Tag Archives: Jeff Wieser

Tooker, Goldstein: State Of Town Is “Very Strong”

The state of Westport is “very strong.”

First Selectwoman Jen Tooker delivered that assessment yesterday afternoon to a large crowd at the Westport Library, and more residents watching online.

Board of Education chair Lee Goldstein offered a similar verdict, for the Westport Public Schools.

The 5th annual “State of the Town” meeting was sponsored by Westport’s 2 Rotary clubs. RTM moderator Jeff Wieser led the session.

In her opening remarks, 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker gave a shout-out to Olympic silver medalist snowboarder (and Westport resident) Julia Marino.

Tooker used town poet laureate Diane Lowman’s words — “resilient, optimistic, Westport strong” — in her opening remarks.

COVID has demanded a “vigilant, respectful” response — and municipal employees have delivered it “professionally and compassionately,” she said. Now, we begin to focus on “a return to the activities of living.”

Tooker spoke about various departments, including:

  • Human Services (expanded outreach, and reopening the Senior Center)
  • Police Department (“proactive service, and an ongoing commitment to transparency”)
  • Fire Department (administering over 5,000 COVID vaccines)
  • Human Resources (29 new hires last year)
  • Town Clerk (more online tax payments and dog licenses)
  • Parks & Recreation (record usage of golf, tennis, Cockenoe Island and clamming permits)

Tooker cited Sustainable Westport and a “restaurant renaissance” as other highlights of the year.

In addition, she thanked Police, Fire and EMS for their swift response 3 weeks ago, when her father suffered a heart attack.

Before 1st Selectwoman Tooker’s remarks on Westport, she sported a very local “nautical landmarks mask” from Savvy + Grace.

Her priorities for the future include upgrades to downtown (including Parker Harding Plaza, Jesup Green, and the Imperial Avenue and Baldwin parking lots); a new Longshore capital improvement plan; flood mitigation; sidewalk projects, and a new Traffic Safety Commission that will hold public meetings in all 9 RTM districts. The “Cross Highway corridor” near North Avenue will be a top priority.

In her schools presentation, Goldstein noted numerous awards and achievements. However, she warned, the district is not resting on its laurels.

Four key areas of attention include facilities (with a comprehensive look at Long Lots Elementary), and master plans for the 7 other buildings; strategic planning; social and emotional learning, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Board of Education chair Lee Goldstein.

Audience members then asked questions on hot town issues.

Regarding TEAM Westport, Tooker repeated her words at the body’s meeting last week: “I am fully committed to preserving the original mission, to achieve and celebrate a more welcoming and inclusive Westport community.”

Goldstein said that Westport schools have “a rich and long partnership” with the organization. “Their advisory capacity is very important to us. The Board of Education shares their commitment to multiculturalism, and lessening racism, homophobia and xenophobia.”

She said that the police, clergy, Library and Westport Country Playhouse — “and of course the schools” — attend TEAM meetings, as they do with other advisory groups like the Westport Arts Advisory Board.

Speaking personally, she added, “I categorically and unequivocally support the mission of TEAM Westport.”

Tooker used those comments to add thoughts on recent debates on issues like these.

“The community wants constructive discussions of important topics,” the 1st Selectwoman said. She expressed hope for “constructive discourse, in the way we know how to have it as Westporters.”

1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker and Board of Education chair Lee Goldstein answer audience questions.

On mask policies, Goldstein said she hoped the state would issue guidelines if the current mandate is not extended past February 15. If not, she said, the board will hear recommendations from the Westport Weston Health District, and medical advisors. “We will approach the off-ramp when it’s safe and appropriate,” she said.

Tooker noted that Westport’s current mask mandate applies only to town-owned buildings. The COVID Emergency Management Team meets every week, she said. Meanwhile, high rates of both vaccinations and previous infections here make future decisions will be made on different metrics than before.

Tooker refuted the belief that crime is up in Westport — though car thefts definitely are. She and police officials are holding neighborhood meetings. She urged the public to offer other ideas for mitigating strategies.

Tooker replied to a question about dredging the Saugatuck River by describing it as a complex project involving federal, state and local permitting and funds. She praised Congressman Jim Himes, former town director of operations Sara Harris and Public Works director Pete Ratkiewich for their work with officials at all levels.

So what keeps Tooker up at night?

Cybersecurity, for one. She feels “great” about town mitigation efforts, but knows that municipalities are “under siege.”

Affordable housing, for another. The first selectwoman fears “losing local control of how we diversify our housing stock.”

A third worry: “the lack of civil discourse everywhere. We struggle, as a country and a community. We can do better.”

Goldstein answered the question with praise of Westport

“I feel so blessed to be in this town,” the Board of Ed chair said. “Our problems are many. But I’m so grateful to live here, with these schools.”

But, she continued, “I worry about our families, kids and teachers. Imagine dealing with your own kids. Now think about 20 in one classroom. It’s exhausting.”

