Tag Archives: Maggie Gomez

This Is ABC, Part 3: A Host Family, And An Advisor

On Monday, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.

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THE PROPPS: HOST FAMILY

Suzanne Sherman Propp grew up in Westport with 3 siblings, in a close-knit family. She and her husband Peter have 2 children, Rose and Bennett. As a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School, her life is filled with kids.

So when a friend suggested she and her husband would make a great A Better Chance host family, they considered it. But the timing was not right.

Then 6 years ago, Eric Seidman became president of ABC’s Westport board. He and Suzanne had been classmates at Colgate University. The Propps got to know the organization well.

One day, Suzanne saw Rose at a Staples High School football game. She was hanging out with Khaliq Sanda, an ABC scholar. “He was like a magnet,” she says of his outgoing personality.

She and Peter thought again about being a host parent. Rose and Bennett were all in.

The application process included questions about how the family spends typical weekends. Hiking, concerts, movies, hanging out, occasional trips to New York, they wrote. They were approved, and looked excitedly toward meeting Manny Ogutu.

“It was love at first sight,” Suzanne recalls of that first day at Glendarcy House. “He gave us the warmest, nicest hug!”

He spent his first weekend — Labor Day — at their house. That’s when she discovered he loves apples. A lot. Little things like stocking the kitchen counter with apples went a long way.

Manny Ogutu, with an apple.

For 4 years, Manny spent 3 Sundays a month — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — with the Propps. One weekend a month, they shared the entire weekend. (A second family hosted Manny whenever the Propps could not.)

Manny and the Propps developed comfortable routines. Peter and Manny bonded over a shared love of superhero films. They also plowed through the original “Star Trek” series.

Manny is “a good kid with a great heart,” Suzanne says. Time together included “eating, crashing, homework, hanging out.” Peter taught Manny how to ride a bike, and make a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. They took him to Six Flags, and “Kinky Boots.” When Manny went to the prom, they took photos.

But Manny was more than a member of the Propp family. He joined the extended Sherman clan too. Suzanne’s siblings, nieces, nephews and parents get together often. Manny was embraced by all. He returned the love.

Manny Ogutu (rear), with the extended Propp and Sherman families.

Manny called Suzanne’s parents by their nicknames: Papa and Savta. He wrestled with the cousins, and did a Final Four bracket with everyone. “He’s like a mensch!” Suzanne marvels.

Manny developed a special relationship with Suzanne’s father, Larry (“Savta”).

In the same way, she and Peter became part of Manny’s family. They spoke every week with Manny’s father Nash, and his mother Stephanie. Suzanne sent photos galore.

During the college process, the Propps took Manny to schools like Colgate and (with Nash) Union. Nash came from Bayonne, New Jersey to join Manny and the Propps for special events like Passover, Shabbat dinner and bat mitzvahs.

Over their 4 years together, the relationship evolved. In the beginning, Peter says, “we didn’t know if we were there for support and kindness, or if we should insert ourselves more in his life.”

They struck a balance. When Manny mentioned difficulty seeing a clock, the Propps worked with ABC to make sure he saw an eye doctor, and got new glasses.

Manny enjoys Halloween with the Propps.

Sometimes they followed his lead. When Manny was interested in doing the AIDS Walk in New York, they joined him.

“Manny is naturally happy and content,” Suzanne says. “I’m not sure how much we really did for him. I think he knows a lot of people in our family care for him, and he felt very comfortable with us. And he got a lot of support from many other people in Westport too.”

As for the hosts, Suzanne says, “I got another kid to love like crazy.”

Suzanne Sherman Propp, and Manny Ogutu.

“We love this area. But there’s not a lot of diversity,” Peter notes. “We believe it’s important to get to know a ton of people. You have to get involved personally to affect change. Getting to know Manny helped us. He inspired me to do more entrepreneurial work in Norwalk. And Manny showed me the importance of embracing opportunities and relationships.”

Being a host family is satisfying. But it takes work.

“You can’t be passive,” Peter explains. “You have to be willing to get involved. When your kid is around, he should be a priority — just like with your own child. You have to make sure he gets discipline, quiet, sleep, transportation and food.”

