Hope Rising

Each summer at Moffly Media, we begin our search for our Light a Fire honorees. We eagerly await the nominations from readers and relish their enthusiastic letters about the most selfless residents of Fairfield County. The pile of potential honorees always climbs high enough to quell any nagging doubt that it will be difficult to fill the categories. The givers keep giving and they keep multiplying. It’s rather stupendous.

Darien resident and CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley notes, “Americans empirically are the most generous people on earth. We give more time and money to charity than any other people on earth.” About his wife, he adds, “Jane is one of those people. Without seeking any notoriety or praise, she feels the responsibility to go out in her community and act. She lives and breathes that every day.”

Scott’s sentiment is the perfect introduction to this year’s Light a Fire winners. Just add in their names, along with Jane’s: Cindi, Donna, Arnold, Jill, Richard, Gina, Jennifer, Kathy, Lisa, Rebecca, Olivia and, of course, Scott. They sound like ordinary folks. Just the woman, man or teen next door. But read on and learn the extraordinary ways these admirable citizens of Fairfield County are making this corner of the world—or, in some cases, the entire world—a better place.
Best Friend to Families

Make-A-Wish Foundation

“In 2004, our youngest son Pierce was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma,” explains Gina Filippelli. “He was fourteen and about to start his freshman year at Greenwich High School.” During his illness Pierce was granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “This was before the iPhone but Pierce loved to watch Steve Jobs’ keynote addresses,” she says. “His wish was to meet Steve Jobs.

“The whole process was so remarkable. It’s very family oriented. Apple created an amazing day for Pierce and our family in California. Pierce’s time with Steve, one-on-one, was beyond anything he expected. They talked for two hours!” The Filippellis experience inspired the whole family to volunteer with Make-A-Wish, including Pierce who is a healthy twenty-six-year-old Wish ambassador. “Being a Wish family, you know the hope, joy and strength it provides. There’s nothing quite like it,” says Gina. “I’m glad my children have grown up seeing how important it is to give back and have something you really believe in. I’ve gotten friends involved also, which makes it even more fun.”

Courage in Action
A decade ago, Gina offered to help Make-A-Wish with a fundraiser in Fairfield County, and the annual gala in Greenwich was born. “We’ve netted over $500,000 at each ball for the past five or six years,” says Gina, who sits on the board in Connecticut.

Dana McCreesh, who met Gina while their kids were being treated for cancer at Yale, comments, “Gina has been instrumental in the growth of the CT chapter. She has helped raise several million dollars, bringing on celebrity emcees and auctioneers as well as garnering support in the community. She not only cochairs the gala, but she is a wish granter, personally granting the wishes of young children and managing the process with the families from start to finish. Gina is a powerhouse.”

Hopes & Dreams
“The future looks wonderful,” says Gina. “Make-A-Wish is just taking off in Connecticut. One main objective is to get the message across that wishes are not just for terminally ill children; they are for any kids with life-threatening illnesses. We are on track to grant 240 wishes annually in Connecticut (at about $10,000 per wish). We always have been able to grant a wish, and we’ll go to the moon and back to do it.” She adds, “People have been so generous. I hope that continues!”

Lifetime Achievement

Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF), Multiple Myeloma Research Consortium (MMRC)

At age thirty-seven, Kathy Giusti was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. “There was hardly any research going on,” says Kathy. “I was told I would live three years, four at best. There was very little room for hope.

“I was the mom of a one-year-old girl when I was diagnosed, and I had a son shortly after. I was going to do anything I could to be there for them,” explains Kathy, who had more than two decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry at G.D. Searle and Merck. “I could at least jumpstart research, so that the next generation would have more promise than I did.”

Courage in Action
In 1998, Kathy founded the MMRF, with a mission to establish innovative, collaborative research models in tissue banking, genomics and clinical trials. “I knew it took ten years to get a drug approved,” says Kathy. “I didn’t dream we’d make such progress or that I would be alive today.”

