Lighting the Way

Wendy Wear Stapleton learned early on the importance of giving back. As a member of the Bush family (Jenna and Barbara are her second cousins), the longtime Greenwich resident was taught that even the smallest act of kindness can have a big impact. It was nearly ten years ago that she channeled her passion for film and activism into cofounding the Greenwich International Film Festival (GIFF), which recently presented $100,000 worth of grants to local charities through its community impact awards program.

In addition to GIFF, she is involved in a variety of nonprofits—UNICEF’s Next Generation, Americares, the YWCA, the Alzheimer’s Association and the Avon Theater, to name a few. But one in particular is especially close to her heart: Points of Light, the nonpartisan, global nonprofit established by her late uncle, President George H. W. Bush.

His stirring inaugural address in 1989 invoking “a thousand points of light” sparked a nationwide movement grounded in volunteerism and love. For the past two years, Wendy has served as cochair of the George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards gala, which honors individuals who have had a profound impact on the world.

Wendy (center) with cousins and Points of Light cochairs, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush

This year’s recipients were philanthropist, women’s rights advocate and social entrepreneur Francine A. LeFrak, president of the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation and the Same Sky Foundation Fund, a trade initiative designed to help marginalized women become visible through the dignity of work; Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama; Hugh Evans, cofounder and CEO of Global Citizen, whose mission is to build a movement of 100 million engaged citizens to end extreme poverty by 2030; and Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium, which was formed in response to the disproportionate number of African Americans being diagnosed and dying from Covid in Philadelphia and the lack of swift intervention to mitigate disease spread.

The gala also recognized Points of Light Inspiration Spotlights that celebrate individuals who give back to their communities in different ways. After a year of Covid isolation, it was a great achievement to welcome 200 guests in person to the hybrid event at Cipriani South Street, reaching an additional 2,500 attendees via livestream. “It was truly inspirational,” says Wendy. “It felt so hopeful.”

We had a chance to sit down with the mother of three a few days after the event to talk about her commitment to volunteerism, her uncle’s legacy and how even one small act of kindness can a change a life.

left: Wendy with her daughters and the late President Bush. right: The cousins hit Greece: Lauren Bush Lauren, Jenna Bush Hager, Wendy, Barbara Bush and Noelle Bush

GREENWICH magazine: Why is this event important to you?
Wendy Stapleton: Service really is the essence of Uncle George’s legacy, which is more critical now than ever. He served his country and his community in ways large and small. There’s a great story about his post-presidency, when he became a pen pal to a boy named Timothy through the Compassion International Program. He wrote to him often, never revealing his identity and sending little gifts like pencils with his notes. Timothy only learned who his pen pal was after Uncle George’s death. This story perfectly exemplifies the man George H.W. Bush was. He didn’t engage in service for show, but because it was essential to who he was as a human being. It’s imperative to do whatever we can to be a point of light in our community and in our world. Every act matters no matter how small. These kindly acts will create the change that we need in the world.

GM: Why is President Bush’s call to action regarding volunteerism and leading with love still relevant?
WS: I think Bryan Stevenson said it really well: “It’s not just a good thing to be a point of light now but an absolutely necessary thing, because there is so much darkness in the world.” There is so much negativity in the world today, and maybe it can feel hopeless and overwhelming; but when we start saying we can do something no matter how little—holding the door for someone or making a meal for someone—these acts build up our community, and in turn they build us up. When we are hurting as individuals and we feel low, one of the greatest things we can do to feel better is reach out and help someone else. Points of Lights’ mission is to inspire, equip and mobilize people. It calls them to take action on an individual level, using Uncle George’s own service as an example for others.

GM: How did President Bush model these behaviors?
WS: Uncle George led by example. He taught the world how to lose graciously and reach out to the other side. Of course, he was angry and hurt and disappointed [to lose the election], but he moved through those emotions, and he became friends with President Clinton and built a relationship based on service that became bigger than the two of them. They came together initially for tsunami relief at the request of then President George W. Bush, raising tens of millions of dollars together. Uncle George was an evolving thinker, interested in the other person’s point of view. He was willing to admit when he did something wrong and learn from the experience. Conversation and dialogue are so important right now. It’s super dangerous when we don’t have those conversations; that’s how we learn and grow as a country.

Kennebunkport Kids: Wendy, Noelle Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, Barbara Bush

GM: What do you consider your greatest philanthropic achievement?
WS: As a mother, I try to instill that awareness in my children, which can be especially difficult when we live in such a privileged community. Last week I did an apple stand for UNICEF with my ten-year-old, Georgina, so she could understand what she could do. My thirteen-year-old, Mia, and I packed meals for Filling in the Blanks [a local organization that provides meals for the food-insecure on weekends]. My fifteen-year-old, Loulie, read through some of the grant requests last year, so we could talk about them. Then I had my daughters pick their three favorites, and our family foundation donated $5,000 to each, and the girls became GIFF “community champions.” We did this with a number of GIFF donors’ children as a way to raise additional funds beyond the $100,000. Loulie picked Kids in Crisis, Mia picked Partnership to End Human Trafficking, and Georgie picked the Special Education Legal Defense Fund, which also received the $10,000 GIFF audience award grant from the Stapleton Family Foundation.

I also love what we’ve done with the film festival and how we’ve created a social justice platform, and involved all these local and national charities and tried to create these conversations. We recently premiered Mass, which is a film about the parents of a school shooter and the parents of the child who died. We had a panel discussion afterward and invited local families. The film was really about how to deal with grief. With GIFF, we are creating a safe space where people can have conversations that foster tolerance and understanding.

GM: How did GIFF pivot in the Covid-era?
WS: We decided to have a call [for grant applications] for charities instead of films. We received more than fifty applications. There were quite a few from mental health support organizations such as The Center for Hope and Renewal and The Circle of Hope for nurses at Greenwich Hospital who worked through the pandemic. And there were applicants like the Rowan Center in Stamford, helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, which was especially important during the pandemic, when a lot of people were forced to shelter in place. Additionally, there were groups like Abilis, which helps people with special needs. These and other organizations like them are the lifeblood of what community is about.

left: Wendy with cousin and cochair Lauren Bush Lauren at the gala. right: Chairman of the Points of Light Board, Neil Bush; Points of Light President and CEO, Natalye Paquin; Points of Light honorees Dr. Ala Stanford, Bryan Stevenson and Francine A. LeFrak; Lauren Bush Lauren and Wendy Stapleton – Photographs by Points of Light
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