“You can’t project your own image onto him,” Suzanne explains. “You have to find out what makes him happy. And then support him as much as you can, no matter what the challenges.”

Peter Propp helped Manny learn to ride a bike.

Manny is now a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota. He and the Propps text and call often.

Suzanne says, “Manny was a gift. He was the perfect addition to our family. I cry every time I think about it.

And, she adds, “There’s always a bed for him here.”

Manny with part of the Propp and Sherman extended family, at the holidays.


MAGGIE GOMEZ:  TEACHER/ADVISOR

In 2004, A Better Chance was a new organization. Board member Mary Lou Huisking — a Staples High School staff member — asked newly hired math teacher Maggie Gomez to serve as a one of the first ABC “mentors.”

It was an inspired choice. After graduating from Greenwich High School and Union College, Maggie taught in Barbados, then served in Malawi with the Peace Corps. She was used to helping in any way she could.

Maggie was matched with Charles Winslow. He was also one of her 9th grade students. “We were both new to Staples,” she recalls. “We figured things out together.”

They ate lunch once a week, in the math office, throughout his 4 years at Staples. Steadily, their relationship grew.

“He gave me great insight into A Better Chance,” Maggie says. “The boys make it seem easy, but I got to understand their struggles. What they do is really, really hard. They’re always under the microscope. Not many teenagers would leave their friends, and go to a foreign environment where they’re always scrutinized. I give them lots of credit.”

Their bonds remained strong, long after Charles graduated. When he got married in Florida, Maggie was there.

So were the scholars he had shared Glendarcy House with, and his host parents. The connections forged in Westport reinforced for Maggie the importance of A Better Chance, for everyone involved.

“I was so flattered to be invited,” she said. “This is what it’s all about: a great support system, and seeing how it continues.”

Maggie Gomez meets with an ABC scholar. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

The program gradually phased out teacher mentors. But Maggie remains involved. She’s now the “faculty academic liaison,” serving as a bridge between Staples and the ABC board.

Part of her role is speaking with the scholars’ teachers, especially before ABC’s academic standards committee quarterly meetings.

Almost always, she says, teachers compliment the students. “They’re so well-spoken and reflective,” teachers tell Maggie.

“Even the freshmen,” she marvels. “And even with the less-than-stellar stuff. These kids are held to really high standards. I’m astounded how well they do — and in hard classes. Then they run track, or play in the band. Their time management skills are really impressive.”

She checks in with the scholars too, asking about classes and making sure seniors are on track with college application processes.

Maggie is also involved in the selection process for new scholars. She helps organize tours of the school, making sure to pair Student Ambassadors with prospective students who share their interests and personalities.

But she’ll always have a soft spot in her heart for Charles. Maggie’s first mentee spent a Semester at Sea while attending Cornell University. He gave Maggie a picture of himself, standing in front of the Taj Mahal.

“I see it every day,” Maggie notes. “It reminds me of the amazing things he’s doing, and how important this program is for so many people.”

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)

This Is ABC, Part 2: A Scholar, And A Founder

Yesterday, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.

Today’s post features an ABC scholar, and one of the founders.


CHARLES WINSLOW: SCHOLAR

Charles Winslow’s dad — a military man, and single father — always stressed the importance of education.

But through most of his elementary school years in Brooklyn, Charles’ main interests were basketball, video games, and hanging out with friends.

In 5th grade, a teacher recognized his academic potential. Encouraged, he began enjoying school and studying. He made the honor roll.

In 8th grade, a guidance counselor told Charles about A Better Chance. He wanted to stay in Brooklyn with his family and friends. But, he says, “I think God spoke to me. He opened my eyes to the opportunity ahead.”

Charles took the SSAT. The first ABC program to offer an interview was Westport. He loved the board members, was impressed with Staples High School — and appreciated the proximity to home.

When Westport offered Charles a spot, his father was fully supportive.

Charles Winslow, as an ABC scholar in 2008.

