Tag Archives: Manny Ogutu

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

For over 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has provided academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School. Our scholars have benefited enormously – but our community has been enriched at least as equally by their presence.

The ABC story is wonderful, and compelling. It deserves to be told to an audience beyond those most immediately involved – the scholars, and the many volunteers who dedicate untold hours to making the program work.

What better way to tell it than through the words and images of members of the A Better Chance of Westport family?

Study time at Glendarcy House — the A Better Chance of Westport residence on North Avenue. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

My sister Susan Woog Wagner is a very talented professional photographer in White Plains. She’s particularly good with kids. She is always on the lookout for great new projects. When I told her about how important ABC is to our community, she suggested working together on a photo essay.

Starting last fall, I talked with scholars and their parents, host families, resident directors, tutors, drivers, founders, board members, the chef and others. Sue took their pictures. (We also collected photos from previous years.)

The result is “This is ABC.”

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

This project takes many forms. I’m posting my interviews and Sue’s photos here on “06880.” Each day, I’ll post a different story or two. It’s something very different for this blog. Then again, ABC is a very special program.

A video version will be shown on Saturday, March 17 (7 p.m., Rolling Hills Country Club). Staples grad Connor Mitnick and audio instructor Geno Heiter helped produce that compelling piece.

And the photos and interviews will be compiled into a brochure, to give interested Westporters — including potential volunteers — a sense of the depth and breadth of the program.

“This is ABC” tells the story behind the story of an important, enduring institution – one that impacts Westport, and the world far beyond our borders. Enjoy!


NASH OGUTU: SCHOLAR PARENT

In his native Kenyan village, Nash Ogutu milked cows and tended goats. He ran to school, where he was entrusted with the prestigious task of bell-ringing.

He listened to country singers like Dolly Parton. “America is the best place to live,” he and his friends thought. Nash’s dream was to study with “those greatest people.”

He became a registered nurse. But when a missionary group offered the chance to go to America, he instantly said yes.

Nash enrolled in college in New Jersey. At the same time, he worked several jobs. He earned re-certification as a registered nurse here. While supervising a local health department in North Carolina, he was asked to work as a project developer at New York University.

The year was 2001. Nash had custody of his 1-year-old son, Mannasses. He made the move.

It was not easy. Nash worked, continued his studies, and raised his son. He made sure that Manny kept a strong relationship with his mother. And he instilled in Manny a reverence for education.

“Back home, as poor as we were, education worked well,” Nash explains. “Boarding school is the way out.” In fifth grade, he had been selected to go away to school. He studied hard, and succeeded in that very competitive environment.

Nash and Manny Ogutu.

In America, Nash fought for Mannasses to enroll in a gifted and talented program. When his son was in seventh grade, Nash began looking at boarding school opportunities. Someone told him about A Better Chance.

He explored every opportunity for his son. While Mannasses was on the waiting list at prestigious New England boarding schools, father and son traveled to Westport for an ABC interview.

“It was so impressive,” Nash recalls. “I was in tears seeing how involved and interested everyone there was.”

At the end of the interview, Manny was asked if he was interested in Westport. He said yes, and withdrew his applications to boarding schools.

Nash had to convince Mannasses’ mother it was the right move. He also had to deal with his own emotions.

“It was tough. We had been together since he was 1,” Nash admits. “But I always felt I could not allow an opportunity for him to ‘study with the greatest’ to pass by. I believed he needed to be in that environment to be challenged. I did not want to be selfish.”

Saying goodbye was extremely difficult. Nash wanted to drive from Bayonne to check on Manny often, but was told he could not come too soon. The first time together, Nash took him to dinner. Each shared how tough the separation and transition had been. But Nash encouraged his son to work through the difficulties. It was another defining moment in their long journey.

Manny bonded quickly with his host family, the Propps. This photo was taken during freshman year.

Manny fared poorly during his first semester at Staples High School. He was devastated.

But father and son spoke by phone nearly every night. When they could not talk, they texted. That daily connection kept them both going.

So did Mannasses’ growing relationship with his host family. Peter and Suzanne embraced him, physically and emotionally. So did their children, Rose and Bennett, along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

On one of his first weekends, Suzanne took Manny to a Seventh Day Adventist church in Bridgeport. “We’re not staunch followers,” says Nash. “But that meant so much to him. It helped him keep going.”

It was just one of many small gestures that helped Mannasses feel welcome – and reassured Nash that his son was in good, warm hands.

As the months and years passed, Nash watched his son grow and thrive: academically, emotionally, interpersonally. A major reason, the father says, was “the holistic approach. You can’t get that at any boarding school. Westport did it.”