Currently ten new drugs for myeloma have been approved by the FDA. “We had four approved last year alone,” she says. “We’ve tripled the life span of the patients we serve.” Kathy is now recognized as a pioneer of precision medicine, a champion of open-access data sharing and a strong advocate for patient engagement. She has been honored as one of three top disruptors in health care and one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine, as well as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2016, Kathy was named faculty cochair of the Harvard Business School Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator.

Hopes & Dreams
“Many patients are doing well,” says Kathy, “but there are high-risk patients. There’s an urgency to make sure we have options for every patient. The greatest area of focus today is making sure all data is shared openly and freely, in the public domain for all scientists to share.” The result is progress across all cancers. “I want to touch as many lives as I possibly can.”

“My kids are now twenty-two and nineteen,” adds Kathy. “I feel incredibly blessed. I hope no one has to experience this cancer. Moving forward, we need to focus on preventing cancer.”

Corporate Good Neighbor

The Bigelow Center for Senior Activities, Sandcastle Playground, Wakeman Boys & Girls Club, YMCA of Fairfield, Mercy Learning Center, Cardinal Shehan Center, Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, Center for Family Justice, Connecticut Food Bank, Operation Hope, Burroughs Community Center, Grasmere by the Sea, Caroline House, Bridgeport Rescue Mission, Janus House, Norma Pfriem Breast Center at Bridgeport Hospital, Bridge House, Connecticut Challenge, Taylor YMCA, Camp Hi-Rock

“In 1988 I started a road race because an employee’s son had passed away in a car accident. I wanted to establish a scholarship in his name,” says Cindi Bigelow, the third generation president and CEO of the family-run business. Then in the 1990s, she joined the Bridgeport Regional Business Council and formed relationships with the directors of large charities in the area.

Debra Greenwood, president/CEO of The Center for Family Justice, says, “Cindi personally visits and exhaustively vets each and every organization that ultimately benefits from Bigelow’s largesse, doing all the due diligence necessary to help truly beneficial charities and nonprofits and their clients thrive.”

Cindi’s philanthropic roots run deep. Her grandmother adopted a town in West Virginia in the fifties and supplied them with books, clothes and shoes. “It’s in our DNA,” she says.

Courage in Action
The Bigelow Tea Community Challenge alone has raised $1.2 million since the first race in 1988. One hundred percent of money raised goes to community charities. “Under Cindi’s personal leadership, Bigelow Tea has directly helped more than twenty community organizations in ways that have had a profound and long-term impact on Fairfield and its environs for more than two decades,” says Debra. “Her dedication and reach go way beyond supporting a popular fundraising run. Cindi consistently goes above and beyond in her zeal to support nonprofits in ways that have a real impact.”

Debra adds, “A recent example of Cindi’s generosity is the Bigelow Wellness Studio at The Center for Family Justice. Cindi championed the need for CFJ’s clients and staff—who work directly with victims of trauma on a daily basis—to have a calming oasis for restoration and healing. She underwrote the entire cost of creating a state-of-the-art wellness studio. Cindi is also the person responsible for spearheading the transformation of Fairfield’s former Senior Activities Center into the Bigelow Senior Center, a dynamic gathering spot for mature town residents.”

Hopes & Dreams
“I hope that Bigelow Tea remains the No. 1 specialty tea company for decades to come, so that we can continue to lend our reputation and voice to support the needs of the community,” says Cindi. “We never want to lose sight of our mission to be a good corporate citizen.”

Outstanding Health Advocate

AmeriCares, Eye Care for the Underprivileged

Dr. Arnold Pearlstone, an ophthalmologist, has been volunteering “all my life,” he says. “Even during my residency, I volunteered at clinics in New York. When I came out of the Navy, I volunteered at a cerebral palsy clinic in Bridgeport.”

