Light a Fire 2011

Best Friend to Children: Brenda Fareri

On September 25, 1995, Brenda Fareri’s thirteen-year-old daughter was admitted to Westchester Medical Center. She was diagnosed with rabies, contracted from a silver hair bat . Eight days later, the gifted and talented eighth grader was taken off life support.

It’s hard to imagine anything harder for parents to endure. Although Brenda emphasizes that the doctors were amazing, a grim, sterile environment in Maria’s hospital room, nothing but a chair for Brenda to sleep on, and restrictions on parental involvement in the care of an ill child made an unthinkably painful situation even worse. How could any good come from this event?
Brenda and her husband, John, made it happen, with inspiration from a wish their daughter Maria had made in a social studies project shortly before her life came to an abrupt end. Brenda explains, “At the wake, her teacher told me that when asked the one thing she would change in the world, Maria wished ‘for the health and well-being of all children in the world.’ I said to John, ‘I think Maria just told us what to do with her life.’”
Actually, they had already started on this mission when Maria was alive. Maria’s friends had made a video for her but the hospital rooms had no DVD players, so Brenda purchased one for every room in the children’s ward. John, who owns a construction business, had distracted himself at the hospital by knocking on walls—trying to figure out where a room could be built so families could talk privately.

On January 12—what would have been Maria’s fourteenth birthday—Brenda and John met with the head of Westchester Medical Center and set into motion a plan to overhaul the children’s hospital and create a place that felt whimsical, not medical; homey, not scary.

“Our biggest motivation was for it to be family friendly,” says Brenda. Maria’s older siblings—triplets who are now thirty-six—had been excluded even more than their parents. “We put together a family advisory board of parents of kids who had been in the hospital. We designed the rooms with this committee. Mothers, fathers, siblings, doctors—everyone worked together.”

Brenda, an interior designer for her husband’s company and a former nurse at Greenwich Hospital, learned how to be a fundraiser and public speaker. The Fareris also donated “millions” of dollars but won’t specify how many. In 2005, the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital opened, welcoming patients and their families with a real MTA train engine, a mini-golf course, the world’s largest doll house, a video arcade, NY sports memorabilia, a low child-friendly counter height throughout, and bedroom-like rooms with flat-screen TVs, webcams and sofabeds. “Nothing makes me happier than when I walk through the hospital and see a parent on the sofa asleep in the room with their child,” says Brenda.

Her son Michael says, “My mother put all of her grief, creativity and the limitless energy she is known for into the construction of the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, which has garnered global recognition and currently serves as the example worldwide of what a children’s hospital should and can be.” Hospitals in Chicago, San Francisco, China, Japan, the U.K. and Dubai have emulated this special place that grew out of a daughter’s beautiful wish and a mother’s giant heart.

Outstanding Teen Volunteer: Enrique Rivera

Enrique got a break from our community years ago and he’s been giving back ever since. Before kindergarten, the Bridgeport native’s mom won her son a place in the Weston School District through Project Choice’s lottery system. That win required a little luck; Enrique’s recent wins have more do with hard work and a huge heart.

The Faculty Key Award, for example, goes to the senior who has made the greatest contribution to Weston High School, both in academics and school spirit. Enrique won that last June. As student council copresident, he also won the Student Council Service Award. And the PTO Citizenship Award. Oh, and the Stasia M. Cina Memorial Scholarship Award (for a love of languages, perseverance and sensitivity to others) and the Diane Mary Huston Schulz Memorial Award (for a love of the arts). Good thing his beaming family was at the awards ceremony to help lug all those prizes home.

“My mom was in the front row, waving her hands,” says Enrique, who has a sister and two brothers (one of whom also commutes by bus and train to school in Weston, thanks to Project Choice). He is most proud of the Key Award, the last prize to be handed out and one the entire faculty voted on. “I was in awe and shock,” he recalls. “It was such a nice way to end my time at Weston.”
Of Enrique’s many volunteer projects during high school, Relay for Life stands out in his mind. “I played the publicity chair and also helped to run the event,” he says. He explains that Relay for Life took place during the night and incorporated themes of celebrating, remembering and fighting back. From cancer survivors walking laps around the track to an emotional ceremony with glow sticks to commemorate lost friends and family members, it was a memorable and impactful event. “We raised over $90,000,” says Enrique, whose mom is a cancer survivor. “It was really tremendous and exciting.”
Not one to put geographic limits on his good-heartedness, Enrique has been involved with Builders Beyond Borders since the summer before sophomore year, when he went to Port au Prince. This year he made it to Ecuador twice, to help build a home for teenage boys struggling with drug problems. “I created another family over there,” says Enrique, who saved up from his first trip in February so that he could return in August. “I’m hoping to get a job at college so that I can go back.”

