Tag Archives: Jeffrey Wieser

“Night On The River” Is For The Birds

After 21 years, nearly everyone in town has a birdhouse.

For more than 2 decades, residents enjoyed a Birdhouse Auction. The idea was creative, fun — and totally Westport.

Local artists created amazing, unique and very cool birdhouses. They were showcased in Main Street store windows, kicked off by a springtime “stroll.” Then — as the highlight of a fun party — people bid to buy them.

All funds went to Project Return, the North Compo Road group home for girls and young women undergoing difficult times.

This special lenticular birdhouse was created by Miggs Burroughs.

But according to Jeff Wieser — CEO of Homes With Hope, the Westport housing organization that oversees Project Return — the effective shelf life of a fundraiser for most non-profits is 7 to 10 years.

The Birdhouse Auction took a tremendous amount of time and effort, by a dedicated core of volunteers. They asked a lot of very generous and talented and local artists.

And — as noted above — you can fit only so many birdhouses in your back yard.

Last year marked the final Birdhouse Auction. But Project Return needs as much support as ever.

Fortunately, a group of volunteers has created a new fundraising event. It’s a summer party with cocktails, dinner and dancing at the Saugatuck Rowing Club. Called “Night on the River,” it’s set for Saturday, June 3.

Vineyard Vines’ Main Street window — with white outfits specially for the “Summer Nights” gala.

Wieser is particularly pleased that a “great group of younger people” has taken over the planning.

“The next generation is getting involved in Westport volunteerism,” he says. “They’ve got a new canvas of creativity.”

But they’re keeping some of that old Main Street stroll flavor.

Because the dress code for “Night on the River” is “strictly summer white,” organizers are asking downtown merchants — most of whom own clothing stores — to feature white clothes in their windows.

In addition, Amis restaurant created a special “Summer Nights” cocktail. It drew raves at its recent debut.

“Hopefully this is the start of a whole new tradition,” Wieser says.

Hopefully too the birds won’t notice there are no new feeders this year.

(Click here for more information on — and tickets to — “Night on the River.”)

Gillespie Center: 25 Years Of Shelter From The Homeless Storm

For a place as contentious as Westport — half the town opposed building the playground at Compo, and half thought building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island was just ducky — you’d think putting a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown would ignite World War III.

But you would be wrong.

The Gillespie Center is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary this Friday (April 25, 3 p.m., in the courtyard at 45 Jesup Road). Last week, a few of the founding visionaries reminisced.

Gillespie Center - anniversary

What came through loud and clear was this: Moving the shelter from the old Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road to a decrepit maintenance shed behind what was then the Fine Arts Theater (now Restoration Hardware) was never an issue.

Not in 1989. Not in the intervening years. And certainly not today. Over a quarter century, the Gillespie Center — the name honors Jim Gillespie, the 1st president of Homes with Hope (then called the Interfaith Housing Association) — has provided housing, meals and hope to thousands of men and women.

And many more Westporters than that have contributed food, setup and cleanup help, equipment and funds to keep that hope alive.

Gathering at the center last week were Marty Hauhuth, 1st selectman from 1985-89; Pete Powell, Homes With Hope president from 1988-2010; Dolores Bacharach, HWH’s 1st vice president and a leader in the establishment of the community kitchen, and current HWH president Jeff Wieser.

Dolores Bacharach and Pete Powell reminisce about the early years of the Gillespie Center.

Dolores Bacharach and Pete Powell reminisce about the early years of the Gillespie Center.

Pete recalled the forces that led to the opening of the 1st homeless shelter in December 1984, at the former firehouse (located in the parking lot between Bartaco and National Hall). That event was debated. But the moral leadership of Reverend Ted Hoskins, Rabbi Bob Orkand and businessman James Bacharach (Dolores’ husband), plus the town support of 1st selectman Bill Seiden, human services director Barbara Butler and David Kennedy, tamped much of the controversy.

A few years later, as Arthur Tauck was redeveloping National Hall into an inn, the move to Jesup Road — catty-corner from the police station — made sense.