Still, she said, “I see some school board meetings in other places that are crazy.

“Ours are not. I’m good with that.”

Westport’s 2 Rotary Clubs sponsored the “State of the Town” event.

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Here is the full text of 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker’s speech:

To the Rotary Clubs, thank you to both for hosting the annual State of Town Address. As a Sunrise Rotarian, who doesn’t make many meetings lately, I so appreciate all that you do for the community. Thank you to the Library for allowing us to use your space and technology to reach as many Westporters as possible.  It is an honor and a pleasure to be here with you to share the progress Westport has made over the past year, and to update you on some of the exciting opportunities that we are now pursuing.

I’ve officially celebrated 8 weeks in office. And it has been quite a ride. But first, let’s talk about the past year.

Haiku from poet laureate Diane Lowman:

The state of the town

Resilient optimistic

We are Westport strong

There is little doubt that the past year has been one of challenges and uncertainty. However, I can proudly say that our yown employees, our elected and appointed members of Westport’s Board and Commissions, our businesses, and our amazing residents have faced these difficult times with professionalism, perseverance, and resiliency. The State of our yown is indeed very strong.

Surges and drops in Covid-19 cases during the past 12 months have required all of us to be flexible and vigilant in our efforts to protect against the virus while reclaiming a new normal in our work, schools, and daily lives where possible. I wish to extend my heartfelt and deepest appreciation for my predecessor, First Selectman Jim Marpe, for his tremendous leadership during this time.

Our administration has and will continue to follow the data and the science and the recommendations from state and local health experts to enact policies that mitigate risk while also – and this is critically important – allowing us all to return to the activities and way of living we expect and deserve. While the way we live, work, and play will continue to evolve, we must and will move forward together. Our town will support our residents’ post-pandemic lifestyle choices as we continue to deliver the highest quality services, facilities, and amenities for our entire community.

I would like to take a few minutes to provide you with an accounting of our town’s undertakings and accomplishments over the past year. I would also like to recognize at this point the talented, dedicated town employees who have been on the front lines serving our residents throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and have done so with professionalism and compassion that makes me very proud to lead this amazing workforce. Our town employees are the very definition of essential workers and each and every one of them has contributed to our town’s success.

In Town Hall, our Human Resources Department had a busy year recruiting candidates to fill 29 important open positions in a very difficult job market for employers. As you know, we are competing with other towns and businesses who are experiencing worker shortages. It is a testament to our reputation as a top-notch employer that we can attract these impressive hires which are a diverse and accomplished group. We welcome them to our community and to our town Hall family.

Several of these terrific new hires have joined us in the Tax Collectors office, following the retirement of some long-time employees, and the department is now under the direction of our new Tax Collector, Christine Allison. This year, the department saw a marked increase in online tax payments compared to the year before and we will encourage that trend to continue.  And we look forward to some good news about the grand list from our Tax Assessor’s office this week.

We hired a new town clerk this past year, Jeff Dunkerton, whose office for the first time offered online dog licenses for residents. This new program was a group effort between our IT Department, our operations director and our Town Clerk’s Office, and is just one of many examples of how we can better deliver services for Westporters through cooperation, collaboration and technology. In addition to our new town clerk, we also have 2 new registrars of voters and 2 new deputies and together this brand-new team managed a successful municipal election along with registering 100s of new residents to vote.

Speaking of new residents, we all know Westport’s real estate market was impacted significantly. With 100s of new residents and of course current residents wanting to improve their homes, our land use departments were incredibly busy – seeing a surge in permits. The same was seen on the commercial side with dozens of new businesses opening in Westport. Our Building Department implemented new software to allow permits and inspections to be viewed on line. Other land use departments — P&Z, Conservation, Health and Engineering along with our IT Department — continue pursue a comprehensive, on-line permitting system. They are dangerously close. We are always looking for ways to innovate and serve our residents and businesses more efficiently and effectively.

So, what has attracted all these new residents? There are many answers to that question. But in addition to our excellent schools, our parks and beaches continue to be a primary reason why people move to Westport. Our Parks and Recreation Department has been at the forefront of delivering opportunities, first-class amenities, and recreational activities for all Westporters. Recently, we hired a new parks superintendent – this critical role will oversee Westport’s more than 25 parks and beaches, I bet you all didn’t know we had that many, with a focus on user accessibility and of course enjoyment. Please visit Riverside Park if you haven’t already – it’s received a beautiful upgrade – and we are hoping the public will make use of it.

Our Parks and Recreation Department also adopted a Financial Sustainability Policy, which will ensure effective use of taxpayer resources, and the ability to maintain and upgrade our amenities and facilities for the future. We witnessed record usage of our golf course, our tennis and paddle facilities, Cockenoe Island and even clamming permits we up significantly. It is clear that our residents are embracing the outdoor lifestyle and seeking relaxation and enjoyment in our parks and beaches more than ever before.

