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Monday, July 11, 2011

Yellow Moon Toy Company Shines On

Yellow Moon Toy Company 
Shines On:
Two locations and growing
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 7/10)
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – A bottle cap message was the inspiration to pursue her business. Now her company boasts two locations, with a third being contemplated.

Yellow Moon Toy Company. at 2268 Black Rock Turnpike, and its sister store in Milford, was the brainchild of Fairfield resident Tracey Salem. It was a concept that evolved from an initial pharmacy business that she operated in Weston with her husband, Kenny, and a partner, Jon Speicher.

“My father-in-law opened the pharmacy in the early 1970s,” the married mother of three children, ages 6, 12 and 14, said. “Kenny and I met in 1987, married in 1993 and bought the pharmacy four years later.”

The trio operated the pharmacy for 10 years, until 2007, when they sold the business to Stop & Shop. “When the lease was coming up for renewal, we couldn’t come to an agreement with the landlord,” she said.

Salem had anticipated they weren’t going to continue the lease and started making plans to pursue another business concept. “We sold toys at the pharmacy and there was a constant demand for them,” Salem said. “KB Toys was already on Black Rock Turnpike, but in trouble. They also didn’t seem to have the toys Fairfielders wanted – they were more mass market. The opportunity to open a different kind of toy store seemed ripe.”

Salem found a vacant space, that she thought was suitable, in White Birch Plaza on Black Rock Turnpike. Her husband and Speicher, however, weren’t in agreement on it. “I was doing laundry one night and a Magic Hat bottle cap, that had been left in a pair of pants, came tumbling out. Turning it over in my hand, I read the message underneath: ‘Write your own future.’ It convinced me to go forward and pursue the business on my own.”

Salem secured the 1,100-square-foot White Birch space and opened the business in 2005. The company name was suggested by her eldest child, Thomas. He was watching a cartoon and, at the end, a yellow moon was shown. “It seemed to be the perfect icon,” Salem said.

The flagship store was so well received and profitable that, in 2008, Salem opened a second location in Milford. A year later, seeking a larger space, Salem moved the Fairfield store to its current location, which offers 1,650 square feet. The railroad car-shaped wedge, nestled between Bagel King and Pier 1 Imports, contains almost 2,500 unique products.

“We offer educational games, arts and crafts,” she said. “We’re more back-to-the-basics and less trendy than the large mass toy stores.”

Besides being a resource for creative toys, Yellow Moon is a friend to the community. “We try to help every small business out there that we can,” Salem said. “For instance, we carry Planet Fuel drinks, we’re going to collaborate with The Painted Bird to do arts and crafts classes here and we do tie-ins with entertainment facilities.”

Salem said that when she does interactive events, she usually makes it about mom. “She’s really our customer,” she said. “We often see moms that are at their wits’ end – done for the day. I can sympathize with them. I have three kids in three different schools – including one in Orange – and two stores. We make shopping with us very easy, even offering drive-up curb service so people don’t have to get out of their cars.”

Salem said her customer base continues to grow, despite the recession, and believes that part of the reason for her success is a constantly fresh inventory. “I believe in turnover – selling and moving on to the next thing.” She gives credit to the town, though, too, adding, “Fairfield does a good job of supporting the little guy.”

There’s no toying with that logic.

There’s Nothing Like a Little Fresh Air

There’s Nothing Like 
a Little Fresh Air:
Area families play 
host to inner city kids
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 7/9)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Colorful handmade signs, Mylar balloons, broad smiles and big hugs. This was the welcome awaiting 27 kids en route by bus from New York City to the parking lot at Roger Ludlowe Middle School late Friday afternoon.

Facilitated by the southwestern Connecticut branch of the Fresh Air Fund, the visit paired disadvantaged inner city kids, ages 6 to 18, with host families in Fairfield and surrounding “friendly” towns. Most visits were first-time experiences for both parties; others were recurring connections. First-time hosts were assigned children ages 6 to 12; veterans had access to the full age range. Twenty-six area families were participating in this particular session, the first busload of several to follow during the summer, and will host the youths for up to two weeks, based on host family availability.

“All the kids meet some level of financial need and would not normally be getting out of their apartments or doing things like swimming this summer,” said Martha Mintzer, Fresh Air Fund chairperson for the region. “Host families are interviewed in their homes, a background check is run and forms completed. Families assume any expenses and are only required to provide a bed. In terms of entertaining the children, we encourage families to include the kids in regular family activities.”

Mintzer noted that this is the 135th summer in which the Fresh Air Fund has operated this program. She had experienced it in her own family as a child in Larchmont, NY, when her family took in a youth. “I remember my family talking about their experience,” she said, “and after moving to Weston in 2005, I joined Fresh Air Fund. It’s a cultural exchange for everyone involved. We learn about the kids; they learn about us.”

