Tag Archives: Renee Gold

Susie Basler Steps Down; Leaves Project Return Legacy

The year was 1980. Susie Basler had a great life in Evanston, Illinois: good friends, a supportive community, a food co-op she loved. She did not want to move to Westport, Connecticut.

But her husband’s job beckoned. The Baslers pulled up stakes. And the course of Susie’s entire life changed.

Kate McGraw was a new neighbor. As Westport’s assistant superintendent for special education, she knew plenty of girls in crisis. McGraw wanted to launch a group home.

She enlisted human services worker Barbara Butler. And — because newcomer Basler had a master’s degree in social work, had studied residential facilities and worked in the juvenile justice system — McGraw asked her to help too.

Basler was on the founding board of what became Project Return. With tremendous energy and enthusiasm — but no site or money — the group forged ahead.

Butler convinced First Selectman Bill Seiden to give the dilapidated Town Farm house on North Compo Road — slated for demolition — to the organization, for $1 a year.

Project Return today.

Project Return today.

The building — between Little League fields and tennis courts — was infested with racoons, squirrels and mice. But with plenty of hard work — and the help of grants writer Barbara Heatley, architect Ed Campbell and carpenter Ed Canning — the dream became a reality.

Project Return welcomed its 1st girls 30 years ago this month. The part-time director — who had 3 young children, and lived in Stamford — left 3 months later.

Basler stepped in, temporarily.

She never left.

Until now.

Basler — now 73 years old — has announced her retirement as executive director. She’ll be honored on Saturday, April 2 (7 p.m) at Project Return’s annual Birdhouse Auction and Gala, at the Fairfield Theatre Company Warehouse.

Susie Basler

Susie Basler

When Basler took over, 2 girls had already run away. Two staff members were ready to quit.

“I realized my entire life had prepared me for that moment,” Basler says.

She instituted core principles that were revolutionary at the time. She made sure that social workers — “our best staff” — spent most of their time not in meetings, but with the girls.

“Kids are hungry for feedback,” Basler says.

Basler has “enormous respect” for each girl who has come to Project Return. They cope with so much.

“The human spirit is resilient,” Basler says. “There is such a push for growth. Many times, I am in awe.”

Of the many things she is proud of, Project Return’s organizational model — circular, not hierarchical — tops the list.

“Our direct care staff is a team,” Basler explains. “We make decisions via consensus. We’ve created, I think, a wonderful, respectful, supportive environment and culture.”

Westport has noticed. Local support — both financial and volunteer — for the group home is “a beautiful story,” Basler says.

Project Return logo

Basler’s work is not easy. Girls arrive at Project Return from abusive or neglectful homes. They’ve been let down by their families.

“A group home is not a girl’s first choice,” Basler notes. “They’ve angry. They don’t want to open up. They’re afraid of being hurt again.”

It’s hard, she says, for even the most committed staffer to “love girls who exhibit unlovable behaviors.” In a group setting, that’s especially tough.

But — thanks in large part to Basler’s leadership — it works. “I’ve always treated the staff the way I want them to treat the girls,” she says simply.

She has done much more at Project Return, of course. She created HEAL (Heal, Empathy, Altruism, Love) — an after-school community service project for at-risk girls. She organized an annual educational conference for mental health professionals. She established an aftercare program to ensure the girls’ continued emotional and financial support.

That last initiative is particularly dear to Basler’s heart. Former residents call aftercare coordinator Renee Gold at all hours — including 3 a.m. — with questions ranging from “How long do you cook an apple pie?” to “How can I handle my boyfriend?”

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Basler and Gold are in touch with nearly 100 former Project Return residents. This summer, they attended the wedding of one.

Another Project Return graduate just had a baby.

“Growing up, she watched her father throw knives at her mother,” Basler says. “She’s in her early 30s now, and never thought she’d have children. When she got pregnant, she was so worried about being a parent. But she fell in love with her child when she saw the ultrasound.”

Basler is justly proud of that woman — and many others. Some have even gotten their own social work degrees.

“Project Return has changed my life,” she says emphatically. “I’ve learned so much: patience. That crises will pass, and we should celebrate good moments. That all of us are constantly growing.”

Basler has also learned “the importance of saying goodbye.”

As she says goodbye — after 30 years in charge — she will face the challenge of “how to be an elder in a community.” She hopes to share her wisdom, so that parents can understand their children better.

At 73, she has her own children — and 3 grandchildren. She is a child herself, with a 97-year-old mother. She plans to spend time with all of them.

But she’ll still have time for one activity. Susie Basler says, “I’ll remain Project Return’s biggest cheerleader.”