But during this very challenging year, not only have our residents flocked to our outdoor spaces for refuge, but we have also seen that they have needed support in other ways. Our amazing Department of Human Services stepped up to meet the needs of residents with compassion and dedication.  They continued their emergency management response to support Westporters adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including outreach and support to address residents’ long-term and immediate basic needs with mass drive-thru and home delivery food and meal distribution programs for food-insecure seniors and other residents. DHS staff members also provided community outreach and support for seniors, youth, and other vulnerable populations via home visits, phone, social media, and weekly email updates; all while addressing the ongoing social and emotional well-being needs of all residents and managing a specific $700,000 Department of Housing Cares Act Grant on behalf of Homes with Hope to make COVID-related improvements to the Gillespie Shelter facilities.

Through the Westport Center for Senior Activities, our seniors were kept engaged and connected to their peers and instructors via virtual programming which helped so many cope with the isolation of the ongoing pandemic. The Senior Center was successfully reopened in July for in-house programming in a safe manner. Staff also assisted seniors with obtaining vaccination booster shots and in obtaining test kits as the Omicron variant spread.

As mentioned before, we’ve had a surge of new businesses opening – many being restaurants. Along with the Chamber of Commerce and the Westport Downtown Association, the Planning and Zoning Department has worked tirelessly with business owners during a very challenging year. They facilitated existing restaurants to stay open and new restaurants to be established contributing to a restaurant renaissance in Westport.

The P&Z Department also took important measures to diversify housing in Westport and keep in compliance with legal requirements established by the State of Connecticut, and raising the total number of affordable units to 400. And they also adopted a text amendment to prohibit retail recreational cannabis establishments in Westport.

I mentioned before that our town employees are truly essential – without them, Westport simply doesn’t work. Our Department of Public Works is in many ways the backbone of our town. They are out there every day strategically planning for our future, fixing roads, plowing snow, upgrading our infrastructure, repairing sidewalks – you name it, they do it. This past year, for the first time, the town’s Department of Public Works took over responsibility for paving our school parking lots. So in addition to paving 6 Town parking lots, they paved 4 school lots as well.

And about 10 miles of roads. Additionally, they have undertaken dozens of infrastructure projects all around town including almost 1.5 miles of sidewalks, numerous complicated bridge projects and sewer upgrades. It is critical that we continue to invest in our infrastructure for the safety of our residents and the future of our Town.

While upgrading our infrastructure and planning for the future, we consistently look for opportunities to be a more sustainable community. We received quite an  honor this year as we were awarded Silver Certification from Sustainable CT – one of very few municipalities and this is the highest honor.  Thank you to the efforts of former operations director Sara Harris, virtually every single town department head, numerous local non-profits, former First Selectman Jim Marpe and especially the leadership of Sustainable Westport. Everything from converting our street lights to LED to increasing the number of electric vehicles in our town fleet – and specifically including our police vehicles – has enabled us to achieve this status. We will continue to work towards a sustainable future together.

Speaking of the future, in coordination with the Town of Fairfield’s IT, Police, and Fire Departments, we upgraded our police and fire department network to communicate with the newly created, state of the art joint dispatch center that will open for business soon. This new venture will allow us to continue to deliver effective emergency services while providing long-term cost savings. Identifying opportunities for coordination with surrounding towns on projects like this will continue be a priority going forward.  

In addition to all the other first responder activities our firefighters do, they received COVID-19 vaccination training in early 2021, which enabled them to provide vaccinations at clinics for Westport Public Schools and the Aspetuck Health District. Firefighters administered over 5,000 vaccinations at these clinics. We are incredibly proud of their lifesaving work.

More of Westport’s finest, our police department continued to protect and serve our community with integrity, kindness and effectiveness in the midst of this global pandemic. Strict proactive protective measures allowed the Westport PD to maintain high levels of service despite COVID-19 infections raging.

Importantly, our Police Department continues to meet and exceed the requirements set forth by Connecticut’s Police Accountability Bill. We are extremely proud of our department’s record of conduct and their ongoing commitment to transparency, including the installation of a Civilian Review Panel and the approval of an upgraded body and dash camera project.

The effects of the pandemic have been keenly felt by our EMS staff. They continue to walk into medical emergencies with courage and purpose, never knowing what they will face. I witnessed their unbelievable professionalism first hand when I called 911 three weeks ago, yesterday. My dad was suffering what we thought was a mini-stroke, but ended up being life-ending heart attack. The entire team, EMS, PD and Fire, were kind, considerate, swift and decisive. I couldn’t be more impressed and grateful.

As you can see, our town has a long list of impressive accomplishments and goals reached during the past year. A year filled with daily uncertainty, the town staff exhibited true resilience and continued to deliver the high standards of service the community demands and deserves while taking on initiatives that are critical to the future of the town – all while managing a global pandemic. Speaking of the future, let’s talk about those priorities. I’d like to take this opportunity now to thank newly-elected Selectwomen Andrea Moore and Candice Savin for their leadership as we move forward. The opportunities before us are very exciting.

