Tag Archives: Mike Aitkenhead

COVID-19 Roundup: Optimism; Playhouse Performers; Mercy Learning, And More

CBS News’ Steve Hartman hosts an online “class” about optimism. It’s aimed at children, but should be mandatory viewing for everyone.

The most recent session was about a 4-year-old girl who befriended an 84-year-old widower. It’s a wonderful piece. But that’s not why I’m showing it.

The “06800” link is that Steve introduces it all with Mike Aitkenhead. He’s the former Staples High School/current Weston High environmental instructor who — when he was named Teacher of the Year — thanked “Mike the Mailman.”

“It’s not what you do in life. It’s how you do it,” Mike the Teacher said. Click below — and have your Kleenex ready. (Hat tip: Mark Lassoff)

The Westport Country Playhouse is dark. But this Friday (April 17, 7 p.m.), it will light up online with some spectacular performances.

The Playhouse YouTube channel and Facebook live will host “Getting to Know You: A Celebration of Young Artists.” Westport’s Tony Award-winning Broadway star Kelli O’Hara hosts 10 Fairfield County students — all accomplished musical theater artists.

Dozens of hopefuls submitted videos of songs — many of which they hoped to perform in musicals this spring. Ten were selected randomly. Among them: Camille Foisie of Staples High School, and Momo Burns-Min of Weston High.

Ten understudies were chosen to submit a question for O’Hara to answer. Staples’ Jamie Mann is one of them.

All videos submitted will be compiled into a supercut at the end of the program, and shared on Playhouse social media channels.

(For Friday’s livestream, click on westportplayhouse.org, go to the bottom of the homepage, and click on the Facebook or YouTube icon.)

For 30 years, Westporters have embraced the mission of Mercy Learning Center: to improve the lives of under-served women in Bridgeport through education.

Of course, women who are hungry cannot learn. If they can’t afford the rent or diapers, they have no time or energy to learn. Now, the coronavirus has made those needs even more dire.

In week 4 of the crisis, MLC has exhausted their food and diaper pantries — and run out of food gift cards.

Because Mercy Learning Center is not considered an “essential service,” the building is closed. But director Jane Ferreira and her staff are in touch with their students. They’re doing their best to ensure they have food and basic supplies, plus funds to help with rent and other bills.

Checks can be sent to Mercy Learning Center, 637 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604. Click here for online donations.

On the one hand, this seems like great news.

On the other hand, it’s like a tease.

Who’s driving anywhere these days? (Hat tip: Chip Stephens)

And finally, this classic duet from 2 who died way too young: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell:



Meet The Montonis: Wakeman Town Farm’s New Stewards

Many Westporters know and love Wakeman Town Farm.

Many others are only vaguely aware.

They’ve heard of it — maybe driven past on Cross Highway — but have no clue what goes on at the sustainable living/education/event center that in 2010, after a century as a private family farm, went back to its roots under town ownership.

John and Jennifer Montoni were in that second category.

Now they’re Wakeman Town Farm’s new caretakers.

Nico, John, Jen and JC Montoni, on their front porch at Wakeman Town Farm.

The couple — Norwalk natives who moved to Westport nearly a decade ago, in large part for the schools — follow in the footsteps of Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead. WTF’s first stewards had 2 young children, and brought a family vibe to the farm and farmhouse that for 3 generations had been owned by the Wakemans.

After 7 years, the Aitkenheads were followed by Corey Thomas. His focus was on education offerings. When his 2-year contract ended this year, the WTF board decided to split the roles. John Montoni — who had his own construction firm — was the perfect choice for the property management role.

(Farah Masani, a local farmer and former food procurement specialist at the Barteca Group, will now lead the teen apprentice program. Chryse Terrill, a longtime educator, has been hired as the “Little Farmers” director.)

John has a big task. But until last winter, he and his wife — a former hair stylist who earned her nursing degree in 2014 — knew virtually nothing about the  2 1/2-acre place. It includes a farmhouse, working farm, gardens, and Community-Supported Agriculture shed.

