Patricia and Robert Phillips, Julie Faryniarz, Andy Fox, Mary Fetchet, Kevin Wing, Dana and Mike McCreesh, Alexandra Wallace-Currie, Medha Thomas and Richard Hokin
Fairfield County tends to have a reputation for excess: gigantic houses, grand galas, fabulous designer wardrobes, kids’ birthday parties festooned with multiple bouncy houses and live circus animals. But, there is also excess of another kind in our precious corner of Connecticut.
Fairfield County is chock-full of people who just can’t stop giving: spouses that compete in a friendly contest to see who gives back more, teens whose over-scheduled afternoons are packed with good deeds, mothers who turn grief into hope and healing for thousands more who are hurting, friends who start a movement to save one child with cancer and won’t stop until they save them all.
The honorees of our annual Light a Fire event never fail to tip the scales of excess in favor of a kinder, gentler Fairfield County. Join us in celebrating the dedication, generosity, resiliency and moxie of these model citizens of our incredibly fortunate towns.
Lifetime Achievement Award
Patricia & Robert Phillips
Patricia and Robert Phillips lived in Montclair, New Jersey, until Chesebrough Ponds, the company Bob worked for (ultimately as president), relocated to Greenwich. The couple chose “a lovely home in Shippan Point in a wonderful community,” where their two children would be close to playmates. It was 1974—and the beginning of the Phillips’ longtime service to the greater Stamford area.
Pat, already a Junior League member, immediately got involved. While chairing a committee on community action, she polled members from various towns on the biggest problem in their area. The response for all towns—even the quiet, bucolic ones—was the same: battered women. The revelation led to a lifelong commitment to helping victims. Pat created a task force and brought together social service agents, churches, synagogues and the police. “Everyone was in denial,” says Pat. “The police would just walk the guy around the block and then send him back home.” They started calling Pat to pick up victims, which she did, often with her two small children riding along.
“We got volunteers to offer safe homes,” continues Pat, “and eventually got the funding to create a shelter. It was highly successful.” Pat founded Domestic Violence Services at the YWCA, where she served as interim director for six months and oversaw the shelter there. Pat then spearheaded a campaign for a bigger facility and raised $3 million. She remains on the advisory council for the Domestic Violence Crisis Center and campaigned to raise another $3 million to establish the Shelter for the Homeless, where she was board chair for six years and still serves on the advisory council. Pat is also dedicated to assisting low-income individuals and families who need a helping hand through her continued work with Person-to-Person. She has sat on the organization’s board, advisory council and development committee. “Bob says, ‘I can’t live with Pat and not do something!’” says Pat, chuckling.
Passionate about education, Bob founded the Stamford Public Education Foundation in 2001 and served as board president for three years. The foundation had a “dreary space on the edge of Mill River,” so Bob was easily persuaded to get involved in yet another philanthropic project—the Mill River Collaborative. “It’s one of the seminal projects for downtown Stamford. We’re very proud of it.”
Bob is also on the board of the Stamford Museum and Nature Center. “I’ve been interested over the years in the arts and the Bendel Mansion,” says Bob, who has encouraged more exhibitions there. “I’ve also been involved with Loft Artists and bringing them to the Nature Center and Mill River Park.” The Old Town Hall is another Stamford gem Bob has promoted as an art venue, and he was instrumental in bringing the Stamford Symphony to the Palace Theatre.
Susan Rigano, executive director of the Stamford Public Education Foundation, comments, “Bob and Pat focus their attention on nonprofit boards that serve the homeless, the hungry, the poor, the young and the old with compassion and a genuine determination to help struggling individuals and families rise out of poverty toward self-sufficiency.”
Best Friend to Women
“I’ve always known that women in general are givers,” says Westport resident and RTM member Medha Thomas. “We want connection and camaraderie. When I had my daughter, I realized how much more important that is for mothers.”
Medha, a Philadelphia native who left business school at the University of Pennsylvania to become a mom, launched CT Moms, creating a virtual village for thousands of mothers. “It became a place for moms to connect with each other,” says Medha, “and also find jobs, pet sitters, sell houses, find charities we want to give to … We help one another and help local charities. We are busy moms giving of ourselves in ways that fit in with our schedules and life while making the biggest impact possible in our area.”
Stephanie Snell of the Department of Children and Families in Norwalk comments: “Medha is one of the most caring and giving people I know. Whenever I have called on her and CT Moms to help a family or child in need, they have always come through
Medha adds, “Homes with Hope called about a displaced family that needed everything. I put a call out, and within a day we were able to provide them with household goods, clothes, small appliances, diapers, groceries … . We get requests like this once a week from the 127 charities we work with, but sometimes it’s just a simple call for a pair of warm pajamas for the Pajama Program or a supermarket gift card for a shelter.”
