The world welcomed to Westport on jUNe Day
Dozens of flags representing nations around the world whipped in the stiff breeze that blew off the Saugatuck River and across the Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen Bridge in downtown Westport on Saturday as more than 200 people from 37 of those nations enjoyed a day-long visit to town, a local tradition of nearly one-half century.
The staff and delegates of the United Nations and their families toured town, played tennis and golf at Longshore Park, learned about the local environment and indigenous animals at Earthplace and Sherwood Island Nature Center, and viewed displays at the Westport Historical Society.
All of the activities were part of the 47th annual jUNe Day celebration. The event promotes world peace and international understanding through friendly interaction between UN visitors and their hosts, and it honors the signing of the United Nations Charter on June 26, 1945. The jUNe Day event was established in 1965 by the late Steinkraus-Cohen.
During opening ceremonies at Saugatuck Elementary School, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff told the visitors that Westport is proud to maintain the tradition of displaying the international flags on the downtown bridge over the Saugatuck River to coincide with jUNe Day.
Joseloff welcomed the visitors to the "cosmopolitan, internationally minded community," and reminded them they are welcome anytime, not just on jUNe Day. He also shared his gratitude that the weather had cooperated after Fairfield County had suffered three days of stifling heat in the days leading to the event.
Saturday's weather offered a mix of sun, towering puffy clouds and a cooling breeze, which made for comfortable play on the soccer field behind the school, where players from the UN's four soccer leagues trounced the local Westport Late Knights 5-1.
"Last year it was a tie game. We came up on the short end this year," said Alex Anvari, a member of the Late Knights, who called the annual sports rivalry a "tough and friendly competition." Anvari and Norwalk resident Alvaro Calderon, originally from Peru, who recently retired from his work as a librarian at the UN, received a trophy from Brock Hotaling at the opening ceremonies for the 2011 game. Hotaling is executive director of the International Visitors Committee, also known as the International Hospitality Committee of Westport. That organization and the United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut co-sponsor jUNe Day each year in cooperation with the town of Westport. Calderon is coordinator of the UN soccer team.
Before the UN visitors scattered across Westport, they shared a light breakfast at the school and listened to the comments of Johnston Barkat, assistant secretary-general and United Nations ombudsman, and Ambassador Joseph V. Reed, of Greenwich, under-secretary and special advisor to the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
"I think jUNe Day is a very special event marking the hospitality of Westport. It couldn't be more cordial, warm and welcoming," Reed said.
"You have to live with integrity ... Our internal beliefs have to match our actions," Barkat said. He also read a message from Secretary-General of the UN. In it, Ki-moon thanked the people of Westport for their vital work to support the UN and for hosting jUNe Day for so many decades.
"This year's event takes place at a particularly important time -- in the wake of the United Nations' Conference on Sustainable Development ... Sustainable development recognizes that economic, social and environmental objectives are not competing but interconnected goals," he said.
The Secretary General's focus on sustainability heightened jUNe Day's annual inclusion of Earthplace and the addition this year of the Sherwood Island Nature Center to its line-up of attractions.
"It's been interesting to see how the various delegations react to the animals and the natural history displays and the trails, but what I find most fascinating is the common ground we share. No matter where we're from there is an appreciation for the natural world," said John Horkel, executive director of Earthplace, who has greeted UN visitors to that nature center for 27 years.
Andy Todd, director of animal programs for Earthplace, took UN visitors on a tour of the environmental center introducing them to the animal ambassadors that reside there, including bald eagles, vultures, a kestrel, crow, and mockingbird.
"I liked seeing the bald eagles. I've never seen a bald eagle," said Michael Lennard, making a first visit to the state of Connecticut. "It's a nice part of the world," said Lennard, who works in the UN's Department of Economics and Social Affairs. He and his wife Rita were impressed with Earthplace and jUNe Day as a whole. "It's a very good initiative," he said.
Takao Shibata, who formerly worked at the Japanese Mission for the UN and was a drafter of the Kyoto Protocol, enjoyed the time he and his wife Mieko Ikegame spent at Earthplace. They learned about the resident birds of prey and studied the walls in the entrance foyer that are covered in porcelain tiles of indigenous wildlife.
"It's interesting and amazing," Shibata said.
"Some of the things I see here I see in my pond," said Ikegame, director for coordination, advocacy and programme development in the UN's Office of Special Adviser on Africa. The couple recently purchased a home in Wilton and said their visit to Earthplace helped them identify some of their local wildlife. They also enjoyed viewing the animal paw prints in the concrete on the front sidewalk.
Michaela MacColl, chairwoman of jUNe Day for ten years, said the event has become part of the fabric of the Westport community, some of its organizations and volunteers. It is also an event the UN staffers look forward to. Caldron has attended every jUNe Day for the last 26 years.
First time attendee Mariama Sillah, a language reference assistant for the UN Department of General Assembly and Conference Management, called it a "lovely, family-oriented event ... I will be a frequent guest every jUNe Day and I would like to bring more family members," said Sillah, a first generation American with ties to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. She took her daughter Abigail, 3, to one of Westport's beaches.