Wakeman Town Farm: Westport’s sustainability center.

Last winter, they attended a Staples High School wrestling team fundraiser there. (Their oldest son, JC, was a co-captain.)

WTF — with the new Tim’s Kitchen inside, and a welcoming patio outdoors — has become a great party and event site, for non-profits, private organizations, even individuals. John and Jen were amazed at the facility, and excited to learn the back story.

Christy Colasurdo, WTF committee co-chair emeritus, told them the farm was always looking for volunteers. With JC ready to head off to Bentley College, and son Nico entering his sophomore year at Brunswick School, John and Jen were happy to find a way to stay involved in the community.

When the steward/caretaker role came open, the Montonis quickly stepped up.

With Jen and their sons’ help, John oversees and maintains the property, handles animal chores, manages employees and helps volunteers.

JC, Nico and John Montoni at work on Wakeman Town Farm.

Since moving in July 1, he’s worked on a new chicken coop (and will build a new run); helped with the new pizza oven; gotten sprinklers up and running; is installing an outdoor sink, and washer/dryer, and performed the maintenance chores any homeowner knows well.

But not many homeowners care for goats, alpacas and other animals. Or an enormous vegetable garden that takes up much of their land.

The Montonis love their new life. “Everyone is great,” Jen says of the ever-changing cast of volunteers, campers, counselors, committee members, chefs and CSA members. “And they’re all here because they want to be.”

“There’s always something going on,” JC notes. “This is a very cool old house. And it’s great to have a farm in the back yard.”

As with everyone at WTF, John and Jen are learning a lot. “I never thought I’d be taking care of alpacas!” he laughs.

The goats are his favorite animal. He calls them “mischievous, smart troublemakers, with a cool personality. They’ll walk right up to you, and chew on anything.”

John and Jen Montoni, with friends.

Each day, John says, Wakeman Town Farm is “full of life and activity.” At night it’s “quiet, and magical.” He and Jen sit on the porch, listening to the animals.

They look forward to whatever lies ahead — including new chores. They know each season will be different. They’ll continue learning, working, and keeping the farm fresh — and family friendly.

Corey Thomas Digs In At Wakeman Town Farm

With his varied interests — education; food sources; working with plants, animals, schools and community — Corey Thomas had a vague idea of his “dream job.”

But until he interviewed for the position of director at Wakeman Town Farm, he had no idea such a job existed.

It does. And — beginning this past Monday — the young farmer is living the dream.

Corey Thomas and friend at Wakeman Town Farm.

Thomas steps into the position held for its first 7 years by Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead. They stepped down in June to pursue other adventures. He is a beloved environmental science teacher at Staples High School; she’s now a curriculum specialist with the Melissa & Doug toy company.

The new farm director is a worthy successor to the couple who planted the seeds that grew the Town Farm from abstract concept to thriving, robust community center.

Growing up in Westbrook, Connecticut, Thomas wanted to be a veterinarian. But as a student in the University of Connecticut, his focus gradually shifted from animals to people. International aid and agricultural development intrigued him, but most positions were in management.

“I wanted boots on the ground,” Thomas says. “I realized the best way to impact people is through education.”

He worked with exchange students, and on a livestock farm; served as a writer for the UConn Extension program; volunteered in Ghana, then interned on a South Carolina fish farm.

The combination of agriculture and education grew more compelling. “There’s so much unawareness, misinformation and disconnectedness about where our food comes from,” Thomas explains. “Educating people is a direct way to address that.”

Thomas earned his master’s degree from UConn in curriculum and instruction, with a concentration in agriculture education. A few months ago, a professor told him that Westport was looking for a farmer.

“I was blown away by the space,” Thomas says of his first visit to the Cross Highway facility. “It’s very rare to see a farming operation like this, with beds, animals, a large space, and people with a real vision. It was clear Mike and Carrie had done a great job with volunteers, and the community was really invested in it.

