By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – The rain came down in buckets but didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of folks that splashed out to take part in a downtown tradition.
Early Thursday evening March 10, scores of area residents, artists and associated staff turned out to participate in the ninth annual Birdhouse Stroll. Forty-seven downtown stores collaboratively displayed in their front windows original birdhouses created by nearly 150 artists. The birdhouses will be part of the 16th annual Birdhouse Auction, a key fundraiser for Westport-based Project Return, to be held April 1 from 7-10 p.m. at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton.
Lux, Bond & Green at 136 Main Street was one of the host sites where many took shelter from the elements to enjoy hors d’ouevres and wine. On hand there was Laura Bard, Project Return’s director of development. She explained the correlation between birdhouses and the organization.
“A birdhouse is a safe haven for a bird like Project Return is a safe haven for adolescent and young women in crisis,” said Bard. “We like to say when they’ve been nurtured, cared for and healed, then they’re ready to fly away and begin the next phase of their lives.”
Project Return was founded in 1986 by a group of citizens in Westport who felt that there was a need for this type of home. Over its 25 years, the program has served 134 girls through the safe house, according to Bard.
“Seven teens live in the house at any given time and their stay can be anywhere from a few months to four or five years, depending on the circumstances,” said Bard. “Most girls are referred to us by the Connecticut Dept. of Children and Families (DCF) because of abuse and neglect. They come in with a variety of symptoms including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. Their parents are no longer able to care for them for one reason or another and some have been in other residential facilities or foster homes, or even hospitals.”
A majority of Project Return’s funding comes from the DCF, said Bard, while the balance is raised by events like the upcoming auction, an annual effort with Lillian August and parties in private homes. Community support is also provided in the form of pro bono therapy, donated medical and dental services and mentors. Besides the safe house, other Project Return programs include aftercare and transitional living support and an afterschool program for troubled teens living in Fairfield County communities called “Heal.”
Kathy Tessler is a mentor with the program who jumped on board as a volunteer four years ago. “I was placed with one girl who’s now 18. There have been lots of ups and down but overall it has been a wonderful experience to get to know someone with a troubled past. She’s really evolved into a lovely, accomplished young girl.”
Westport artist Nina Bentley has donated a birdhouse to the auction every year for the past 15. This year, she decided to do something unique and let people name her birdhouse creation. Out of 150 suggestions, she chose “Midas Well Live in Westport“ which aligned well with the gold charms all over the house. About the overall effort, Bentley said, “This is a wonderful opportunity for artists to give back to the community.”
Providing a live testimonial about Project Return’s good work was former safe house resident Naomi Kydes. “I lived at the home for two years,” she said. “The support I received was tremendous both during the time I was there and since. Ironically, I’m now a board member. The senior coordinators are my extended family – my group moms if you will. They’ve been to my wedding, visited me in the hospital after I had my first child… real family connections.”
Taking a soggy stroll window-to-window was Alison Danzberger and husband Don Stump, admiring all the creative birdhouses, which had been placed into store environments in which they were best suited. For example, artist Wendy Nylen’s “Birdazzled” birdhouse was created from a gourd made to look jewel-like, so was placed at Lux, Bond and Green.
Said Danzberger, as she and Stump studied a birdhouse by Miggs Burroughs at Max’s Art Supplies, “Everyone has worked very hard to support the cause. These are really intricate and there’s an incredible amount of time put into each of them. We’re glad to brave a little rain to see all the wonderful work.”