Cause an Effect

If there were ever a time when we need reassurance that hearts are open and love will prevail, it is now. Consider one Fairfield County resident who must have felt completely hopeless, even before any of us began uttering the word “pandemic.” His name is Piglet, and as a one-pound, deaf and blind puppy, his prospects for love were grim. Then Westport vet Melissa Shapiro, already mom to six dogs, brought him into her fold. “The puppy completely turned our house upside-down with his anxious screaming,” says Shapiro. “We weren’t prepared for the amount of time and energy we had to devote to the little guy; but as we held him, provided him with a routine, and taught him tap signals, he started to settle down.” Shapiro was determined to give Piglet a meaningful life—you’ll have to read about how that turned out. (Hint: She overdelivered.)

We were all a bit like Piglet when the pandemic hit: disoriented, upset, hopeless. Then there was the routine: the hand-washing, the disinfecting, the masks, the Netflix marathons. Perhaps the family dinners, the calm of not chauffeuring kids, the setting up of a home office and the school room.

Tap, tap, tap. Little signals that this is life now and we will get through it, leaning on one another.

Some of our neighbors jumped into action to help those in need—we featured an admirable lineup of those model citizens in last year’s Light a Fire. And now, when we all want the pandemic to be over but it’s not, when it feels like it is taking so much out of us, the giving continues in Fairfield County. The givers keep laser-focused on helping. Helping hospitals, helping the needy and the lonely, helping children battling cancer, helping through music, helping through sports, helping with a wee dog named Piglet. Helping love win. Every day.

We are proud to introduce you to our 2021 Light a Fire honorees.

 


WILNER JOSEPH
Best Friend to Children

ORGANIZATION: YOUNG ATHLETES 4 CHANGE

INSPIRATION
“I founded Young Athletes 4 Change to give kids in the inner-city opportunities I didn’t have when I was growing up,” says Stamford’s Wilner Joseph. “It’s about more than basketball; it’s about having a mentor and a program that offers life skills and the possibility of being a leader. Sports is what saved my life, keeping me out of trouble and connecting me to so many people: Black, White, all different communities. Those relationships were all built on our common love for the game. Sports brought that diversity to my life.” Joseph adds, “I’m inspired by seeing the impact I have on the youth I serve—guiding them in the right direction, seeing the happiness on their faces, giving them hope. Some kids come into the program with no hope and no direction. We try to provide the resources to give them a better situation.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
Through Young Athletes 4 Change, Joseph has created events that spur conversations “about issues youth are dealing with in our communities: mental health, gun violence. These are team-building, and these are conversations that need to be had. The prevalence of social media and social media bullying is fueling violence,” Joseph says. “My brother was killed, and that made me an advocate for addressing gun violence and mental health issues that lead to violence.”

In 2017, shortly after losing his brother, Joseph set up the Million Dollar Smile initiative—a line of clothing in honor of his brother Max. Funds from sales support raising awareness about gun violence with the message: “When we wear Million Dollar Smile, we represent resilience. We aim to sustain a community of young positive change makers worldwide.

“We hold rallies and speeches in different communities,” Joseph says. “I’m proud to have gained attention from the mayor [of Stamford], who honored my brother and gave him his own day: May 20th is officially Max Day in Stamford, Connecticut, now. There is a big mural of my brother in Stillwater. Getting that day and the mural—I consider those two of my huge accomplishments. And seeing other kids I’ve mentored who come back and say, ‘Hey you saved my life.’ You may not save everyone; but if you save one, it’s a domino effect, because they may save the next one.”

HOPES & DREAMS
“First, I hope to bring peace, love and unity to the community,” says Joseph. He dreams of opening a community center, where his program can grow, with life-skills workshops, therapy for kids in need and free activities.

“I dream of finding someone who believes in my mission and will fund this dream,” he says. “I’ve planted a seed here and dream of growing nationally, even globally, to help other kids. I’d love to see Young Athletes 4 Change in every city, every country!”