“This was exactly what I was looking for. I was amazed I’d never heard of it.”

Wakeman Town Farm is a thriving facility.

Thomas and his partner Rachel recently moved into the now-renovated space. He’s already begun taking inventory, reaching out to volunteers, planning student programs, and using crop planning software to move forward.

The new farmer loves many things about Wakeman Town Farm — particularly the new teaching kitchen.

Yet his biggest surprise does not involve plants or animals. It’s the people.

“Everyone in Westport seems thrilled and passionate about the farm,” Thomas says. “They know all about it, and they’re connected to it.”

Corey Thomas will have no problem keeping the town down on the farm.

(For information on Wakeman Town Farm — including Tim’s Kitchen and classroom space, cooking classes, teen pizza nights, private parties, a fall beer dinner, the anniversary party and more — click here.)

WTF: Aitkenheads Leave Town Farm

Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead are synonymous with Wakeman Town Farm.

Their official title was “stewards.” But they’ve really been shepherds, leading the town-owned facility from a fledgling farm into a flourishing year-round center for environmental education, community events — and plenty of produce.

Yet after 7 years as the public faces of the Town Farm — and inspirations to Westporters of all ages — they’re leaving Cross Highway.

Mike’s contract is up in June. He and Carrie have decided to concentrate on growing something else: their family. They have 2 young children, who have grown up at Wakeman Town Farm.

Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead posed last year for the Westport Library’s “I geek…” campaign. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

Mike will continue as a beloved environmental science teacher at Staples High School — just down the hill from WTF.

He and Carrie promise to stay part of the farm. They’ll serve on the advisory board, and will teach and participate in events there throughout the year.

“Farm life takes a tremendous commitment of both time and energy,” Mike explains.

“We’re so proud of the work we’ve done to build the farm into what it is today. But as it grows and expands, it’s time for my wife and me to pass on the torch so that we can enjoy more time with our  own 2 amazing young children.”

Carrie Aitkenhead and her 2 young children, at a Wakeman Town Farm event.

“We’re excited to see the farm embark on its next great and exciting chapter. We look forward to watching it grow and flourish under the guidance of its dedicated committee of volunteers.”

Mike calls his family’s time at WTF “an amazing adventure and incredibly rewarding experience.” He credits the farm with enriching his family’s life immensely.

“We’re forever grateful for all the love we’ve received from this incredibly supportive community.”

WTF co-chairs Liz Milwe and Christy Colasurdo praise the Aitkenheads profusely.

“We are very sad to see them go. Yet we recognize that running an operation like Wakeman Town Farm is a tremendous undertaking in every sense of the word.

“Both Mike and Carrie poured their hearts into making the farm a magical community resource. We are devoted to continuing the great work they started.”

Farmer Mike Aitkenhead in action.

The chairs call Mike “the Pied Piper of teens.” They promise that the junior apprentice and senior internship programs he started will continue.

Carrie’s forte was working with younger children, through programs like Mommy and Me and summer camps. The popular summer camp will also continue, beginning July 10.

“As the Aitkenhead family steps down, we cannot overstate their immense impact on the farm,” the co-chairs say.

The Aitkenheads leave just as the farmhouse has been renovated. A search is underway for their replacement.

To everything there is a season. Thanks, Mike and Carrie, for all the seasons you gave, to all of us!

Wakeman Town Farm is thriving, thanks in large part to Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead.

Wakeman Town Farm Raises The Roof

Back in the day, when a farmer needed help his neighbors rallied round.

In 2016, Westporters do the same for Wakeman Town Farm.

The working farm that offers educational programs, hands-on workshops and Community-Supported Agriculture — among many other sustainability efforts — was the site last night of an old-fashioned barn-raising.

Wakeman Town Farm is a place of growth and healthy living. But the farmhouse itself needs repairs. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Wakeman Town Farm is a place of growth and healthy living. But the farmhouse itself needs repairs. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Nearly 250 people gathered for the 7th annual Harvest Fest, to “raise the roof.” The Cross Highway property needs new shingles, interior and exterior renovations, and a new kitchen classroom, to better serve its stewards — the Aitkenhead family — and the 10,000 students and adults who pass through the farm every year.

