Tag Archives: John Chacho

Westport PAL: A Friend To Youth

A Staples High School graduate received a Westport PAL scholarship. Now he’s applying for another.

That’s not unusual. Since 1948, the non-profit has helped local kids in countless ways.

What is unusual is the letter the young man sent. It’s appreciative, insightful, and spot on.

It deserves to be read by many people — not just as an example of how to write a good scholarship application letter, but to shine a light on the work this important organization does every day, often under the radar.

Thank you for the opportunity to apply for the PAL Ellis Scholarship.

PAL represents the best of what local youth programs should be about. I have noted many changes in the universe of youth sports since the days when I played PAL sports.

There seems to be so much pressure on parents and children nowadays to get into the most prestigious clubs for their respective sport, no matter the cost. As a result, I see and hear about many children who feel burnout early on because these profit-first systems seem to forget that youth sports are about community and fun.

These highly paid coaches and sponsored teams may be able to provide world-class coaching an hour away at the price of a new car, but they cannot do what PAL has done for young Westporters like me: make kids fall in love with their

PAL has always been a huge part of my life. My father played PAL football, and still talks about the wonderful coaches and friends he made to this day.

As soon as I was old enough, I signed up for football in the 3rd grade. Despite being the smallest player on the team and never getting a single touchdown, I was encouraged, welcomed, and treated like I belonged.

When the football season ended, signing up for PAL wrestling was an easy decision, and perhaps one of the best in my life.

I first met Coach Chacho in the Coleytown gym as an elementary schooler. At that time, I had no idea there even was a Wrestling Hall of Fame, much less that Coach Chacho was in it.

John Chacho, longtime Westport PAL wrestling coach.

But he lit the spark in me that still burns bright today. I think about him and his PAL program all the time. Coach Chacho taught us about pride and what was possible with hard work — all the same things I felt with PAL football.

I’ve been fortunate to find success with wrestling, and have attended many amazing camps and clinics. While the technical coaching is great, it’s just not the  same as what the neighborhood volunteer coaches gave me when I first started with PAL.

PAL remained present throughout my high school days, as a huge sponsor of the
wrestling team, even donating our competition mat and supporting the young kids who came in twice a week to practice at Staples. I also got to see my younger brothers follow the same PAL path that I did. I’ve watched these programs have the same impact on them as they had on me.

I am so grateful for the PAL scholarship I was awarded my senior year. I made a promise in my first thank-you letter to honor the organization that gave me so much for so many years. I am constantly working hard every day to keep my promise.

Today I am a sophomore in college, and still thrilled to be wrestling. I am majoring in music and physics (and will likely stay a fifth year for my master’s in that), with a minor in integrated design, engineering and applied sciences. If I am fortunate enough to be selected for the Ellis scholarship, I promise to continue to do everything I can to reflect positively on PAL, and hopefully be able to continue to be associated with the program long after I graduate.

Staples Wrestlers Pin Hopes On Revived Program

Terry Brannigan calls himself a “passable” wrestler at Staples High School.

But the 1979 graduate says the sport was “hugely transformative.” In fact, he says, it was one of the best things he ever did. Wrestling helped Brannigan set goals, gain confidence, overcome obstacles, and take responsibility for himself.

Right after college, Nick Garoffalo — a wrestler who graduated from Staples a year before Brannigan — asked him to be his assistant coach.

“I was 23,” Brannigan recalls. “To this day, except for being a parent, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Nick Garoffalo (left) and Terry Brannigan, in their coaching days.

For nearly a decade, the pair formed a potent team. Helped by John Chacho’s PAL feeder program, they coached individual and team state champions. More importantly, they formed tight bonds between coaches, wrestlers and parents.

“It wasn’t about technique. It was about family,” Brannigan recalls. “We looked out for each other, on and off the mat.”

But “work and life got in the way.” Fellow wrestler Andy Lobsenz hired Brannigan at Dun & Bradstreet. Regretfully, he had no more time to coach.

Ten years ago, Brannigan moved back to Westport. He and his wife Laurie had 3 young sons. The oldest, Terry Jr. tried sports. But he was the smallest in his grade — boy or girl — and quiet. Nothing clicked.

As a Staples High School freshman 2 years ago, he decided to give wrestling another try.