In 1992, Dr. Pearlstone and his wife began traveling to Jamaica to establish a clinic there. “The area was very, very poor. The conditions were horrendous,” he says. “My wife and I both felt strongly that we were lucky to make a good living and help people, but there were a lot of people we couldn’t help and we wanted to. She was just as instrumental as I in setting this up.” Since retiring, Dr. Pearlstone has been volunteering weekly at AmeriCares Free Clinics. “I love seeing the patients and taking care of them, and the people who work at the clinics are wonderful,” he says. “It’s been great for me. I’m doing something worthwhile.”

Courage in Action
The Pearlstones set up Eye Care for the Underprivileged, and through that foundation they were able to run the clinic in Jamaica and donate all the necessary equipment to establish AmeriCares Free Clinics’ ophthalmology program in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Danbury and Stamford. Dr. Pearlstone volunteers at all four sites.

“Dr. Pearlstone has volunteered more than 700 hours and screened over 1,300 free clinic patients for cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, providing $330,000 worth of free medical care for our neighbors in need,” says Karen Gottlieb, AmeriCares executive director.

The Pearlstones faced many obstacles in Jamaica. On their first trip, the microscope purchased for Dr. Pearlstone was stolen before he even arrived to the hospital. But they persevered, built and supplied a clinic, and changed many lives. “People would come in basically blind from cataracts,” says Dr. Pearlstone. “We saw over 3,000 patients and operated on 850 in my time.”

Hopes & Dreams
Dr. Pearlstone still funds the clinic in Jamaica through his foundation but has found someone else to run it. “I’m not exactly young.” he says. “When I can’t work at the AmeriCares clinics anymore, I hope someone will take over. Many people don’t have eye-care coverage. It’s really a valuable service.”

Most Involved Couple

ABC (A Better Chance) of Darien, Norwalk Grassroots Tennis, Special Olympics Tennis, Person to Person

“Scott’s friend Jeff Fager, executive producer of 60 Minutes, and his wife, Melinda, invited us to a fundraiser for ABC (A Better Chance) in New Canaan when we first moved here,” says Jane Pelley. The event made such an impression that the Pelleys called ABC of Darien to get involved.

ABC houses high achieving, underprivileged students and gives them the opportunity to attend great high schools. Sponsor families provide a second home beyond the group housing. Scott explains, “We were intrigued by the idea of effectively turning top American public schools into boarding schools for really bright kids who need a break, need a chance. We saw the terrific relationships the Fagers’ children had with these kids, and we heard what a difference the program made to them. Jane has an enormous humanitarian heart. She believes if you can reach people when they are young, you can have a profound effect on their life going forward.”

Jane comments, “I believe that ABC in Darien has changed the lives of many girls enrolled in the program—changed the trajectory of their lives completely for the better. Just having a new support system of people who believe in you and your potential is a very empowering thing. The same is true for Norwalk Grassroots Tennis. These kids come onto the court to find an entire team of volunteers who want to make their futures brighter. Watching David Kimani [director of tennis and programming] interact with the kids and seeing how much it means to them—it’s a no-brainer for me to want to be involved.”

Courage in Action
The Pelleys hosted two ABC students, Nneoma (from Bridgeport) through her freshman year and Jocelyn (from New Haven) through high school. “Jocelyn is now a junior at American University,” says Jane. “Jocelyn had what a lot of kids in our community take for granted,” says Jane. “She loved so much just to have a sleepover in our basement.” They also hosted her prom and graduation parties.

“The Pelleys have not only hosted an ABC student for several years but were also instrumental in securing the organization’s new house on Tokeneke Road, where the students live during the week. The couple has served as emcees for ABC’s annual fundraiser for several years,” says Darien resident Claire Hunter who nominated the couple.

Jane adds that Scott, who has a busy career as a CBS Evening News anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, has been an emcee or speaker for Darien Community Association’s men’s group, Person-to-Person, Darien League of Women Voters and Norwalk Grassroots Tennis. The couple has donated tours of the CBS Evening News, with Jane as tour guide. This is all in addition to their support for national charities like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Hopes & Dreams
“Our hope is that the word continues to spread about these programs and that every new generation of Darien residents will hear about them and support them,” says Jane.