Downtown – We are ready to engage in upgrading our downtown.  This will be a multi-year, staged effort starting with changes to the Parker Harding lot along the river and then moving to Jesup Green and the Taylor Lot and Taylor Place section and lastly to the Imperial Lot behind the Library. Additionally, the Baldwin Lot, which sees a tremendous amount of use for downtown shoppers, will undergo a much-needed repaving in the near future. Our goal is to create better connection and access to Downtown for shopping, dining, and enjoying our arts and cultural institutions. It will also allow us to activate our beautiful riverfront for the use of residents and visitors alike.

The Longshore Capital Improvement Plan will kick off at the February meeting of the newly constituted Parks and Recreation Commission. With our new partners at the Inn at Longshore, the time is right to move forward with a comprehensive long-term plan for this treasured Westport facility. We are excited for this process to commence and to seek the input of all stakeholders because we know that these changes will benefit our community for decades to come and help keep Westport one of the most attractive towns to live and visit in the region.

Traffic and pedestrian safety is a key priority for residents and of course for this  administration. We will approach these challenges in a holistic way by first looking at issues in our neighborhoods. Prior to creating a new Traffic Advisory and Neighborhood Safety Commission, we will be hosting public meetings for each of the Town’s nine districts. These public meetings will enable us to receive real-time information about challenges and opportunities in each town neighborhood and will ensure that the concerns of all residents are heard as our town experts from Police, Fire, Public Works and P&Z will be in attendance.  These meetings will be held through the spring and early summer. Please look for details. Running concurrently, we have prioritized a number of sidewalk projects in the first 2 years completing some connectivity around our schools and Downtown as we know walking has become important to our residents through the pandemic and beyond.  Pedestrian Safety leads me to another issue, specifically the Cross Highway corridor from Bayberry to North Avenue. This heavily trafficked area, which provides access to a number of our public schools, is a top priority. We want to do everything possible to ensure the safety of our commuters and our students.

Flood mitigation and resilience is another area that continues to need our attention. Increasing frequency and severity of storms is a painful reminder. The leadership of the Flood and Erosion Control Board and our Engineering Department have proposed that this board take on an expanded role with respect to reviewing and prioritizing stream improvement projects and general strategy regarding flood prevention. I think this is an excellent idea and more details will follow regarding operationalizing this role. Again, running concurrently, we will continue to prioritize certain bridge and culvert repairs. However, I want to thank our Flood and Erosion Control Board and Engineering Department for their thoughtful and smart operational proposition.

Lastly, I would like to take a moment to discuss another key initiative of our administration that has been critical to our Covid-19 pandemic response, and will continue to support our residents in the near and long-term. That is the Westport Together Alliance, which focuses on the social and emotional health and well-being of our entire community. It is a partnership between the town, our schools, the PTAs, and our non-profit organizations, and has delivered essential programs and resources over the past two years. We know that the mental health and wellness struggles among residents continue – and in many ways the pandemic has shown a bright light on this issue. We are committed to bolstering the Westport Together Alliance to ensure every Westporter knows they have access to the support and resources they need.

Haiku from poet laureate Diane Lowman

Facing challenges

Seizing opportunities

Supporting our town

 

Thank you again to the Rotaries for hosting this event, to the Library for the beautiful venue and technology, and to all of you for attending and giving me the opportunity to discuss the progress and promise of this Town we all love. We will continue to wake up every day and work hard to ensure Westport remains the best place to live, work and play in the region and you know this is where you belong.

 

Jeff Wieser: New RTM Moderator Builds Non-Partisan Consensus

As a commuter, Jeff Wieser did not feel a part of either Westport or New York.

He’d always been interested in government, but was not committed to party politics. The Representative Town Meeting — our non-partisan legislative body — seemed intriguing.

So in 2007 — 22 years after moving here — Wieser ran for a seat.

He won easily. “Well, it was an uncontested district,” he admits.

At his second meeting, the RTM passed a plastic bag ban. It was the first such measure east of the Mississippi River. Wieser realized the potential and power of the body.

Seven terms later, he is the new RTM moderator.

Earlier this month, Wieser took the gavel from longtime moderator Velma Heller.

On Friday — the day he retired from his 3rd career, as CEO of Goodwill of Western & Northern Connecticut — he reflected on his path to the post.

He and his wife Pat moved here in 1985, after his banking career took him to Hong Kong and Australia. Now, he says, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

In 1989 Wieser joined the board of Homes with Hope, the supportive housing agency. Founder and CEO Pete Powell retired in 2009. A 6-month search failed to find a qualified replacement. Would Wieser be interested?

He spent 3 days considering it. When he asked Pat what she’d think if he gave up banking, she said, “It’s what you’ve always wanted to do.”

After a decade at the helm — opening more housing options, and adding services for homeless and hungry people — Wieser retired,

A few weeks later, he joined Goodwill as interim CEO. Two weeks after that, COVID hit. Good will laid off employees, and closed stores. Wieser felt he could not leave then. He stayed many months longer than he’d planned.