Robin Tauck pledged a major gift. Others gave plenty too  — including $100 “shingles.”

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen (center) were at last night's Wakeman Town Farm Harvest Fest, along with Kelle and Jeff Ruden.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen (center) were at last night’s Wakeman Town Farm Harvest Fest, along with Kelle and Jeff Ruden. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Area purveyors like Greens Farms Liquors, Rothbard Ale + Larder and AMG Catering donated appetizers and libations for the cocktail hour. DaPietro’s, Harvest Wine Bar, Wave Hill Breads and Saugatuck Sweets were among those providing fantastic, locally sourced dinners.

This was not your typical fundraier food! (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

This was not your typical fundraier food! (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Dining inside the farmhouse tent. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Dining inside the farmhouse tent. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

It was all served and poured by big-name volunteers: heads of non-profits like Bill Harmer (Westport Library), Tony McDowell (Earthplace), Jeff Wieser (Homes With Hope) and Sue Gold (Westport Historical Society).

Staples students — many from the Environmental Studies courses — pitched in too.

Environmental Studies students volunteered to serve too.

Environmental Studies students volunteered to serve at Harvest Fest. (Photo/Dan Woog)

The WTF roof is a lot closer to be raised, thanks to last night. But you can still help — 2016-style. Click here to contribute any amount.

These were just the appetizers. (Photo/Dan Woog)

These were just the appetizers. (Photo/Dan Woog)


Wakeman Town Farm Committee co-chairs Liz Milwe and Christy Colasurdo. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo)

Down On The Farm, With Charlie Colasurdo

In 1886, Staples’ 1st graduating class consisted of 6 students — all girls.

All the guys had dropped out. Their families needed them to work on farms.

More than 125 years later, Westport boys still work the land.

Quite a bit has changed, of course. They drive (or are driven) to farms. They have to learn how to farm. And they’ve got an “06880” blog to tell their story.

Charlie Colasurdo is a rising 8th grader at Coleytown Middle School. Here’s what he says about his work at Wakeman Town Farm:

My interest in farms goes back as far as I can think. I always was fascinated by the idea of farm life, even though I live in a suburban town like Westport.

Charlie Colasurdo (right) takes care of younger farmers -- and young farm animals.

Charlie Colasurdo (right) takes care of younger farmers — and young farm animals.

Since I was 6 I bugged my parents to sign me up for farm camps. I went to places like Sport Hill in Easton all the way up to Shelburne Farms in Vermont, so I could feel like I was part of farm life — feeding chickens, getting into the dirt and learning about everything from heirloom seeds to animal husbandry to organic gardening.

When I turned 10, I heard that Wakeman Town Farm was reopening. I was excited to work in their Junior Apprentice Program. I did a 4th grade farm presentation. From there I was invited to the Board of Finance meeting to speak about why I thought preserving the farm was important.

Shortly after that, I was invited to cut the ribbon at the grand opening at the farm. I was thrilled. I got to meet Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead, the farm stewards, as well as the many people who helped make the farm a possibility. I still know many of them personally.

Wakeman Town Farm is thriving today.

Wakeman Town Farm thrives today.

I went to many of the workshops offered the first year of Wakeman, like Seed Starting and Chicken Keeping, but in the beginning there were no programs for kids my age. I started a 2-year apprenticeship at Ambler Farm in Wilton, the closest farm I could find, going after school and on Saturdays. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot more about the ups and downs of farming.

Then I heard that Mike and Carrie were removed from their positions as farm stewards…right before I was old enough to work at the farm. I was heartbroken, and wanted to help get the farm back on its feet. My family and I got involved. My mom joined the board and I joined the Middle School Apprentice program in 6th grade.