Outstanding Teen

Junior United Way (JUW), Neighbor to Neighbor, Kids in Crisis, Junior League of Greenwich

“Volunteering in my community is a really big deal to me,” says Olivia Jones. “Before getting involved with the United Way, I was not aware of how many problems there actually are in Greenwich. I assumed everyone led a life like mine, but I was wrong. So when I volunteer, and especially in my hometown, I’m in a way saying thank you to my parents, teachers and everyone else who has let me live this extraordinary life!”

She continues, “Sometimes you feel as a kid that you can’t make a difference. The JUW club is awesome because we teens are basically in charge of what we want to do or who we want to help.” Last year Olivia served as a teen ambassador at the Junior League’s Positively More event. “It’s an all-day event to help girls in middle school with their health, friends, and school,” explains Olivia. “It was probably one of the best experiences of my life. Seeing these girls open up in the span of about four hours was inspiring.”

Olivia adds, “It’s really important when you are volunteering that you’re not doing it for National Honors Society or for a college application but for the betterment of your community. Once you realize that, volunteering is enjoyable.”

Courage in Action
Olivia is in her second year as president of the Junior United Way Club at GHS. She received the Hometown Hero award from News 12 Connecticut for her work with the United Way.

Sarah Bamford, communications strategist for the Greenwich United Way, comments: “Not only is Olivia the president of the Greenwich Junior United Way, but she is also on the varsity dance team at Greenwich High School, dances at Allegra Dance Studio and was accepted into the National Honors Society. Although this impressive list is enough to qualify Olivia for a Light a Fire award, it’s her genuine heart and proactive spirit that sets her apart from the rest.”

Hopes & Dreams
“I hope that these organizations expand more and have the resources to reach even more families in need of assistance,” says Olivia. “I hope that in the future, more people living in this town—especially teens—are aware of just how much help is needed and get involved.”

Most Dedicated Committee Member

Person-to-Person (P2P), Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, Delta Sigma Theta Inc.

“In high school, I was involved in Urban League and Youth NAACP. I was president of a club that did community service,” explains Rebecca Wilson. “As life would have it, I got pregnant at eighteen and got involved in community organizations that were helpful to me, as I was trying to parent as a teenage mother. I wanted to give back to the same people who helped me.

“Now, seeing others on the other side, I know I’m making a difference. I know what can happen when your life is changed. The need is endless. As long as I can give and have the energy to give, I’m going to give. I’m motivated by my own experience and by the results: When you see people smile when they get what they need and it’s the bare minimum, like hand-me-downs, that’s the world for those kids. I remember that feeling.”

Courage in Action
A P2P Scholar herself, Rebecca got her bachelor’s degree in social work at Sacred Heart, her master’s at Fordham, and an advanced degree in counseling at Fairfield University. She works as a guidance counselor at Stamford High School and has devoted herself to guiding young people. She has been on the board of P2P for eight years and is completing her term as president. She has served as VP on the Executive Committee and as Scholarship Committee Chair, managing $1 million in scholarship grants.

P2P Executive Director Ceci Maher says, “Rebecca is one of the most selfless and committed members of the P2P Board. Her focus has always been on providing support, stability and opportunity for P2P clients. Through her professional career and volunteer activities, Rebecca is making a difference in the lives of others; and in doing so, she is enriching the larger community.”

Rebecca also serves on the finance committee and scholarship ministry at her church and as audit chair for Delta Sigma Theta Inc.

Hopes & Dreams
“I want all of the organizations I work with to grow to their fullest potential and serve as many people as possible, because the world needs it,” says Rebecca. “The most important element is the humanity; each person involved needs to bring the human touch. That needs to remain the same, no matter how many people you serve.”