Words of Praise
“Wilner Joseph’s record of advocacy in our community is inspiring. His dedication to reaching the youth of Stamford by meeting them at their own level on the basketball court through Young Athletes 4 Change has undoubtedly changed many young lives for the better. On behalf of our city, I would like to offer him our sincerest gratitude and congratulations on this honor.”
—STAMFORD MAYOR, DAVID MARTIN

 


ROB FRIED
Supporter of Nonprofits

ORGANIZATIONS: ANN’S PLACE • CARDINAL SHEHAN CENTER • CENTER FOR FAMILY JUSTICE • CHILDREN’S LEARNING CENTERS OF FAIRFIELD COUNTY • CLASP • COMMON GROUND • CONNECTICUT INSTITUTE FOR REFUGEES AND IMMIGRANTS • CREATIVE CONNECTIONS • MARITIME AQUARIUM OF NORWALK • MISSION/CT CHALLENGE • NEW CANAAN MOUNTED TROOP • NORMA PFRIEM BREAST CENTER • OPERATION HOPE • SAVE THE CHILDREN • STERLING HOUSE COMMUNITY CENTER • TEAM WOOFGANG & COMPANY • WPKN

INSPIRATION
“After decades of performing at nightclubs and festivals, I had the opportunity to perform alongside Meryl Streep and Paul Newman to preserve Connecticut farmland, which ignited a vision to play ‘music with purpose,’” says Rob Fried, who was in his mid-forties and “felt a need to contribute to the well-being and growth of the planet and people in it.”

Combining decades of business and investment experience as a founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates with his musical passion, Fried united nonprofits, musicians, donors and audience members to support local causes through themed concerts. “Band Central was born to create fundraising events that connect giving with joy and entertainment,” explains Fried. “We call it Fun-lanthropy.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
“We have helped raise approximately $4.5 million since our inception, produced more than 125 events and worked with over sixty different Connecticut nonprofits,” says Fried, who founded his organization in 2006 as “Band Together” and changed the name to Band Central three years ago.

“We initiate the process by providing a grant to a nonprofit partner from the Band Central Fund, a donor-advised fund at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. Next, the team of Audrey Nefores (director of communications), Paola Murphy (director of operations) and Andy Kadison (producer) work with me to support the nonprofit to market the event, engaging their existing donors and attracting new ones.”

Band Central Radio on WPKN 89.5 FM spreads the word to the community, and Band Central draws from its network of 100-plus musicians to produce a Concert with a Cause. “It’s about many talents coming together with a sense of purpose to raise awareness and funds,” says Fried.

HOPES & DREAMS
“The social problems we face are complex, and change is difficult,” says Fried. “It requires collaboration with government. Instead of pushing through with fierce ambition, we take the Law of Attraction approach. We view ourselves as a big heart coming at people, using music to share joy so that others can enjoy their lives, feel meaning and be useful to others. At the end of the day, the people we think about are the clients of the nonprofits we work with, the people who really need a helping hand. To have a vibrant Connecticut we need to have more equality of opportunities so that different types of people can thrive.” Fried adds, “We aim to create a little more heaven here on earth so everyone transcends and moves up what we call the Maslow triangle to self-actualization.”

Words of Praise
“Rob really cares about connecting Band Central’s performances to a fundamental understanding of a nonprofit’s mission and always takes the extra step to get to know the organization and its work in a way that just feels more personal. During the pandemic, Band Central supported the Center for Family Justice in a variety of meaningful and impactful ways under the most extraordinary of circumstances.”
—DEBRA A. GREENWOOD, PRESIDENT & CEO, CENTER FOR FAMILY JUSTICE

 


CHRISTINE LAI
Best Friend to Families

ORGANIZATIONS: S.E.L.F. • ABILIS • NEXT FOR AUTISM • COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S ALUMNI RELATIONS COMMITTEE FOR FAIRFIELD COUNTY • GREENWICH COUNTRY DAY SCHOOL • WINSTON PREPARATORY SCHOOL

INSPIRATION
“When my oldest son entered public school about ten years ago, we really struggled to get the school and the district to recognize his disability and the impact it had on his learning,” explains Christine Lai, founder of Special Education Legal Fund (S.E.L.F.).

“Many parents struggle in the special education system due to its complexity as well as the difficulties they are experiencing while this is going on—maybe the teacher is calling you every day; maybe you are balancing appointments with multiple doctors, therapists and diagnosticians; maybe your child is coming home every day in tears. Our struggle with our school lasted about twenty months from start to finish. I remember thinking at the time, what do other families do if they don’t have the time, energy and resources to fight this fight for their children? That struggle, ultimately, formed the basis of the idea that became S.E.L.F.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
Lai formed S.E.L.F. in 2018 and partnered with Ulrika Drinkall, another Greenwich mom of a child with special needs. “We gathered a group of parents together based on this idea that the special education system works for families with resources, because they can afford the expertise that brings pressure to bear in order to get things done,” explains Lai. “We knew there were families slipping through the cracks. If you are a family who can’t afford an outside evaluation, or an advocate or an attorney in the most extreme cases, what do you do, and where do you turn?”

