Project Return's 17th annual Birdhouse Auction on Friday was the setting for some of the most creative submissions in the event's history, according to many in the crowd of more than 400 who attended the fundraiser.

The audience at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton also learned the importance of the event to the 25-year-old Westport-based organization, which specializes in the care of adolescent girls in crisis. Project Return also provides a support system to the young women after, in keeping with the birdhouse theme, they find their own wings, fly away and build nests of their own.

Many in the audience were moved to tears during the testimonial by a former resident of the Project Return house, identified only as Myra of Norwalk. Myra shared intimate stories about her troubled young life: her mother's death from AIDS, her father's overdose, her brother's incarceration, and her 22 placements as a ward of the state in foster homes, shelters, hospitals and group homes.

"My life has been one huge roller coaster," she said.

Myra told the gathering the staff at Project Return taught her it's okay to be broken "and that, in time, the broken pieces could be put back together again. They also helped put the pieces back together." She also learned to deal with feelings rather than concealing them.

"I was there during some of the most difficult times I would ever face and they loved me in spite of my attitude and troubles ... Today I'm the mother of four beautiful girls ... I've tried very hard to make sure that my children's lives are nothing like what my life was. No drugs and no DCF care," Myra said. "My children are my life, the beginning of every day and every night."

Cindy Wormser, the birdhouse auction's co-chairwoman, said Myra's story offers proof that Project Return has a wider reach than just the girls who live at the house, of which there have been 135 since the organization began 25 years ago. "It breaks the cycle of these girls' lives and effects future generations," she said.

"It's really incredible to watch them grow up, to see them become wonderful, functional young women," said Renee Gold, Project Return's coordinator of education and after care.

Just as the birdhouses provide temporary shelter for feathered friends, so does Project Return for at-risk girls, said Lorin Klaris, president of the board. She said the program helps heal their wounds and build their confidence to face the challenging world.

"They really appreciate your generosity and concern," Klaris said of the current residents of the house.

"They brought my daughter back to life. She was the walking dead. It took time. It's a work in progress. What I've observed about Project Return is that there is strength in numbers," said the mother of a young woman currently in the program. She called the Project Return house "a new environment with wrap around arms with people who genuinely care, and that's hard to find."

Klaris called this year's birdhouses and other bird-related artwork "the most imaginative" in the auction's history. They included Bill Fiorelli's paintings on bird feathers, a working clock titled "When Time Flies" created by Leah Scherzer, and Greenwich artist Irene Henrick's "Morning Joy," a painting that used a sewing needle to distribute acrylic paint across the canvas.

"They're beautiful, amazing," said Mimma Mallozzi, of New Canaan, who attended the event with her husband Joe and their four children, one of whom -- 7-year-old Joey -- brought a flashlight to shine into the birdhouses to see if any birds had taken up residence.

Ali Walker of Norwalk bid successfully on a large red hat made by Westport artist Liz Beeby and wore it for the rest of the night. "I felt like it was happiness in flight," said Walker, who also bid on another hat called "Fascinating Fascinator" by Nina Bentley.

Westport artist Patricia McMahon created a birdhouse for the third time. "I believe in the cause and I think (the birdhouses) are a great way to connect it to the community. A good, creative outlet for a good cause," said McMahon, who made her "Meet the Driftwoods" birdhouse from found objects including driftwood collected on Sherwood Island while walking her dog.

Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor at FIT in Manhattan, was attending his first birdhouse auction. "It's clearly not a curated show but there are a some really lovely pieces," said Blackman, who was especially impressed with award-winning Westport artist Miggs Burroughs' holographic birdhouse, which sold for $1,000.

A giant "birdhouse," really a children's playhouse, went for a $4,400 bid in the auction.

Organizers did not have an immediate calculation on how much was raised through the silent and live auctions, but Executive Director Susie Basler said the event is Project Return's largest fundraiser, providing financial support for many of the organization's programs.