Best Friend to Children

Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Adopt-A-Dog

“When I moved to Stamford, a friend suggested the Boys & Girls Club (BGCG). She said it was so well run,” explains Donna Chamoff, who began volunteering there three years ago. “I always thought about volunteering. I have my own business so I finally had the time. I initially signed up for Reading Champions [a collaborative between the United Way of Greenwich and BGCG], and I just loved what they did. I met the director and loved her energy. I said I would do anything they needed me to! It’s such a haven for these kids. It sounds trite, but you get so much more back than you put in. You can’t walk out of there without smiling. The Boys & Girls Club values their volunteers like crazy. They are so thankful for anything you do.”

Courage in Action
Donna is now BGCG’s SMART Girls advisor, nurturing tweens’ physical health, positive peer interactions and self-esteem. She also helps kids with reading fluency twice a week through the Reading Champions program. CEO Bobby Walker says, “This woman is always at the ready to help out in the development office, and she helps us with our Mud Run. Donna doesn’t just say that she believes in the potential of these kids, she puts her words into action and gives our members her time, talent, and shares her humor and heart.” Donna also volunteers to help with Adopt-A-Dog’s annual “Puttin’ on the Dog” event.

Hopes & Dreams
“I’m hoping to continue with Reading Champions and with SMART Girls,” says Donna. “I’d also like to implement some workshops for teens.”

Walker says, “We are very fortunate to have this woman choose our club to help make a difference in so many children’s lives. When she’s here, you can feel her vibrant energy and it makes those around her feel more inspired to do more.”

Best Friends to Women

Foundation for Gender Equality, Center for Family Justice, Make-A-Wish Foundation

“I’m a board member at the Center for Family Justice and have always been inspired by seeing how lives are saved and changed every day there,” says Jill Fitzburgh. Involving boys and men is a part of the process. Her husband, Richard, even sashayed down the Post Road in a pair of towering sparkling red heels in support of the center’s annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event last spring.

While involved in a film festival, Richard, who works for Royal Bank of Canada, says, “Some documentaries on human trafficking and violence against women really struck me. I saw how horrific things can be and my motivation grew from there as I learned more. I went to UN Women [an arm of the United Nations dedicated to gender equality] and knocked on their door—almost literally.” Richard offered to put together a conference on gender equality issues, and the Fitzburghs formed their foundation.

Richard, who often entertains clients at cultural events, says, “The difference with this conference is that you might save someone’s life—actually you probably will. These other events, as nice as they are for business, don’t warm your heart.” Jill adds, “To me it feels like it would be neglectful not to help. We see what is happening five miles away and 500 miles away and have to help.”

Courage in Action
The inaugural international conference to benefit UN Women drew over 500 people, including global leaders and high-profile keynote speakers, such as CBS correspondent Lara Logan and singer Jewel. “Jill and Richard spent the better part of the year conceiving, organizing, planning and fundraising to create this headline-making conference,” says Center for Justice CEO Debra Greenwood.

“The primary goal was to raise awareness,” says Jill, “but we also were able to make a donation for this first conference of $60,000 to UN Women, which we are very proud of since the costs of holding events at the UN are quite high. Furthermore, we have connected UN Women with potentially very substantial corporate sponsors as a follow-up. So we are pleased with our rookie year!”

Beyond their foundation and CFJ, the Fitzburghs support numerous charities and Jill is a dedicated Wishmaker for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Hopes & Dreams
“We plan to have our big annual conference as well as smaller, more focused events throughout the year,” says Richard. “We hope to give millions of dollars away and really make a difference.”

Jill adds: “I hope that we can create enough grassroots awareness and publicity that people are really cognizant of the issues. I feel like we are just getting warmed up.”