Meredith Grant, a CT Moms member from Greenwich, notes how Medha “turned a simple group into a machine of women who come together to raise money for so many good causes, from donating diapers to collecting unopened Halloween candy to send to troops.”
Nicole Lyons, a member from Darien, adds, “Within a month of the devastating Christmas fire in Stamford two years ago, Medha had mobilized volunteers in towns reaching from Greenwich to Bridgeport to host a Fire Safety & Awareness Day at local fire stations. Donations were contributed to the Badger family, and the event provided a way for firefighters and rescue teams to connect with residents in a meaningful way that impacted everyone’s lives.”
Medha is motivated by giving back and surrounding herself with women who join her in that mission. “Growing up, I was the recipient of a lot of giving,” says Medha. Now CT Moms gives $80,000 worth of services every year. And some of what the organization gives can’t be quantified. “One mom who struggled to avoid depression after having her first baby later told me that CT Moms website was the place she came to when she couldn’t sleep at night,” explains Medha. “It kept her connected to the world in a time when she didn’t feel connected at all.”
Business Good Neighbor
“I’m fortunate that my business is in Greenwich, and my business partner is on the same page about how important it is to give back to the community,” says Andy Fox of Stone Harbor Land Company. Fox, a longtime Greenwich resident, was recently appointed to the town’s Planning and Zoning board, volunteers his time as a member of the GEMS board of directors and has served as chairman of the Nathaniel Witherell building committee for seven years.
In his pro bono position for Nathaniel Witherell, Fox oversaw the $25 million project, from design to funding to construction. “My parents are getting older, and I think Nathaniel provides unbelievable services to the town and its aging population,” says Fox, commenting on why the project was so important to him. “Its new rehabilitation wing will provide even more services.”
Michael Chambers, director of Inland Wetlands and Watercourses, comments, “Under Andy’s guidance, we have proudly watched an amazingly successful nursing facility transform to another aesthetic gem within the town’s holdings.” Chambers adds, “Most impressive of all are the many great deeds Andy is found doing for the most needy residents of our town.” When Greenwich police officer Roger Petrone, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, could no longer move around his home, Fox donated the labor and supplies to make Petrone’s home handicap-accessible. “I tried to make his last couple of years more comfortable,” says Fox.
“He oversaw the project from start to finish,” notes Fox’s wife, Muffy, who adds that her husband also oversaw the renovation of the Riverside Yacht Club as a volunteer. “He won the club’s most prestigious award for doing so,” says Muffy. “It had never been given to a non-sailor.”
When Fox heard about a Westport family who needed to make their home handicap- accessible for their teenage son, he donated his time to develop a suitable design and get the plans approved by the town.
Fox, who grew up in Champagne, Illinois, and started his career in Chicago, says, “My father donated a lot of time in Illinois and we learned from that. Whether at the church or the hospital, he was always helping others.
I feel fortunate to follow in his footsteps.”
Best Health Advocates
Dana & Mike McCreesh
In the summer of 2004, Brent McCreesh appeared to be a healthy two-year-old. In September, he came down with a fever. Examining the lethargic toddler, Brent’s pediatrician suspected more than the flu and ordered blood work. By afternoon, Dana, pregnant at the time, and Brent were in the ER at Yale.
Seven hours later, an initial diagnosis of pneumonia was revised to neuroblastoma, a cancer of the central nervous system. As is often the case in toddlers who can’t describe their pain, Brent’s was Stage 4. “He had four tumors in his abdomen and a little in his bone marrow,” explains Dana. The McCreeshes would be in and out of the hospital for more than two years, as Brent endured six rounds of chemo, a dozen surgeries, hundreds of blood transfusions, radiation and stem cell transplants.
The nonprofit TeamBrent evolved from people looking for ways to support the longtime Southport residents. The family was receiving seventy phone calls a day from friends trying to help. Several women started a website where people could go to follow Brent’s progress, and Dana began posting links to charities she liked.
“One friend saw the link to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (a charity that funds childhood cancer research) and asked about shaving his head for Brent,” says Dana. “A few more friends heard and wanted to join in but also wanted my husband, Mike, to do it.” Mike was game but wasn’t sure his boss at Goldman Sachs would approve. He did and insisted on shaving his head too.
