WESTPORT — Fifteen years ago Patty Haberstroh, a Family Program Coordinator in the Westport Department of Human Services, received a call from a nurse at Coleytown Middle School who spoke with three eighth grade boys who said they were not going to attend the middle school graduation ceremony because they couldn’t afford the clothing.

Haberstroh shared the information with then Human Services department head Barbara Butler, which sparked a conservation and culminated in the formation of the “Ceremonies and Celebrations” program to provide funds to graduating eighth graders and high school seniors in need of financial assistance for a dress or suit for graduation.

“It seems like very little to some people, but it’s a really big deal to feel good and look good to celebrate something you’ve worked so hard for,” Elaine Daignault, current Human Services department director, said.

Donations from members of the Westport community and Parent Teacher Association’s enabled Haberstroh and her department to give 32 Westport graduating eighth graders and high school seniors funds to purchase graduation clothing last year. Eighth graders receive $100 while high seniors get $200, Haberstroh said, adding the program used to give 11th graders money for prom clothing as well, but had to cut the prom program because the department didn’t receive enough donations to sustain it.

Families of donation recipients must provide income information, such as tax returns, bank statements, and pay stubs, to ensure the family meets the need-threshold to qualify for the program, Haberstroh said. Before each graduation season, Haberstroh said she makes a list of potential donation recipients from among the about 100 Westport families she works with who are experiencing difficult financial times.

Layoffs, divorce, and medical issues are common reasons why families in town may need financial assistance for food, heat, camps, and graduation clothing money from the human services department, Haberstroh said.

More Information

Checks to the “Ceremonies and Celebrations” program should be made payable to “DHS Family Programs” (memo line: Ceremonies). Donations may be mailed or delivered to the Department of Human Services, Westport Town Hall, Room 200, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport, CT 06880 from 8:30-4:30 p.m. daily.

Graduating students must provide receipts of how they spent the ceremony funds to the department and many include heartfelt thank yous and pictures in their letters to the department, Butler said.

One thank-you especially stuck in Butler’s mind, she said. The note was written by a 12 grade Staples senior who used the funds for her senior prom. She bought a $12 dress from a thrift shop, and used the rest of the money to buy shoes and treat herself to a manicure and get her hair done, Butler said, and added, “She looked beautiful and used all her resources to make it perfect for her.”

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1