Outstanding Patron of the Arts

Intake, Norwalk Youth Symphony, Horizons Music Academy, New Canaan Country Day School, Greens Farms Academy, Social Venture Partners

Lisa Petno’s background is in science and medicine, but her four children drew her into the world of music. “They all played instruments and participated in the Norwalk Youth Symphony,” explains Lisa. “I saw how important music was to their personal, academic and social development. Seeing them fall in love and be passionate about something that spilled over into everything they did inspired me to get involved.”

While chairman of the Norwalk Youth Symphony, Lisa met the director of Intake, a music education organization that provides classical and native instrument instruction to underserved kids. Lisa’s son was invited to play the marimba at an Intake concert. “I fell in love with their mission,” she says. “Every child should have the same opportunities my kids were fortunate to have.”

Lisa is motivated every day by kids like Whitney, a recent graduate: “She came from the Dominican Republic, had a single parent, spoke no English and was failing her classes. She didn’t have support. Then she became involved with Intake and fell in love with the violin. Through the discipline, self-esteem, focus, mentorship and college counseling she gained in the program, she is now going to a two-year college and exudes confidence.”

Courage in Action
Lisa is most proud of “connecting the dots and creating partnerships,” she says, naming Future 5, the Unitarian Church, the Women’s Business Development Council and the multi-generational choir she helped create with Stamford Senior Center, as a few examples. “You can’t go it alone as a nonprofit arts organization.”

Intake founder Angelica Durrell comments:“As chairman of Intake, Lisa has expanded the board into a high-impact and effective team of committed members, increased individual giving levels, facilitated new partnerships and launched a strategic planning task force with the help from Harvard Business School Community Partners [which offers alumni opportunities to leverage their skills and experience to help nonprofit organizations succeed]. She provides the equivalent hours and effort of a full-time staff member.”

Hopes & Dreams
“The goal is to multiply our impact and reach more kids,” says Lisa, who volunteers at various organizations and schools. “We aim to be increasingly purposeful about the kind of impact we make. At Intake, we are exploring partnerships with the public schools in Stamford and have an outreach program to Nicaragua this month. We have 1,000 diverse audience members at our concerts; we will continue celebrating the richness of the fabric of our community.”

Outstanding Education Advocate

Childcare Learning Center of Fairfield County (CLC)

Jennifer Lapine began working as an elementary school teacher in Stamford in 1968, and her determination to ensure every child receive a great education has only grown through the years. “I’ve always loved children,” says Jennifer. “Every child deserves a quality education that also supports their social and emotional development. That’s what we do at CLC. That’s why I’m involved.”

Courage in Action
Jennifer, who pursued her master’s while raising her own children, has worked tirelessly to build awareness about the value of education and “strong, well-educated, committed teachers, who will work toward making every child successful in school.” She has formed and been involved in numerous educational organizations, created youth programs, brought nonprofits together, and served as a liaison between the public schools and the mayor and governor.

Marc Jaffe, CLC CEO, comments: “Jennifer has been a member of the CLC family for over twenty years. She was the first School Readiness liaison, appointed in 1997. In 2002, she joined the CLC board. After serving her term, she moved onto CLC’s leadership council, assuming the chairmanship in 2014.”

Jennifer developed a parenting program, Lapine’s Life Skills Plus, and she also brings together Edgehill residents with the young students of CLC Palmer’s Hill Road on a regular basis. Jaffe adds, “It is a glorious sight to behold, these two generations sharing their curiosity and enthusiasm for arts and crafts, reading, and love for one another through play. Jennifer has touched tens of thousands of children in Stamford.”

Hopes & Dreams
“Our work isn’t done. People need to know that the best investment we will ever make is in the education of our children. We need to hire the best and brightest early childhood educators. This stage is crucial to building a strong foundation,” says Jennifer. “My wish is to have children interacting with the world around them, exploring every day, talking, writing, creating, forming friendships; then they will have the framework for success in school. Kindergarteners need time for fantasy, making up games and rules. When you push hard and there is no time for that, you lose childhood much too quickly and your building crumbles. Preparing for life should come first and foremost.”



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