A Celebration of Giving: Announcing the recipients of our 2008 nonprofit awards

Light a Fire – A Celebration of Giving

Never has it been more necessary to accentuate the positive. With gas prices skyrocketing and housing values taking a nosedive, we were feeling grumpier by the second. Yes, we know how lucky we are, but still it was great timing for the right kind of reality check.

The response from readers to our February Light a Fire request to “help identify the good guys among us” was the perfect antidote to snarky cynicism. We were flooded with e-mails enthusiastically nominating individuals, organizations and corporations in every category as eminently award-worthy. Each nomination was a compelling reminder that the human spirit is still alive and well — in fact, it’s thriving — in our corner of Connecticut.

In the twenty-three towns and cities that comprise Fairfield County, 2,432 nonprofit organizations are committed to addressing issues created by one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the nation. Definitions of philanthropy in what has been described as the “Golden Age of Giving” are as varied as the givers who added range and depth to our selection of Light a Fire honorees.

From the high school student just starting out to a husband and wife who have been making a difference for decades, from grassroots good works to the kind made possible by big business, we are pleased to tip our hats to these “good guys among us.” Please join us in saluting our honorees and all the volunteers who made their accomplishments possible.

Community-Minded Teens

The teenage volunteers at Darien’s Post 53 have no time to indulge in me-generation, nose-in-navel self-absorption. They are too busy learning how to save lives. As early as the summer following eighth grade, students who demonstrate ability and maturity during a three-month First Aid/CPR class can become candidates for membership in the only EMS squad staffed by high school students. Working with Darien’s Police and Fire departments and other area professionals, they will spend the next four years responding to 911 calls all over town.

Post 53 was started by Darien resident John “Bud” Doble and his son Bill in 1970. Operating out of the Doble garage on a budget of just $150, forty trained high school students responded to more than 100 emergency calls that first year. “Parents wanted to make their children aware of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Direct care by teenagers to the victims themselves seemed the best teaching tool,” says Post 53’s director, Susan Warren. “The idea was that, with step-by-step training, teenagers could be entrusted with adult responsibility and given the skills to save lives.”

From initial candidacy through assignment as radio roomie, rider, emergency medical technician, ambulance driver or crew chief, promotions are based on earning the necessary Connecticut State credentials as well as dedication, maturity and performance as a team member under pressure. Official EMT certification can be earned by someone as young as sixteen.

“It requires a lot of work,” says trainee Abby D’Agosto, age fifteen, a member of the crew that responded recently to a cardiac arrest at a Darien health club. Post 53’s role in that patient’s recovery was recognized by Norwalk Hospital during National Emergency Medical Services Week. “For me to know I can help save somebody’s life is huge,” says Abby. “It’s worth every bit of effort.” For more information visit post53.org.

Having Fun

Having fun is having an impact on inner-city kids. Since 1995, through Norwalk Grassroots Tennis, an alliance of tennis players, educational professionals and enthusiastic volunteers, economically disadvantaged children are learning so much more than just how to play the game. Once reserved for the privileged, “the game of kings” is opening doors for youngsters who might otherwise have found themselves making the wrong choices.

Last year alone more than 400 children were involved in NGT tennis activities. Eleven years ago director David Kimani, a former captain of the Kenyan National Junior Tennis Team and a full-time professional at Darien’s King’s Highway Tennis Club, recalls recruiting then six-year-old Antonio Passarelle (a.k.a. T.C.) after noticing his athletic talent. T.C. is now captain of the Brien McMahon High School tennis team and will soon continue playing in college. “These guys became my role models,” he says. “They opened my eyes to the world beyond Norwalk, helped me focus on what is important in life and kept me away from things I’ve seen happen to too many of my friends”

“It’s all made possible by our wonderful volunteers,” Kimani states. Along with running two annual fundraisers and helping collect rackets, shoes, balls and tennis clothes, the support offered by people in the community has many definitions. “There are high school students who teach, serve snacks, umpire matches and build relationships,” he says. “Retirees mentor our kids one-on-one and give them advice on how to deal with tough times on and off the court.”