Those families can now turn to S.E.L.F., which has provided $430,000 in grants since 2018 to families in thirty-nine school districts, ten counties and three states. “Our families are all different—some students have autism, some have dyslexia, some have mental health challenges,” says Lai, “but broadly speaking, they are all falling through the cracks, and we are grateful to provide them with a safety net.”

HOPES & DREAMS
“My dream for S.E.L.F. is that at some point in the future we won’t be needed, that all students will receive the education that is appropriate for them with-
out intervention, and that all families will be able to advocate independently and successfully for their children in the special education system,” says Lai.

“My dream for special education is for greater understanding of the vital role that it plays in the long-term functioning of society. A student who graduates from high school without being able to read, due to an undiagnosed or improperly supported learning disability, may have difficulty finding employment and holding a job, which could long-term have an impact on their ability to be a productive member of society.”

Words of Praise
“Christine Lai is a passionate advocate and defender for the rights of the neurodivergent community. Her focus of ensuring children with learning challenges receive the best education possible is evidenced by her stellar leadership of the Special Education Legal Fund. Her passion is infections and her strength, charisma, tenacity and compassion translate into results for the community she serves.”
—LUIS GUZMAN, DIRECTOR OF THE IMMIGRANT SUPPORT FUND, FAIRFIELD COUNTY COMMUNITY FOUNDATION

 


MATTHEW JORDAN
Teen Volunteer

ORGANIZATIONS: KIDS IN CRISIS • STAPLES HIGH SCHOOL SERVICE LEAGUE OF BOYS

INSPIRATION
“It’s difficult to read a news article or watch a current events video without being exposed to the harsh realities of our world,” says Westport’s Matthew Jordan, a devoted volunteer at Kids in Crisis (KIC). “So many children are left without the support they need. Some parents don’t have the necessary resources. Some parents get sick, pass away or endure life-changing events that make caring for children near impossible. I am inspired by the tremendous fortune of having a family and the support that allowed me to have a well-rounded childhood. The question ‘why me?’ motivates my action to help others who may not have the same opportunities.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
Despite the challenges of functioning virtually, Jordan stayed engaged and active as a volunteer for Kids in Crisis during the pandemic, recruited his Staples High School classmates to join KIC’s Youth Corps and made an impact with an array of initiatives.

“Social media may be the most effective method of reaching not only adolescents, but the general public,” says Jordan. “With this in mind, KIC made a special social media campaign for National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April. The KIC Youth Corps is a group of teens with the mission to make KIC social media and youth targeted events more effective. Our corps suggested enhancements to KIC’s social media presence that over time increase our community’s awareness of the issues affecting children and families. Another project, the Winter Season Scavenger Hunt, promoted local business, family bonding, and KIC services.”

HOPES & DREAMS
“My ultimate ambition for Kids in Crisis is to increase awareness among all who could benefit from our services,” says Jordan. “It’s troubling to know that many others could be helped, if they only knew where to find us. The majority of kids at Staples High School don’t know we have a KIC Teen Talk counselor—and, yet, she’s still busy. The pandemic and its negative effects on mental health have intensified the need for KIC’s services. The social media campaigns help to increase awareness, but a brand and reputation like Make-A-Wish—of which my grandfather was on the national board—could see KIC’s impact grow exponentially.”

Words of Praise
“Matthew has been a crucial part of our teen volunteer program, Youth Corps. Although they were virtual, he has attended all Youth Corps meetings and always offers meaningful contributions to our conversation. Matthew has been a huge help in organizing our Child Abuse Prevention campaign during the month of April. He worked hard in finding statistics and facts, and he also helped coordinate the best and most effective way to share these statistics through social media. Matthew also participated in our virtual scavenger hunt event, where he raised awareness of Kids in Crisis and helped raise funds for our organization. Matthew requested to continue volunteering throughout the summer, as he is passionate about the Kids in Crisis’ mission and the safety of all children.”
—MELISSA BASILE-REOLON, COMMUNITY SERVICES AND EDUCATION COORDINATOR, KIDS IN CRISIS

 