That first year, twenty-three people shaved their heads for Brent at a bar in Stamford and raised $87,000 for St. Baldrick’s. A decade later the TeamBrent head-shaving event is held at venues like Harbor Yard to accommodate hundreds of participants, and TeamBrent has raised a total of $3.4 million for St. Baldrick’s. “Now we see kids who have shaved their heads for over half their life,” says Dana. “They are growing up knowing they have the power to make a difference. My kids think every person in the entire world helps other people, because that’s all they know.”
TeamBrent’s participation in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) began in a similar fashion. A friend wanted Mike to join him for the bike-a-thon, the largest athletic fundraising event in the country. “How far is it?” The answer—192 miles—didn’t scare off Mike, and nine friends joined him. Since then, from PMC and St. Baldrick’s combined, TeamBrent has raised $7.3 million for research fellowships, various grants to help children with cancer and, in particular, the Neuroblastoma Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“We have made great strides in finding treatments for neuroblastoma,” comments Dr. Lisa Diller, clinical director of Pediatric Oncology. “TeamBrent has made it possible for Dana-Farber and Boston Children’s to lead cutting-edge research and to provide comprehensive care to patients.”
Trials are underway for a vaccine to prevent neuroblastoma relapse, and the survival rate for a case like Brent’s has jumped from 15 to 20 percent to 45 to 60 percent.
Brent, now a healthy and happy sixth grader, has been cancer free for over nine years. He doesn’t remember his own battle but participates in TeamBrent events, because, he says, “I want to help other kids.”
Outstanding Environmental Advocate
“I’ve always had an intimate relationship with the sea,” says Richard Hokin, who grew up in Chicago and has lived on Noroton Bay in Darien for the past forty-one years. “I’ve been a fisherman since age five and messing around in boats since age nine. By osmosis I’ve become very committed to the sea. When one lives in a place closely connected with the natural environment, it becomes part of your life. The tides, the weather, the fish, the migratory birds and boats—the Sound is a dynamic landscape. It’s pretty engaging.”
Not surprisingly, Hokin was easily engaged when asked to serve on the board of the Maritime Aquarium back in 1990. “The biggest measure anyone can take to protect the natural environment is learning about one’s environment. That’s where it starts. You can tell people environmentally correct behavior, but it doesn’t mean much unless the person has a fundamental grasp of the ecology system that he or she is part of,” he explains. “The aquarium is a portal to the Greater Long Island Sound ecosystem. Twenty million people live in that ecosystem. The mission of the aquarium is to engage as many of those people as possible in understanding and feeling they are part of that ecosystem. I’m privileged; I live where I can see the Long Island Sound dynamic every day. Many people are not that fortunate but still ought to have the opportunity to learn about it and be stimulated to do more. That’s the source of my passion for the aquarium.”
Hokin and his wife, Wendy, a Darien native, donated about one quarter of the $4.5 million raised for a major renovation that resulted in a complete upgrade of the aquarium’s main galleries, now called the Hokin Family Sound Voyage. As a trustee, Hokin has helped to steer the aquarium’s various environmental educational programs for youth, including the Red Apple Fund for Student Enrichment. The fund helps cover field trip costs for schools that might not otherwise be able to bring students to Norwalk. Hokin, who also won the aquarium’s prestigious Red Apple Award, was pleased to have his granddaughter volunteer there this summer.
“Richard Hokin has recognized what a powerful tool the Maritime Aquarium is in educating the public and helping to create future environmental stewards,” comments Maritime Aquarium President, Jennifer Herring. “The Hokin Family Sound Voyage exhibits introduce people to the wondrous living world beneath the surface of Long Island Sound in a powerful, personal way.
He has been incredibly generous in enabling us to tell this story.”
As with any long-term relationship, Hokin and the Sound have had their ups and downs. “Storm surges have flooded our property twenty times, if not more,” says Hokin nonchalantly. “Sometimes we’re not just living on Long Island Sound; we’re living in it.” Hurricanes Irene and Sandy clobbered the Hokins’ circa-1850 house and left quite a mess. Hokin wouldn’t move from his idyllic spot, but he acquiesced to constructing a new house thirty feet farther from the shoreline.
“If you happen to be a squatter on King Neptune’s doorstep,” quips Hokin, “once in a while he comes around to collect the rent.”
Outstanding Education Advocate
When Julie Faryniarz’s oldest child started kindergarten at the Riverside School in 1998, she volunteered to be class mom. Now her youngest is about to graduate from high school, but she has no plans to slow down as one of the busiest education advocates in Greenwich.