And in a new venture for NGT, Sally Grose, former principal of Westport’s Hillspoint School, has joined the staff as academic coordinator. “We are planning to apply the same enthusiasm for tennis to schoolwork,” Kimani says, adding that the program’s focus is to build self-confidence based on accomplishment in school as well as on the tennis court. Visit norwalkgrassrootstennis.com.

Extraordinary Board Member

Friends of Southport’s Cindy Citrone are very likely to find themselves stuffing goodie bags. “At the very least,” she says, “and probably more than just once!”

A vice president on the board of the Connecticut Chapter of CancerCare, this at-home mother of four is the “Let’s do it!” spirit behind events that are more than just fundraisers; they brighten the lives of all participants. “I’ve been a recipient of what this organization offers,” she says, “the kind of practical support that helped me be the best possible caregiver when first my father and, later on, my mother got cancer.”

One Cindy initiative is the American Girl Fashion Show, now approaching its fourth consecutive year. Officially sponsored by the company that provides guidelines and the trademarked historical costumes, this event draws an audience of 700 to 900 each year. “It’s so much more than just a fashion show,” says Cindy. The fifty models range from girls who are cancer survivors to current cancer patients and siblings.

A case in point, Bianca Muniz was a twelve-year-old going through chemo following surgery for ovarian cancer when she modeled for the first time. “She did it with her sister,” Cindy says. “It was a very emotional experience for both of them.”

The next year Bianca came back cancer-free and commentated the show.  Her mother is now on the board, assisting CancerCare’s current outreach program to the Hispanic community, where the cultural tendency to “not talk about it” prevents early diagnosis and timely treatment.

Cindy stresses that board members do much more than just write checks. And a dedicated staff supported by enthusiastic volunteers — many are at-home moms wanting to combine parenting with community service — makes every good idea possible. “People are always calling me for help when friends and family are diagnosed with cancer — that’s a very sobering reality,” Cindy says. “But the good part is that, through CancerCare, I can help.” Visit cancercare.org.


Keeping Us Healthy

Founded as a small, local advocacy group in Greenwich in 1998, Time For Lyme is dedicated to restoring to humanity the right to be outdoors without fearing the ravages of tick-borne illness. In states like Connecticut, the specter of being bitten by a Lyme tick shadows our lifestyle, especially with regard to our children. For today’s kids the right to play in their own backyards without fear of contracting a lifelong systemic disease has been stolen.

A multifaceted approach is producing progress on many levels. Fundraising, based on six annual events, is a cornerstone of the program, providing resources for critically necessary research. TFL created a partnership with Columbia University Medical Center and the National Lyme Disease Association to establish and endow a Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Research Center based at Columbia. A $3-million donation by the TFL was key to making the project happen.

“We’ve played a significant role in educating politicians and medical personnel about the many issues surrounding Lyme disease,” says Copresident Diane Blanchard, who points out that teamwork has proven to be tremendously successful. “We speak with one united voice,” she says. “The results are significant.”

Educating the public has never been more important. A one-hour video, “A Time for Lyme? Students, Teachers and Lyme Disease,” created in partnership with the Greenwich Department of Health and the Greenwich Public Schools, is currently distributed in twenty-three states, the District of Columbia and Canada. In addition, TFL was featured in an award-winning PBS documentary on Lyme disease narrated by actress Meryl Streep.

Lobbying on the state and national level has built a consensus of support among lawmakers for legislation like the Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education & Research Act of 2007, which directs dollars toward identifying an accurate diagnostic test, better surveillance and improved prevention techniques. For information visit timeforlyme.org.

Extraordinary Philanthropists

Retired IBM executive George Bauer delights in honoring his wife, Carol, through the process of charitable donation. “This is a tribute to an extraordinary woman,” he said, when giving $2 million to expand and renovate the Cancer Center and Emergency Room at Norwalk Hospital. A $100,000 gift to the Visiting Nurse/VNA Care Network established the Carol B. Bauer Volunteer Fund.

