25 years of shelter, love and hope for Westport girls in crisis
An old farmhouse at 124 North Compo Road was empty and deteriorating in 1983 when a Westport woman and a team of citizens envisioned repairing the structure and using it as a therapeutic group home for adolescent girls in crisis.
Twenty-five years later, the all-female staff of the seven-bed facility, called Project Return, use the same love and care with which the house was rebuilt to restore in the young girls who call it home a sense of self-worth, awareness, and confidence, and provide them with a sense of belonging, unconditional love, and a chance to dream and hope.
"It's about loving them until they love themselves," said Mimi Haley, Project Return's director of program development.
Project Return, which first opened its doors in 1986, celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend with an open house on Sunday, Oct. 2, from 3 to 5 p.m. The event will pay tribute to all the young women who have passed through the house's doors, the founding members, Board of Directors, volunteers and staff, including Executive Director Susie Basler, who calls what the staffers do at Project Return "collective parenting."
Resident Manager Christina Napolitano said the staff is responsible for crisis intervention, conflict resolution, taking residents to appointments, facilitating group meetings, helping with homework, and creating a home life space.
"It's a non-institutional setting. It provides a sense of home," Basler said.
They go to bed at night and wake up the next morning with the same staffer, unlike most residentially facilities, Napolitano said.
Kelsey Francis, a member of the support staff, said the work of Project Return involves "in-the-moment processing." "We're not an out-patient therapy model. What we do gives us a better understanding of who the girls are. We spend so much time with them. We learn their personalities. We see them all the time so that relationship gives us a better insight into how to work successfully with their struggles, illnesses, and diagnoses," Francis said.
Haley said the model of care is tailored to the unique needs of each girl. "It's individually crafted care. It's not cookie cutter," she said.
"The thing that makes us different is the family model. We're pretty true to what we did from the beginning," Basler said. It's more relational than behavioral, more circular than hierarchical, she said. There are rules for the whole house and then other rules depending on the ages and maturity levels of the residents. The girls are responsible for chores and they menu plan together. Many of the girls appreciate the rules and responsibilities, although sometimes not until after the fact.
"I needed the structure then, and it was nice to have someone to talk to, and always have food on the table," said Melysa Smith, 22, of Westport, who stayed at Project Return longer than most, about four years. Smith was removed from her mother's home when she was 13 years old because of neglect. Her mom died six months after Smith went to live at Project Return, which exacerbated her issues.
"I realized in the last couple of years how much Project Return helped me grow up. When I was there I was an angry, angry person and I hated life," Smith said. "Living at Project Return made me a different person. You live with all kinds of people with other problems. Girls are there for all different reasons," she said, mentioning eating disorders, sexual abuse, and drug use either by the girls themselves or their parents.
Today, Smith loves life enough to bring one into the world. She gave birth three months ago. But even as an adult, and a parent, Smith still maintains a connection to the staff, as do many of the alums.
"I left in December '06 and they still help me out to this day ... It's not like you leave the group home and they forget about you," Smith said.
Project Return has served 135 residents and countless other young women and families that have used the house's resources and educational programs. They tend to be from Fairfield County but they can come from anywhere in the state.
"When you consider the number of girls who have gone through the program and gone on to educational and professional success to make great contributions (to society) and have better relations with their families, the program has served the needs of Westport, the school system, and society, as well as the girls and their parents," said Founder Kate McGraw, who now lives in Hamden.
When she came up with the idea for Project Return, McGraw was an assistant superintendent of special education for the Westport school system. She said she saw a need to house and educate students, in particular girls, whose parents were unable to keep them at home for any number of reasons. "The only way we could do that was to have a residential program for them so they could go to the Westport public schools," she said.
It was the good will of a lot of people in town in those days who brought McGraw's vision to fruition, she said, giving credit to Barbara Butler, then the town's second selectman and now Westport's director of human services, other elected officials, the local PTAs, and neighbors for supporting the program.
Basler said the Young Women's League held a house shower, which outfitted the facility with pots and pans, a toaster and silverware. Others, like Wally Meyer, a former board member and treasurer for 10 years, helped Project Return financially when it couldn't meet its payroll obligation at one time.
So convinced of the programs' value, four board members collectively took out a personal loan to fund house restoration before the doors opened, Basler said.
The program was quite modest at first. "In the beginning, everyone shared one desk," Basler said. There were three staffers when the doors first opened. Now there are eight full-time and 15 part-time staff members, she said.
Project Return is financially viable now through a combination of state funding, private donations and a popular annual birdhouse auction fundraising event. Artists showcase their talents by creating "fanciful, thematic, outrageous, simple or elaborate, big or small" birdhouses and proceeds from the auction support the work of Project Return, according to the book "The Art of the Birdhouse," published in 2006 by Project Return. Notable local residents, among them Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Miggs Burroughs, and Naiad Einsel have created birdhouses, which represent the safe and nurturing environment of Project Return.
"The birdhouses are a wonderful symbol of what we do. We're nurturing and providing a house for the young birds until they are able to fly away," Basler said. Each girl is as unique as each birdhouse, she said.
The next birdhouse fundraiser is set for March 23 next spring.
For more information about Project Return visit its website: www.projectreturnct.org.