Home with Hope runs many important emergency and supportive housing and food programs. Homeless people, women fleeing domestic abuse, folks with mental illness, low-income families, young women in crisis — all benefit from their quiet, consistent and crucial work.
From its founding in 1983 as the Interfaith Housing Association, countless Westporters have given amazing amounts of time and energy to the non-profit.
Several are honored the best way possible: by name.
The Gillespie Center is a tribute to the first board president, Jim Gillespie. The Bacharach Community and Hoskins Place honor co-founders Jim Bacharach and Ted Hoskins. Powell Place is named for longtime president Pete Powell.
Next month, Susie Basler joins that august list.
Project Return — the North Compo Road farmhouse that serves women ages 18-24 in crisis — will get a name befitting its former, long-serving and beloved director: Susie’s House.
She was not its first head. But she was on its first board. And from 1986 to 2016, Basler helped turn the dilapidated former poorhouse between Little League fields and town tennis courts into a loving, life-changing home-they-never-had for countless girls and young women in their teens and early 20s.
Basler raised money. She hired staff (and made sure that social workers spent most of their time not in meetings, but with the girls). She created an after-school community service project. She organized an annual educational conference for mental health professionals. She established an after-care program to ensure young women’s continued emotional and financial support.
In other words, for over 3 decades Susie Basler was Project Return.
Homes with Hope president and CEO Jeff Wieser calls the new name “a very appropriate thing to do. Susie joins other moral leaders of Westport, who help us look after our neediest neighbors.”
The proposal was “wildly accepted,” Wieser says. And once the word got out about a special dedication ceremony Sunday, September 8 (3 to 5 p.m., 124 Compo Road North), dozens of former staff members and volunteers made plans to attend.
Susie’s House, on North Compo Road.
They’ll be joined by 30 years of grateful graduates from Project Return.
Except now, they’ll say proudly, “from Susie’s House.”
The September 8 celebration is the first of 2 big events. On Thursday, September 19 [11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Shorehaven Golf Club, Norwalk], the annual “Gather ‘Round the Table” luncheon raises funds for Susie’s House. Click here for details.
Early in her working career, Susie Basler served as an Illinois parole and probation officer.
That served her well in what became her life’s work: volunteering for, then running Project Return, Westport’s well-respected group home for teenage girls and young women.
Basler — who has a master’s degree and is a licensed clinical social worker — enjoyed working with that population. They had issues that prevented them from living with their families — but Susie and her staff offered counseling, love (tough and soft), a chance for an education and, ultimately, a fresh start in life.
But about 3 years ago, the state stopped funding Project Return. Homes With Hope took it over. It’s now focused on supportive housing for homeless young women, 18-24 years old, providing individualized case management, and employment and educational resources.
Project Return, on North Compo Road.
Basler retired as executive director. But she was not ready to stop working. She spent a year as president of Westport Rotary. It was fulfilling and important.
Yet she missed helping young women grow.
“I’d gained knowledge and wisdom, and seen just about every behavior an adolescent could do,” she says.
Borrowing a friend’s office on Black Rock Turnpike, she worked with a woman whose daughter was troubled. Basler helped the mother appreciate her child’s strengths. Together they strengthened the relationship.
When her friend and fellow Rotarian Rick Benson bought 29 East Main Street — the former Temenos building — Basler saw an opportunity. She rented one of the offices, and is now seeing clients.
Most are parents of teenage girls and young women.
“I love working with adolescents,” Basler says. “But I realize they may want someone younger and cooler than me. There are a gazillion therapists in Westport. But not a lot of them are working the parents. And parents are the ones who can have a huge impact on girls.”
She adds, “No one teaches us how to be a parent. We learn — good and bad — from the way we were parented.” One of her strengths, she says, is that she’s a non-judgmental listener.
“Knowing we are accepted and loved for who we are — that’s what heals and leads to growth,” Susie adds.
Her role with parents is to provide empathy; help them understand the needs of teenagers, while setting healthy boundaries; provide guidance in raising children in an affluent community, and reduce anxiety, while navigating blind spots and roadblocks.
“My passion has always been helping kids — especially those who are hurting,” Basler says.
“The best way I can do that today is by helping their parents understand and love them better, be better able to tolerate their feelings, and be less reactive to their behavior.
“I’m a good believer in people. I’m their best advocate. I partner with them in their efforts to become whole and succeed. This was what I was at Project Return, at my best.”
Susie Basler knows teenage girls. Now she’s helping parents get to know their own daughters a little bit better too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Eliza had a tough life. Last summer she voluntarily signed on with Connecticut’s Department of Children and Youth Services. When foster care did not work out, she came to Project Return.
Since arriving at the North Compo Road home, where teenage girls and young women in crisis find a place to heal and grow, Eliza has thrived. She’s been sober for 6 months. Her relationship with her mother is vastly better.
Most importantly, she feels good about herself.
Project Return, on North Compo Road, where girls and young women transform their lives.
A part-time student at Staples and in Orange, Eliza starts full-time at Staples this week. Her truancy issues are gone. She’ll graduate sooner than she ever thought possible.
Eliza says, “I’ve grown into myself.” At Project Return she is surrounded by loving professionals, and other girls who support her. She feels “profound comfort. I’m safe, and in control of my emotions.”
Eliza’s passion for art has been stoked too. Drawing often in notebooks — usually with a fine-point quill, sometimes using watercolors, in an artist’s nook she created in the Project Return basement — Eliza creates wonderful works that come from her heart.
Eliza (left) relaxes with her sketch notebook in the Project Return living room with Christine Manenke (transitional living coordinator) and Susie Basler (executive director).
This Saturday (April 5, 7 p.m., Rolling Hills Country Club, Wilton), one of Eliza’s drawings will be auctioned off. It’s part of Project Return’s 19th annual Birdhouse Gala, featuring silent and live auctions of original birdhouses designed and built by local artists, bird-themed paintings, ceramics, furniture and jewelry, plus “migration vacations” and “nesting packages.”
Plus cocktails, dinner, and dancing to the DNR rock band. It’s a fantastic event, for an even better cause.
“This house has given me so much,” Eliza says, sitting in the comfortable living room as the smell of cooking wafts from the kitchen.
Eliza’s contribution to the Birdhouse Auction Gala.
“It’s helped me meet the person I always thought I was, but never thought I could become. I’m so grateful for the amazing therapists, wonderful tutors — all the incredible people who are here.”
Eliza is doing her part to give back. The piece she donated for the auction shows 7 birds — there are 7 beds at Project Return — with a quote from Maya Angelou, describing home as a safe haven.
Right now, it sits by the cash register at Eileen Fisher.
On Saturday, it can be yours.
Eliza would be grateful. So would the hundreds of girls who have passed through Project Return since its founding in 1985. And the hundreds more it will help over many years to come.
(For ticket information to the Birdhouse Auction Gala, click here. To bid on online items before April 5, click here.)
Birdhouses from previous auctions. (Photos courtesy of Westport Magazine)
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