While George is currently treasurer of the board of trustees at Norwalk Hospital, Carol is the board’s former chairman as well as the founder and leader of the ER Reception Volunteers. Wearing the group’s signature sky-blue jacket, she is a comforting presence, greeting patients and their families as they arrive, calming those who are upset.

Shared faith is the bedrock of this couple’s marriage, beliefs that were tested when their first child, who appeared to be a normal, healthy baby, died of a spontaneous rupture of the liver when he was five days old. In 1992 the Bauers funded the Jeffrey Peter Bauer Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Norwalk Hospital in honor of their son.

Through the Bauer Family Foundation, George and Carol make what they call the “Sunday/Monday connection” to bridge the spiritual and the secular in their lives. “Give a hand, not a hand-out, is the basic idea,” says George. “And I like to be available as a mentor.”

Seed money from the Bauer Family Foundation jump-started a South Norwalk chapter of the national I Have a Dream program, which guarantees a college education to under-privileged children who finish high school; enrichment classes will assist forty public school students living in Washington Village. A $50,000 donation accelerated construction of Devon’s Place, the Boundless Playground, where handicapped children play alongside those who have no disabilities.

No surprise that Carol is a graduate of Norwalk Hospital’s nondenominational chaplaincy program. “In the ER,” she says, “I see so many people whose lives are out of control. ‘Lady, what am I going to do?’ they ask in despair. I want to be able to give the right answers.”

Corporate Good Neighbor

Community involvement is integral to the global business philosophy of General Electric, whose corporate headquarters are located in Fairfield. Through the GE Volunteers Foundation, employees at all levels are connected to the needs of the communities in which they live. With a broad pool of skilled talent to draw upon and ongoing partnerships with numerous charitable organizations, GE is uniquely positioned to make a difference.

Although its 330,000 employees actively volunteer in 140 locations around the world, for GE philanthropy definitely starts at home. This corporation has a hands-on presence throughout Fairfield County. Senior centers, children with autism, literacy for low-income communities and neglected urban spaces are just a few of the issues addressed by organizations supported by GE.

The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut in Stamford is one local bene-ficiary. Children and teens referred there suffer from a spectrum of psychiatric and/or behavioral problems; traumas range from the death of a loved one to being the victim of/or witness to violence. Sexual abuse or neglect can trigger depression, anxiety, eating or sleep disorders and precipitate delinquent and risky acting-out. Each child is helped by a multidisciplinary team of mental health professionals; treatment services are tailored to meet individual needs.

“Excellence in education is a primary focus,” says Frank Mantero, director of GE’s Corporate Citizenship Programs. He points out that in 2006 the GE Foundation allocated $100 million to improve student achievement and increase college readiness across targeted school districts. Partnering with schools and organizations, GE sponsors scholarships that encourage students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue degrees in higher education, with a special emphasis on studies in science, engineering, technology or business. “One project,” he says, “one grant can impact the one child it takes to make a difference.” For information visit ge.org.

Doing the Most with the Least

From cold cereal and ketchup for its food pantry to diapers and laundry detergent, Operation Hope relies on gifts of some very practical items from donors in the community. “Help us keep costs down!” is the message on their website, where staplers, legal pads, binders and paper clips are described as “always needed” supplies. Their wish list includes fans, air conditioners, working hand trucks and a handyman willing to do small repairs.

Concerned citizens were the catalyst for Operation Hope of Fairfield, founded in 1986. Aware that there were individuals in the community unable to meet their basic needs for food and shelter, clergy and lay leaders worked to find a solution. Working with former Fairfield First Selectman Jacky Durrell, the group established a temporary shelter at Fairfield’s First Congregational Church and then renovated a property at 50 Nichols Street.

In January 1988 an eighteen-bed shelter for men and a food pantry opened. Over the next decade, other programs were activated including a five-bed women’s shelter, a two-unit shelter for families and a Community Kitchen. While these facilities meet immediate needs for shelter and sustenance, the larger goal is to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

In 1997 the Readiness Project was created to teach the work and life skills that help individuals achieve stability and independence. That same year the Successful Tenancy among Residents (STAR) Program was formed to help formerly homeless individuals stay in their existing homes by offering goal planning, crisis intervention and counseling. Operation Hope also operates twenty-one units of affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.

