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Light a Fire – A Celebration of Giving

Photograph by: Kevin Robinson

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Never has it been more necessary to accentuate the positive. With gas prices skyrocketing and housing values taking a nosedive, we were feeling grumpier by the second. Yes, we know how lucky we are, but still it was great timing for the right kind of reality check.

The response from readers to our February Light a Fire request to “help identify the good guys among us” was the perfect antidote to snarky cynicism. We were flooded with e-mails enthusiastically nominating individuals, organizations and corporations in every category as eminently award-worthy. Each nomination was a compelling reminder that the human spirit is still alive and well — in fact, it’s thriving — in our corner of Connecticut.

In the twenty-three towns and cities that comprise Fairfield County, 2,432 nonprofit organizations are committed to addressing issues created by one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the nation. Definitions of philanthropy in what has been described as the “Golden Age of Giving” are as varied as the givers who added range and depth to our selection of Light a Fire honorees.

From the high school student just starting out to a husband and wife who have been making a difference for decades, from grassroots good works to the kind made possible by big business, we are pleased to tip our hats to these “good guys among us.” Please join us in saluting our honorees and all the volunteers who made their accomplishments possible.

Community-Minded Teens

The teenage volunteers at Darien’s Post 53 have no time to indulge in me-generation, nose-in-navel self-absorption. They are too busy learning how to save lives. As early as the summer following eighth grade, students who demonstrate ability and maturity during a three-month First Aid/CPR class can become candidates for membership in the only EMS squad staffed by high school students. Working with Darien’s Police and Fire departments and other area professionals, they will spend the next four years responding to 911 calls all over town.

Post 53 was started by Darien resident John “Bud” Doble and his son Bill in 1970. Operating out of the Doble garage on a budget of just $150, forty trained high school students responded to more than 100 emergency calls that first year. “Parents wanted to make their children aware of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Direct care by teenagers to the victims themselves seemed the best teaching tool,” says Post 53’s director, Susan Warren. “The idea was that, with step-by-step training, teenagers could be entrusted with adult responsibility and given the skills to save lives.”

From initial candidacy through assignment as radio roomie, rider, emergency medical technician, ambulance driver or crew chief, promotions are based on earning the necessary Connecticut State credentials as well as dedication, maturity and performance as a team member under pressure. Official EMT certification can be earned by someone as young as sixteen.

“It requires a lot of work,” says trainee Abby D’Agosto, age fifteen, a member of the crew that responded recently to a cardiac arrest at a Darien health club. Post 53’s role in that patient’s recovery was recognized by Norwalk Hospital during National Emergency Medical Services Week. “For me to know I can help save somebody’s life is huge,” says Abby. “It’s worth every bit of effort.” For more information visit post53.org.

Having Fun

Having fun is having an impact on inner-city kids. Since 1995, through Norwalk Grassroots Tennis, an alliance of tennis players, educational professionals and enthusiastic volunteers, economically disadvantaged children are learning so much more than just how to play the game. Once reserved for the privileged, “the game of kings” is opening doors for youngsters who might otherwise have found themselves making the wrong choices.

Last year alone more than 400 children were involved in NGT tennis activities. Eleven years ago director David Kimani, a former captain of the Kenyan National Junior Tennis Team and a full-time professional at Darien’s King’s Highway Tennis Club, recalls recruiting then six-year-old Antonio Passarelle (a.k.a. T.C.) after noticing his athletic talent. T.C. is now captain of the Brien McMahon High School tennis team and will soon continue playing in college. “These guys became my role models,” he says. “They opened my eyes to the world beyond Norwalk, helped me focus on what is important in life and kept me away from things I’ve seen happen to too many of my friends”

“It’s all made possible by our wonderful volunteers,” Kimani states. Along with running two annual fundraisers and helping collect rackets, shoes, balls and tennis clothes, the support offered by people in the community has many definitions. “There are high school students who teach, serve snacks, umpire matches and build relationships,” he says. “Retirees mentor our kids one-on-one and give them advice on how to deal with tough times on and off the court.”

And in a new venture for NGT, Sally Grose, former principal of Westport’s Hillspoint School, has joined the staff as academic coordinator. “We are planning to apply the same enthusiasm for tennis to schoolwork,” Kimani says, adding that the program’s focus is to build self-confidence based on accomplishment in school as well as on the tennis court. Visit norwalkgrassrootstennis.com.

Extraordinary Board Member

Friends of Southport’s Cindy Citrone are very likely to find themselves stuffing goodie bags. “At the very least,” she says, “and probably more than just once!” 

A vice president on the board of the Connecticut Chapter of CancerCare, this at-home mother of four is the “Let’s do it!” spirit behind events that are more than just fundraisers; they brighten the lives of all participants. “I’ve been a recipient of what this organization offers,” she says, “the kind of practical support that helped me be the best possible caregiver when first my father and, later on, my mother got cancer.”

One Cindy initiative is the American Girl Fashion Show, now approaching its fourth consecutive year. Officially sponsored by the company that provides guidelines and the trademarked historical costumes, this event draws an audience of 700 to 900 each year. “It’s so much more than just a fashion show,” says Cindy. The fifty models range from girls who are cancer survivors to current cancer patients and siblings.

A case in point, Bianca Muniz was a twelve-year-old going through chemo following surgery for ovarian cancer when she modeled for the first time. “She did it with her sister,” Cindy says. “It was a very emotional experience for both of them.” 

The next year Bianca came back cancer-free and commentated the show.  Her mother is now on the board, assisting CancerCare’s current outreach program to the Hispanic community, where the cultural tendency to “not talk about it” prevents early diagnosis and timely treatment.

Cindy stresses that board members do much more than just write checks. And a dedicated staff supported by enthusiastic volunteers — many are at-home moms wanting to combine parenting with community service — makes every good idea possible. “People are always calling me for help when friends and family are diagnosed with cancer — that’s a very sobering reality,” Cindy says. “But the good part is that, through CancerCare, I can help.” Visit cancercare.org.