Julie with her children Haley, Jack, Lily and Riley

JULIE SCHLAFMAN
Grassroots Leader

ORGANIZATIONS: RED WAGON GROUP • BALLS AND CLEATS FOR ERITREA

INSPIRATION
“I believe it takes a village to accomplish great things,” says Julie Schlafman, a New Canaan mom of four. “I think what inspires me to give back and do community service is my children. Giving back is a value we hold in our family. Teaching them what it takes to be a part of a community and watching them thrive from volunteering inspires me to do more. By volunteering, you learn very quickly not only how appreciative others are but what a gift it is to give.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
Barely into grade school, Schlafman’s daughters spearheaded a food drive for School House apartments, a New Canaan retirement community. They gathered the goods in their red wagon and, thus, in 2016, Red Wagon Girls was formed. They went on to orchestrate a flower activity for residents and a trick-or-treating event that was such a sweet hit it became a yearly treat for residents and kids alike. And soon their annual red wagon food drives grew in girls and wagons. In third grade, the entire class participated. “Girls” became “Group,” as boys joined in.

The Schlafmans drew the community together during the pandemic to provide necessities and encouraging messages for School House residents. “My dream is to have people who pass the apartments on their walk to town stop by and say hello and know that they were a part of keeping that wonderful group of residents in high spirits,” says Schlafman.

After her girls read I Will Always Write Back, Schlafman expanded the family’s altruistic reach. “I wanted to teach them there is more out there in the world than just New Canaan,” explains Schlafman. “My soccer coach from Cornell is from Eritrea, Africa, and hoped to create a nonprofit to bring soccer balls and cleats to Africa. We thought we could help.” Soon, over eighty balls, 130 pairs of cleats, uniforms/jerseys and money raised through the “Schlafman Sweet Stand” were on their way to Africa.

HOPES & DREAMS
“We will continue to find ways we can help support the residents at the School House Apartments,” says Schlafman. “I hope the Red Wagon Group continues to foster relationships and that the community as a whole keeps School House Apartments on their radar.” She adds, “We hope to annually collect for the Eritrean Community. We dream of going over there and meeting the soccer coaches and children who benefited from our efforts. Maybe this will inspire my children to create their own nonprofit one day!”

Words of Praise
“Through her volunteer work with the School House Apartments, Julie organized a parade of donations for necessities during Covid, bringing residents toilet paper, paper towels, even rolls of quarters to do their laundry. Through the Red Wagon Group and New Canaan Moms, Julie has spearheaded so many community projects. For the last holiday season, she collected donations for the School House residents yet again to bring them joy by giving them ‘Twelve Days of Christmas.’ Julie never stops; she even partnered with one resident to help him gather old family recipes and get his own cookbook edited and published.”
—MARIANNE BACHELDOR, TEACHING ASSISTANT, NEW CANAAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

 


GRACE LOCKHART DJURANOVIC
Committee Member

ORGANIZATIONS: GREENWICH UNITED WAY• BRUCE MUSEUM • GREENWICH ACADEMY • PITCH YOUR PEERS

INSPIRATION
“From a young age, I remember my parents and grandparents always setting a wonderful example with their dedication to service,” says Grace Lockhart Djuranovic. “I grew up watching them volunteer, and my parents [Cricket and Jim Lockhart] are still very active in the Greenwich community. This legacy of giving back instilled values that motivate me to give back every day.” Djuranovic also credits Greenwich Academy. “Community service was an integral part of my education,” she says.

“Professionally, in my previous job managing sponsorships for an international bank, I worked with nonprofits all over the country. This was not only inspiring, but also educational, as I’m able to bring what I’ve learned to my volunteer work locally,” she says.

COURAGE INTO ACTION
“Cochairing the Bruce Museum Night at the Museum Family Fundraiser seeded the idea for the Bruce Contemporaries, as we wanted to engage more families with young children and also young professionals,” says Djuranovic. Launched in 2018, Contemporaries now has 100 members and offers special events monthly. Djuranovic recently cochaired the museum’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Bruce Gala, which netted over $500,000.

“The Greenwich United Way has also been a special organization to my family, as my mother was a cofounder of Sole Sisters, the GUW women’s initiative with the mission of ‘Women Stepping Up to Help Others Step Forward,’” explains Djuranovic. Djuranovic cochaired that event in 2018 and 2019. As a GUW board member, she has served on the Grants Committee and now is vice chair of Board Affairs and chair of the Nominating Committee.

Djuranovic is also a member of Greenwich Academy’s Alumnae Association Board and supports Pitch Your Peers, a local, female-only, grant-funding organization.

