Mention SoundWaters and people will think of the organization’s education and summer-camp programs, its environmental aim to protect Long Island Sound, and, of course, its sails on the schooner, SoundWaters. As pillars of the SoundWaters mission, they epitomize its relationship with the Stamford coastline and beyond.
It all happens out of Holly House, a city-owned national historic landmark in Cove Island Park that was falling apart before SoundWaters raised more than $2 million in 2000 to turn it into office space, classrooms and a hands-on learning center filled with marine critters. In the backyard, Cove Island Park, Long Island Sound and Holly Pond together function as playground and science lab for the more than 27,000 students who attend SoundWaters’ programs each year. (The group has served more than 270,000 students in its twenty-five-year history.)
But as staffers make plans to mark SoundWaters’ quarter century, an ambitious plan is in the works to create a new harbor center linking Boccuzzi Park on Southfield Avenue with connected boardwalks, greenways and bike paths, and providing increased public access to the Stamford Harbor. The center, a public/private partnership between the City of Stamford, SoundWaters and at least one other non-profit partner, would operate a public learning, sailing and adventure hub. The plan also includes docking SoundWaters’ three-mast, eighty-foot schooner nearby in the harbor’s West Branch. All of this will happen amid a new retail and residential development being planned by Building & Land Technology (BLT) along and beyond its proposed Davenport Landing project. BLT, city planners, neighborhood groups and the nonprofits are reportedly hammering out the details regarding where new marinas, including a working boatyard, would be built.
The idea for a new harbor center grew from conversations with neighborhood groups, developers and city planners who joined together in 2014 to discuss the Stamford Master Plan, which was formally approved in December. One mandate was to “encourage waterfront access and waterfront-dependent uses along Long Island Sound and canal shorelines in the South End,” according to Master Plan documents. Another was to “establish and investigate educational opportunities on the harbor.” To those involved in the Master Plan, SoundWaters seemed like the natural partner.
“We’re on the cusp of a whole new relationship with the harbor and with Long Island Sound,” says Leigh Shemitz, Ph.D., SoundWaters’ president. She would not elaborate on plans for the harbor center, as they have not yet been announced formally.
Twenty-five years ago, when SoundWaters began, much of lower Fairfield County had little interaction with the Sound, and for good reason: It featured a floating collection of dead fish, raw sewage, medical waste and residential and industrial chemicals. Slowly, as the health of the Sound improved, so has the attitude toward it. Today, restaurants, marinas, apartment buildings and offices vie for space along sections of the harbor, with new construction happening each day. Coincidentally or not, this has occurred just as an entire generation of area children have experienced SoundWaters’ curriculum.
“We started the organization at a time when interest was just beginning not only in Long Island Sound, but in the environment as well. Now, far more people are knowledgeable,” says Len Miller, a retired certified public accountant from Greenwich who dreamed up the idea of a schooner that would sail the Sound, educating children onboard. Miller asked his buddies to join this quest and one by one they followed.
Scott Mitchell, the current SoundWaters board president, was among them. He had grown up in Westport on the water. “I graduated from high school in 1989. Whenever it was windy, I was out there windsurfing on the Sound. It was much dirtier then. There were needles and test tubes and all sorts of stuff out there,” Mitchell remembers. By the time he joined the board eleven years ago, Mitchell had moved to Greenwich, where he and his family kayak, swim and go mountain biking. The water had changed for the better, and he was happy to help further that progress. Miller, he says, was a likeable leader driven by a love of the Sound and a desire to restore its health. He didn’t want to sue anyone, wasn’t big on protest and didn’t advocate for confrontations. He asked all sorts of people invested in the Sound to come to the table, whether they were motivated by self-interest, business pursuits, a love of the water, or the desire to educate kids.
Miller, who now lives in Essex, explains: “I went to the business community and said, ‘We are not your enemy.’ I went to government and said the same thing.” But many people were skeptical. The first check Miller received was from a business associate at ABB. “He said jokingly, ‘You’re not going to blockade the harbor now, are you?’ But that wasn’t our way. We always said we could accomplish more by joining hands rather than by pointing fingers. We wanted to make the Sound part of the community and the community part of the Sound.”
