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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Notre Dame Grads Asked to Make a Difference

Notre Dame Grads Asked 
to Make a Difference:
51st high school commencement celebrated Saturday
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – The gym was warm but the feeling in the hearts of all was even warmer with regard to the special moment for which they were gathered.

On Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame Catholic High School celebrated its 51st Commencement, awarding diplomas to 116 Class of 2011 seniors, among which 30 are National Honor Society Members. Sixty-six of the graduating students were also recognized for obtaining scholarship funds from various institutions, which, in total, topped over $9.2 million. The exercise was held in the Sister Marion Rielly Memorial Auditorium, which was completely filled to capacity and dotted with bouquet-carrying family members and “Congrats Grad” Mylar balloons.

As friends and relatives filtered into the gym, the walls of which were plastered with the school’s many sports championship banners, they carried feelings of hope and excitement for their loved ones.

“I drove down to see my nephew Giovanni (Colon) graduate,” said one family member, Adriana Colon from Boston. “He’ll be attending St. John’s in Queens in the fall. I’m really proud of him. There’s going to be a lot of waterworks, as I’ll be crying.”

Stratford resident Matt Wajda, whose brother Nick was graduating, said, “I’m really excited to see him make it. I graduated from here, too. The tradition continues.”

Another sibling, Bridgeporter Rebecca Young, said, “I’m here for my sister Rachel (Young). She’ll go to Lincoln Tech Culinary School in Shelton. I’m excited for her. I’m an alumnus here, and can’t wait to see how she does as she moves on – she’s an honors student.”

Arguably, none could be prouder than Bridgeport parent Veronica Hernandez, perched in a bleacher seat. “My daughter Bianca (Carrasquillo) is graduating,” she said. “She’ll be going to Sacred Heart to study psychology. She’s had the high school experience most kids want to have. When I was putting her cap on, we both started tearing up – you could still see her baby eyes. It’s been a long journey but, at the same time, time flew by. She won’t be far from me as I work at Sacred Heart. Her father and I have been blessed with her being such a good girl.”

To great applause, the seniors, dressed in purple robes, with honors students designated by yellow satin sashes, and faculty, decked in black robes, filed in. After they were greeted by Assistant Principal Carl Philipp and all stood for the national anthem, Reverend Peter Cipriani offered a brief invocation. Amusingly, Cipriani cited “the Gospel according to Pearl Jam” saying, “If you’re anxious, just breathe. May Almighty God bless you awesome graduates.”

Presenting diplomas was the Most Reverend William E. Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport. Each senior posed for a photograph with him and school president Reverend Bill Sangiovanni as they emerged from backstage, then they took center stage to present themselves as Philipp called their name. They were met with cheers and chants from fellow students, which they answered with fist pumps, nods, thumbs up and arms raised high. A long applause followed the presentation then remarks from Principal Christopher Cipriano.

“To our class of 2011, please accept my congratulations,” he said. “We are truly proud of you. We also thank the parents who have made financial sacrifices and shuttled their students every day from other areas. ‘Make a difference’ is the challenge I put to you. If you make that your mission, just think of the impact you can make. Be imitators of Christ. Make yourself and your families proud. We will certainly miss you.”

Cipriano introduced Valedictorian Jessica Harper, citing her many accomplishments, among them being ranked #1 in the senior class. She will attend Hamilton College in the fall. “Hi guys!” she began, then continued, “I deliberated about what to say and didn’t want to be boring. I turned to Google, which indicated that many Valedictorian speeches are trite. Then I had a flashback to freshman year and Father Bill who said we are a family. I didn’t think so at the time, but it was clearly true.”

She continued, “As a family, we’ve cheered on our sports teams and had many laughs. I’ve been blessed with teachers that truly care about me. The true test of a family is how we stand together in tragedy, like during the passing of Dr. DeSimone late last year. As we go our separate ways, it’s important to remember that this school has bonded together and we are connected by that bond. You can be sure that wherever you are, a Notre Dame grad will have your back.”

As a new tradition, one senior, Caitlin Shea-Vantine, was recognized by faculty as Outstanding Senior. They described her as caring, thoughtful and compassionate. This award preceded Father Sangiovanni reading the names of each student who achieved a scholarship and the scholarship amounts, which overall totaled an impressive $9,287,746.

Dr. Margaret Dames, superintendent of schools, then offered, “When I think of the last four years, I think of all the events that have occurred – economic downturn, social unrest. Two things have prepared you to meet these challenges: spiritual stamina and academic excellence. Your successful journey begins today.”

She was followed by Fairfield Town Clerk Betsy Browne, a past Notre Dame graduate. “I can say the school is a great support system. I can always call it home,” she commented.

Giving closing remarks, Bishop Lori said, “It’s a great joy for me to be here to send you off to your futures. I wish you every success on, this, your graduation day. Congratulations to the Class of 2011.”

Filing outside as the ceremony concluded, graduate Ashley Almeida, who will attend Sacred Heart, said, “I’m excited but also sad to be leaving family and friends. I will study criminal law and feel very well prepared. All my senior teachers were fantastic.”