“I got involved from the day we walked into Riverside School,” says Julie, who hails from Omaha, Nebraska. “The PTA has been such a key part of my life here.” After many years as class mom, Julie became Riverside’s PTA president. Moving up the ranks, she served on the executive board of the Greenwich PTA Council for five years, including two years as president.
Now Julie is heading into her sixth year as executive director of the Greenwich Alliance for Education. Her friend Sue Rogers comments, “Through Julie’s leadership, efforts and determination, the Alliance has successfully improved the lives of hundreds of Greenwich students from preschool through college.”
Julie launched the Alliance’s Tuning In To Music program, which offers free instrumental music lessons to students who can’t afford private lessons and inevitably would fall behind the many pupils in Greenwich who can. “It’s about leveling the playing field,” explains Julie. Several Tuning In To Music participants were selected to play at Carnegie Hall and another is involved in a program at Julliard, but just seeing the kids at the school recital is a high point for Julie. “To watch these kids grow up in the program, and see the way we engage their parents as well, has been really meaningful,” she says.
The Alliance also funds AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college-readiness program for first-generation college-bound students. Potential candidates are interviewed in eighth grade and the teachers move along with the students. “They are very invested in the kids. They know their parents. They know their personal stories,” comments Julie, who was instrumental in setting up AVID mentoring and scholarship programs. In the past two years, thirty-nine Greenwich AVID graduates have been the first in their families to go on to college.
Julie also has run the Bridging the Digital Divide program, providing Internet service and computers to seventy-seven Greenwich students. “We brought in the parents and trained them on how to use the computers and email their children’s teachers,”
“What we can do later in life is so limited without education,” she continues. “We need exciting ideas to engage kids, to inspire a spark in them. Every child deserves the opportunity to either go to college or develop life skills that will enable them to support a family and live happily.”
Outside of the Alliance, Julie is the volunteer coordinator for the Student Activity office at Greenwich High School, volunteers at the Pacific House homeless shelter, is on the board of the League of Women Voters and the United Way Planning Council.
Outstanding Teen Volunteer
Greenwich resident Kevin Wing has been going to the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich (BGCG) since he was six. There he found his “second family.” The fourteen-year-old, who is an only child of a single mom, now spends much of his time ensuring other kids feel as at home at BGCG as he always has. “I help all the staff and run errands for them. I also help out at events, like the pancake breakfast,” comments Kevin, “and I show new, younger members around the club so that they are not nervous or scared. I will introduce new kids to the staff and other members to help them feel welcome. I want to make sure they like the BGCG as much as I do.”
Kevin has been part of the Young Mariners program at the club for the past four summers. “Now I mentor the first- and
second-year groups,” says Kevin. “I’m the one who gets in their boat with them to help them improve and make their sailing experience better.” After three weeks of sailing, Kevin spends the rest of the summer as a Counselor in Training at BGCG’s camp. In school, Kevin has a B+ average and is part of the AVID program, which prepares and supports promising students for college. For his eighth-grade capstone project, Kevin chose the issue of puppy mills and has been passionate about raising awareness. “Not many people know this is happening right in our community,” says Kevin.
For the past three years, Kevin has been a member of Torch Club, a character and leadership program at BGCG, and served as president last year. “We do community service and go to the regional conference and brainstorm,” explains Kevin, who came up with the idea for Fruit Fridays, with toppings to make fruit more appealing. “It’s a healthy way of giving kids at the club snacks,” he says. This year Kevin is graduating to the Keystone Club, BGCG’s leadership club for high school students.
“Kevin is one of the kindest, most genuine and great-spirited young teens at the club,” comments Takeia McAlister, associate development director. “It’s not always easy for him to be without a dad, but he has the support of his immediate family and BGCG too. I think he takes that support and exponentially passes it forward to his peers—remarkable, at such a young age.”
Kevin helped organize a Halloween Haunted House fundraiser for the Sandy Hook Foundation, and the $502 raised went to a playground built in New Jersey in honor of Daniel Barden, one of the children who perished that day. Torch Club members visited the site. “We met his family,” recounts Kevin. “We saw the playground—how beautiful it was and how connected it was to Daniel. His drawings were inscribed on the playground and his favorite colors and favorite things to do.”
Maureen, Kevin’s mom, comments, “Kevin being such an active member of the club has given him many opportunities to participate in programs that have helped shape the person he has become. He really seems to enjoy helping others in any way he can, and for that I am extremely proud. One thing I have always told Kevin is to be kind, and I think that kindness shines through in all he does.”
