'Isolated and disconnected': Actress speaks about plight of immigrants at Longshore event

WESTPORT — Most people felt their share of fear and isolation over this past year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent traumas, but those involved with Caroline House understand firsthand how those feelings always haunt new immigrants to America.

The Bridgeport-based nonprofit, which provides English language education and life skills for low-income immigrant women and their children, celebrated its 25th anniversary Saturday with a Hope Blossoms spring brunch event at The Inn at Longshore.

International actor and Westport resident Stephanie Szostak, who immigrated to the United States decades ago from France, was the guest speaker. Szostak, who stars as Delilah Dixon in the ABC drama “A Million Little Things,” has appeared in a wide range of TV shows and films, including “The Sopranos,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Iron Man 3.”

When she learned about Caroline House through friends at AWARE CT, she said she was impressed and smitten by its mission. “It’s a community for people to come together and find a sense of belonging, which is what we all hope for,” she said.

Szostak said isolation is one of the worst aspects of coming to a new place, even under the best of circumstances. “We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be isolated and disconnected,” she said, particularly through the experiences of the pandemic this past year.

She noted how mental illnesses have doubled in the past year, with 40 percent of the population now struggling with depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

“That’s what isolation does,” she said, stressing the value of a place like Caroline House, which not only provides education for women and children through its preschool program and after-school tutoring, but also exists as a place to feel connected and less alone.

“Today is about supporting Caroline House and the tremendous work that the women are doing to improve themselves,” said Sister Peg Regan, Caroline House executive director. “It’s been a rough time for immigrants. They’ve gotten a lot of bad press and it’s good that Caroline House is around. People have a right to a decent life.”

Sister Maureen Fleming, a founder of Caroline House in 1995, said she is thrilled to have seen the nonprofit flourish.

“I’m just so proud,” she said. “Twenty-five years later, I think of all the little worlds we helped.”

Fleming said, during her time at Caroline House, they’ve encountered dozens upon dozens of languages with people from the whole world over.

“Anybody who landed in Bridgeport and needed to learn English was welcome,” she said, “and we managed as best we could.”

“I was just blown away by their determination,” Szostak said of conversations she had recently with the immigrant students, “by their resilience, and their hope and faith, and how they spoke about their teachers at the Caroline House.”

She said she was struck by how the women she met opened up about their stories and fears, and how that openness is such a pivotal part of eschewing the isolation.

“So often we’re afraid to take our masks off,” joking that it’s not just the surgical kind.

“There’s compassion and humanity in opening up,” she said.