“For me, ending homelessness is a personal and professional mission,” says Executive Director Carla Miklos, who points out that the organization’s goal is to provide an environment where compassion will inspire dignity, hope and, ultimately, self-reliance. For information visit operationhopect.org.


Inspiring the Next Generation

Since 1986 a restored farmhouse on a quiet residential street in Westport has redefined “home” and “family” for selected adolescent girls in crisis, providing a long-term therapeutic living environment within which they can learn to overcome painful past histories and make positive life choices. Seven girls at a time, ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen, live together as a temporary family, sharing their stories, supporting one another and benefiting from the care of skilled professionals.

The girls stay an average of eighteen months, some as long as four years. Of the 125 graduates since the program’s inception, the majority have been able to return home or to another healthy living situation. Approximately 40 percent have gone on to higher education, entering a variety of professions; seven former residents are currently attending college.

In each case success is the result of support offered by a community of dedicated resident managers and a long list of volunteers, which includes doctors, therapists, dentists, social workers, educational/vocational coordinators, nutritionists and other health professionals. Other volunteers staff events like the annual Birdhouse Auction that raise money to supplement partial funding from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

“We continue to help girls living in both our group home and in our communities to heal and grow,” says Project Return Executive Director Susie Basler. “We encourage them to discover their strengths and their capacity to love and be loved; we strongly believe that they can move forward in healthy directions.” Learn more at projectreturnct.org.

Preserving Our Community

Climb aboard an eighty-foot replica of a Chesapeake Bay Sharpie Schooner and set sail to explore Long Island Sound. Christened SoundWaters, this floating classroom carries the name of its nonprofit sponsor, an organization founded in Greenwich in 1989 as an environmental advocate for Long Island Sound and its watershed. Aboard the three-masted sailing ship, students of all ages gain a hands-on appreciation of nature through supervised interaction with live creatures in their natural habitat.

Ten years after its founding, SoundWaters partnered with the city of Stamford to expand its programs to a year-round venue, one situated within a few feet of coastal habitats including salt marshes, sandy beaches, mudflats and rocky shorelines. Located in the historic Holly House in Cove Island Park, the SoundWaters Coastal Education Center offers a range of educational programs inspiring a commitment to ecologically responsible behavior.

The group supports the efforts of volunteers and town workers to control erosion and sediment, collect hazardous waste, operate a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, offer pump-out facilities for boaters and revitalize shellfish beds. “They do an extraordinary amount of nuts-and-bolts stuff,” says Leigh Shemitz, SoundWaters executive director, who points out that encouraging proper storm water maintenance and drainage as well as developing conservation areas on the shore and islands “make the tie between land use management and habitat health.”

On a typical day at the center, school groups gather around an enormous aquarium whose tanks showcase local freshwater and saltwater creatures. Among other things, the children and their teachers learn how the salt marshes act as both habitat and natural filtering system and how they once lined 70 percent of Connecticut’s coastline. Now 80 percent have been destroyed in the name of progress.

The 2008–2009 SoundWaters Business and Environmental Lecture Series will continue to promote practical solutions for individuals, businesses and communities. Education, SoundWaters leaders firmly believe, is the catalyst for meaningful change. For more information visit soundwaters.org.

Adult Volunteer

Greenwich Special Olympics coordinator Gary Ciccone remembers every special athlete he’s coached over the past eighteen years. “My daughter began swimming when she was eight years old,” he says. “She’s now twenty-six.” At first he just watched, but soon Gary was in the pool as a volunteer.

“This program is all about helping special kids succeed,” he says. “We set realistic goals; each accomplishment is an extraordinary moment.” Seventy-five to eighty athletes ages eight to fifty-five attend practice sessions; thirty-five to forty of them will travel to Connecticut’s Summer and Winter Games. “We’ve got people with Down Syndrome, children on the autism spectrum and kids with other behavioral or physical issues,” Gary says. “All they need to do is show up. We’ll find a way they can participate.”

