ABC’s Silver Anniversary

It’s a Wednesday “fix-your-own burrito” family-style dinner at the ABC House in Darien. Along with beef strips, cheese and refried beans, a lot of good-natured teasing is on the menu. A Better Chance resident director Francis Janosco, an English teacher at Darien High School — the only male in a household where even the cat is a she — is surrounded by the current group of ABC girls: three freshmen, two sophomores and two seniors.

Sitting across the dining room table, Francis’s wife, codirector Julie Parham, rescues her husband now and then. “I’m his straight man,” she says, laughing, as he ponders the mysteries of the female mind.

Since its start in 1964, A Better Chance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “identifying talented students of color and transforming them into successful leaders” by providing the best possible educational opportunities, has graduated 11,383 scholars from high schools nationwide, including 32 from Darien High School.

Inspired by New Canaan’s ABC program for boys, the Darien group became a reality in 1981 thanks to the efforts of local church leaders and a determined group of town residents. Run by a board of directors that addresses everything from fundraising to assigning host families and arranging local transportation, each year it provides four-year academic and boarding scholarships for six carefully selected inner-city students, a multicultural mix of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

Anne Kimball, one of ABC of Darien’s original organizers, cites first board president Herb West’s leadership as a steadying influence in the turbulent early days. “I got quite a few hate phone calls,” she says, “and we had our mailbox blown up one day.”

A particularly thorny problem was solved by the Congregational Church’s offer to rent ABC a house for $1 a year.  “Nobody wanted us in their backyard,” Anne says, pointing out that, just one year later, at a hugely successful fundraising carwash organized by the first group of girls, official attitudes had dramatically changed. “There were the first selectman and the head of the Rotary just beaming and crowing as if they’d invented the whole thing,” she recalls. “And they’d given us such a very hard time.”

Tamsin Sickenger, a DHS graduate now raising her three children in town, was a student representative to the Darien Board of Education during those early debates. “I went to a meeting at the New Canaan ABC House,” she says, “and was intrigued.”

Tamsin, whose family would host Rosa Garcia, one of the first six scholars, credits her parents and grandparents for shaping her awareness. “My grandfather, Tom Mayers, was mayor of Stamford in 1966,” she says, “a leader in providing housing options for minorities.” She points out that her high school peers certainly knew they lived in a bubble, that Darien was a lily-white town with very few Jewish and no African American or Asian residents. “We were all aware that the movie Gentleman’s Agreement was based on Darien.”

Although Tamsin recalls being shocked by comments made by adults who loudly opposed the program, she suggests that her high school classmates were more indifferent and uninformed than prejudiced. Still, she’s sure that ABC scholars have experienced bigotry during their stay in Darien, particularly the girls who pioneered the program. “African Americans are going to stick out in this kind of crowd,” she says. “The majority is white; that’s the ZIP code. I’m sure the same attitudes still exist, but perhaps in a less blatant definition. It’s disturbing because we all know that kids imitate what they see and hear at home.” At least now, she notes, with more Asian families in town, the ABC girls are not the only visible minorities at the high school.

Khisha Pratt Barnard, DHS Class of 1986, who graduated from Tufts University and got her master’s degree in social work from Simmons College, is now a mother of three and a therapist specializing in treating children with multiple mental illnesses. She came to Darien from the South Bronx as an eleventh grader in 1984. “The program was still pretty new,” she says. “We weren’t fully prepared for what we would encounter. My home was just forty-five minutes away, but Darien was a different solar system.” Where Khisha grew up, her friends were a rainbow of ethnicities. “At Darien High School,” she says, “diversity was a different language and nobody spoke it.”

Reality in the beginning was, at best, uncomfortable. “As an African American, I was conspicuous,” Khisa notes. At worst, it was extremely hurtful. “I’d never encountered racism before,” she says, recalling a bike ride jarringly interrupted by boys who drove by in an expensive car throwing beer cans and calling her “nigger.”

She cites great support from the school administration, teachers and all the people associated with the program — particularly then resident directors Del and Jean Shortliffe — as crucial in the aftermath of such incidents. “They were very nurturing, validating our feelings when we were upset; from there we could move on,” she says, adding that the personal strength each girl developed would turn out to be invaluable.