Many hands helped make the new 15-bed home possible. (Who knew the toilets were rescued from a home that Phil Donohue was razing?) A 5-bed facility for women — Hoskins Place — was build next to the men’s shelter, when the transit district office moved.

Over the years, the Gillespie Center’s conversion from a beat-up old building to a well-maintained shelter has enhanced the look of the entire area.

The Gillespie Center today.

The Gillespie Center today.

The frontage on Jesup Road near Matsu Sushi, the gardens maintained for years by Jed Ringel and repointing of the brickwork by Brooks Sumberg are visible to all.

Less visible is what goes on inside. But the men and women who seek shelter there — and others who use the very active food pantry — know and appreciate the hard work and tremendous care lavished on the Gillespie Center by many in town over the past 25 years.

Jeff Wieser quotes a friend from Virginia. After touring Homes With Hope’s 10 properties in Westport — the organization supports a lot more than the Gillespie Center — and winding up downtown, he said: “You must be the only town in America with a homeless shelter 2 doors from Tiffany!”

The Gillespie Center  has never lacked for volunteers. (Or — proving that Westport is no different from the real world — clients).

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

One of those volunteers was Jim Marpe. Today he’s the latest in a long line of 1st selectmen to support the Gillespie Center. Twenty years ago, he helped stock the pantry, serve meals and clean up.

That’s the kind of support the Gillespie Center has enjoyed for 25 years. If you’re looking for controversy — or a story about an affluent suburb that shunned its homeless — stay away from 45 Jesup Road. You won’t find it there.

All you’ll see are beds, meals, and Westport’s support for our fellow humans, down on their luck.

(For more information on the Gillespie Center and Homes With Hope, click here.)

 

 

Jeff Wieser Heads Homes With Hope

After his international banking career took him to Australia and Hong Kong, in 1985 Jeff Wieser was posted to New York.  He lived in Westport, but did not feel part of either this town or the city.

“My community was the train,” he says ruefully.

Jeff Wieser

Hoping to engage more with his hometown, he joined Christ & Holy Trinity Church‘s outreach program.  That’s how he met Rev. Peter Powell, the president and CEO of Homes With Hope (formerly the Interfaith Housing Association) — the long-running organization that helps homeless Westporters lead independent, self-sufficient lives.

Jeff joined the board, but soon was transferred to Canada.  When he returned — eagerly — to Westport in 1995, he quickly re-involved himself with IHA.

He served as chairman from 1998 to 2002 — a “wonderful experience” — and remained on the board thereafter.  A year ago, when Rev. Powell announced his retirement, Jeff helped search for a successor.

Some excellent candidates applied, but when — for various reasons — no one was hired, Jeff began thinking about applying himself.  The decision, he says, was “spiritual and exciting.  It was almost like it was meant to happen.”

The 57-year-old felt energized by “the chance to do something full time that I’ve been passionate about for years.”  Homes With Hope is, he says, “a born and bred Westport organization.  It’s one of the very few in the country in an affluent suburb.”

Homes With Hope represents “the incredibly generosity of Westporters who have carried it for so many years,” he says.  Only 10 percent of the budget — about $160,000 — is funded by the state, he notes.  The rest comes from individuals, businesses, foundations and the religious community.

When Jeff assumes his new duties as president and CEO next month, his main task will be “making sure the transition is smooth.  It’s been run for 22 years by a great guy.  My job will be to help it continue to thrive, and be as good a neighbor as we have been for 25 years.”

He faces 2 main challenges:  Providing services every day to 70 or so people who rely on them, and raising funds.

Happily, he says, “we have a great staff.  They’ve been there for quite a while, and they’re excellent.”

Jeff started this interview with a train anecdote, and he ends with one.

One day, riding to New York, he told a friend from Darien about his IHA work.

“You have homeless people in Westport?” the friend asked.

“Yes,” Jeff replied.  “And you do in Darien too.  The difference is, we take care of ours.”

Soon, Jeff Wieser will have an entire homeless organization to take care of.  He can’t wait to begin.