Now a freshman at Emerson College in Boston, Enrique is majoring in film. “Ultimately I hope to be a producer,” he says. Kate Lupo, Enrique’s mentor for the Westport Youth Film Festival, comments, “As our production manager, Enrique was a star at all of our events, promoting our programs, setting up equipment, greeting guests. He is an extraordinary young man who surmounted incredible odds to receive a better education, and while at Weston grew to become one of the school’s most beloved and active students.”

Best Health Advocate: Dr. Thomas Flynn

when speaking recently to a Stamford parish about Hôpital Sacré Coeur in Haiti, Dr. Flynn said, “Everywhere we are confronted by bad news, but I have a good news story for you!” It’s about a lone doctor and an eight-bed clinic being transformed into a sixty-four-bed hospital with fifteen full-time doctors. It’s a story that might have remained a fantasy without Dr. Flynn’s dedication over the past eighteen years.

“A most beloved retired pediatrician in New Canaan, Dr. Flynn has made a tremendous difference in the lives of many people in Haiti,” comments Nancy Helle, a New Canaan mom whose children had Dr. Flynn as their pediatrician.

Several factors compelled the doctor to get involved in Haiti. “It goes back to when I was leaving Johns Hopkins to come to New Canaan,” explains Dr. Flynn. “Realizing that Fairfield County is not like the rest of the world, I vowed that I would eventually go to a Third World country as a sort of payback for all the blessings I have received. I heard through the Order of Malta about this hospital in Haiti and began studying medical Creole. At the end of ’94, my son took over the practice here, and we started going to Haiti twice a year.”

That was the second stroke of luck for the hospital in the village of Milot. The first came when Dr. Dubuque of St. Louis survived a near fatal illness. “If he recovered, he promised God he’d devote the rest of his life to helping others,” explains Dr. Flynn. Dubuque fulfilled his vow in Milot. “He went down to Haiti in 1986 and in the first six months did 250 procedures. His colleagues back home asked how they could help. That started the tradition of teams going down for a week or more, at their own expense.”

Dr. Flynn’s two-week trips mushroomed into a full-time job in 2003 when he went from board member to president of the hospital: “Dr. Dubuque decided to retire and put me in charge of the search committee. He had been doing all of the work—fundraising, ordering supplies, scheduling. It was a lot of work for a volunteer. I couldn’t find anyone. So I took over from ’03 to ’06.”

“The big change occurred with the earthquake,” continues Dr. Flynn. “There was very little damage in Milot. We increased to 100 beds from sixty-four. At first nothing happened. Then there were ten, fifteen, twenty helicopters arriving each day, each with four to six patients. The Order of Malta and Caritas Health Care network gave a tent hospital. At the end, there were 420 beds and 110 doctors working eighteen hours a day. It was incredible.”

Eighty at the time, Dr. Flynn flew down and supervised the tent hospital, organized volunteers and acted as a liaison to healthcare organizations. He came away from the experience impressed by “the tremendous generosity of the American people, and the enthusiasm and expertise of the volunteers and their total respect for the poor Haitian people. If I had any suspicion of the youth of America, my doubts were certainly allayed there.”

Since the disaster, Dr. Flynn says, “The government recognized the hospital as a major player. Now it’s a teaching institution for the Haitians.” Hôpital Sacré Coeur currently cares for 50,000 patients annually, and 1,250 surgeries are performed there each year.

Most Involved in the Arts: Pamela Lewanda

We are so fortunate to be in a place that has such a richness of arts,” says Pamela Lewanda, a Stamford resident who sits on the board at the Avon Theatre, the Bruce Museum and the Stamford Center for the Arts. Of the three, the Avon was her first love; she has been involved since the 1930s picture house in downtown Stamford reopened as a not-for-profit art house cinema in 2004.