That is the motivation behind the proposed harbor center. Currently, the Waterside neighborhood to the west of the West Branch of the harbor is a disparate smattering of industrial, residential and recreational uses. The city wants to change that by linking the neighborhood to the waterfront with a series of continuous boardwalks and greenways. The goal is to create a Newport-like allure to the city, where residents and visitors gather together because of the water, planners and supporters say.
Robin Stein, special assistant to the mayor who has been involved in land use in Stamford since 1974, explained the logistics recently in the planning office. On two maps spread out on a conference table, Stein outlined the proposed Greenway, stretching from the Sound to Scalzi Park through the Mill River Collaborative’s newly restored Mill River Park. It would begin at Boccuzzi Park, where the harbor center would be, and extend north along and beyond Davenport Landing. There are some tricky spots. Walking alongside the cement trucks and barges at O&G Industries could be dangerous, so the Greenway would need to detour around that, and getting under I-95 and the train tracks could prove troublesome. The Greenway would then wind its way north. Meanwhile, the Mill River Park Collaborative also plans to extend the Greenway along the East Branch of the harbor, hugging Harbor Point to the south. The west side, though, would be anchored by the harbor center, if SoundWaters and its partners can raise the money to make that happen.
“The city of Stamford is supportive. Our state representatives are supportive. The developers and the neighbors are supportive. The mayor is incredibly positive. This aligns with his vision for linking the Greenway,” Shemitz says.
“I think if anyone can pull it off, they can,” says Stein. He admits he was a skeptic back when SoundWaters vowed to turn the crumbling Holly House into a public resource, and the group was little more than a ship and a shack. But now he’s a believer. “This past summer my grandson attended their program. They’re a wonderful resource for the community.”
A teenager hovers over a cutting board, chopping frozen shrimp with a scalpel. It’s feeding time at SoundWaters for about two dozen diamondback terrapins, the only turtles native to Long Island Sound. Diamondback terrapins used to be ubiquitous in the salt marshes and tidal creeks in this area, but the popularity of turtle soup more than a century ago led to their near extinction.
The turtles in the center today didn’t come from the Sound; they were rescued by U.S. Customs inspectors in Alaska, who intercepted a shipment of the hatchlings as they were being smuggled to China. For help, Customs officials reached out to SoundWaters, which already had an exhibit about the care and growth of the diamondbacks, and agreed to provide a nursery for the confiscated hatchlings. A cadre of volunteers nicknamed the Sound Generation serve as caregivers to the turtles, each one about the size of a nickel. They administer antibiotics to stave off infection, prep bloodworms and shrimp for lunch, and supervise swimming time in individual pools. They know that if they do their job, some of these turtles can grow to be a foot long and live upwards of forty years.
“We want them to be part of the positive change,” says Shemitz, an energetic expert in urban ecosystems who used to direct Yale’s Urban Resources Initiative and holds an A.B. from Harvard University in addition to master’s and doctorate degrees from Yale. One part scientist, one part educator, one part administrator, one part cheerleader, Shemitz presides over a staff of thirteen full-timers, triple that number in summer, all on a $1.8 million budget. “People stop me all the time to talk about their experience at SoundWaters. If I’m at Party City, at physical therapy, if I’m at Target, I talk to people about SoundWaters. An entire generation has grown up understanding [how people can] impact the Sound.”
Many of the volunteers first got to know SoundWaters in elementary school, where teachers from SoundWaters visited for hands-on science lessons. The educators bring touch-tanks, creatures, dissection equipment and more to public and private schools in Stamford and beyond, providing free transportation when necessary to bring children for field trips at Holly House. The organization also offers summer camps where youngsters learn to swim and sail, and get to explore and study the Sound. “Our goal is to have our programs support and amplify the science curriculum,” says Shemitz.
Miller recalls: “When we first started our urban ecology programs almost every educator told us that the kids would not have any interest in Long Island Sound. We all found out how wrong they were.” Miller and his friends discovered that the children were not uninterested in the Sound; they were terrified of it. Many children in Stamford and Port Chester and Norwalk and New Rochelle, even those who lived a couple of blocks away from the water, had never set foot in Long Island Sound. “We found out that as these kids were growing up, their mothers and fathers were telling them one thing–don’t go near the water–because they couldn’t swim in it. They were scared to death. They’re not members of yacht clubs; they didn’t think the Sound was theirs. We told them just the opposite, that they are a part of the community, not apart [from] the community,” he says.
