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Friday, March 11, 2011

Students and Seniors Connect Through “Staples Cares”

Students and Seniors Connect Through “Staples Cares”
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – A visit to his grandmother in Florida helped a local student develop an in-home services program that is now assisting senior citizens in Westport.

“Staples Cares”, the brainchild of Staples High School senior Adam Yormark, offers to change and replace smoke detectors and batteries in the homes of Westport senior residents on Sunday, March 13, in conjunction with the daylight savings change. Twenty-five Staples High student volunteers will perform these services, and related small household tasks. The program is guided and supported by the Westport Department of Human Services, which is supplying the batteries, new detectors (as required), and other small equipment needs. The program launched as a pilot in Fall 2010.

“I felt like there was a disconnect between high school students and senior citizens in town,” said Yormark, “so I created this program to bridge the gap and create an intergenerational connection and understanding. The idea came to me when I was in Florida visiting my grandmother and fixing a clock for her. As I put the clock up on the wall, it hit me that we could provide services like this that were easy for us students to perform but which may be challenging to seniors.”

Yormark took the idea to Staples High Principal John Dodig who suggested he contact the Department of Human Services. Terry Giegengack, Assistant Director of Client Services for the Westport office recalled her first meeting with the ambitious 17-year-old. “Adam wanted to make a positive difference in the community and had this small group of interested students behind him but no contacts. Our department has a list of over 500 senior households. From the list, our staff called about 35 seniors we felt could really use the help and ten signed on to have services performed during the fall daylight savings changeover, last November.”

In speaking with senior residents, the staffers discovered that many did not even have detectors. Using donated funds, the department agreed to cover the cost of these units and the students provided the installation.

Services were not limited to battery changing and detector installation. “A woman last fall asked for my help with a broken watch,” said Yormark. “I was able to fix it and save her the repair cost. Another woman asked for help setting up and operating a coffee maker and an answering machine. These are simple, quick things we can do that they are not able to accomplish.”

Giegengack said the visits were well received. “The seniors loved talking to the students and found them very engaging and helpful.”

Doris Fable, 88, was one of the senior citizens who benefited from a service call last fall. “They were nice young people,” she said. “They came when they said they would, reset my clocks for daylight savings and changed the batteries in one of my smoke detectors. It’s hard to get up on a stool and change these things. They were quick and efficient and brought their own step ladder.”

Patty Clark, 80, was another senior that received a visit. “The fire department put our initial smoke detectors in. The students did a wonderful job servicing them. You don’t want anyone having a problem with their detectors,” she said.

Based on the positive feedback from the fall, Yormark and Giegengack agreed the program deserved to be formally rolled out this March. Human Services staff called all seniors currently receiving home-delivered meals, people who received a visit last year and other seniors including those receiving heat assistance. Yormark also sought seniors through local churches and synagogues.

As of this writing, 13 senior citizens had signed up according to Yormark, and he expected more to come onboard.

“It’s not easy for seniors to just accept people coming into their home,” said Giegengack. “The exposure the program gets will help open doors and expand the service.”

To the students’ credit, many of the seniors from the fall, Doris Fable among them, are welcoming student volunteers back. “This time around, I wanted a combination smoke detector CO2 tester. Adam said there would be no problem. It would be great if this program can be offered every season, to be sure equipment is in top operating form.”

Dog Park Idea Off the Leash and Running

Dog Park Idea Off the Leash and Running
By Mike Lauterborn
(appeared on front page of Fairfield-Sun 3/10)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Fairfield is a special place to live with a wide range of amenities from beaches and golf courses to hiking trails and a skateboard park. The one thing it lacks, many complain, is a dedicated dog park – a place where dogs can have a good, safe run without impediment. RTM member Alexis Harrison has heard the outcry, has studied the issues and is spearheading efforts to make such a park a reality.

Current Allowances Not Ideal

At present, of the town’s six beaches, only Jennings Beach allows dogs to be off-leash and only during the October 1 to March 31 window. While dog owners take full advantage of the access, Harrison said, “Having dogs unleashed at the beach can impede non-dog owners’ enjoyment of that space. Additionally, equestrians bring their horses down to the beach in the off-season, which have the potential to injure dogs that are off the leash.”

Harrison noted, “There is Lake Mohegan where you can take your dogs off leash, but the downside is that it’s not a dog-dedicated space, people often don’t pick up after their dogs and dogs are susceptible to ticks, litter and other adverse environmental factors.”

Harrison notes that there is also space by the Jennings marina that allows dogs to roam free. “But there’s a lot of tall seagrass and other environmental impediments that prevent a dog from getting a good run,” Harrison added.