Families need not be traditional units to qualify as hosts. “We have single parents, empty-nesters, people with older kids,” she said. “A host can also take more than one child as long as there are no other children at home. The ultimate objective is to host kids year after year to build a relationship with them.”

First-time host Lucy Corey of Westport said she saw a program notice in a church bulletin, though knew a friend that had participated. “I heard that it was a good experience and met the little girl that our friend hosted,” Corey said. “We’ve talked to the child we’re hosting, and his mom. His name is Quadier and he’s 9, from lower Manhattan. He seems very sweet and his mom and grandma say he’s active, which will keep our son, Matt, busy. Matt’s an only child, so Quadier will be like a big brother.”

The Barcello family of Easton was looking forward to first-time hosting Kaiya, a nine-year-old from the Bronx. “We saw a photo, have been emailing her and talked on the phone last night,” said Vicky Barcello. “She was giddy and excited. My daughter Jenna is equally excited to have a sister for a week. We’re going to go bowling, to the beach and Lake Compounce. We’d want someone to do this for our child if we were at a similar disadvantage.”

First-time hosting Kah-ley, a six-year-old boy from Brooklyn, the Short family of Fairfield was excited about the week ahead. “Kah-ley has same-aged siblings, loves video games and wants to go swimming every day,” said Lia Short.

The McCarthy’s, of Weston, were hosting eight-year-old Donte, from Brooklyn. Young Finn McCarthy, 8, said, “He likes the same things as us, like video games, basketball, baseball and swimming. We’re going to a family fun day with him, a friend’s barbecue, Compo Beach and the movies.”

Veterans of the Fresh Air Fund program, the Diamond family was hosting a 13-year-old Brooklyn boy named William for the eighth consecutive summer. “He was six that first summer,” said Jennifer Diamond. “He’s like a brother and just helped me celebrate my bar mitzvah,” said Jennifer’s son Ben. Added Ben’s nine-year-old sister Ella, “He’s like a part of the family. He’s good at basketball and teaches me shots. We’re going to go to day camp together, too.”

Commenting on the experience overall, program leader Mintzer said, “The experience puts a smile on everyone’s faces while serving as a vacation for the kids. It’s a rewarding time for all.”

The Fresh Air Fund seeks is still looking for host families. Interested parties may contact Martha Mintzer at 203-226-6627 or via email:

Summer Camp at Ogden House Takes Kids Back to Colonial Days

Summer Camp at Ogden House Takes Kids Back to Colonial Days
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – Who knew simple items like hoops, sticks, wax and flour could provide such entertainment?

It was a lesson a handful of kids in grades 3 to 5 learned at historic Ogden House Tuesday morning, during Day Two of a five-day summer camp session titled “Colonial Kids Camp”. The sessions show children what life was like in the mid 1700s through interactive, hands-on activities like journal keeping, writing with quill pens, cooking, gameplay and candlemaking. Participants also learn about the history of the 1750 homestead, located at 1520 Bronson Road, once owned by David and Jane Ogden. Held June 27 to July 1, the program includes four days at Ogden House and a final day at the Victorian barn and Academy on the grounds of Fairfield Museum. The program is led by Walt Matis, a program volunteer on the museum staff.

As she dropped her child off for the morning, parent Monique Long shared, “The first session was yesterday and my daughter Naomi and her friend Aidan said it was fabulous. They brought home handmade journals and hard tack. The program is a great way for them to continue their fourth grade studies on Colonial American history and increase their knowledge of the past. Walt does a great job. This is something that needs to be done.”

Children began the morning playing a game called “Graces”, a form of ring toss with sticks. It quickly morphed into a modified horseshoes contest as participants applied their imaginations in finding new ways to add fun.

“History camp, where a stick is not just a stick,” laughed Matis, as the kids attempted to toss small rings in such a way that they would land inside of large rings placed flat on the grass.

“Kids in Colonial times invented games on the fly,” said Matis. “Entertainment was simple and engaging.”

Adding a ninja/Samurai element to the game, Francis Ohe, 10, who had given himself the nickname Francis the Grass Defiler, said, “We should have a Historical Ninja Day!”

After lawn games, the group moved to a table behind Ogden House to collaboratively mix and make cornbread.

“Cornbread was hugely common,” explained Matis. “Colonists learned to make it from Native Americans. Europeans had never seen it before arriving in the New World.”

As the kids used spoons to measure out ingredients for the bread mix, Matis commented, “People weren’t exact about measurements back then. A cup was different from house to house.”

“Does cornbread have any sugar in it?” asked Vincent Ohe.

“No, sugar in those days was very expensive, so most didn’t use it,” replied Matis.