The first year was incredible. We got Mike and Carrie back by having the 1st Pancake Breakfast. There were 800 people instead of the expected 100. We built from there, with fundraisers, family programs and events.

Charlie Colasurdo photographed these baby lambs at Wakeman Town Farm.

Charlie Colasurdo photographed these baby lambs at Wakeman Town Farm.

As an apprentice I helped side by side with Mike, doing everything from turning compost to planting and building raised beds. I watched and helped as the farm grew from just some raised beds and a few chickens to a place with 3 large gardens, 16 chickens, a fruit orchard, and so much more. Wakeman even inspired me to get my own farm animals, a flock of 6 heritage ducks we will be using for eggs.

Every week, I look forward to the Apprentice program at Wakeman. A few weeks ago, I rode up to Lyme with Wakeman chair Liz Beller to pick up 2 young sheep, joining the farm’s new pair of goats. What I have taken away from the program is a better respect for our food, our farmers, and our environment, as well as many new friends who share common interests.

That’s pretty much my story!

WTF’s Open (Farm) House

The Wakeman Town Farm board has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.

And they’ll say “thanks” to everyone in town who worked with them to bring former-and-present farm stewards Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead “home for the holidays” with an open farm house.

On December 11 (Wakeman Town Farm, 134 Cross Highway, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., $5), Westporters are invited to raise a cup (cider), and toast both the return of Mike and Carrie and the reopening of the Town Farm to the public.

The Aitkenhead family.

Also on tap:  the unveiling of Wakeman Town Farm’s new logo, designed by  Miggs Burroughs.  Mugs, t-shirts and hats with the new logo will be available for holiday gift giving.

Youngsters can decorate cookies and make gingerbread homes, while adults learn about the Town Farm’s upcoming events:  educational programs, kids’ camps, and internships focusing on sustainable farming.

Welcome home, indeed!

(Want to get a jump on the open house?  Check out the live holiday wreath decorating workshop December 4, 10 a.m.-noon.  Click here for details; then scroll down.)

800 People At A Pancake Breakfast? WTF!

On Sunday morning, the Wakeman Town Farm folks planned on 200 people for their fundraising pancake breakfast.

Okay, they hoped for 200 people.

Be careful what you wish for.

Starting early, crowds poured across the lawn.  They were hungry for pancakes.

Mike Aitkenhead (left) addresses the overflow crowd at Wakeman Town Farm.

Hungry to say hi to Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead, the once and future farm stewards.

Hungry to experience the farm on a gorgeous fall morning.

John Hooper — owner of Christie’s Country Store just down the road apiece — had been cooking since 5 a.m.  He’d hired extra staff.

His 1st batch — for 60 people — went quickly.

Then another.  And another.  And another.

The WTF’s runner flew back and forth.  It was like the fish and loaves.

The Town Farm organizers loved it — but grew worried.

John never stopped cooking.

Finally — there is only so much pancake batter in the world — John ran out.  The last people waiting in line said, well, “WTF.”  They offered to let the Town Farm folks keep the money as a donation.

And then — another miracle! — John sent over the final pancakes.

Two of the 800 happy pancake breakfast eaters.

It was successful.  It was incredible.  It was a great tribute to the new group running Wakeman Town Farm; to the Aitkenheads; to everyone who believes in community agriculture.

And it never would have happened without John and Renee Hooper, who cooked, hired help, donated condiments, time and love.

Of course, there comes a time to pay the piper food provider.

That time came yesterday.

John had offered to cook up to 200 breakfasts free.  The Town Farm group would cover anything over that, at cost.

Monday afternoon, John sent over his bill.


Are you ready?

It was…$0.

Zero.  Nothing.  Nada.

Yes,  Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

His name is John Hooper.

And he lives just an apple’s toss away from Wakeman Town Farm, on Cross Highway.

No matter where you live in Westport, feel free to wander over.

And say, “Howdy, neighbor.  Thanks!

Pancake Pop-Up

When I say “community supported agriculture,” you probably don’t think “great sense of humor.”

