Out of the Woods / Toward a kinder, gentler Westport
During the four-and-a-half decades I have lived here, I have observed the residents of our town grow more ambitious, civic-minded, international, sophisticated, education-oriented, diverse, and interested in preserving the physical character of Westport.
Yet, paradoxically, at the same time some of us have become more litigious, materialistic, self-centered, status-conscious, and -- yes -- rude and confrontational. In a word, some Westporters seem to need some lessons in anger management.
This is most applicable when it comes to driving downtown on the Post Road or on nearby local highways at rush hours in the morning and late afternoon. From the sudden sounds of horn-honking and drivers shouting out of their windows, one would suppose they think they are in Times Square rather than on our beautiful, 22-acres of valuable land we love to describe as "Westport, a special place."
Nonetheless, it would appear that help is on the way.
Indeed, the Westport Kindness Project -- whose purpose is to encourage all of us to participate in acts of kindness -- is a new initiative in civility launched by the town's youth. It is a project sponsored by the Westport Youth Commission and the Kool to be Kind Club at Staples High School.
The project "seeks to engage as many community members as possible in recognizing and highlighting simple acts of kindness in Westport," said town Youth Service Coordinator Elaine Daignault in an article in this paper last Friday.
"The goal," she added, "is to improve the overall climate of our community by offering a platform to acknowledge those who take the time to be kind to others."
The creative program, credited to Youth Commission member Andy Moss, who suggested the idea to the commission a year ago, is in the process of being set up with the help of two local marketing firms that will introduce entrepreneurism.
For example, "kindness ambassadors" -- adults and kids -- will highlight "public acts of kindness" by uploading photos, messages, and/or personal stories on a new website. "We hope that our website will inspire others to take action in making a difference," Daignault said.
The ambassadors will carry "kindness cards" with them to distribute to people who demonstrate kindness. Staples K2BK Club founders Jackson Yang and Michaele MacDonald, working with peers and parent volunteer Marina Goodell, will set up a mechanism under which the cards are redeemable at stores. "The card can be brought to a participating business to redeem for discount or freebie," MacDonald said in a press release.
"It's similar to the pay it forward concept we teach in the Kool to be Kind Program with third-graders -- if you do something nice, it will spread to others and ultimately start a trend."
Student leader Leigh Rubin, vice chairman of the youth commission, said, "We hope this will not only bring more business to local merchants who were kind enough to support the project, but will also raise awareness of how simple acts of kindness can make a difference in our lives." The participating merchants' names will be posted on the group's website.
We hope this innovative new effort to bring more civility and better relations among members of the Westport community will be supported by as many local merchants as possible and that -- over time -- it will become a game-changer in our town's civic life.
What I find most exciting about this venture is that it contains all the elements of a solution to Westport's longstanding tendency to embrace two contradictory personalities.
Like many people, our town can evoke the best in everyone -- and the worst. Maybe that's because the stakes are so high. Perhaps it's just a part of the East Coast "I'm in a hurry to succeed" syndrome.
Historically, Westporters have demonstrated traits -- good and bad -- that are at odds with one another. In writing the history of our town, I discovered the sources of these personality characteristics in different eras and in different circumstances.
While change is the only constant in the history, we have somehow managed to strike a balance between the positive and the negative. I rather lean toward the conclusions that after we have drawn out an argument as long as we can, we are able to find compromises.
Often, it's the process that brings out the worse in some of us. I honestly hope the Kindness Project will be successful and make a lasting impact.
Twenty-four years later, this still holds true in our own hometown.
Woody Klein's "Out of the woods" column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com