Like Almeida, graduate Monique Plummer also had kind words for her teachers. “My experience here was amazing and I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I will truly miss it. Thanks to all the faculty, in particular Father Cipriani, for being there for me through the hardest times and letting me know all will be OK.”

Hot Dogs Take a Bite out of Westport

Hot Dogs Take a Bite 
out of Westport:
Reunion draws dachshund 
owners to Jesup Green
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Chocolate smoothies. Black and tans. Reds. If you weren’t in the know, you’d think you were at a drink sampling event. But these were descriptions of dogs – dachshund breeds to be exact.

They could all be found at the annual Dachshund Reunion, held early afternoon Saturday at Jesup Green. The gathering attracted about three-dozen owners and their dogs, to participate in a silent auction, parade and dog-specific Olympic-style games. All proceeds benefited animal rescue organizations.

“This is the 13th annual reunion, and it’s always held on the Green, which is nice and shaded and good for the dogs,” said Sheila Weiss, the event coordinator and a member of the Connecticut Yankee Dachshund Club. “Besides visiting with fellow dog owners, attendees can look at photos of rescue dogs seeking homes,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity to meet breeders.”

Clawing her way from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Trudy Kawami, a long-time friend of Weiss’, said she has been finding homes for dachshunds for the past 20 years. Onsite with Raven and Driad, her own wire-haired dachshunds, Kawami described the breed. “They are handy because of their size – they fit under the furniture,” she said. “But they’re not just little foo-foo dogs. While they do like to sit on your lap, they like to hunt, too. Dachshunds are dwarf hounds, developed for specific hunting purposes and still have those instincts. They have high prey drive, and may go after the neighbor’s cat or squirrels. They’re small but serious, and not the dog for everyone all the time.”

Fairfielder Meredith Ganzak, attending with her smoothie dachshund Buttons, described her own dog. “Buttons digs a lot,” she said. “When she was a pup, she would love to escape and get into the marsh. Even though she’s small, she barks like crazy when someone’s at the door. However, once they’re inside, she attacks them with kisses. She’s a good dog, and as she’s gotten older, I still see the puppy in her.”

Manning a literature table, Debbie Ruderman, president of the CT Yankee Dachshund Club, described her organization. “We have about 20 members statewide, all dues-paying,” she said. “Their fees go to help fund our annual specialty shows. The main one occurs in Groton. We meet four times a year, with a summer picnic of club members and a Match and Fun Day, which will be in Trumbull’s Old Mine Park in August this year.”

Ruderman said she has owned four dachshunds over time. “They’ve got a great personality, and are exuberant and friendly,” she said. “They want to greet everyone they meet, but are also very stubborn. My husband always says they’re little dogs with big personalities.”

Kicking off the proceedings, Kawami, with a big personality herself, summoned dog owners to round up and march their pets around the Green, organizing the dogs into three main groups: smoothies (the classic wiener dog), long-hair and wire-hair.

A “Licky Kisses” challenge followed, wherein several dogs competed to give their owners the most kisses in 30 seconds. Debra Cuozzo’s dachshund Mocha took that honor, with 53 licks.

Taking honors in the tail wagging contest, with a matching 53 wags, was Ghia, a wire-haired dachshund owned my Amanda Nielsen, wearing a “My Wiener is Very Friendly” t-shirt.

“I saw the event notice and had to go,” said Nielsen. “Ghia’s a real tail wager.”

Due to a second place tie in the tail wagging contest, Kawami announced a Wag-Off between dachshunds Buttons and Peanut. “I think Buttons got tail fatigue,” joked Kawami as Peanut took the prize.

Another highlight was the Vintage Oldies But Goodies competition, designed to identify the most senior dog in attendance. That crown, or medal in this case, went to Pumpernickel, at 15 years and four months. Owner Anne Toombs, of Southport, said, “We got Pumpernickel as a rescue dog. She’s in great shape for her age and is friendly to everyone, very well-mannered.”   

Locals Step out for National Trails Day Hike

Locals Step out for 
National Trails Day Hike:
Audubon hosts leisurely loop around sanctuary
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 6/5)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – It was a cool, still morning, with a broad range of birds flitting about feeders and grounds firm and dry – ideal conditions for a good hearty hike.

That’s just what the CT Audubon Society, at 2325 Burr Street, had planned early Saturday in celebration of the American Hiking Society’s 19th annual National Trails Day. Led by Educator Linnea McHenry, the leisurely 1.5-mile hike through the Center’s Larsen Sanctuary navigated past a wide variety of terrain.

McHenry said the hike is the first officially led one of the season and that the sanctuary offers “a lot of different habitats, including woodlands, forest areas and fields. I think the variety draws people, as well as the opportunity to see different animals,” she said.

Interning at the Audubon for the summer and assisting with the hike, Olivia Tomeo, 20, said, “I don’t have a chance to hike much at school (Bucknell University), so this is a welcome opportunity for me. I used to hike the trails here when I was little and doing summer programming. It’s nice to be back.”

Participating with her husband Steve, Karin Layton of Fairfield said the couple had a lot of hike choices for the day but that this was an easy one that would allow her to get to work that afternoon. “It’s guided, too, so you can learn something, which is nice,” she said.