Yet the night before coming here as a freshman, Charles had second thoughts. He was scared, nervous and couldn’t sleep. “Reality hit me,” he recalls. “I was 13 years old. I asked myself, ‘Can I really do this?’

He would leave family and friends, going to a new, high-achieving school and community where few people looked like him.

“But I’m a very competitive person,” Charles notes. “I told myself, ‘Do the best you can.’”

Glendarcy House was a big change from Brooklyn. Charles had been very independent. Now, resident directors told him when to study, eat and clean.

Charles quickly realized that Staples was quite rigorous. “I had to work twice as hard as before, and twice as hard as other kids,” he says. “There were times I felt insecure.”

He was 13 years old. Hardly anyone understood what he was going through. But as he worked, he thought, “it doesn’t matter where I came from. What matters is grit.” He told himself to stop making excuses. “I became a better, more resilient person,” he explains.

Charles found support: his host family, the Kosinskis. Teachers. His ABC mentor, math teacher Maggie Gomez. “We had lunch once a week,” Charles says. “She got me through tough times.”

Math teacher Maggie Gomez was involved with A Better Chance of Westport from the start. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

He made the freshman basketball team. And then he met Bruce Betts.

The physical education instructor and volleyball coach encouraged Charles to try out for the team. “I realized basketball wasn’t really my thing,” Charles says. “Volleyball was.”

He went to a camp at Penn State with the volleyball team. He made varsity as a sophomore. By senior year, he was captain. That spring, he led the Wreckers to FCIAC and state championships.

Charles also managed the girls volleyball team. He joined indoor track, as a sprinter and high jumper.

He took part in several ABC-sponsored community service projects. A 5K charity bike ride led by Harold Kamins stands out. Charles also participated in mission trips with the Greens Farms Church. Working at an orphanage in Mexico was eye-opening. “It was so humbling,” Charles says. “It made me realize the importance of giving back.”

Each year with ABC, he notes, “I learned more about myself and my capabilities. I became more comfortable in my environment.”

Charles Winslow, in 2013.

However, he adds, “I was still always under the microscope, and different. People still didn’t understand where I came from. Every summer the kids at Staples went to summer camp, or on vacation. I went back to Brooklyn. We came from two different worlds.” One of the most important lessons, he says, was “I couldn’t be them. I had to be me.”

Academically, he continued to work hard and try his best. Charles knew “there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The older I got, the more apparent that was.”

That pot of gold was real. Charles was accepted at his first choice college: Cornell University.

The Ivy League school marked another rigorous academic milestone. “It was challenging. But I kept my balance,” Charles says. “There was less of a microscope. I could be more independent.”

He played club volleyball. He got involved with the black community. He joined Alpha Phi Alpha, an African American fraternity that emphasizes empowerment.

Charles majored in hotel administration. In addition to hospitality courses, he studied finance, marketing and communications.

After graduating from Cornell in 2013, Charles was hired by Goldman Sachs. As a senior analyst, he traveled the world. He led a global project in Tokyo. It was a great opportunity.

Charles Winslow, speaking at last year’s Dream Event. (Photo/Matthew Mintzer)

But after nearly three years, Charles realized his passion lay in education. Inspired by a college Semester at Sea — featuring travel to 13 countries around the globe — Charles and a Cornell friend founded Well Traveled. The company helps schools and community groups provide cross-cultural programming, and offers global education resources.

He also works with Acaletics, to help schools and children close achievement gaps.

As a consultant, Charles says, “I go to schools like the one I went to in Brooklyn. I help kids who were once in my situation reach their potential. They may not all be able to get into A Better Chance, but it’s important to provide as many opportunities as I can.”

Charles’ wife Monet is in medical school. Since meeting at Cornell, he says, “she has been my support.” They live in Orlando.

Though more than 1,000 miles away, Charles stays connected to A Better Chance of Westport. He remains friends with his Glendarcy House “brothers.” Many attended his wedding.

(From left) Charles Winslow, Khalif Rivers and Jonathan Choi, at an ABC event in 2013.

He stays in touch with former board members like Lori Sochol and Steve Daniels.