Jeff Wieser, at the Westport Goodwill.

Now that he’s finally retired, he’ll have the time to dedicate to his new position. It’s an important one.

Wieser knows the only image some Westporters have of the RTM comes from watching contentious meetings. They draw crowds. Few people view the more mundane sessions. Fewer still see the committee work and constituent outreach that is so important, to him and fellow members

The RTM’s non-partisan mandate appeals to Wieser.

“This is the essence of democracy,” he says. “We’re a town of 28,000, and we have a legislative body one-third the size of the US Senate. But there’s no party affiliation, so we have reasoned. thoughtful debates. The RTM should be a model for any democratic institution.

“Sometimes I appreciate the RTM more than I like it. But I really do like it.”

As chair of the RTM’s Finance Committee, Wieser worked with the 1st selectman and Board of Finance. That experience deepened his appreciation for how well the town is run.

As deputy moderator, he watched Hadley Rose, Eileen Lavigne Flug and then Heller run meetings. They are the 3 most recent moderators, in a long line of effective consensus builders.

Wieser describes the moderator’s role as “herding 36 pretty intelligent cats every month. I’m supposed to guide the conversation, slow it down, keep people in line, keep the rules of order, keep the agenda in good shape, and make sure the committees are meeting.”

The moderator is not supposed to participate in debates. “My goal is to help members accomplish their goals,” he explains.

Wieser calls his style “collaborative.” At Homes with Hope he learned that nothing gets done unless everyone pulls in the same direction.

“I’m a consensus builder,” Wieser says. “I won’t rush anything through.”

Wieser’s style has served him well in his previous work. It’s helpful too at Positive Directions: The Center for Prevention & Counseling, on whose board he serves.

But, he says, he’s “clearing the decks” of other obligations, to be as effective as he can as RTM moderator.

Jeff Wieser (left), his wife Pat (center), their children (back row), with grandchildren and daughter-in law, at the Westport Library.

Of course, herding “36 pretty intelligent cats” is not all he does. He and Pat enjoy living near their son Charlie — who has moved with his wife back to Westport — and daughter Casey, in Darien.

Son Teddy is a bit further away: Hong Kong.

“Life is good,” Wieser says.

He aims to keep it that way, for the RTM he now leads, and all the rest of us who — though we seldom realize it — benefit every day from  it.

Helen McAlinden Takes Homes With Hope Helm

The other day, Helen McAlinden had dinner at Jesup Hall.

Looking out the window of the handsome stone building, she saw the Gillespie Center next door. She marveled that one of Westport’s most popular restaurants shares its parking lot with a homeless shelter.

She asked Jesup Hall’s manager what he thought.

“We love it!” he said. “We’re proud of it. We send food over, and help whenever we can. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

That made McAlinden proud too.

And it reinforced her belief that the job she’d just begun was the right fit.

Helen McAlinden is the new president and CEO of Homes with Hope. She took over from Jeff Wieser last month, as only the 3rd head in the 36-year history of Westport’s affordable and supportive housing non-profit organization.

In her own way and style, McAlinden is as accomplished and dynamic as her 2 predecessors: Wieser, and Homes with Hope founder Peter Powell.

The only 3 CEOs in Homes with Hope’s 36-year history. From left: Peter Powell, Helen McAlinden, Jeff Wieser.

The daughter of a coal miner, she emigrated from her native Ireland to the US right after high school.

Following stints as a babysitter and eldercare worker, she earned a business degree from Manhattan College. The next step was Wall Street.

But after 9/11, McAlinden felt compelled to do something different. She’d already been feeding homeless people through Irish centers in the Bronx and Yonkers. Inspired by the memory of her uncle — a US servicemember, but not an American citizen, who was killed in the Korean War — she also worked with homeless veterans.

McAlinden left Wall Street, earned a master’s in social work at Fordham University, then spent 18 years at a Bridgeport supportive housing agency.

Helen McAlinden

She knew Wieser through his work on affordable housing initiatives. When she heard he was retiring, she applied. The process took nearly a year.

But Homes with Hope’s thoroughness paid off. She is the perfect person for this extremely important post.

Her first month has been a whirlwind of learning — about programs, people, and the town. But, she says, “This doesn’t feel like a job. It’s something I’ve always loved: dealing with homelessness in a professional way.”

At the end of the day she leaves her Richmondville Avenue office, and heads to the Gillespie Center. She meets “the lovely people who reside there, getting ready for the next step, and all the generous volunteers.”

She is very impressed by Westport’s embrace of Homes with Hope.

“So many affluent communities think there is no homelessness there,” she says. “But people struggle everywhere. We have a shelter right behind Tiffany. Westporters recognize that. And they go out of their way to help.”

On Saturday, for example, McAlinden spent hours with the Sunrise Rotary Club, at a table outside Stop & Shop.