As the cornbread went into an oven to bake, the group moved inside to a back room of the house where they sat on the wide-plank floor to talk about what the Ogdens’ life may have been like and some of the implements in the room.

“The Ogdens were farmers,” said Matis. “Their house would fill with smells from animals, their bodies, cooking… They would use fragrant pomander balls to mask the odors.”

Sticking to the topic, Matis added, “Bathing was almost avoided, particularly in colder weather. People were getting colds after bathing and made the connection that bathing caused colds.”

Matis noted that none of the items displayed in the house were owned by the Ogdens but were selected based on an original inventory list of contents of the house, called a probate.

Showing a scale device called a steel yard, Matis explained, “Weighing items was very important, particularly after fall harvesting. Food supplies had to be rationed by weight to last through the winter.”

Noting that many of the items in the back room were iron, Matis said that blacksmithing was a very important job of the period.

“Blacksmiths must have been rich,” observed Vincent Ohe, looking about at all the pots, pans, candleholders and other items that graced the home.

With each discussion, another fact was added to the learning experience, and that, of course, was the point of History Camp.

Education Class Helps Divorced Parents Put Kids First

Education Class Helps Divorced Parents Put Kids First:
Court-mandated sessions smooth difficult transition
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 7/10)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

While intimidated by the long hours of the course and challenged to find sitters, participants hoped to walk away with useful information that would help them ease a painful situation for their children.

These were the initial thoughts that ran through many parents’ heads as they learned they would need to participate in parenting education classes as a condition of separating, divorcing or resolving child custody issues. In Connecticut, court-mandated workshops are coordinated by the state’s Council of Family Service Agencies and serve over 150,000 families annually from more than 90 sites. Facilitating parents in the Fairfield/Bridgeport area is the FSA-run Sterling Family Center at 475 Clinton Avenue in Bridgeport. Wednesday night, it was the site of the first of two three-hour July sessions accommodating 20 parents.

Parenting education was signed into law in July 1993 by then-Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker. Subsequent courses were modeled on a pilot program developed by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of southeastern CT, to help lessen the negative effects of divorce, separation or family disruption and guide children into adulthood with confidence.

“I think the class will help show me how to have a better relationship with my children,” said parent Joe Lyons, from Bridgeport, who recently remarried. “My girlfriend and I were together for almost 20 years and realized we couldn’t be a couple,” he said. “However, for three years along the way, things were very solid and starting a family seemed like a good idea. But we had different ideas about how to run our household and separated. We have joint custody but she lives far upstate, so I only get to see my two boys two weekends a month. It’s hard for me to be involved as much as I want to be. They really miss me and want to live with me, though they may have a better environment where they are upstate. It will be helpful to know how to answer their questions. I’m from a divorced family and I know what’s going through their heads.”

Fairfielder Tina Le, who was married for 16 years, is currently separated from her husband and going through the divorce process. She said, “It’s been a very difficult time. I have three children and it’s been hard on them. I’m forced to come here but am hoping I’ll gain something useful. Maybe it will help me raise my kids on my own, to give them a better future.” She added, “Friends and family say things will get better. The worst is behind me.”

Monroe resident Maria Coelho was also married for 16 years. Her husband moved out June 1. “He came home one day a year and a half ago and just stopped talking to me. It was hard in the beginning… I was heartbroken, but with time I’ve healed. Though no court date has been set, the class was mandated.”

Instructor Mark Roos, LCSW, MSW, who has a practice in Shelton, said he typically runs workshops in Newtown. “They require picture i.d. there, as some people send others in their place,” he said. To the class, he said, “I hope at the end of this, you walk out with information to help you better deal with your kids.”

Roos, who conducted his first parenting education class in 1995, described the classes as psycho-education. “I assume the majority of you are not well-versed in divorce, so I’m here to help you help your kids navigate the process,” he said. “The reality is, you’re still a family. The construct will be different, but mom is still mom and dad is still dad.”

The workbook the class references is titled “Putting Children 1st”. “That means putting ourselves second, checking our egos at the door, spending time with them so they feel the bond is still there. For parents, divorce is a solution; for kids, it’s a disruption.”

To reinforce the “kids first” theme, Roos asked each parent to share the name/s and age/s of their children and to describe what made each special in their eyes. They glowed as they shared and used words like “princess”, “blessings”, “gifts” and “special” while other parents looked on and smiled. It was clear that these children were their salvation and a happy place for everyone to go.

Following a midpoint pizza break, Roos focused on the feelings and emotions kids may be experiencing – anger, relief, concern, insecurity and sadness. Roos advised parents to be on the lookout for a significant change in behavior and allow children to talk about their emotions to lessen the chance of their acting up.

Roos also touched on feelings of grief and loss children may be facing. “In the end, the key thing to stress to them is that the divorce is not their fault,” he said.

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