Nash has 13 siblings. But his relatives live in Kenya. With the Propps, Manny became part of a large, close-knit family.

So did Nash. He was invited to join Manny and all the relatives at a Passover Seder. It soon  became an important tradition. Nash looks forward to going each year – even if Manny can’t get back from college.

Nash Ogutu and Manny’s mother Steph, with Suzanne Sherman Propp and Peter Propp, at last year’s Dream Event. (Contributed photo)

When he describes what A Better of Chance has meant, Nash becomes emotional. “I speak from deep in my heart. Westport is a unique experience. Thank you for being my son’s friend. You inspire us to become better people.”

He laughs as he describes Mannasses’ freshman year at Carleton College. As soon as he got back to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, the first thing he wanted to do was go to Westport.

Back in Kenya, Nash Ogutu had a dream. He wanted to study with “the greatest people” in America.

He did that. Then he passed on his love of education to his son, and watched with joy as it was nurtured here.

His voice thick with emotion, Nash notes, “I achieved my dream of coming to America – when I became involved with Westport.”


MERRILL BOEHMER: CHEF

Merrill Boehmer has come full circle.

She was born and raised in Westport. She graduated from Staples. She ended up as a cook. Now she is the very talented, much loved chef at Glendarcy House. She nourishes the stomachs (and souls) of eight scholars — who (of course) attend Staples

Like the boys’ routes to Westport, Merrill’s was not direct. After Staples (Class of 1990), she majored in art history, and minored in psychology, at Tulane University. But she’d always loved cooking — and kids.

After college she worked at Café Zanghi, the high-end restaurant at National Hall. She moved to Newport Beach, California for a change of scene — and careers. She spent more than eight years as a fashion show producer.

But Merrill missed things like the changing seasons. In 2005 she came back to Connecticut. She joined Velocity Sports, helping plan events like Super Bowls and tennis tournaments.

When the stock market tumbled, she realized she wanted to get back into food. She started her own company: Cooking-In.

The same week her business cards arrived, she heard A Better Chance needed a new cook. Alison Milwe Grace — who Merrill had worked with, and who taught culinary arts at Staples (another high school connection!) — recommended her highly.

She was hired. Almost immediately, she had to prepare the August welcome back party. To her delight, everyone loved it. And they all loved Merrill.

Chef Merrill Boehmer, hard at work. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

She returns the love. Seven years after joining ABC, Merrill calls this “the best job ever!”

She appreciates the freedom. She shops — eyes trained equally on nutrition, taste and budget — and creates her own menus.

In her first two years at Glendarcy House, Merrill never repeated a meal. She had Chinese, German and Mexican nights. She taught the boys about food — and learned a lot herself.

“They’re teenage boys,” she notes. “They love burgers, lasagna, pasta.”

But, she discovered, they also love kale salad, brussels sprouts and sautéed spinach. Who knew?

You can’t keep teenage boys out of the kitchen. Chef Merrill Boehmer welcomes the company. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

She cooks Monday through Friday, shopping Mondays and Wednesdays. She’s proud of her ability to base menus around the deals in a Shoprite flyer — and that all the meat, produce and fish guys there know her.

“I’m frugal,” she notes. “I’m very conscious that we’re a non-profit.”

She’s in the kitchen when the scholars get off the bus. They help unload groceries. In the bags are breakfast foods, like granola bars, yogurt, oatmeal and bananas; lunch foods (for those who want to make their own lunches), dinner foods and snacks.

She cooks in the afternoon. Some of the boys grab snacks and leftovers before heading off to study. Some linger to chat.

At 6 p.m. Merrill sets out dinner, buffet style. Each dinner includes greens, protein, a starch and dessert. If she’s serving a heavy entrée like steak, there’s fruit for dessert. If it’s fish, she offers cake or brownies.

Dinnertime! (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)

Meals can be quiet — or filled with laughter. “They’re teenage boys, in a stressful school,” Merrill says. “When I hear them being kids, I love it.”

For weekends, she makes sure there are plenty of eggs, bacon, waffles, bread, milk, juice and cider in the refrigerator and pantry. Saturday dinners are often takeout. On Sundays the scholars eat with their host families.

Merrill has an easygoing relationship with the scholars. On their birthdays, they can choose the dinner menu.

But, she adds, “I’m the recycling queen. The boys know that. And they know how to recycle.”

It’s clear what the ABC scholars get from Merrill: great, nutritional and filling meals. What does she get?

“I love my job. Everyone’s taken me under their wing. The boys are cool, fun and silly. They keep me young. And they’re very appreciative. They always tell me they love my food!”

 (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.)