HOPES & DREAMS
“I feel very lucky to call Greenwich my hometown, which is why I’ve focused my efforts locally,” says Djuranovic. “My hope is that these organizations keep providing the excellent services and programs that improve the lives of so many on a daily basis. I see the Greenwich United Way continuing to lead the way in addressing local human services needs, especially with essential programs like the Early Childhood Achievement Gap Solutions Program. I hope Bruce Contemporaries continues to grow as the museum grows. The New Bruce will completely transform the museum, and I am looking forward to seeing how it impacts the local art community and the town of Greenwich.”

Words of Praise
“A truly great nonprofit board member requires a strong character, an unwavering commitment to the cause, the gift of time and a willingness to use personal and professional resources to advance the organization’s mission. Grace leverages all these, and more, for the Greenwich United Way. Grace’s boundless energy and leadership has helped us assist our most vulnerable in myriad ways. From our grants to organizations to our own Direct Impact programs, Grace’s expert input, thoughtfulness and kindness exemplify what a valuable board member she is to us.”
—DAVID RABIN, PRESIDENT & CEO GREENWICH UNITED WAY

 


ANDY BERMAN & SHERRY JONAS
Impactful Duo

ORGANIZATION: ANDY BERMAN: PUSH AGAINST CANCER • CATCH A LIFT FUND • MY TEAM TRIUMPH • NORMA PHRIEM BREAST CENTER SHERRY JONAS: PUSH AGAINST CANCER • KATE REARDON MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP (FOUNDER)

INSPIRATION
When Andy Berman opened his gym, Fitness Factory, in Westport in 2009, he wanted to do something for a good cause. “I’m a huge fan of Paul Newman. I learned about Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, and I felt 100 percent that’s what I want to support,” says Berman. “I thought back on my childhood and going to camp and having such a great time, and I got a lump in my throat. For these kids, it’s the one time they can just be kids.”

The camp enables seriously ill children to go to camp, with suitable medical support and adapted activities, at no cost. Berman created a push-up-athon, Push Against Cancer, twelve years ago, to support the cause. In 2017, Sherry Jonas, inspired by her fiftieth birthday falling on the same day as the event she always attended, joined his team.

Jonas says: “There is a Jewish concept, tikkun olam, which means ‘repairing the world.’ For as long as I can remember I felt that tikkun olam is my spirituality, my religion. I try to give back and make the world a better place one person at a time, one event at a time.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
“Really, all I did was serve as a bridge between my friends who work for the city, the police, friends in the military, other trainers and coaches— and it just grew,” says Berman. It outgrew his gym, then the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, and finally landed at the Staples High School gym. “It’s for all ages and all fitness levels. No one is responsible for a certain amount of push-ups. Kids in remission, former campers, come and speak and do push-ups. That really resonates with the kids—that they can do anything. That message is so incredibly important.”

“The only thing bigger than Andy’s biceps is his heart,” comments Jonas. “He does a remarkable job bullying people into participating. He has always had an incredible presence in the community.” Jonas brought her Columbia MBA and business experience to the table as Berman’s “taskmaster,” buoying participation and sponsorship.

In total, PAC has now raised almost $1 million. “We’ve sent almost 300 kids to camp,” says Jonas. “That is a gift to every person who participates or donates money, not to mention the families who get to watch their children blossom and forget about their illness, at least for a moment in time. Hole in the Wall Gang serves more than 20,000 children a year. It’s not just the camp; they also do outreach and take camp activities to hospitals and communities.”

HOPES & DREAMS
“I hope that more people focus on what they can do in their own commun-ity as a team and worry less about negatives,” says Berman. “We’ve proven in Westport that a small town is capable of so much. I hope to start PACs in other towns. The best thing in life is giving back. I wake up every morning looking forward to teaming up with good people to do great things.”

Jonas reiterates, “I hope that PAC continues to grow as a community event but also that we roll this model out to communities around the country.”