The Westporters who now run Wakeman Town Farm are committed to getting Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead back as stewards.  It will cost $20,000 — but the hard-working organizers have added a bit of humor to their fundraising drive.

Consider the Miggs Burroughs-created poster for this Sunday’s (October 2) pancake breakfast:

Yes, that’s Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead — not a dour Iowa farm couple.

What a clever way to promote an event that include pancakes from Christie’s Country Store; nitrate-free bacon and sausage from Graze Delivered; fresh maple syrup, coffee, juice and more — plus goods from local craftsmen and artisanal farmers who will donate part of their proceeds to the farm.

There are games and other activities for the kids.  A prize-winning fiddler.  A raffle for a chicken coop.  (What — you expected tickets to a Yankees game?).

Also:  chickens, pygmy goats and an Angora rabbit.  (For “educational purposes only” — not part of the meal.)

The Aitkenheads will be there, talking about their plans for the property.  They’re eager to hear from the public, too.

And — proving that sustainable agriculture humor is not limited to a Grant Wood poster takeoff — organizer Betsy Phillips Kahn’s email signature reads:  “You’re never too old.  Unless you’re a cheese.”

(The cost of the pancake breakfast is just $5.  If you can’t attend, but want to contribute — any amount — you can make a check out to “Town of Westport,” with “Wakeman Town Farm” in the memo line.  Send to:  Elizabeth Beller, 4 West Ambler Rd., Westport, CT 06880.  For more information, click here.)

Meanwhile, Back On The Farm…

Wakeman Town Farm — remember it? — is moving along steadily, in its transition phase after this summer’s kerfuffle.

Wakeman Town Farm.

According to spokeswoman Elizabeth Beller, the transition team — which also includes Liz Milwe and Cathy Talmage — is working diligently to restore WTF to an “educational center for sustainable living.”  The emphasis is now on education, not farming.

Fundraising is the primary goal.  Once funds are secured, the team plans to go before the Board of Finance to demonstrate its financial viability.  The hope is to do this in early October — at the latest, early November.

An energetic, rapidly growing group of volunteers is working to maintain the farm.  Former steward Mike Aitkenhead and his family are among them.  “We hope they will return as stewards,” Elizabeth says.

“A core group of volunteers is working on a new mission statement, logo, and a signature image,” she added.  “Most importantly, we want the message out there that we are an ‘inclusive’ group, hoping to involve the entire community in our efforts.”

A website is live:  www.wakemantownfarm.org.  So is a Facebook page:  “Wakeman town Farm Sustainability Center.”

Recently, the team visited Ambler Farm in Wilton.  Elizabeth calls it “a thriving, town-owned, school-teacher-as-steward run facility, with a wealth of educational programs, summer camps for kids, and membership opportunities for the entire community.”  It’s a model WTF hopes to learn from.

Mike Aitkenhead (kneeling) and his family will soon be back at Wakeman Town Farm.

Ambler Farm’s steward and a board member spent 2 hours explaining their philosophy and management, giving a tour and answering questions.  “We left the meeting inspired that we could do everything they’re doing at Ambler,” Elizabeth says.

Also ahead:  a summer camp for youngsters; adult (and kid) workshops, and a farming intern program for middle and high school students.

There will be a new flock of baby chicks, and bunnies, in the spring.  Maybe French Angoras — to harvest their wool for spinning into yarn — along with dwarf dairy goats.

The bad news:  The group has to raise $25,000 to cover operating costs for one year.

The good news:  They’re passionate about doing it.  And — like the transition no one thought possible — they’re getting it done.

(The 1st WTF fundraiser is a cocktail gathering this Saturday, September 10, 5-7 p.m. at the Bellers’.  A 2nd fundraiser is set for Sunday, September 25, at the home of Andrea Mathewson.  Tax-deductible donations — payable to “Town of Westport,” with “Wakeman Town Farm” on the memo line — can be sent to Elizabeth Beller, 4 West Ambler Rd., Westport, CT 06880.)