Tag Archives: Westport Weston Family YMCA

Despite Shutdown, Y’s Unified Sports Program Thrives

The COVID-induced closure of the Westport Weston Family YMCA is tough on many members who miss their regular gym and swim workouts, spin and yoga classes, and much more.

It’s especially hard on the few dozen young people engaged in the Y’s Unified Program, which pairs special needs athletes with partners. Led by Danette Meigel and staff, they join in weekly basketball, swimming and track practices, and compete in tournaments and meets throughout the year.

The Unified Program brings competition, structure, friendship and joy to all involved. For many special needs youngsters — and their dedicated volunteers — it’s a highlight of their lives.

In late March, as schools, sports and almost everything else — including the Y –shut down, head youth volunteer Oliver Clachko contacted Danette. He wanted to bring the Unified athletes together through Zoom meetings.

Danette loved the idea. Quickly, her staff devised a plan.

Every Saturday since early April, Danette, coaches Marta Taddeo, Christophe Esposito and Shannon Connors, and teen volunteers including Oliver, Max Udell, Ryan Weil, Layne Yacenda, Julian Frucht and Hugh Hutchinson, have led virtual Unified basketball practices for their special needs friends.

Oliver Clachko leading a virtual basketball practice, from home.

They begin by socializing — much needed by all, in these times of isolation. Next come warm-ups and simple basketball drills. None require a hoop; most don’t even use a basketball.

They finish by asking the young athletes what drill or exercise they want to do next week.

From only one attendee the first week, the number has grown steadily. It’s a steady presence — but that’s not all. This Sunday (May 17), the Y Unified Program begins a dry land swim session.

Also in the works: a Unified Sports game night (with pizza!), and “virtual Special Olympics” (a 5K run/walk in your neighborhood or on a treadmill) in June.

The Westport Y Unified Program is very special, for sure.

For more information or to volunteer, email dmeigel@westporty.org.

Screen shot of a Unified Sports Zoom session.

Another Dam Story

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith is an astute observer of the many wonders of Westport. Today he writes about the dams that “block the migration of fish and otherwise stymie the natural ecology of the 57,264-acre Saugatuck River Watershed — a rich network of 242 miles of waterways that discharge into the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound.”

The topic came to mind after reading a New York Times story, “It’s Fish vs. Dams, and the Dams Are Winning.” The article noted efforts underway in Connecticut to eliminate obsolete dams from rivers that connect with Long Island Sound,

“Connecticut has about 4,000 dams,” said Stephen Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, “and the vast majority are obsolete.” The state owns about 100 dams and is reviewing the list to determine which should be removed. Gephard’s team has also identified 20 to 30 privately owned dams it would like to remove to allow fish passage.

That made me wonder if one of those dams under consideration of removal is the one on the Saugatuck that forms Lees Pond. It’s owned by the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

Enjoying the Saugatuck River, at Camp Mahackeno back in the day.

Lees Pond was long an integral part of Camp Mahackeno’s summer activities: swimming, rope swings, canoeing, even a floating pontoon.

In recent years, due to a confluence of factors – insurance, safety, the mythical fear of campers coming home covered by leeches – activities on the pond have greatly diminished.

Judging from the map of current renovations to the property, it doesn’t appear that Lees Pond factors much in that plan.

I wonder if Y leaders’ views of the pond have evolved over the years, and if as stewards of this vital stretch of the Saugatuck, they’d be interested in exploring options to unblock this key local natural resource (whose name literally means “river flowing out”).

I emailed Gephard, writing as a longtime resident of Westport who would like to see our local river rehabilitated as habitat for migratory fish. Of all our town’s jewels, especially natural ones, the Saugatuck seems the most underappreciated.

The river was once renowned for legendary runs of sea lamprey, alewife, blueback herring and American shad. In 1828 the Saugatuck Journal described as “the river of little fishes” because of the many smelt. Over time though, it’s been used and abused.