Under a succession of young coaches, the program had fallen far from its glory days. Sometimes, there were only 5 wrestlers at a match. With 9 forfeits in the 14 weight classes, the Wreckers mathematically lost before even stepping on the mat.

As a freshman, Terry wrestled varsity. He learned the same lessons as his father: In this sport, size does not matter. Someone who studies wrestling and works hard can beat a pure athlete.

But Brannigan was appalled at the state of the program. “This can’t be his high school experience,” the father thought. “I want him to have what I had.”

Terry Brannigan Jr. controls an opponent. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

As a sophomore, Terry Jr. had an excellent season. At the season-ending banquet — attended by only a dozen or so wrestlers — Brannigan began working to resurrect Staples wrestling.

Athletic director Marty Lisevick was all in. Brannigan went to work.

He told several key alumni, “we need your help — financially and emotionally.” Successful in fields like medicine, finance and business, they all had the same question: “How can we help?”

Lisevick agreed to move the wrestlers from the small, out-of-the-way football locker that had served as their wrestling room. When the winter season began, they would practice in the fieldhouse. It was roomier, and everyone could see what they were doing.

Snazzy uniforms were ordered. Brannigan and others built a new website, and a Facebook page. The Mat Men booster club grew too.

Another key was a coach who could also build a program. Fred Mills — the “guru” of Danbury’s strong youth program, and owner of Beast Wrestling Academy — signed on.

He brought 2 young assistants to the program. Alex Kappel — a teacher in Milford — is the son of a Hungarian national freestyle champion. Paulo Freitas is one of the winningest wrestlers in Danbury High School history. Both added immensely to the program’s credibility and impact. They served as head PAL coaches too, further tightening bonds between younger and high school grapplers.

Fred Mills (center), with Alex Kappel and Paulo Freitas.

Mills and Brannigan organized summer and fall clinics, sponsored by Westport PAL. Slowly, interest grew. Wrestlers got friends to come. The word was out: We’re doing something cool. Get in on the ground floor. You’ll get tougher. You’ll help us win. You’ll have fun.

In the fall, Brannigan helped recruit wrestlers. Some had been his son’s teammates on Staples’ undefeated freshman football team. The parents had formed tight bonds, and were eager to keep the magic going all winter long.

Forty wrestlers showed up on the first day. At the opening meet, 7 freshmen were in the lineup.

Proud members of the Staples High School wrestling team.

The program-building paid off — on and off the mat. The night before the Chacho Duals — a Staples-hosted event, honoring long-time coach and mentor John Chacho — a party drew dozens of parents to Wakeman Town Farm. They stayed until 1 a.m.

The next day — in dramatic, down-to-the-wire fashion — the Wreckers won the Duals. It was the first time they’d ever captured their own tournament.

Jacob Qiu was one of Staples’ many improved wrestlers this year. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

The team caught fire. They earned votes in the Top 10 statewide poll. They finished 4th at the FCIAC (league) tournament.

They earned the respect of a growing number of fans — and of their coach.

Before accepting the job, Mills had been told that Westport kids are “soft.” To his surprise, he found them very tough competitors — and also very gentlemanly. (Like rugby, that’s the flip side of the sport.)

Team spirit was a hallmark of this year’s Staples wrestling team. They supported each other, every step of the way. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

A few days ago, 119 people celebrated the season at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl in Bridgeport.

“To call you my best friends is wrong,” said co-captain JC Montoni in his speech. “You’re my brothers.”

Co-captain JC Montoni concentrates intently before his opponent gets set. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

Brannigan looked back with satisfaction on the year. And he was quick to spread praise for the turnaround.

“We are an army for good,” he says. He cited Lisevick, the coaches, and the Mat Men — including “superhero” mom and new Mat Men board member Jen Montoni — for the newly revived Staples wrestling program.

The wrestlers and their parents are already excited for next year. But first there’s one final meet.

Five Wreckers qualified for the high school national championships. On March 28 Terry Brannigan, JC Montoni, George Harrington, Jake Rizy and Nick Augeri head to Virginia Beach.

George Harrington — one of Staples’ best wrestlers ever — hoists one of the giant photos that were a centerpiece of Senior Night.

They and their parents will drive down together, in an RV. They’ll stay together in an Airbnb.