Louisa Greene, who represents the theater’s staff, explains: “The Avon has become a vital economic engine within the local community, thanks in great measure to Pamela’s leadership. Using her professional background in publishing and then in marketing at IBM, Pamela has helped put the Avon Theatre on the cultural map in the metro New York area. She has contributed countless hours over the past six years to develop the Avon’s brand awareness, coproduce the theater’s Red Carpet gala, coproduce and cowrite a short documentary about the Avon, recruit outstanding new board members, chair the nominating committee and develop the corporate outreach program.”

Describing the early gala’s Pamela says: “We had live performances with singers and dancers—one year we had a group of Rockettes.” The entertainment led up to a live feed of the Oscar Awards broadcast. “Film is such a passion for me,” she says. Pamela’s passion for the big screen on Bedford Street segues nicely into her other loves. “I’ve worked with the Bruce Museum in the past. I’m new on the board this year,” she says. Pamela cochaired the Bruce’s Dimensions in Dining event last fall, a series of intimate dinners at individuals’ homes, featuring celebrity guests such as Ron Howard and architect Robert Stern. “The Bruce, Avon and Stamford Center—they all do outreach to students, which is a really important element.”

Pamela says her parents emphasized community service. “Both of them have been volunteers for as long as I can remember, whether it was Girl Scouts or the Coast Guard Auxiliary. They are in their mid-80s and it continues: My dad is a court arbiter for young offenders—that’s a full-time volunteer job—and my mom is having a lunch for a philanthropic society today.”

When asked if she’s always loved the arts, Pamela replies, “What I love is the creative process and all of its different expressions.” She wrote for her school newspapers in North Carolina as a teen and at Wake Forest College, and then worked as a reporter and city editor at various papers in Florida before heading into a twenty-three-year career at IBM. Now retired, Pamela is an avid
amateur photographer.

“This award made me think about what is compelling me across the different mediums. I really honestly believe that art is our window on the world—across cultures and across time—and each one is complementary to the others. It’s our history and our future. There is a feeling that ‘s involved with art in any form. It might make you feel happy. It might make you feel sad. But you feel something, and it’s the art that is eliciting that. That for me is what brings it all together.”

Most Involved Couple: James Cole & Nancy Upton

About ten years ago, Jim Cole and Nancy Upton gave up the harried pace of Wall Street and settled into a more meaningful—if not less frenetic—job at home in New Canaan. The couple trained to be a part of the town’s first Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and spearheaded an emergency preparedness plan that knit together all of New Canaan’s emergency services and provided training to citizens.

“My real life started when I retired,” says Jim. When asked how much he “works,” he responds, “It was pretty constant from the start—easily sixty hours a week.” He became chairman of the Fire Commission just before 9/11 and took on the job of emergency management director soon after. “I began pulling people together from different areas of town and discussing what we should do to be ready,” explains Jim. “We developed what became a template for fourteen nearby towns.”

Jim spent his professional career at GE, Phillips and Morgan Stanley—a different world from the one he blazed into in 2001, but he found some crossover. “Organization dynamics was an acquired skill of mine. I brought a sense of how you create a model, a charter, how you get buy-in. I was light in skills from a law enforcement and fire department perspective. I had to work really hard to get those, but I did.”
Jim’s résumé of volunteer positions is testament to how effectively he has segued from working on Wall Street to protecting Main Street. His titles include Associate Member of Fire Company #1, Director of New Canaan CERT, Deputy DEM, Chairman of the Police Commission, and American Red Cross board member. One of his most notable accomplishments is the implementation of an emergency outcall system to swiftly reach all of New Canaan’s citizens.

Jim’s wife, Nancy, was only forty-six when she left Morgan Stanley, shortly after 9/11. “It was such a high-pressure career,” she says. “I wanted to do something less focused on money and promotion. I was hoping to retire and work with animals.”

After joining Jim in CERT training, Nancy found herself “swamped with volunteer activities.” By 2005 Nancy was a trainer for CERT and executive director of the New Canaan branch. She held the position of Public Information Officer for Fire Company #1 for three years and is an associate member now. She got her advanced EMT license. As part of New Canaan’s Volunteer Ambulance Corps, she rides a twelve-hour shift each week and a twelve-hour weekend shift every four weeks.