The Saugatuck River — shown here behind the Willows medical complex, near the Lees Pond dam — has been “used and abused,” says Scott Smith. (Photo/Danny Cohen)

Gephard’s response was impressively detailed, describing the status of dams on the Saugatuck from the head of the tide, just north of downtown, to the natural barrier at Devil’s Den.

He called the Saugatuck “a challenge….Dam 1 (at the head of tide) is the Wood Dam, owned by Aquarion. There is a steep-pass fishway, and we believe it is passing river herring.

“Dam 2 is Lees Pond. Removing this would be challenging. It is owned by the YMCA. Traditionally the Y has used the pond for recreational opportunities, though that may no longer be the case. Twice in the last 20 years, the Y has spent large amounts of money to repair the dam. Additional repairs may be needed. It is expensive to maintain such a tall dam in a heavily developed area.

One view of the Lees Pond dam …

“We own a fishway at the dam—or more accurately—in the dam.  In fact, it is the oldest fishway in Connecticut.  Back in the 1960s, the owner of the pond and dam drained the pond, created a large opening in the middle of the dam and began to mine gravel from the pond bed — without any permits.

“The state and town went after him. He divested himself of the dam, and the YMCA ended up as the owner. But the state got the right to build a fishway in the hole in the dam to close the dam, restore the pond and provide fish passage.

“The fishway is accessed by us via a catwalk through private property, and is not accessible to the public. As originally designed and built circa 1963, the fishway never worked and fell into disrepair.

“In the 1990s, I inherited the care of the facility. I used a grant to gut it and install a newer style fishway (steep-pass). It is still a little steeper than we would prefer (we had to use the space provided in 1963), but we feel it works for river herring and probably sea lamprey.

… and another.

“Dam 3 is Dorr’s Mill Pond at Glendenning. There are 2 fishways there, one at the spillway and one on a stream branch that weaves through Bridgewater’s office complex.

“The DEEP and Nature Conservancy built both, and they appear to be effective.  Dam 4 is privately owned just upstream of Route 57. The owner did not allow us to build a fishway at the dam, but a natural channel bypasses the eastern side of the dam through someone else’s property. Many fish find it and circumvent the dam.

“Dam 5 is River Road Dam, immediately upstream of the River Road Bridge. It has a pool-and-weir fishway on private property, but it can be seen from the bridge.

“Dam 6 is the former Bradley Axe mill dam halfway up to Devil’s Glen and Trout Brook Valley. We had an agreement with the dam owner and spent considerable money designing a cool fishway for that dam. But the owner sold the house before it could be built, and the new owner did not want the fishway.

“The plans remain if the ownership ever changes. If fish get past that dam, they can reach Devil’s Glen, a natural chasm that historically stopped all fish.

Devil’s Glen, in Weston.

“Also, we worked with the Aspetuck Land Trust to have a fishway built on Trout Brook, on the Trout Brook Preserve.  It does not pass anadromous fish, but helps brook trout move around and reach spawning habitat.” (NOTE: This is the only fishway accessible to the public.)

“Furthermore, the Aspetuck River joins the Saugatuck River just upstream of Dorr’s Mill Dam and Route 57. The North Avenue Dam, the first on it, has a simple pool and weir fishway. on private property.

“The second one, the Newman Dam, has a pool-and-weir fishway. It too, is on private property.

“The third dam, the Frankel Dam, was removed by a joint work team of DEEP crew and The Nature Conservancy. That allows anadromous fish to ascend as far as the next dam, a bit upstream of Bayberry.

“After that, there is a dam almost every 300 feet. We would entertain dam removals, but there are so many dams that the cost/benefit is low. We have not made it a priority.

“Farther upstream, we have worked with Aquarion to install a new gate at the Aspetuck Reservoir Dam in Easton. It allows mature silver-phase American eels to pass downstream, avoiding the entrance to the Hemlock Reservoir, which is a dead end for migrating eels. They all die in the treatment plant. These are the females heading out to sea to spawn, so diverting them down the Aspetuck where there are only small dams and no intakes is important.

Aspetuck Reservoir Dam.

