions.

One of the harshest young critics of the ability to return to — and sustain — your hometown came from a boy who recited statistics about average incomes and tax structures.  He said he’d love to come back after college, but knows he must go elsewhere first, to acquire wealth.

“We talked about different kinds of finances,” Justin said.  “It can be done.  I’m a music guy.”

Another student declared that he’d go somewhere else, learn about the world — and maybe not want to return.

“When I went away,” Justin replied, “that’s when I realized how special Westport was.

He paused.  “And still is.”