Although Nancy acknowledges “the quality of people at a place like Morgan Stanley is extraordinary,” she says, “It’s nice to back away from that and enjoy people from all walks of life. It’s also good to come back to the community and know that there are a lot of people who need to run a town and don’t disappear Monday through Friday.”

Amy Wilkinson, a friend of the couple, comments, “New Canaan is a safer place to live as result of Jim and Nancy’s gift of ten years’ dedicated volunteer service. Neither seeks attention for their work, making them even more deserving of recognition.”

Best Friend to Seniors: Marylin Chou

In 2005, an abdominal surgery left Greenwich resident Marylin Chou weak and housebound. A widow with no children, Marylin says, “I felt uncomfortable asking friends to take me to the doctor and bring me medication. I couldn’t even make my bed. I also couldn’t cope with decisions about getting a health aide and having a stranger in the house. I knew I might need surgery again in ten years. I would be older and my friends would be, too. It would be much more of an imposition. I didn’t want to move to a senior facility and give up my independence.”

Marylin’s situation sparked an idea: a service that helps seniors who need support. “I learned about Beacon Hill Village in Boston. It was formed by two old friends who were worried about their husbands getting up on their roofs to remove leaves in the fall,” explains Marylin. “They came up with the idea of having people who come in and do those services for seniors.”

At Home in Greenwich goes beyond a list of recommended and reliable electricians, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, drivers, mechanics, computer assistants and organizers. Members also enjoy social and cultural offerings, potlucks, theater, opera, concerts, museum visits, poetry readings, a book club, health and wellness seminars…. “Another unique and essential service we provide,” adds Marylin, “is a volunteer who will go along with you and take notes when you have a serious consultation with a doctor and are concerned you won’t remember all of the questions.

“We also have a licensed social worker who can go into your home and check to see if it has the necessary safety rails, and help arrange things so it’s more convenient. She can set up the house for a patient coming out of the hospital for rehabilitation,” explains Marylin. “If children are living in another part of the country and don’t know what to do with their parents who aren’t well, she can make recommendations and mediate if necessary.”

Some of the 162 members of the organization are newcomers to Greenwich who have moved here to be closer to their children. For them and locals whose friends have died or moved away, the social aspect of
At Home in Greenwich can be a godsend. “I get great satisfaction in seeing the friendships that have developed,” says Marylin, “members traveling together to Thailand, or spending Thanksgiving together. It’s a community within a community. This is so helpful for people who are not able to drive and are feeling isolated.”

Membership is open to anyone fifty and over and dues are $500 per person or $650 per household annually. “Revenue covers half the costs of running the operation,” says Marylin. Running At Home in Greenwich is comparable to a full-time job, which is not new to her. The widow of IBM scientist Ned Chou, Marylin had a career in food consulting, wrote two books and had her research on aging presented at the White House in 1981. Somehow this busy senior continues to fit in daily swims, sailing trips, travel to such far-flung locales as Istanbul, and volunteering for the Mei Hua Society in New York.

A Wellesley graduate, Marylin’s goal out of college was “to make the world a better place.” Mary Coan, a friend and colleague, says, “Members of AHIG are happier and safer at home thanks to Marylin’s vision and zeal, and they are hugely grateful to her.” Mission accomplished.

Corporate Good Neighbor: Scott & Andrew for The Mitchell family

Talk to any of the Mitchells, and they’ll tell you that their tradition of giving dates back to the founders of the family business, Ed and Norma Mitchell. “It was always part of our DNA,” says their son Bill, “even in 1958.” That is when Mitchells department store opened, with three men’s suits, a coffee pot and a strong sense of community.

“My grandfather’s whole belief in running a local business was that if we are involved with the community, we will have a healthy business,” says Andrew Mitchell-Namdar, Jack Mitchell’s son (Bill’s nephew).
The list of causes the company supports includes Near and Far Aid, Westport Country Playhouse, the Breast Cancer Alliance, the YMCA and YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club, Kids in Crisis, the Jewish Home for the Elderly, the Bruce Museum, SoundWaters, Autism Speaks and St. Vincent’s Medical Center. There are hundreds more. Each of the Mitchells (Bill and Jack have seven sons between them) and their spouses are involved in charities personally as well.