Words of Praise
“It has been my pleasure to work with these dedicated individuals and help them grow this event from an annual twenty–participant/$10,000 fundraiser to nearly 400 participants and $250,000 raised in one year.”
—JUSTIN FARRANDS, PEER-TO-PEER COORDINATOR, THE HOLE IN THE WALL GANG CAMP

 


BRUNSWICK SCHOOL
Community Good Neighbor

ORGANIZATIONS: GEMS • GREENWICH HOSPITAL • HORIZONS • GREENWICH PUBLIC SCHOOLS • GREENWICH YOUTH ATHLETIC PROGRAMS

INSPIRATION
“We benefit so much from what the town of Greenwich provides, how can we not give back?” says Head of Brunswick School Tom Philip. “You can’t be a part of the community unless you are prepared to give back. We wouldn’t be the school we are without Greenwich.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
When the pandemic hit, Brunswick School stepped up and offered its parking lot to Greenwich Hospital, in case it was needed for patient overflow. “We also opened up one of our gyms to the hospital to set up a Covid vaccine clinic,” says Philip. “They were incredible and so efficient. They’ve vaccinated 40,000 people since January.” The school also set up a food bank for first responders.

Brunswick’s other campus in Western Greenwich is hosting two ambulances, while GEMS builds a facility nearby. “I bet the preschool kids think it’s very exciting,” says Philip.

Brunswick also allocates two full buildings and its pool to the Brunswick Horizons enrichment program, which runs through the summer and on six Saturdays during the year. It is free for public school boys in need. “We are in our sixth or seventh year of offering the program,” says Philip. “We are now serving 130 boys. Our Horizons faculty work with public school administrators to identify kids they are concerned about. And it’s not just the kids. The families are involved as well. We weren’t able to run it in 2020 during Covid, but it was back this summer with masks.”

Philip adds, “These programs are critical for the community, but they are also really good for us. A bunch of our boys and faculty volunteer. You get as much out of giving as receiving. We have a dynamic community service program, and all students are required to participate. It’s been part of our tradition for as long as we’ve been around.”

HOPES & DREAMS
“My hope is that when needs arise, we will be there. We are lucky to be able to help,” emphasizes Philip. “Our current priority is making Brunswick more accessible through scholarships—to first-responder families and hospital workers, for example. We want those people who are working hard for the town to be able to live nearby and send their children to the school they would like. We are very cognizant in admissions of accepting local students. We very much want to be a Greenwich school for Greenwich citizens.”

Words of Praise
“Greenwich Hospital was so fortunate to have such a great partner in Brunswick School for Covid vaccinations. They collaborated with us on every aspect to ensure that our community was able to get in and out of the school safely and quickly without interfering with their day-to-day operations of running a school. The process couldn’t have gone more smoothly. We recognize this was a significant challenge, one they took on for the greater good.”
—DIANE KELLY, PRESIDENT, GREENWICH HOSPITAL

 

The pack: Dean, Gina, Zoey, Evie, Piglet and Annie

MELISSA SHAPIRO
Empathy Advocate

ORGANIZATION: PIGLET INTERNATIONAL, INC.

INSPIRATION
“As a veterinarian, I’ve been involved in dog rescue for a very long time,” says Westport’s Melissa Shapiro. “Our family has fostered a number of dogs and birds and helped them find their forever homes. So when I learned about a tiny, deaf and blind, one-pound puppy, I figured that fostering would be a helpful, temporary commitment. I was curious about what it would be like to care for and connect with such a profoundly disabled dog.” It wasn’t easy.

“The puppy completely turned our house upside-down with his anxious screaming,” explains Shapiro. “We weren’t prepared for the amount of time and energy we had to devote to the little guy; but as we held him, provided him with a routine, and taught him tap signals, he started to settle down.” Two months later, Melissa realized she couldn’t let him go. “To justify adding a seventh dog to our household, I promised myself Piglet would have a productive, meaningful life,” she says.

COURAGE INTO ACTION
“Once we formally adopted Piglet, I created Piglet’s mission, which included educating about and advocating for rescued animals, particularly those with disabilities,” says Shapiro, who set up a nonprofit, Piglet International, in 2019. Piglet’s story resonated with kids with challenges, too, and Shapiro created the Piglet Mindset program and Piglet’s Inclusion Pack as a teaching model for acceptance, inclusion, empathy and kindness.

“I shared Piglet’s story with media companies like The Dodo, which supported our platform by creating and circulating videos and articles. The initial Dodo video was viewed over 13 million times around the world. It was our first genuinely ‘viral’ experience with Piggy.”

Shapiro also began selling Piglet merchandise to fundraise for dog rescue groups and partnered with an online T-shirt company when worldwide demand skyrocketed. “To date, we have raised just shy of $100,000 from T-shirt sales alone,” says Shapiro. She collaborated with a third-grade teacher to create lesson plans on PigletMindset.org and Melissa and Piglet make virtual and in-person visits with students and teachers.