“We have done a lot in this watershed, all in partnership with the Nature Conservancy. Fishways are not as good as a dam removal. With a good fishway, you get fish passage of the targeted species. With a dam removal, you get passage of all species plus many other ecological benefits that were outlined in the article, including lower water temperatures, natural stream habitat, natural sediment transport, etc.

“But in Connecticut, many dams are valued, often as aesthetic features in people’s backyards. We cannot force them to remove their dams. All of the work described above was voluntary (except for the Wood Dam, where the fishway was a condition of a permit that Aquarion needed from the DEEP to repair the dam).

“Our first choice is always dam removal. If owners don’t go for that, we fall back on fishways. Often, that works (we get grants and the fishways don’t cost dam owners anything) and sometimes it doesn’t (like in the case of dam 4).

“We do the best we can. When we first began on the Saugatuck, sea-run brown trout were a main targeted species, along with alewife and blueback herring. Since then we have added sea lamprey and American eel (separate passes). Sadly, the reports of sea-run brown trout are on the decline, likely a victim of climate change and the warming of Long Island Sound, and the Saugatuck River no longer hosts a significant run of brown trout.”

Pic Of The Day #1015

Working out at the Y (Photo/Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Pic Of The Day #1011

Removing snow from the YMCA addition (Photo/Ed Simek)

Pics Of The Day #854

Yesterday, Patty Kondub held her last outdoor Aqua Fitness class ever at the old Camp Mahackeno pool.

It will be open for only a few more days.  Then camp is over, the Y closes for cleaning, a groundbreaking ceremony will be held, bulldozers move in, and a big new complex will be built.

Kathie Motes Bennewitz says she’ll miss it. The pool reminds her of when she first moved here in the late 1970s.

In honor of the last session, she and her Aqua Fitness classmates tried to spell “YMCA” with their noodles (front).

Meanwhile, she wonders if “no chicken fights” will make it onto the new rule board next summer.

(Photos/Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Unsung Hero #111

Ruth Sherman walks the walk.

Literally.

Every day for 50 years — in all kinds of weather* — Ruth has walked from Hillspoint Road to the top of Compo Hill.

She recently returned from Spain, where she completed the 100-mile El Camino spiritual trek.

For the 79-year-old longtime Westporter, it was no big deal.

Ruth Sherman

Yet Ruth’s walks are only part of her daily routine. Since the 1960s, she’s taught exercise and fitness at the Westport Weston Family Y. Right now she’s with the Arthritis Foundation Family aquatic program.

When the Senior Center opened, she began teaching there too.

Many class members are younger — often much younger — than Ruth. But they struggle to keep pace.

When she’s not walking or leading classes, Ruth bikes. Of course, her rides are for good causes.

Since last century, she’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, in the Pan-Mass Challenge. She was not always alone: Sometimes she was joined by her husband Larry, 4 children, in-laws and friends. Her group was called Ruthie’s Riding Rascals.

You’ve probably seen Ruth Sherman around town. The next time you see her, say hello — and congratulate her for being this week’s Unsung Hero.

But you’ll have to be in pretty good shape to catch up.

*And in Westport, you know what that means.

(Hat tip: Richard Fogel)

Mystery On The Merritt

Anyone who has visited the Westport Weston Family Y — or zoomed past Exit 41 on the Merritt Parkway — has seen the activity.

Every few days — because you don’t expect highway work to happen consistently — earth movers rumble to life.

They take mounds of dirt, and shift them from here to there. They do the same with boulders. They dig up some spots, flatten others. They look like they’re doing something.

But that sorry stretch of land, hemmed in by the road on one side and a forlorn fence on the other, also always looks the same. What exactly has been done there over the past few months?

Besides making the northbound entrance one of the scariest pieces of roadway in the history of transportation?

(Photo/David Meth)

Unsung Heroes #100

Little things mean a lot.

A you-go-first wave from another driver at the intersection. The guy in the supermarket parking lot who offers to take your cart back to the store. The out-of-the-blue call from a teacher to say how proud she is of your kid.