“I’m a mentor at Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport,” says Bill. “It’s called a shepherding program. You pay a student’s education for four years and mentor him. It’s an inner-city Catholic school, and
99 percent of the kids go on to college. I helped initiate the program some years ago. For me it’s always about the kids. Through education and kids—that’s the way we’re going to get this great country back on its feet.” Bill is also on the board at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and Sacred Heart University and supports Near and Far Aid and the Inner-City Foundation. “Those are my personal babies,” he comments. “I’m also very involved in Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall camp. He was a great friend and neighbor, and if Paul says, ‘Support this camp,’ I don’t think I’m saying no to him, right?”

Bill’s oldest son, Scott, spearheads many of the charity events at Richards. He has served on various boards but says, “My number one passion is SoundWaters. They teach 20,000 kids a year at their center in Stamford Cove. It’s great because it’s local, serves underprivileged kids and has an environmental focus. My kids go to their camps in the summer.” The father of three is priming the next generation of Mitchells: “This past spring my oldest went with my wife and painted the SoundWaters schooner. They see underprivileged kids there and get an idea of what it’s all about.”

Scott’s cousin Andrew is excited about a new charity called Pink Aid. “We are trying to fulfill compassionate needs of women with breast cancer in our area. I was working at St. Vincent’s and a woman came up to me and thanked me for a $70 wig we had donated to her. She said, ‘My four-year-old daughter will hug me again. Before she was too scared. Thank you so much!’ We live in this glass bubble; there are women right in our backyard who don’t have $70 for a wig, or can’t afford a sitter so they are taking their kids along to their chemo treatments. Kids don’t need to see that.

“There are lots of wonderful organizations I’m involved in that put a tremendous effort in research,” continues Andrew, “but there is a human compassion side that needs to be addressed. Pink Aid is about making an overwhelming diagnosis less overwhelming.” Carving out the time for this charity and philanthropic events isn’t hard for Andrew. “It’s the most rewarding piece of my job,” he says. “I look forward to that part of my day."

Most Dedicated Committee Member: Jami Sherwood

Jami Sherwood crams as many hours of volunteer work into her life as she possibly can, which is a tendency that seems to run in the family. “My mother, who is seventy-nine and lives in Phoenix, is the same. My daughter, Lauren, is going to be the same.”

Actually Lauren’s first role in a play at Curtain Call at age eleven was the spark that set off Jami’s volunteerism, which then spread like wildfire through organizations across Stamford. “I started out helping with props at Curtain Call, and I got more and more involved. I produced shows. I got on the board of directors, and I’m still on it. I was the chairman of the board for seven years.” Jami’s daughter went on to get her master’s degree in theater management and now directs in the area, and Jami went on to various committees at Stamford Museum & Nature Center, Stamford Downtown (DSSD), Mill River Park, and the Bennett Cancer Center, to name a few. She is part of Friends of Downtown, a group of women that raises money and interest in events. She chairs Curtain Call’s Dancing With the Stars. “The circle is very small—a lot of the same people are working on these different things,” says Jami. “Working in the trenches—it’s great bonding, I meet people that have the same values and interests.”

Friend and fellow volunteer Juanita James describes Jami as the “the hardest working member” on the Citizens of the Year committee, which honors Stamford citizens, veterans and students. “She produces the programs, volunteers her son to produce the video, and is involved in every detail of the event itself,” says Juanita. “She works equally hard for so many other community groups.”

“It’s not really a choice, it just happens,” says Jami, lightheartedly, even though being so generous with her time also just happens to mean a lot less sleep and little time for the gym. She also runs Simply Signs, a graphic design business that produces signs and banners. Some of the nonprofit organizations she now supports were initially her clients.

Originally from the Bronx, Jami says, “My dad had a couple of shoe stores. We all—five of us—worked in the stores.” From there she went to Iona College, and then became president of WVOX Radio in New Rochelle.
Jami and her then-husband moved to Stamford thirty years ago.

“Stamford is home,” says Jami. “I love this town. I love the people that I work with and these organizations that are really, really doing good work. If I can get other people excited about them too—get them to come to a museum, come to a show—anything I can do to open the door and introduce people to these wonderful places.

“I keep learning and growing and finding new ways to do things and it’s a great feeling,” continues Jami. “I feel fortunate that I am able to do it, to juggle everything. That’s a blessing.”



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