The season starts with gym nights in September offering exercise, indoor basketball and soccer. “It’s just an hour of fun, really,” Gary says, “to get everybody socializing.” Winter ice-skating and swimming in the spring give way to track and field in the summer. “At least one day a week, eleven months of the year,” Gary says, “we’re doing something with these kids.”

He recalls one young woman in a wheelchair who is also intellectually challenged. “She’s twenty-seven and has no use of her legs at all, but in the pool she’s very buoyant,” he says. “She loves to swim.”
The key word is success and adaptations make it possible. A volunteer can help someone in a wheelchair play kickball; creative coaching and lots of praise go a long way. “One kid took seven years to win a silver medal for swimming a lap without touching bottom,” Gary says, “but his smile on that victory platform meant everything.”

The volunteers, who make success possible, are part of what Gary describes as one big family. For teenagers the experience is an eye-opener. “They don’t take things for granted anymore,” Gary says. “And then there’s the love these kids give you — you see it in their eyes.” Visit soct.org.

Best-Kept Secret

Beginning as an outreach effort of St. John’s Episcopal Church in the late 1800s, St. Luke’s Lifeworks became an independent, non-denominational charity in 1987. Today it provides to more than 400 adults and children each year at ten locations (eight in Stamford, one in Georgetown and one in Fairfield). Programs are designed to help families, single adults and people who are living with HIV/AIDS or recovering from mental illness.

The Connecticut Commission to End Homelessness estimates that more than 4,000 people are without shelter every day in this state. Each night 2,000 people, including 400 children, sleep in emergency housing. St. Luke’s LifeWorks — “Where people learn a living” — is an organization determined to change those statistics.

“Our goals are to provide lifelong learning, emergency and supportive housing, and other direct aid in the context of a caring community,” says the executive director, the Reverend Richard L. Schuster.

Last year seventy-two families took steps to achieve self-sufficiency through the Family Program. Fifteen of those families moved into the community; twenty moved to longer-term transitional housing and the rest continue to receive support as they work toward their goals.

Nowhere is hope more evident than in the Bright Space play area located in St. Luke’s Center for Children and Their Families in Stamford. Supervised creative recreation includes access to two Young Explorer computer systems and nurturing from staff members who understand the emotional needs of youngsters living in a shelter environment — which is why, most of all, there is laughter. Elsewhere in the building, parents attend classes that will enable them to build a better future for themselves and for their children. Learn more at stlukeslifeworks.org.

Extraordinary Teenage Volunteer

“I was lucky to be a student in an excellent school system with parents able to help me succeed,” says Darien’s Katie Rawden. Participating in an Outward Bound Youth Leadership Program with forty other high school students from neighboring towns was an eye-opening experience, one which led to volunteering at St. Luke’s Lifeworks, a Stamford-based organization that helps homeless families restart their lives.

“Growing up in Darien can be very insular,” Katie says. “After Outward Bound, I felt strongly that I didn’t want to be that way.” She began to look for a one-on-one way to help. During her junior year at Darien High School, Katie organized a Homework Helpers program for children at the St. Luke’s Lifeworks Family Center, which offers shelter and resources to homeless families for periods of eighteen months to two years. Individualized two-hour tutoring sessions twice a week for kids ranging in age from four to thirteen started with math and English homework and then addressed particular problems.

The real challenge was keeping those with learning issues from becoming distracted. “One little girl had so much trouble reading just the simplest words, but we wouldn’t let her give up,” Katie says. “When she finally succeeded, it was such a moment. I will never forget the look on her face.”

This year as a freshman at Bowdoin College, volunteering at a community outreach program will have top priority on Katie’s to-do list. And she won’t forget those she has already helped. “One little girl, a fifth-grader, is just brilliant and determined to make it to college; I know she will succeed,” says Katie, adding that plans are being worked out for other high school volunteers to continue the Homework Helpers program in the coming school year.

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