Piglet’s social media platforms—“Piglet, the deaf blind pink puppy,” on Facebook and @pinkpigletpuppy on Instagram—have over 450,000 followers, and Melissa released the book Piglet: The Unexpected Story of a Deaf, Blind, Pink Puppy and His Family in August. A children’s book is in the pipeline for 2022.

HOPES & DREAMS
“In order to expand and grow my educational program, I hope to build a supportive board of directors, attract corporate sponsors and increase our individual donor base,” says Shapiro. “I plan to add an advisory panel of educators, create more educational materials and reach school systems across the globe. We hope to bring Piglet’s message of positivity, inclusion, empathy and kindness to more people all around the world. When children are kind to animals, they are more likely to be kind to each other.”

Words of Praise
“Like Piglet, Dr. Shapiro is one in a million. A compassionate vet, Melissa has chosen to use her work with rescue animals to teach the importance of empathy and overcoming challenges. The Piglet Mindset inspires children to show compassion to each other, but equally important, to show kindness to themselves.”
—EILEEN BARTELS, VET CLIENT

 


ALAN MILLER
Community Advocate

ORGANIZATION: MUSEUM OF DARIEN

INSPIRATION
“I’ve always liked history,” says Alan Miller. “About three years ago, I became a member of the Museum of Darien and started learning more about the history of Darien and all the fascinating people from here and incredible things that happened here. Soon after, I retired from my job as an engineer and sent my last kid off to college. I realized I had time to do the volunteering I’d put off for many years.”

Darien’s bicentennial was approaching in 2020, making it perfect timing for the Sikorsky aircraft engineer to dig deeper into the town’s history and make some history at the same time. Initial meetings led to the creation of the Darien 2020 Bicentennial Committee, and Miller agreed to lead it.

“It’s completely different from what I was doing in my career,” says Miller, “and such a treat and educational experience for me.”

COURAGE INTO ACTION
Miller, who has been chairman of the Museum of Darien’s Board of Directors since its creation in 2019, launched into a multipronged plan for the celebration of the town’s 200th birthday. Soon the Bicentennial Committee grew to more than twenty-five members and volunteers. Little did they know, the pandemic would turn a one-year commitment into three.

“In spite of all the challenges, I’m proud that we haven’t scaled back or canceled any events. Some just have been postponed,” explains Miller.

In January of 2020, an opening ceremony was held at the Town Hall, with 400 people in attendance and CBS correspondent Scott Pelley hosting. The Weed Beach Festival couldn’t happen until last June, but by then, 400 people were more than ready to enjoy the band Exit Ramp, a whale boat and a catered picnic from Giovanni’s.

“A week later, we celebrated Anniversary Day in partnership with Daughters of the Revolution,” says Miller. At press time, the Bicentennial Committee was holding auditions for the reenactments of the Revolution- ary War raids on the Middlesex Meeting House and Mather homestead.

For a time capsule project, items “have been collected from people in town and from every school. The time capsule will be held for fifty years at Museum of Darien and then revealed,” explains Miller. The Darien Heritage Trail, funded by a $35,000 grant from the Darien Foundation, is also underway and will feature an audio accompaniment. In addition to the grant, Miller and his committee raised $50,000 in donations for their events. “We are also selling Bicentennial merchandise—hats, tees, ornaments,” says Miller.

HOPES & DREAMS
“We tend to emphasize major historical figures and battles when learning about our past,” notes Miller. “Often what is forgotten is what happened really close to home. Once you learn about the Revolutionary battles, you realize it was really a civil war here. I hope we continue to have great events informing people about what our forefathers sacrificed so that we could have this great place to live. I hope people volunteer and, with all the chaos in the world, realize how fortunate we are to live in this part of it.”

Words of Praise
“I doubt that anyone except a designer of helicopters could have managed this multifaceted bicentennial effort as successfully. Luckily Al has the organizational capacity to handle lots of plates in the air at once. He’s done a tremendous job keeping everyone on task and focused.”
—ROBERT J. PASCAL, PRESIDENT, MUSEUM OF DARIEN BOARD OF DIRECTORS


LIGHT A FIRE AWARDS 2021
Join us for a virtual Celebration of our honorees hosted by James Naughton

December 2 / Thursday 5:45-6:45pm
REGISTER / LIGHTAFIREAWARDS.COM

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