“Most local people were unaware in the beginning, but once they learned about the program, support grew,” says Rosemary Mace, the fourth board president of ABC in Darien. “It was wonderful to see so many become involved. Really, it was a learning experience for all of us and I think everybody benefited.” The Mace family hosted Khisha Pratt, building a friendship that has lasted over two decades.

“I remember being so nervous in the beginning during my weekend visits, thinking ‘why do I have to be here?’ But the Maces were so eager to make me feel comfortable that I relaxed,” Khisha says. She soon began to enjoy being part of a culturally different type of family interaction. “My dad had just died of cancer; Mr. Mace became another kind of father figure,” Khisha says. “And Mrs. Mace’s style of mothering became my model for the kind of warmth, trust and respect I try to give my own children.”

In 1977 artist Sandy Filmer and her husband, Chris, left South Africa to escape what was a society based on apartheid. “We didn’t want to raise our children in a segregated world,” she says. It was only after moving into a home in Darien that they realized the town’s population was entirely white. “So when I heard about ABC, I jumped at the chance to become involved.”

A former copresident of the board who is currently general helper and unofficial historian, Sandy recalls fixing up the house at 11 Brookside Road for the first group of girls. “They were bright, determined, each one very special,” she says. “We had a sense of preparing a nest — all of us holding our breath, hoping that there would be no untoward incidents.”

Of thirty-five applications sent from the national organization, only eight to ten make it to the interview phase; each year just two or three girls are accepted. “This year we squeezed in one more because we couldn’t bear not to include her,” Sandy says. “These are outstanding kids and very brave to leave their families at such a young age.”

Diana Morris is a DHS senior from Mount Vernon, New York, whose brother was part of the New Canaan ABC program and now attends Colgate University. She says that even talking to her brother didn’t prepare her for reality. “Being the only African American in a class filled with white students,” she says, “was very weird.” And like all the girls, she was very homesick in the beginning. “Not only did I miss my mom, dad and little sister every day, but when I came home, it was like playing catch-up. Except you can’t really.”

When people ask how old her little sister is, Diana has to stop and think. “She was five when I came to Darien; she’s nine now, but in my mind I see that five-year-old, the little girl I never got to read stories to or take trick-or-treating on Halloween. She grew up when I wasn’t there.” Going to the prom last year was bittersweet. “Part of me felt sad,” Diana says. “My parents didn’t get to see me in my dress and take that prom picture. It was a milestone and we couldn’t share it. It’s not something you can communicate in a phone call.”

“When they go home,” says Francis, “there’s a distance they can never really overcome.” No longer with their friends on a daily basis, new behaviors are suspect, often leading to accusations that they are “acting white.” “From things the girls have shared,” Julie says, “it appears that they can find themselves walking a pretty fine line.”

Cielo Irizarry, a 1991 graduate of DHS, went on to earn degrees from both Barnard College and Columbia University and is now director of regulatory compliance at Fannie Mae, involved in efforts to increase minority home ownership. She points out that, beginning with her parents, pivotal mentors changed her life. Cielo’s dad is from the Dominican Republic and her mom is from Puerto Rico; both came to the United States with little formal education. “Their message to me and my siblings has always been that knowledge is power.”

Twelve going on thirteen when she came to Darien, Cielo found that her new classmates had no idea what a Latina was. They also assumed that being an ABC student meant that she was homeless, a recipient of charity. “I would make it clear I have a loving family I’m proud of,” she says, “and that I’d been awarded a merit-based scholarship for my academic achievements.”

Then high school principal Bruce Hall was very responsive to requests from the ABC girls to clarify the program’s definition. “He arranged an assembly, which helped a lot,” she says. “Still there were some students who never quite got the message.”

Regarding the rules set up for ABC girls prohibiting attendance at parties where alcohol is available, time has offered some perspective. “I know now that the ABC board was legally responsible for our safety — as an adult, I can relate to that,” Cielo says. “But as a teenager, it made me angry because I come from a neighborhood where drunks, dropouts and drug addicts were visible examples of what not to do. I didn’t need those rules, but the party-going kids at Darien High School certainly did, and nobody regulated their behavior.”

Cielo credits psychologist Marta Elders, who ran the program’s monthly counseling group in the early years, with introducing her to  journal-keeping, a tool that helped her deal with often-frustrating reality. “We addressed whatever issues were on their minds,” Marta says. “It was confidential, a safe place to vent. These girls have so much to adjust to and it amazes me to see the maturity they bring to what is a very tricky situation.”