First Steps

Harrison said First Selectman Ken Flatto first breached the idea of a dog park in Fairfield about three years ago. “He was looking at land near Osborn Hill School and thought of dedicating a small portion as a dog park/run,” said Harrison. “Unfortunately, the plan was not pursued and the space has become a residential development.”

This past January, Doug Garni breached the subject again. A friend of Harrison’s who visits Jennings Beach daily with his dog Harley, Garni asked her why a town like Fairfield, with some 60,000 residents and many other offerings, couldn’t provide a dog park as well. His frustration hit home with Harrison, a former dog owner, and she decided to do something about it. “With over 3,500 registered dog owners in Fairfield, it seems like a natural progression to add a dog park to our many amenities," she said.

Initially, Harrison met with Jerry Lombardo, who oversees the Parks and Recreation Department. Harrison argued that communities like New Canaan, Darien, Shelton and Greenwich have dedicated dog parks. Lombardo agreed there was a need and affirmed his commitment to help bring a plan to fruition. Harrison also met with other town officials and RTM colleagues to assess their view of the need and to ensure that the idea had majority support in principle.

“A lot of my RTM colleagues have ongoing dialogues with constituents,” Harrison said. “They have their finger on the pulse of town needs and desires. In fact, a fellow RTM member told me that a constituent was walking on Jennings Beach recently and was almost attacked by an unleashed dog. The woman was quite shaken by the incident. It underscores the need for a dedicated park where dogs can roam freely. That’s not to say that dogs should run wild. There would be rules that would be in place.”

Dog owners, not surprisingly, like Catherine Street resident David Becker, support a park plan. “We’re a very dog friendly family in general. There are a lot of places here with dog restrictions. We used to take our dog over to Pine Creek Beach and could off-leash him, but they’ve disallowed that now. Our dog is trained on voice command, and to have to put him on a leash in certain areas is not desirable. Off the leash, he stays within voice command and is free to do his own thing. He’s much happier in this way and gets really excited the moment he hits the sand. Personally, I think off-leashing should be allowed in more spaces. The benefit of a dog park would be recreating a space like Jennings where dogs can roam.”

With anecdotal evidence and input from other officials and dog owners, Harrison met with Flatto mid-February. “Mr. Flatto was very gracious, open and receptive to the idea and we have had a few conversations since. We are now in preliminary discussions with him, Lombardo and Conservation Director Tom Stenke about a precise location for a dog park.”

With regard to the space, Harrison said, “My understanding is that the Parks and Rec department does not have the field space to give up for a dog park. So, ultimately, Conservation and its commission will need to evaluate what’s available in their land inventory and what we can use. It will need to be determined if the space can meet parking needs and if it’s conducive and appropriate for the neighborhood. Other issues include drainage and noise.”

Harrison pointed to Westport’s Winslow Park as an exemplary dog park. “It’s a great facility. It’s simple, not fancy. The people who use it are great caretakers. They clean up after their dogs and keep them on the leash when they’re in the parking lot. I hope Fairfield can emulate it in the near future.”

Going Forward

Harrison feels that the town as a whole will truly benefit from a dog park for several reasons. “It improves the quality of life for dog owners and dogs, for one. It provides a safe and clean environment for exercise. It will alleviate friction between dog owners and non-dog owners at the beach. It promotes responsible dog ownership. It could potentially serve as a site for an animal adoption day or spot for dog training seminars, something the town currently offers as continuing education. The park could also serve as a training and exercise location for dogs in the Fairfield Police Department’s proposed K-9 Unit.”

She sees the mission as fairly straightforward: to establish a large, enclosed area where well-behaved canines can exercise.

As a next step, Harrison said Flatto would like park proponents and dog enthusiasts to form a small committee to determine the needs of a dog park and what would be needed to create and maintain it. “We will need to address certain issues like maintenance, garbage removal, waste control and clean-up supplies. I don’t want this to hurt the taxpayers or be an extravagant facility, but there are essential items that need to be provided for. I really think this can be a positive endeavor for the town – a win-win for all residents," she said.

Harrison hopes a park can be established within a year’s time, but notes that there are many hurdles that would also need to be jumped. “It’s possible we’ll need approval from Conservation to use an open space allotment, a budget needs to be created to do it right with fencing and we need to determine funding sources. Again, we should pursue this as a simple endeavor. Certainly, if the town can fund something like a skate park for $350,000, I think a dog park that would cost far less is attainable.”


A Pro’s Dog Park Perspective

Kelly Barnes Millington, who provides house and pet sitting through her business Sitting Pretty, is particularly qualified to speak about the prospect of a dedicated dog park in Fairfield.