“Many people bought one thing for themselves, then came outside to Rotary Sunrise volunteers with a big bag of groceries for the food pantry,” she says. “Amazing!”

Westporters also help with their time, energy, clothes — and money.

“We get very few federal and state dollars,” McAlinden notes. “The people in this town keep our operations going.”

Many involve their own children. “It seems they want their kids to learn about doing good. They see their parents are giving, kind people.”

Helen McAlinden (far left) at the Gillespie Center with (from left) Allyson Gottlieb, Ian O’Malley, both Homes With Hope board members, and Kathy Knapp, Steve Knapp and Emma Knapp of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, who served dinner.  (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

The CEO has been impressed too with Westporters’ embrace of her. Wieser — who stayed on an extra month to help with the transition — shepherded her from meeting to meeting, introducing her to everyone in  his vast network.

The other day, she met Police Chief Foti Koskinas. “He’s a lovely man,” she observes. “He talked about the importance of treating everyone with respect. Along with the fire department and EMS, everyone wants to work together. There’s a real sense that everyone in town can help get someone back on track.”

Wherever she goes, McAlinden has been made to feel — well, at home.

Now, she turns her attention to the future. As well respected as Homes with Hope is she senses that many newcomers to Westport — young moms and dads, with little kids — don’t know about Project Return (for young women in crisis), Bacharach Community (for mothers with children), and other programs and sites.

Even the Gillespie Center men’s shelter may be “a hidden secret” to them, she says.

The new leader will use social media to reach these new residents. She wants to offer tours to interested groups. “Community organizations, PTAs — anyone can contact me!” she says. (Her email is hmcalinden@hwhct.org.)

In her few off hours, McAlinden spends time with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. She enjoys visiting her mother and family on their sheep and cattle farm, back in Ireland.

In fact, she laughs, Westporters are not much different from the Irish. Both groups are “welcoming and inviting.”

And wherever she is — Ireland or Westport, the Homes with Hope office or Gillespie Center — Helen McAlinden feels at home.

McAlinden Succeeds Wieser At Homes With Hope

It’s not easy following in Jeff Wieser’s footsteps.

But Helen McAlinden seems like a home run.

Homes with Hope has selected the widely respected affordable and supportive advocate to serve as the organization’s next president and CEO.

For the past 35 years, Homes with Hope has addressed the needs and challenges of homeless families and individuals — and those at risk of becoming homeless.

Its services include case management; a food pantry and soup kitchen; emergency shelters for single adults and young women ages 18 to 24; permanent supportive housing; mentoring; youth education, and life skills training.

Wieser is retiring, after leading Homes with Hope through a period of enormous growth. McAlinden succeeds him on January 6.

She brings 17 years’ experience with The Connection, Connecticut’s largest social services provider.

Helen McAlinden

McAlinden’s most recent position was director of homeless outreach and development. She oversaw The Connection’s Supportive Housing Fairfield County program, HomeWorks, Milestone and the Women’s Recovery Support programs.

She is a frequent presenter at the state and national levels on issues related to affordable and supportive housing; a member of the Women and Children’s Legislative Workgroup, and an executive team member of Opening Doors of Fairfield County.

“Helen brings a strong passion to her work and has been a powerful advocate for the homeless throughout her career,” said Homes with Hope board chair John Walsh.

“We are confident that her energy, sensitivity and proven leadership working with people in need of supportive housing will strengthen and expand our network of partners and funders. I am impressed with Helen’s understanding of what makes Homes with Hope so special, and her deep commitment to addressing the challenges of homelessness.”

Unsung Heroes #117

Alert “06880” reader — and Homes with Hope CEO — Jeff Wieser writes:

I was at the Gillespie Center community kitchen the other night. I often go at 5 p.m. to thank the volunteers. This generous group of Westporters and Westonites has served dinner there every night since 1989.

I went this time especially because Dolores (“DoDo”) Bacharach was serving with her friends from Assumption Church. She’s done that every month, since she and others formed the community kitchen in Save the Children’s offices around 1983.

It got me thinking that DoDo has done this community service quietly and loyally for all these years — and so have 500 or so volunteers every year since the kitchen started.

Generous family teams, groups of friends and business colleagues, groups from houses of worship and local clubs — all contribute their time, cooking expertise, and the food to serve 20-30 people every night.

Not only do they not ask for thanks, they usually enter and leave the Gillespie Center noticed only by those grateful souls whom they feed. Yet the diners are appreciative. DoDo once said that she loved cooking at Gillespie because “everyone is far more grateful than my family ever was!”

Assumption Church “Ladies of the Ladle” volunteers (from left): Michele Harding, Mary Welsch-Lehman, Katya Lebrija, Marilyn Moran, Dolores Bacharach.

Westport is unique among Fairfield County suburbs in having this sort of facility. Shelter residents get the chance to interact with caring neighbors, and local residents can teach our children and friends that this is not just a bubble of privilege in an enormously blessed community.

