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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”