“I’ve been in the dog walking business for 11 years and the perspective that I’ve gained from my clients is that Fairfield is not a dog friendly town,” said Millington. “It would be really wonderful to have a dedicated place to bring dogs year round. It would be even better to have it in a convenient location. I think that’s why so many people use the beach in the wintertime. Some people go to Brett Woods and Lake Mohegan, but those spots are out of the way for many.”

Millington believes that exercise is integral for a dog’s health and mental well-being. “It’s also a great opportunity for people to come together with their animals and socialize,” she added.

Millington said a few ruin things for the many. “Being a responsible pet-sitting professional, when I’m out walking the dogs, I’m very conscious of my surroundings and seek to keep the dogs under my control. If others could follow suit, there would be fewer issues between dog owners and non-owners. A dog park would help reduce incidences and provide a safe, fenced-in space that welcomes dogs and their owners.”

The pet sitter believes a dog park would be well utilized and easy to institute. “I can’t imagine it would cost much to create. Certain essentials might include providing clean-up bags, a source of fresh water and fencing. It could be a real social magnet for owners and their pets and an attractive selling point for the town.”

Earthplace ‘Sap to Sugar’ Program a Sweet Time for All

Earthplace ‘Sap to Sugar’ Program 
a Sweet Time for All
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – With temps hovering around 60 degrees and the feel of spring in the air, it was an opportune time to break out the tap… the sap tap that is.

Saturday afternoon March 5, Earthplace at 10 Woodside Lane hosted “Sap to Sugar”, an hour-long program demonstrating how tree sap becomes maple syrup and offering samples of the sweet liquid. Other features of the event included a campfire, hot chocolate, marshmallow toasting, a coloring craft and storybook reading. The program was led by naturalist Margaret Ardwin. About two dozen families attended.

“We’ve been doing this every year since 1960,” said Ardwin at the outset of the event. “Kids really love seeing the sap come out of the tree. The campfire is also popular. Today is warm so the sap should really be flowing.”

Earthplace was founded in 1958 as a non-profit dedicated to promoting environmental awareness. The facilities provide numerous opportunities to explore the natural world with interactive exhibits in the Natureplace Museum and over two miles of trails in the 62-acre wildlife sanctuary. The facility also keeps live birds of prey, reptiles and native animals.

For Sue Tobia of Norwalk, attending with daughter Sara, 4, and nephew Jonathan, 7, the program and facility was a real find. “We were looking for something to do on the weekend. This looked educational and fun, and Sara loves syrup. At breakfast, she has more syrup than pancakes. It will be great for her to see how it’s made. This is the first time we’ve been to Earthplace. It’s a hidden treasure.”

The O’Gormans – Matt, Melissa and their children Nolan, 8, and Kaden, 5 – looked forward to the tasting and were happy to be enjoying some warm weather. “Nolan loves maple syrup and wanted to come see how it’s made and try it. We’re getting a little hint of spring today with the warmth, so it’ll be nice to enjoy the outdoors.”

Canadian-bred Ardwin, who grew up making maple syrup on her family’s barbecue, gathered everyone around a campfire adjacent to the parking lot and gave some background about the sap to syrup process.

“Sap comes from sugar maples,” she explained. “We take the watery sap and boil it down so there’s more sugar than water. The sugar the tree made last year is now coming up through the roots. The sugar feeds the tree buds.”

Ardwin said Native Americans were first to discover sap. “They watched animals and woodpeckers feeding on it. Children found the sap frozen as icicles, broke them off and ate them.”

With drill in hand, the naturalist led the group to a sugar maple near the facility’s front entry. “When we tap, we drill about an inch or two into the tree and insert a spigot,” she said. “The tree doesn’t draw sap uniformly. The side facing the sun is going to be flowing more readily and will be the best place to tap.”

As she inserted the spigot, it immediately began to drip sap, and Ardwin encouraged children pressed near to sample it.

“It tastes like vanilla,” said Brynn Fleisig, 4, of Westport, attending with her mother, Wendy Giffords.

Ardwin directed the group back toward the campfire and to a picnic table where small plastic cups containing refined maple syrup had been placed. Elana Faiman of Weston and her son Aiden, 1, took advantage of the samples. “We have it every morning,” Faiman said, “with pancakes and French toast.”

Other attendees like Stephanie Shapiro of Weston and her children Sadie, 5, and Kyler, 10, sampled hot chocolate from dispensers at the table. Kyler found the program particularly informative, noting, “I learned that the sap from the tree is edible before it becomes maple syrup, and that syrup only comes from a sugar maple.”