And in March 2017, Charles spoke at ABC’s annual Dream Event.

“Potential is universal,” he said at the conclusion of a powerful speech. “Opportunity is not.”

A Better Chance provided Charles Winslow with many opportunities. Now he helps provide it to countless others — in Westport, Brooklyn and the world.


BARBARA BUTLER: CO-FOUNDER

Barbara Butler recognizes a good idea when she hears one.

She honed that skill in a host of Westport positions: president of the League of Women Voters; second selectman; co-founder of the Project Return group home for girls, and — for over 20 years — director of the town’s Human Services Department.

Over 15 years ago Dave Driscoll retired from a career spent in strategic planning, at Kraft. Looking for a volunteer project in Westport, Dave — who knew the Wilton A Better Chance founder — thought about starting a similar program here.

He called his friend Barbara Butler. She knew it was a good — no, great — idea.

Barbara and Dave assembled a small planning group, including Lisa Friedland, Peggy Kamins, Ann Pawlick and Unitarian Church minister Frank Hall. They reached out to organizations like the Westport Woman’s Club, and religious social action committees. They held coffees at private homes.

Some of the ABC of Westport founders (from left): Lisa Friedland, Dave Driscoll, Peggy Kamins, Barbara Butler, Ann Pawlick.

Slowly, the plan picked up steam.

It was a mammoth undertaking.

First they had to introduce the public to the idea. That was not easy.

“A group of people in town believed that instead of bringing kids here, we should concentrate on making their home schools better,” Barbara recalls. “They said we’d be drawing away the cream of the crop.”

The organizers’ answer: We have to help however we can. Any opportunity to give young people a boost in life is important.

There were concerns that bringing in scholars would burden the school system. “Adding two kids in each grade has not forced Staples to hire one new teacher,” Barbara says.

Then the founders had to raise money. And buy property.

Steve Daniels and his wife, Cheryl Scott-Daniels, found a house on North Avenue, not far from Staples High School. The mortgage came through. The dream was suddenly much closer to reality.

Glendarcy House, on North Avenue. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Working with the national organization, Westport’s A Better Chance identified their first group of scholars. They created a network of host families, mentors, tutors and drivers.

Finally, Glendarcy House was ready to open.

Barbara remembers that first barbecue. “We looked at the boys and their families. We thought, ‘What a responsibility!’ Their parents were entrusting their sons to us, in the hopes they’d have better futures.”

Barbara has enormous respect for the scholars. “These kids are as good as gold,” she marvels. “They can’t do things other teenagers do, like go to parties where there might be alcohol.

“They were top performers in their old school. Then they get here, and there’s catching up to do. But they represent themselves and the program so well.”

There were challenges along the way. A couple of neighbors worried about living near a house with eight teenage boys. That never proved to be a problem.

Early on, there was criticism about taking the scholars to a Broadway show. “People called it frivolous,” Barbara says. “But we were just giving these kids opportunities that others have.” Today, activities like those are an important part of the A Better Chance experience.

Barbara Butler (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

In the beginning, she notes, “people thought this was something Westport could do for others. It took a while, but now they realize what ABC does for Westport.”

For example, the scholars “get to know their host families, and their friends — and they get to know the scholars. The kids bring their experiences to Staples, which adds a lot for Westport students and teachers. Plus, they’re role models.”

Barbara credits much of ABC’s success to the careful process of choosing the right scholars. They must have plenty of academic potential, but also strong characters and supportive parents.

Despite all that, coming to Westport — and staying — is not easy. “Some of the kids have tough times,” Barbara admits. “But seeing them pull through — and go on to succeed at colleges like Yale and Duke — is tremendously gratifying.”

Yet the real payoff, Barbara says, comes at the annual Dream Event. “Boys have become young men. They’ve graduated from college — even grad school. They have jobs, girlfriends, wives and children.”

Barbara sees something else at the Dream Event: ABC board members, host families, tutors, drivers and resident directors she doesn’t know. New generations take over from the founders. A Better Chance of Westport moves forward, with ever-stronger community support.

That long-ago good idea turned out to be a great one.

 (More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)