Those are the random human encounters that make us smile, and lighten our step. They make our day.

Then there are the little things that make every day.

Like the front desk folks at the Westport Weston Family Y. They’re there at 5:30 a.m., when the first commuters race past. They’re there at 10 p.m., when the last laggards leave.

A constant parade passes by. Women rush in, late for their spin class. Kids forget their passes. Men call from the locker room, needing help opening their locker because the idiotic lock jammed again.

They answer phones. They remind people — gently — that their membership has lapsed. And over and over and over again, they check people in.

A typical scene at the Westport Weston Family YMCA front desk.

They do it all with smiles, courtesy, and uncommon grace. Often, they go the extra mile.

They dig into their own pockets to refund money if the vending machine failed. They lend umbrellas to folks who forgot theirs. They call people at home, telling them their credit card was found, and turned in.

They greet us when we arrive. They thank us when we leave. They seem genuinely pleased to see us.

I’m not always in a good mood when I walk into the Y. I may have had a bad day. Someone may have shot into the parking space I was waiting for. I may not look forward to swimming for 45 minutes, back and forth in the pool.

But I’m certainly in a better mood after checking in at their desk. And I’m in a great mood when I leave.

So thanks, all you front desk folks at the Westport Y. I won’t list names, because I’d miss someone.

But you know all our names. That’s one more reason you’re our Unsung Heroes this week.

YMCA To Expand Bedford Facility, Enhance Camp Mahackeno

In 2014, the Westport Weston Family Y opened its new Bedford Family Center, off Wilton Road.

It was big, beautiful, modern, bright and airy.

It also lacked gymnastics, and a child care center.

The Westport Weston Family YMCA’s Bedford Family Center.

Four years later, the Y is ready to embark on a 2nd phase of construction. Highlights include bringing the gymnastics program back from Norwalk, increasing space for programs like yoga, and enhancing facilities and amenities at nearby Camp Mahackeno.

Today, the Y reveals the specifics in a series of member meetings in the Schine Room. Two were held this morning. One began a few minutes ago. A 4th is set for 6:30 tonight.

According to CEO Pat Riemersma, a 22,000-square foot, 2-story addition will connect to the current “Kids Club” part of the current building (facing the main parking lot).

The upper level will include space for gymnastics, and a bigger “Kid’s Club.”

An architect’s drawing of the proposed Bedford Family Center upper level expansion.

The lower level will allow expansion of popular programs like group exercise, spinning, dance and youth services.

The addition is within the previously approved 107,000-square foot footprint, Riemersma says.

The project includes 70 more parking spaces. However, the Y will not seek a change to its current membership cap, or increase the day camp cap of 360 children.

Camp Mahackeno — just south of the Bedford Family Center — will see a new pool and splash pad; new poolhouse; re-grading of the athletic field; relocated archery range; 2 new giant slides (tucked into existing grading and vegetation); expanded playground, with equipment for older children; improvements to the outdoor amphitheater, and a refurbished and winterized Beck Lodge.

Plans for the Westport Weston Family YMCA’s Bedford Family Center expansion, and renovations at Camp Mahackeno. New construction and areas of enhancement are marked in yellow.

The facility addition and camp improvements are slated to begin in September 2019. Camp Mahackeno is expected to open on time in June 2020. The building addition is planned for completion in September 2020.

Total cost of the project is $25 million. Funding will come from various sources, including the capital campaign, endowment and bank financing, Riemersma says.

Pics Of The Day #343

Bald is beautiful.

It also raises money to fight childhood cancer.

For the 3rd year in row, the Westport Weston Family YMCA hosted a fundraiser yesterday for the St. Baldrick Foundation. Over 80 men, women and children raised pledges — and paid themselves — to have their heads shaved.

They honored Brent McCreesh, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2004. Since then, Team Brent has raised over $4.5 million.

And they’ve done it one lock — well, many — at a time.

(Photos/Denise Hotch and Dana McCreesh)