Woog’s World: A fundraiser for every night of the week but this one stands out
If you wanted, you could probably attend a fundraiser of some kind every night in Westport. I go to my share. In another, parallel hedge fund world, I’d go to more.
The number of worthy causes is (unfortunately) enormous. The generosity of Westporters is (fortunately) stupendous. The planning and love that goes into each event is wondrous. Yet one stands out for me. Each year it epitomizes who we are as a community, and what we try to do.
The “Dream Event” is an annual gala for A Better Chance of Westport. In a town that reaches out and embraces a diversity of causes, this one is especially close to my heart.
ABC is a national organization providing educational opportunities for thousands of talented, hard-working but economically disadvantaged minority youth. There are 300 programs around the country, at boarding, day and public schools. But despite its national profile, each ABC chapter is on its own in terms of funding, housing and — crucially — local operations.
A Better Chance of Westport opened its doors in 2002 — literally. The doors belong to Glendarcy House, a red brick home on the corner of North Avenue and Cross Highway. It’s not too far from Staples High, where up to eight ABC scholars go to school each year. But the distance between that house, and the sprawling campus where those boys challenge themselves in the classroom; participate in music, drama, sports and clubs; grow into young men, and in turn help the rest of us become better people, is a lot longer than a few hundred physical yards.
At the end of this school year 22 ABC scholars will have graduated from Staples, and gone on to four-year colleges and careers. Their stories are inspiring. I felt privileged to hear some of them last Saturday night, at the 2017 Dream Event.
Birchwood Country Club was filled with Westporters who support the ABC program. Every past president — Dave Driscoll, Steve Daniels, Harold Kamins, Lee Bollert, Gail Cohen and Eric Seidman, along with current president Martha Mintzer — was honored. Countless residents who volunteer as host families, drivers, tutors and board members were hailed too, along with the house’s resident directors Latisha and Rodney Williams, cook Merrill Boehmer, plus organizations like the YMCA and companies like Freudigman & Billings that offer their services gratis.
The parents of 2017 graduates Samuel Larkin and Mannasses Ogutu enjoyed heartfelt applause. It’s not easy to send your son — your only child, in Sam’s case — away from home for four years, entrusting him to relative strangers, hoping he’ll get a good education and a shot at college. But they did, as parents have done for the past 15 years. The results are awe-inspiring.
Charles Winslow served as emcee. The 2009 Staples alum graduated four years later from Cornell University. He worked for Goldman Sachs (a fact that elicited a few good-natured boos), then left to pursue his dream: working in education, focusing on inner-city youth (which earned a solid round of applause). He started his own company, and got married. His wife is in medical school.
Charles opened with a quote: “Potential is universal. Opportunity is not.” He said that although he sees many children with innate ability, the obstacles to their success can be overwhelming. It takes a concerted effort to provide opportunities. The town of Westport has accepted and embraced that role.
Shamir Clayton took the mic, and recalled arriving 15 years ago at Toquet Hall. Glendarcy House was still under construction. But its founders had a vision. Shamir followed their lead — all the way to Emory University, and an MBA from the University of Rochester.
Savion Agard — another Cornell grad — noted that it was the love, support and guidance he found that kept him and other ABC alums coming back. Wesley Lemon (Lafayette College) sang. Recent grad Christopher Morales (Staples ’16) described his life at Ithaca College, where is a TV and radio major, and a French minor.
Sam — looking ahead to his own Staples graduation — said, “I love this program. It’s been a long journey. But I stand here as a senior, ready to attend college in the fall.”
There were in-jokes and shout-outs. There were laughs, hugs and tears. It was a night of celebration and pride. But one thing was clear: As much as Westport gives to A Better Chance, it receives at least as much in return.
Host families spoke of the joy they get from getting to know “their” scholars. Former president Gail Cohen said, “ABC makes Westport a better community.”
Appropriately, Charles Winslow closed with the same words he began with: “Potential is universal. Opportunity is not.”
Thanks, ABC of Westport, for giving all of us the opportunity to help achieve a tiny bit of America’s potential.