“After a rough day, I would come home and write down exactly why I was doing this,” Cielo says, “why I worked so hard to be here. The answer was always education, education, education. Everything else was insignificant. Seeing the words on the written page helped me to refocus. I’d earned this opportunity and I wasn’t going to waste it. Nowadays I’m a mentor, and journaling is something I teach.”

Cielo suggests that being confronted with wealth routinely in the Darien community, in a strange way, gave her confidence. “Sure there were kids who were driving expensive cars to school and who had all sorts of spending money, but I was competing with them academically and in many cases I had the better GPA,” she says. “To me that was very hopeful. It meant I could aspire to be a parent with wealth and break the cycle of poverty in my family.” Reaching out to others is the way Cielo gives back. “Be a voice,” she urges today’s ABC graduates, “whether it’s a whisper or a scream, be involved and make a difference.”

Juanita Gyamera, Diana Morris’s roommate, will also graduate this spring. The two seniors make a point of mentoring the new girls, for whom schoolwork is usually the easiest part of the challenge. “If they run into a difficult situation, we help them deal with it,” Juanita says

Diana stresses staying strong and keeping goals clearly in mind. “We tell them none of us is alone because we have each other. Eventually they’ll make some real friends at school and it will get easier,” she says. “We remind them that it’s important to be open to what’s good in people. There are a lot of good people here.”

Juanita came to Darien from the Bronx, but her family is from Ghana, where she lived for three years. Fluent in Twi, a native language, she’s proud of her heritage and involved in a club dedicated to raising funds to build schools in Third World countries.

Part of a group organizing a February celebration of Black History Month, Juanita points out that ABC student Kendra Barber, who graduated in 2003, set up the first assembly six years ago. “The general lack of awareness was a surprise,” she says. “There’s this tendency to buy all the stereotypes, like assuming that all blacks listen to rap. A lot of kids try to talk ghetto to us, as if that’s the only way we understand English.”

The Darien Initiative to Value Each Other (DIVE) is another high school program started by an ABC student that offers a glimpse of the real world to kids who have grown up unexposed to other cultures. “We can get into deeper discussions there,” Juanita says. “It’s so important to try to communicate about diversity. The families of this year’s girls, for instance, come from Ghana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Malaysia as well as the United States. Being black doesn’t mean we are all the same.”

Asked if she would change anything about the program, Juanita’s biggest regret is having so little time to spend with her family. “It’s a huge sacrifice for all of us. I’m doing one of my college application essays about that,” she says.

But she is emphatic that she wouldn’t change a thing. “For me, this whole experience has been eye-opening, but we’ve been given tremendous support. I’ve learned how to handle myself. I’ve also made some good friends and, academically, I feel prepared.”

Looking ahead to college, Diana and Juanita are considering career choices. Participating in the National Youth Leadership for Medicine conference this past summer has Juanita thinking about medical school; AP biology this year will give her a head start. Diana’s focus is forensic science and criminology. “I’m taking AP statistics,” she says. The work is hard, they agree, but nothing they can’t manage.

Life moves along, but friendships forged years ago remain vital. Even when time, distance and circumstance get in the way, the memories don’t fade. A terra cotta bust of Edwina Chapman, an ABC scholar who graduated from Darien High School in 1989, occupies a place of honor in Sandy Filmer’s living room. “We were her host family; she and I really connected,” Sandy says, adding that Edwina accompanied her to what turned out to be an inspirational sculpting demonstration.

“I’d never touched clay at that point, but afterwards I asked Edwina to let me sculpt her and she agreed. Now I am a sculptor,” Sandy says. “We’ve lost touch, but every time I look at her face, I think of Edwina and wish her well.”

As the twenty-fifth anniversary of ABC of Darien approaches, Roz and Bill McCarthy, the program’s first resident directors, fondly recall the original six girls: LaRose Paris, Tony Frost, Joy Marshall, Rosa Garcia, Elizabeth Tejada and Orglyn Clarke. “They were the pioneers,” Bill says. “It was very challenging, but they succeeded and their accomplishments made it easier for those who followed.”

“And the program is still flourishing,” Roz adds. “Despite all the differences, the girls came to town and met people whom they liked and respected and who, in turn, liked and respected them. After graduating, they went on to attend fine colleges and build successful careers. That’s what A Better Chance is all about.”

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