Alison Schiller learned about the Sound as a youngster at Rogers Elementary School in Stamford, and later at Scofield Middle School. Now she’s twenty-five and realizes she’s spent more than half of her life connected to the group and to the Sound.
“I was always excited when SoundWaters came to our school and when we took field trips to go there. It didn’t feel like school. We were doing hands-on experiments and that’s what caught my interest. Nothing else really did that for me in school,” says Schiller, who now works for a non-profit group in Maryland and hopes to return to environmental work.
As a child, she was an ice skater who spent early mornings at Terry Conners Rink in Cove Island Park. After school, she found herself returning to SoundWaters to hang out. “Over the summers I started volunteering, working in the aquarium, cleaning the tanks, feeding the fish, helping with the educational programs. I literally did a little bit of everything.” When she got older, Schiller became a counselor for the summer camp. “I’ve watched so many kids grow up at SoundWaters. At first they’re like, ‘This is gonna be boring.’ But then there’s an ‘aha’ moment that makes them come back again and again. They’re outside of their comfort zone, which makes them so aware of their surroundings and their senses. SoundWaters opens up your eyes and makes you put your phone down,” she says.
That kind of talk makes Frank Cantelmo beam. Cantelmo, known as “Dr. Frank” by the SoundWaters crew, is a professor at St. John’s University with a bursting bundle of accolades in education, business and the environment, which includes being environmental advisor to the Vatican and a shellfish warden in Greenwich. But it is his work as an advisor, trainer and board member with SoundWaters that brings out his passion for hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum.
“In all of our initiatives, we try to integrate a hands-on experience, to have the children touch and feel things that are alive,” says Cantelmo, who was elected last year to SoundWaters’ Hall of Fame. “They learn that we are all made up of very similar things. The nitrogen in that horseshoe crab could have been the nitrogen in Cleopatra. We are all connected.”
Cantelmo trains new crew members who will live and work onboard the SoundWaters schooner. He tells them that their work might change a child’s life. “During the cruise we have a so-called quiet time, where we listen. After, we say, ‘What did you experience?’ And the kids say ‘I never heard all those birds before, the water lapping, the sounds of the boat.’ That’s what we want them to hear, the sounds of nature, especially when they’re plugged in all the time and isolated. We need those kinds of experiences. Kids are flooded with negativism and disrespect for each other. This brings them back. It teaches them to cooperate with each other.”
Dr. Frank was talking about the kids, but he might as well have been talking about some members of the Stamford community. Beginning with its board of directors, SoundWaters connects disparate groups that live and work here. The group organizes business functions on the water, runs sunset sails, offers lunchtime environmental lectures. One board member, Ted Ferrarone, is the chief operating officer of BLT’s Harbor Point. In 2012, the mega-developer hosted a SoundWaters fundraiser at Harbor Point honoring Gov. Dannel Malloy. The event brought together what would have been an unlikely guest list a year before. It was BLT that demolished Brewer’s Yacht Haven boatyard and marina back in 2011, where SoundWaters was once docked. BLT has since provided the schooner free dockage at the Harbor Park Marina on Ludlow Street, in the harbor’s East Branch, and the two groups seem united in seeking to make Stamford’s South End shine, with the Sound at the forefront, of course.
“Even though Stamford is on the waterfront you really don’t appreciate that from downtown Stamford,” says Ferrarone. “Part of what we’re trying to build down here is a vibrant waterfront that’s open and accessible and exciting.” There’s live music, six new restaurants built just last summer, a water taxi, kayaking and paddleboard rental, joggers and walkers, and visiting boaters on a mile of waterfront that “was completely shut off from public access for decades,” says Ferrarone.
“When you think about Fairfield County, there really is not a public waterfront. The waterfront should be a resource and a benefit to all. That’s part of SoundWaters’ mission. We’re all aligned there.”