Outstanding Grassroots Pioneer
Texas-native Alex Wallace-Currie was living in London when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. “To pass the time during six to eight hours on a drip, I started knitting,” says Alex. “Once I started losing my hair, I knit my first hat and stuck a big pom-pom on it. I thought I should make some sort of happiness out of what I was going through, and I realized I’d like to make pom-pom hats for other cancer patients. I started hosting parties to knit and make hats and donate them to cancer clinics. During chemo and radiotherapy, I organized events all over London. I spent my treatment helping others understand the disease.”
The longtime Junior Leaguer had always been crafty; she’d been knitting from the age of fourteen and often had a sketch pad in hand. “I was an unusual cancer patient,” adds Alex. “I took the bull by the horns. I had three young children at the time, and my youngest was two. They didn’t understand why I was bedridden. I had to put a lot of different hats on and a smile on my face and just go.”
The most impactful of those hats was the pom-pom hat, which led to The Pink Pom-Pom Project, now based in Fairfield, where Alex and her family settled three years ago. The charity, funded by profits from Alex’s Fairfield crafts store, A Little Square, provides craft therapy to cancer survivors and inner-city youth with a variety of programs. In Stitch & Bitch, cancer survivors and their family and friends knit or learn to knit, vent and have fun. Participants also can help create VOTY Quilts, which are donated to Volunteers of the Year at cancer support organizations. Commission Possible awards a local artist a commission to create a work of art or jewelry to raise awareness and funds for cancer or inner-city youth.
Her paid after-school classes fund identical free classes, such as Sewing Academy, for underprivileged kids. “Children are suffering,” says Alex. “The first program that gets cut in school is art. Kids need it to learn to think outside the box.”
That’s exactly what Alex did, in that chemo chair four years ago, and “her little project has turned into a major support mechanism for cancer patients,” comments Cheryl Adkins, whose daughters have been involved with the Pink Pom-Pom Project through their Girl Scout troop. “She shares her passion and skills with the youth around her and inner-city youth. This is a wonderful program that enriches the lives of all touched by it.”
Best Friend to Families
It was a mother’s worst nightmare. Her son, a twenty-four-year-old equity trader, had not been heard from since a plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Brad Fetchet had reached his father, from his office on the eighty-ninth floor of that building, after the North Tower had been hit. He told him he had seen someone drop from the ninetieth floor. “I was trying to calculate where he was in the building, and if he had left after he spoke to my husband,” says Mary Fetchet, who was working as a clinical social worker in Milford when the nightmare unfolded.
As days turned to weeks after 9/11, the Fetchets, including Brad’s two younger brothers, had to face that he was gone. While no parent could ever be prepared for such a tragedy, Mary’s background as a social worker—and her incredible fortitude—put her in a unique position to help others who had lost loved ones on that awful day.
“I recognized that families were really challenged,” says Mary, a longtime New Canaan resident. “Along with other families, I met with Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, Hillary Clinton… Through Congressman Shays, I reached out to Connecticut families. I began hosting weekly meetings in my home. That’s how I met Beverly Eckert.” Beverly, an insurance executive, had lost her husband on 9/11. She and Mary cofounded Voices of September 11th, which began as an informational clearinghouse for families but grew into much more.
“Our mission was to support those impacted by 9/11, to make sure the victims’ lives were commemorated, and that the government understood their failures,” explains Mary, who was instrumental in advocating for the creation of the 9/11 Commission and an appropriate memorial. Voices staff met with over 1,600 families in developing the Living Memorial. This collection of over 70,000 photos and keepsakes that document the nearly 3,000 lives lost is featured in the In Memoriam exhibit at the 9/11 Museum.
Voices has provided over 100,000 hours of support services to survivors, victims’ families, and responders. “We’ve learned so much in working with these families over the past thirteen years,” says Mary. “It’s so important to be able to share lessons learned.” The organization launched the Center of Excellence for Community Resilience and is releasing a resource kit for communities affected by traumatic events.
At Voices’ “Always Remember” Gala in 2013, keynote speaker Hillary Clinton lauded the organization: “I’m very proud of what Voices has stood for and what it has accomplished. It has been voices for all the families that lost loved ones. It has made such a difference in the lives of so many.”
Equally meaningful for Mary—who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at Columbia University School of Social Work, among numerous other awards—are the small, silent moments. “There is a Japanese mom who comes to our conference every year,” says Mary. “She lost her daughter on 9/11. We don’t speak the same language, but we always look into one another’s eyes and embrace. We are bound in friendship through our loss.”