While half the group sampled, the other half toasted marshmallows over the campfire or split off to quietly read a themed storybook. At each activity station, student volunteers provided assistance. Ardwin explained that there were 22 of these volunteers in total, from grades 5 to 12, comprising a unit known as Earthplace Junior Staff members.

“They come every Saturday for a natural history seminar, provide community service and do some volunteering for us, like helping at programs like this,” Ardwin said. “Most of the kids stay with me for seven or eight years.”

Ardwin stressed the importance of activities like the “Sap to Sugar” program. “A lot kids don’t get out to have fun outside. Very often, they go from the car to the house to the store. This gives them an opportunity to do things with their families and see that being outside is fun.”

Girl Scouts Learn Biz Lessons at Hobbytown Sleepover

Girl Scouts Learn Biz Lessons 
at Hobbytown Sleepover
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – Pretzels, check. Sleeping bags, right. Toothbrushes, roger. Local entrepreneurs and a big old hobby store. Huh?

Call it a Girls Night In, with a couple of twists. The girls in this case were eight fifth graders who are members of Stratfield School Girl Scout Troop 33136. The occasion was a sleepover Saturday March 5 in none other than Hobbytown USA at 847 Post Road. And the entrepreneurs were Kevin Carroll and Steve Mark, inventors of the new dice game Tenzi, who had been invited to introduce the game and share some business insights.

“The girls were dying to have a winter campout – or camp-in in this case,” said Cheryl Eustace, one of the troop leaders. “We brainstormed with the girls and one of them, Grace Vanderlip, thought Hobbytown, which her family co-owns, would be a fun site.”

The format could have been a straightforward one, with some gameplay, junk food and overnight, but it was agreed more value could be injected.

“We decided to teach the girls what it’s like to own a business, run it and be an entrepreneur,” said Celeste Vanderlip, Grace’s mother, a part-owner and manager of Hobbytown. “To add another level, we invited the inventors of Tenzi to make a presentation. They came to the store back in late October with their game and I said, ‘If you can explain it to me in less than two minutes and I can understand it, Hobbytown can sell and promote it, both in the store and through associated events like this sleepover.’”

Vanderlip said the game has really taken off. “We’ve sold over 300 units since October through our Post Road and Stamford stores. This game is a phenomenon, as any age can play.”

Co-troop leader Trish Pavoni said the overnight was very unique for the group. “This is our sixth year with the girls and we always look for a variety of things to do with them. In the past, we’ve done girly girly things, community service, a jump rope clinic, weekend camporees… This is the first time we’re spending an overnight in a retail store. The girls are very excited, and have been talking about working the register and stocking the shelves, and learning about Tenzi.”

Carroll, introducing the game to the group as they sat down at two long tables placed end to end, said, “We had heard that some of the big game companies wanted things with dice. We both bought an odd assortment of dice and went off and played with them. Steve really came up with a good idea: using 10 dice, see how fast you can roll the same number. The first to show all the same number yells Tenzi. We added more elements, like building Tenzi towers.”

As the girls and scout leaders threw down the colorful orange, green, blue and yellow dice and went head to head, Vanderlip shared her excitement about the gamemakers. “How great is this? A Fairfield County business helping a Fairfield County business. And now the Girl Scouts getting involved. What a dynamic!”

Mark pointed out Tenzi’s advantages, noting, “It’s not like the Monopoly syndrome where a game takes hours. Each Tenzi round is done in a minute, seconds even.”

To that regard, Carroll said, “My daughter holds the Tenzi record – 6.9 seconds. Are you ready for the challenge?” The provocation set up a Tenzi frenzy as the girls – and moms – battled it out to beat the clock and Carroll kept time.

All throughout the gameplay, Carroll offered business advice. “When you’re trying to sell an idea, don’t let turndowns stop you at all. But it also takes people like Celeste to have vision and encourage you.”

As the gamemakers departed, Vanderlip initiated part two of the business-oriented sleepover, leading the girls on a tour of her day-to-day activities -- from the moment she walks in the door and turns on the lights and computers, to organization and display of merchandise.

“I’ll tell you a little secret about retail,” she said, as the girls shuffled behind her. “When people come in the door, they never go down the first aisle. Human nature tells you to go to the middle of something. So we put trinkets and impulse items at the front of the store.”

In the storeroom area, Vanderlip noted, “Every day, Fed Ex and UPS comes through. We don’t keep tons of inventory, only what we need. Things come in and go out very quickly.”

It was a worthy lesson in business inspiration and operation that the girls took to heart as they dove into bowls of snacks and candy, a quick bite before bedding down in an alcove of this hobby haven.