These Unsung Heroes — those 500 volunteers every year — quietly show a commitment to social justice and support of our neighbors that should be applauded.

We don’t get many chances: For the few volunteer appreciation events we’ve had, the turnout was light. Our volunteers don’t ask for thanks; they simply want to do what is right for some disadvantaged neighbors.

Chef Cecily Gans’ students prepare food for the Gillespie Center.

So I nominate volunteers from the following organizations who serve dinner at least monthly at Gillespie:

  • Staples High School culinary classes
  • The Service League of Boys (“SLOBs”)
  • National Charity League
  • Staples High National Honor Society
  • Elayne Prince & Friends
  • John Karrel & Friends
  • Wilton Friends Congregation
  • Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
  • Greens Farms Congregational Church
  • The Conservative Synagogue
  • United Methodist Church
  • Unitarian Church Youth Group
  • Norfield Church
  • Temple Israel
  • Emmanuel Church
  • Assumption Church
  • Saugatuck Congregational Church
  • Sunrise Rotary Club
  • Peter’s Weston Market
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
  • Westport Rotary Club
  • Westport Young Woman’s League
  • Weston Kiwanis Club

… and all the families and friends who fill in throughout the year.

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

 

Project Return’s New Name Honors Old Friend

Home with Hope runs many important emergency and supportive housing and food programs. Homeless people, women fleeing domestic abuse, folks with mental illness, low-income families, young women in crisis — all benefit from their quiet, consistent and crucial work.

From its founding in 1983 as the Interfaith Housing Association, countless Westporters have given amazing amounts of time and energy to the non-profit.

Several are honored the best way possible: by name.

The Gillespie Center is a tribute to the first board president, Jim Gillespie. The Bacharach Community and Hoskins Place honor co-founders Jim Bacharach and Ted Hoskins. Powell Place is named for longtime president Pete Powell.

Next month, Susie Basler joins that august list.

Project Return — the North Compo Road farmhouse that serves women ages 18-24 in crisis — will get a name befitting its former, long-serving and beloved director: Susie’s House.

Susie Basler.

She was not its first head. But she was on its first board.  And from 1986 to 2016, Basler helped turn the dilapidated former poorhouse between Little League fields and town tennis courts into a loving, life-changing home-they-never-had for countless girls and young women in their teens and early 20s.

Basler raised money. She hired staff (and made sure that social workers spent most of their time not in meetings, but with the girls). She created an after-school community service project. She organized an annual educational conference for mental health professionals. She established an after-care program to ensure young women’s continued emotional and financial support.

In other words, for over 3 decades Susie Basler was Project Return.

Homes with Hope president and CEO Jeff Wieser calls the new name “a very appropriate thing to do. Susie joins other moral leaders of Westport, who help us look after our neediest neighbors.”

The proposal was “wildly accepted,” Wieser says. And once the word got out about a special dedication ceremony Sunday, September 8 (3 to 5 p.m., 124 Compo Road North), dozens of former staff members and volunteers made plans to attend.

Susie’s House, on North Compo Road.

They’ll be joined by 30 years of grateful graduates from Project Return.

Except now, they’ll say proudly, “from Susie’s House.”

The September 8 celebration is the first of 2 big events. On Thursday, September 19 [11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Shorehaven Golf Club, Norwalk], the annual “Gather ‘Round the Table” luncheon raises funds for Susie’s House. Click here for details.

Unsung Heroes #113

Another day, another lineup of cars at Westport Wash & Wax.

And for the popular Post Road East business, that means another day of helping the community.

Every organization in town, it seems, benefits from owners Scott and Laila Tiefenthaler’s generosity. Need proof? While waiting for your vehicle, read the letters of thanks that fill the bulletin board. (You won’t have time for all of them. But you’ll get the idea.)

One of the most grateful recipients is Homes With Hope. Over the past 18 years, the local housing service has received nearly $100,000 from the car wash.

Homes With Hope CEO and president Jeff Wieser (in jacket) with (front, from left) Laila, Scottt and Craig Tiefenthaler, plus dedicated employees, at one of the many “Good Neighbor” ceremonies.

This Friday (August 30) is Westport Wash & Wax’s 19th annual Good Neighbor Day. Once again, the Tiefenthalers will donate  100% — you read that right — of the day’s car wash proceeds to Homes with Hope.

Many businesses generously donate a percentage of sales, to plenty of organizations. But it’s extraordinary for one company to so consistently donate all proceeds from a full day’s sales.

And to help nearly every other cause that asks, in some way, shape or form.

Scott and Laila Tiefenthaler — and their entire hard-working, friendly and efficient crew — are the sparkling recipients of this week’s Unsung Heroes award.

Jeff Wieser To Retire From Homes With Hope

Jeff Wieser — longtime president and CEO of Homes with Hope — will retire from the multi-purpose housing organization by the end of 2019. Board chair John Walsh announced the news today.