(For information on Project Return’s April 2 Birdhouse Auction and Gala — where Basler will be honored — click here.)

Naomi Kydes Returns To Project Return

In 1993 , 15-year-old Naomi ran away from her Stamford home.

For a year, she lived with friends. One day — needing her passport and Social Security card to get a job — she “broke into” her home. Her parents had her arrested.

She became a ward of the state. In 1994 — after a stint in the Greenwich youth shelter — Naomi ended up at Project Return.

“It was a huge adjustment,” she says of the former farmhouse nestled between Little League fields and tennis courts on North Compo Road. It serves as a group home for girls who are victims of abuse or neglect.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

“I’ve always been independent. I could take care of myself. I had a huge problem trusting adults,” Naomi recalls.

All of a sudden Naomi had to share a room. Do chores. Become part of a family.

All while she was still “angry at the world.”

Fortunately, she’d landed at the right place. Slowly, Naomi began to trust a few staff members.

Renee Gold was “a solid rock,” Naomi says. “As annoying as I thought she was then, she was always honest — in the nicest way possible.” Years later, Renee was invited to Naomi’s wedding. She was there the days Naomi’s daughter and son were born.

The Project Return staff, in a recent photo.

The Project Return staff, in a recent photo.

Tessa Gilmore-Barnes was “the first person who made me talk about my childhood, and why I ran away,” Naomi says. “She always made me feel safe. When I was anxious, she calmed me down.”

Theresa Roth spent weeks with Naomi, scouring New York to find just the right fabric for her prom dress.

“It’s tough being a teenager,” Naomi notes. “It’s especially tough if you feel you can’t trust anyone.” At Project Return, adults asked how her day was when she stormed through door. If she woke up from a nightmare, they made her tea.

“I hated it,” Naomi says of her 2 years in a group home. “But I realize now they were doing everything in their power to work with us independently. At the same time, they were teaching us how to share a house, and be a family.”

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

Susie Basler, executive director of Project Return since its inception.

At Project Return, Naomi learned how to cook dinner, then share a meal with others. She did laundry, cleaned up, went to Staples High School.

“I was functioning as a normal person,” she says. “The staff brought you back to the basics. It could be something small, like learning how to complete a school project. But whatever it was, they helped you.”

Project Return is warm and welcoming. There are bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen the girls are free to wander into.

But at 18 — when she had to choose whether to remain under Department of Children and Families supervision — Naomi decided to leave.

She earned her GED. A friend of a lawyer got her an internship at a fashion house. She worked her way up in the textile world. Today — now known as Naomi Kydes — she has a very good job selling fabric to clothing companies.

She is also in her 3rd year as a board member of Project Return.

“It’s so interesting to see the other side of the people who want to make a difference,” says the 1st-ever former resident to sit on the board.

Naomi Kydes

Naomi Kydes

She brings a different perspective than other members — for the most part, therapists and long-time Westport residents.

For example, every Christmas the board buys the same gift for each resident. This year, they considered Ray-Bans.

“Most of these girls come from a place where they have nothing. I thought it would be great if we could give them gift cards. Buying a lot of clothes for themselves at Marshall’s would mean more to them than sunglasses.”

Like many of the girls, Naomi arrived at Project Return with “one little bag of clothing. All of a sudden, you’re in Westport. That’s a very different reality. I hope I’m able to bring that sense to the board.”

Naomi has enormous respect for her fellow members. “They totally understand the importance of treatment and healing. Lots of boards just focus on the business side of things.”

Naomi calls Project Return “a model for what a group home should be. It’s an environment filled with caring and love.”

It is not, she emphasizes, “a place for girls to just live for a while.”

No, Naomi says. Project Return is “a home.”

Tomorrow night's "Birdhouse Stroll" begins 3 weeks of activities, leading up to Project Return's Birdhouse Auction fundraiser. See details below.

Tomorrow night’s “Birdhouse Stroll” begins 3 weeks of activities, leading up to Project Return’s Birdhouse Auction fundraiser. See details below.

(Tomorrow — Thursday, March 21 — from 6-8 p.m., Project Return sponsors its annual “Birdhouse Stroll.” Westporters are invited downtown to enjoy 130 birdhouses, specially designed for the organization’s 18th annual Birdhouse Auction. There is a welcoming reception at 6 p.m. at West Elm on Main Street, and a dessert reception at Urban Outfitters.

(Stores will display these works of art for 3 weeks. The Birdhouse Auction fundraiser is set for Saturday, April 6, 7-11 p.m. at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton, with food and music. Click here for information on the Birdhouse Stroll and Auction, or call 203-291-6402. Click here for a video on Project Return.)