Fairfielder Curtis Osborne said the excursion was something to do on a Saturday rather than sitting around or working, and gave him an opportunity to use his walking stick, binoculars and “funny hat that let’s the air through.” He added, “I have bad knees but enjoy a good periodic hike.”

One of the first stops en route was a monarch butterfly way station. “We actually tag them, on their wings,” said McHenry. “The tags have unique numbers and we send along all our data to a collection center.”

As she spoke, a broad wing hawk soared overhead. McHenry explained, “They have a medium size tail with brown bands. Some of our wild raptors like to hang out and visit our captive raptors.”

As other bird life squawked in the treetops, a family of Canadian geese paddled across Farm Pond, where a painted turtle hovered on the water’s surface.

Passing over a rise called Rock Ledge, McHenry pointed out that a lot of newt-like red efts roost there. “They crawl out of the water, live a couple of years on land, and go back in the water to morph again into a larger adult version,” she said.

At a clearing circled by trees, McHenry said, “Two barred owls live here. They’re great at camouflaging themselves. We look for signs of their droppings, which we call whitewash. People think owls are nocturnal but on a cool day like today, they’re out. They can’t digest the bones and fur of their prey, so they cough it up. You’ll find clumps here and there… oh, and here’s a vole one of them must have dropped,” she said, pointing to a furry carcass.

Further ahead, there was a vernal pool. McHenry said the feature is very important as there are few predators around and amphibians lay their eggs in it.

She also pointed out wood duck houses, though said not to bother trying to spot one. “Wood ducks are very shy and secretive,” she said. “I’ve only seen one wood duck in 12 years.”

Hikers enjoyed more sightings, including dogwoods in bloom and a pair of deep-blue colored flycatchers, before returning to the main building for a complimentary cup of Birds and Beans shade-grown coffee, a hot cap to a cool hike.

First Church Stages Benefit for Youth Service Trip

First Church Stages Benefit for Youth Service Trip:
Folk/pop trio helps support 
Oaxaca feeding program
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 6/5)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – A church communal room, early evening light streaming through large arced windows, the strum of a guitar and the clink of coffee cups. It was a good vibe, and a good cause.

First Church Congregational at 148 Beach Road played host Friday night to a trio of musicians who donated their time to help raise funds for the church’s Senior High Youth Group’s upcoming service trip. On July 2-9, the group will join Southport/Westport-based Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, Mexico, to feed and support the needy citizens there. About fifty people attended the benefit concert, enjoying coffee, baked goods and the folk/pop sounds of Fairfielder Brian Dolzani, Southporter Kristen Graves and Norwalk resident Glenn Roth.

“Every year we take a week-long service trip,” said Pastor Jennifer Habetz. “In the past, we’ve been to Biloxi, West Virginia and Denver, to name a few destinations. We’ll join Simply Smiles, which is dedicated to improving the lives of impoverished children. They work exclusively in two places – Oaxaca and on the Cheyenne/Sioux reservation in South Dakota.”

Habetz said they were really excited about the trip. “It’s an opportunity for our kids to go out in to the world and live with and learn from people who live very different lives than we do in Fairfield,” she said. “This is one of many fundraisers we’ve conducted since October. The trip is really central to what we do as a church group and puts our faith in action.”

The junior leader of the Youth Group, Kate Maffei, said the evening’s concert was the last fundraising push for the trip. She added, “This is my third trip but first time leading. I’m excited to experience the whole leadership role and hope to use the skills that I’ve acquired through previous trips to make this one a successful one.”

Simply Smiles has a couple of operating sites in Oaxaca according to Maffei. “They include an orphanage and an inner-jungle site, where we’ll do maintenance and food distribution,” she said. “Work camp is such an incredible experience for anyone to have under their belt. I’m a better person for it.”

Guitarist Dolzani was glad to lend his support. “It’s great that kids can go to other countries and help out in a humanitarian way,” he said. “Kristen and I have collaborated in the past. It’s a good way to be part of a global outreach.”

One of dozens attending the performance, Fairfielder Teresa Boyd, a parishioner, raved about Pastor Habetz and the service team. “Jen is so amazing with this youth group,” she said. “My two kids have gone on work camp trips in the past and they were rewarding experiences.”

Seated nearby, Peter Allen, VP of Simply Smiles, explained more about his group’s mission and expressed his appreciation for its supporters. “We’re dedicated to the children and families we serve,” he said. “An event like this shows us that we have partners. We like to attend and support the fundraisers, as it means so much to us. We need to raise funds, but it’s even more important to foster a relationship with the people helping us do our work, and between those volunteers and the people we serve.”

Allen said he planned to go to Oaxaca, along with musician Kristen Graves. “It’s a cool thing that she’s playing the dual role of performer here tonight and service person,” he said. “Art and charity work well together.”

To boost the fundraising effort, Allen offered for sale samples of Simply Smiles Coffee. “The local Oaxaca farmers depended on coffee export and lost their trade due to globalization,” he said. “We’re trying to recreate a market for them. All of the profits go to help feed the starving farmers and their families there.”

For more information about Simply Smiles, visit