Jeff Wieser

In his 9 years as director, Wieser has been a driving force for HwH. During his tenure he has overseen operations at the Gillespie Center and the Bacharach Community. He also expanded the portfolio of 44 supportive housing units, which the agency owns and operates.

Homes with Hope more than doubled its shelter capacity, providing beds for 115 people each night. And Wieser introduced an after-school mentoring program for the 30 children in HwH facilities.

In addition, Wieser led the merger with Project Return, the housing program for young women ages 18 to 24.

Wieser has helped Homes with Hope become a national role model, demonstrating how a suburban town can effectively respond to homelessness.

“Jeff has been a transformative, innovative leader” in the fight against homelessness, Walsh said.

“He is also a powerful advocate for the homeless beyond our community in his roles in Opening Doors of Fairfield County and as board chair of Supportive Housing Works, a regional collaborative whose mission is to end chronic homelessness in Fairfield County.”

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

Westport 1st Selectman Jim Marpe called Homes with Hope “one of the community services that makes Westport so special.” He noted that under Wieser’s leadership, the organization has “expanded its affordable, supportive housing options, its relationships with other not-for-profit agencies and its overall community support.”

“As a local resident, Jeff saw the opportunity to leverage his business and professional experience with his passion for helping others, and has helped make Homes with Hope even better than he found it,” Marpe added. “On behalf of the town of Westport, I want to thank Jeff for his untiring service to our community and wish him well in the next chapter of his life.”

Wieser will stay in his position until a replacement is found. A search committee will focus on finding a local leader who understands both Westport and Fairfield County.

“Being involved with Homes with Hope over the last 30 years, first on the board and then as executive director, has been the most satisfying professional role of my life,” said Wieser.

“It is easy to be proud of the Homes with Hope organization, and it is easier to be proud of the community that supports HwH so spiritually and generously. I look forward to staying involved in any way that I can be useful to Homes with Hope and Westport.”

Stand Up Comedy Show Overcomes Serious Challenge

For the 11 years of “Stand Up for Homes with Hope” — the local housing organization’s biggest annual fundraiser — they’ve signed a contract with a “30-day-out” clause for the comedian.

That means if he or she gets a call from “Saturday Night Live,” or a sudden movie contract, the performer can cancel. Hopefully, those 30 days provide enough time to find a replacement.

Every year, that date has come and gone without incident. It’s a good thing: “Stand Up” accounts for nearly 15% of Homes with Hope’s yearly budget. It’s allowed them to house nearly twice as many homeless people as they did before the event began, in 2008.

But this year, CEO Jeff Wieser and his staff were surprised to see that Mike Birbiglia — the 2018 headliner — was opening on Broadway a week before the gala. There was a show the same date and time as he was expected to be at the Quick Center.

Birbiglia’s agent confirmed that — 39 days before showtime — he was exercising his out clause.

The board, “Stand Up” committee, sponsors and friends went into overdrive. They identified possible comedians, then whittled the list to find those who were available, affordable — and appropriate for a family-friendly audience.

They found Nate Bargatze — the first comedian who had been recommended to them, way back in February.

He’s a very funny comedian, working on a TV pilot based on his move to Nashville. He has toured with Chris Rock, had his own Netflix special, and appeared more than a dozen times with Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien.

Ticket sales and promotions were on hold, until Homes with Hope knew who they were promoting. But now they’re in high gear, ready for November 3.

There’s no backing out now.

(For tickets and more information about “Stand Up for Homes with Hope,” click here.)

“06880” Party In Pictures

If you couldn’t make last night’s “06880” blog party, I understand.

We competed with the Senior Center lobster dinner, and the Chamber of Commerce after-hours social.

Plenty of readers are on vacation. Others live far away.

But the 120 or so folks who made it to Compo Beach last night had a great time. Politicians, candidates and commission members (even the P&Z — thanks for canceling your meeting!) mingled with artists, bankers, retirees, stay-at-home moms and dads, teachers, lawyers and local merchants (thanks, Julie, for repping Savannah Bee Company!).

Special thanks go to Westport’s Parks & Rec beach crew, who went waaaay out of their way to be helpful, warm and welcoming.

We ate. We drank. We chatted about everything except politics.

We watched the sun set. We realized how grateful we are to live in Westport — or to have some ties to it.

See you at next year’s bash!

Nicole Klein and her son Carter came to their first “06880” party 5 years ago, just 3 weeks after moving to Westport. They’ve been regulars ever since.

Great minds think alike. They did not coordinate their outfits — but they sure looked great! (Photo/Susan Garment)

Sean Byrnes’ 1967 Corvette — a true 427, as the license plate notes — was a huge hit.

Author Prill Boyle and Homes with Hope CEO Jeff Wieser mixed and mingled.

Former Westporter Bonnie Bradley — whose family lived near Compo for many generations — came from Roxbury for the “06880” party. She brought a special gift: This painting of the Saugatuck River and National Hall.

It’s not an “06880” party without an 06880 hat. (Photo/Susan Garment)