It’s the new Staples wrestling way. And — Brannigan promises — this is only the first round.

30-Year-Old Child Care

In 1979 a group of Westport teachers and administrators saw the need for a quality daycare center.  They envisioned plenty of parent participation — an “extended family” offering enrichment and support to infants and toddlers.

The Children’s Community Daycare Center opened with 5 kids and 2 teachers, in a room at Green’s Farms Elementary School.

The next year it moved to the recently vacated Hillspoint Elementary.  Three decades later (“Daycare” having morphed into “Development”) it’s still there — with 63 youngsters, 16 teachers, and 5 programs.

Including Eileen Ward.

Eileen Ward

Hired as a head teacher in 1981, she was named director 5 years later. Originally younger — now older — than the parents who play an important role in the cooperative, she’s loved by everyone at CCDC:  tots, moms and dads, and the staff.

In 2009 Eileen received a United Way award.  It said:  “A conversation about what is needed to help kids succeed is not complete without Eileen’s input.”

This month, CCDC’s annal fundraiser celebrated her 30th anniversary.  Over 100 parents, teachers and alumni honored Eileen’s work in the tight-knit school community — and at the state and regional levels.

Eileen prefers to talk not about herself, but about CCDC’s spirit.

“The founders knew what was important at all levels,” she says.  “They had their hearts and minds in the right place.”

From the beginning, Eileen notes, the emphasis was on the social and emotional components of learning; on involvement, collaborative decision-making, and “respectful relationships on behalf of children.”

That extends to the staff.  “We all continue to grow professionally,” she says.  “There’s always room for personal education.”

CCDC kids don’t go home with “worksheets or perfectly put-together pumpkins,” she says.  Nor do parents “just drop off their kids.”

Like most 30-somethings, CCDC is very much in touch with technology.  Each classroom has a web page.  Every day parents read about activities done, songs sung and books read that day.

As a result, “when they pick their kids up, they really feel connected.  They’ve already got some conversation starters.”

The preschool 4 room Skypes with a friend on vacation.

The 4’s room has its own email address.  Parents on business trips send photos and video clips — and even Skype, on a donated smartboard.

The whole class gathers round.  “Kids ask everything from ‘What floor are you on?’ to ‘What’s that in the background?'”

A recent innovation — the “Wonderful World” language program — helps older kids chat a bit in Spanish.

But some things never change.  An early graduate recently returned for a visit.  “He said, ‘It feels exactly the same,'” Eileen reports proudly.  “We’ve expanded and grown, but the environment hasn’t changed.”

As it always has, the staff encourages independence and self-esteem.  They support social skills and emotional intelligence, while encouraging the joy of life.

Asked again about her own contributions, Eileen deflects the conversation to people like John Chacho.  A retired physical education instructor, he’s “magical,” Eileen says.

“He’s an amazing person.  He’s exactly who you want to be around your kids.”

In her own way, Eileen Ward is amazing too.

“This is a great life,” she says.  “I laugh every day.  After 30 years, I’m still having fun.

“We all are.”

Sharon Daly, with 3 babies in the infant room.

Westport Mourns With John Chacho

For decades — as a physical education teacher, coach, and in retirement a nursery school worker — John Chacho helped raise Westport’s youth.

He and his wife Lucille raised 2 of their own:  Steve and Susan.

Stephen Chacho

On Thursday, Steve died of a heart attack after shoveling snow.  He was 46 years old.

A lifelong resident of Westport, he was a wrestler, soccer player and track athlete.  He graduated from Staples in 1982,  and attended Sacred Heart University.

He spent his career in the restaurant industry, and was a passionate and creative cook.

In addition to his parents, Steve is survived by his wife, Angela Chacho, and 2 stepchildren, Abbey-Lynn Albani and Joseph Albani.  He is also survived by his mother in-law, Mary Abraham and his father in-law, Louis Mennillo, andn many cousins, nieces and nephews.

The family will receive friends Monday from 4 to 8 p.m. in the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East.

Friends and family are invited to attend a Mass of Christian Burial on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested memorial contributions in Stephen’s name to Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Ave., Westport, CT 06880.

Those wishing to leave an online condolence can click here.  Cards may be sent to John and Lucille Chacho at 11 Tarone Dr., Westport, CT 06880.