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A Family Affair

In this season of giving, Greenwich families love doing their share.

Bob Capazzo

They seem to be everywhere these days — at hospitals, senior citizen centers, affordable housing complexes, daycare centers, soup kitchens — Greenwich families eager to make their contribution to the holiday happiness of others. Mothers and fathers who want their children’s eyes opened to the needs of those maybe not as young or healthy or privileged as they are.

Many of the families contact Alison Brush, Community Gifts program coordinator at Social Services, to point them in the right direction, where they can help best. Others strike out on their own. In any case, for most families, this has become a holiday tradition that their children will pass down to their children. 

For the Simmons family, it began fifteen years ago when their five offspring were little — ages three to twelve. On a December afternoon, Steve and Eileen would pack them up and head for Greenwich Adult Day Care bearing a handheld mic, maybe a flute, but always homemade cookies baked by the kids the night before, making sure some were sugarless. Once there, they would sing Christmas carols and songs the children learned at school, and engage the seniors in a lively sing-along (Steve holding the mic for an impromptu soloist in a wheelchair). Ten years ago, the Harrison family joined them, Bill and Ann with their daughters Kate and Anna. The girls played the piano and the recorder, and Ann always arrived with things like Santa hats and reindeer antlers. Now Jane Gosden and her son Andrew are part of the group, along with sundry friends.

Over the years, the Simmons family has helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity, delivered Thanksgiving turkeys door to door and worked in the soup kitchen in Stamford, but this is their main holiday tradition.

“The kids love it,” notes Steve. He remembers his son Nick, as a young child, singing a song in his falsetto voice and a year later no longer being able to do that. (Nick now plays football at Yale.) “I have a lot of great memories of this family tradition with the Harrisons and Gosdens,” says Steve, “watching the kids grow up and every year having the opportunity of doing something for other people.”

The Fuscones and the Huths, with other friends and relations, took up caroling at Maria Ferrari Children’s Hospital a while back.  “It was Rick’s idea,” says his wife Marjorie Fuscone, noting that the hospital was named after the young daughter of near neighbors who died from a bat scratch or bite. “As parents we’ve always had a special place in our hearts for the Ferraris. We thought this would be a nice thing to do so our children would understand what the Christmas season is all about. It’s about giving.”

With assorted friends, the two families tour the different wards where children from infants to teens fight the good fight against cancer, Type I diabetes, pneumonia, “a myriad of different conditions and diseases, sadly,” says Marjorie. Their songs and handheld jingle bells bring smiles from the children and the parents who are with them. “One little blond girl couldn’t get out of bed. You could see the pain in the eyes of her mother, who was sitting beside her, so some of us went into her room to say hello and cheer her up a bit.”

Rounding a corner last year, they recognized Brad Davis, a Greenwich High student, and his mother Kathy from the print shop faculty at Country Day. Brad had been diagnosed with leukemia and was starting his chemo and blood transfusions. Kathy teared up seeing the familiar faces, as did some of the young singers.

“Our own children were very sensitive, at times very emotional,” notes Marjorie. “But they also knew they had to be upbeat. This was about sick children. Not about how they felt.”

Typically, in the past, the Fuscones have had a holiday fundraiser party for Kids in Crisis and the Graham Windham, a New York organization for underprivileged children from troubled homes. They also bring Thanksgiving dinner to a needy family.  But the annual visit to this hospital is very special tradition.

“The singing means so much to those kids who are sitting there wearing oxygen masks and hooked up to 900 tubes,” notes Boo Huth, “besides seeing other children. The families would come out of their rooms and just start pouring out their hearts.” The four Huth kids and their three Fox cousins were part of the group of about twenty, which one year included Laurie and Jim Nance, CBS sports commentator, with their daughter.

“He was amazing,” says Boo, “so powerful with those kids. But so unassuming. They definitely recognized him. He’d say: ‘So what do you think about the Knicks this year? How are you feeling about the baseball score?’ He should be president of the United States, as far as I’m concerned.”

When Boo and her sister Muffy (now Fox) were young, their parents Barbara and Bill King of Riverside used to take them down to the main post office in New York City to read “Dear Santa” letters. “Some were heartbreaking,” Boo recalls. “An old lady saying, ‘All I want is a sweater to keep me warm this winter’ or ‘I can’t provide a doll for my daughter, and that’s all she wants.’ ” The Kings would pick three or four letters and mail off packages. Then her parents began to think they should do something closer to home and started adopting families through Social Services — a holiday tradition Boo and her husband Hank still carry on, as do Muffy and Andy Fox.

One night the Huths will go to Target where the kids compete for the best deal. “Phoebe is down one aisle yelling: “I can’t find size two ice-skates!” Boo yells back: “So see if you can find a one and a half!” Meanwhile, Halsey is in the blue jeans section trying to find Wrangler straight-cut, waist thirty-nine. One time the woman in the adopted family was so large that Boo’s father ended up in Caldor’s trying on clothes for her. Another year Boo, Muffy and their parents decided to allow themselves to spend only $20 on each person within their own large family. Then they took the money they would have spent otherwise and adopted a couple of families.

“Christmas is really where we find that families connect with other families,” says Alison Brush of Social Services. “So many great things happen, I’m exhausted when it’s over,” she adds with a laugh. Alison is the connection between the volunteers — 153 of them — and the people who need assistance. There are two types of volunteers: individuals who might deliver food baskets, ring bells for the Salvation Army or help at Social Services events distributing toys or Angel Tree mittens; and groups like Brownie Troops who make up baskets and families who adopt families.

 “Actually, last year forty-five out of the fifty-seven donors in the Holiday Aid Program were families adopting other families,” says Alison. The Swindells were one, but Betsy Swindell is quick to point out that many Greenwich families have made this a tradition —  like the Murphys, Oberbecks, Pasciuccos, Perrys and Mabies.  “I’d do anything for Alison Brush,” says Betsy, a ten-year veteran of the program, who has sent out letters encouraging others to adopt families. The first year they went to Armstrong Court and were horrified their family didn’t have a Christmas tree; so they ran over to R&R Pool and got the man to give them a tree. 

Betsy marvels at the courage of the young single mother they adopted several years ago. Her husband had died, and she moved here from the Bronx because she feared for the safety of her four children, ranging from age nine to two-year-old twins. After picking up her kids at daycare, she’d go home at night and hear the sound of bullets. “She told me, ‘I just can’t live that way for my children,’ ” says Betsy, adding:  “I think coming here is also very very hard. If you’re a single mom not making a ton of money, it’s very hard to meet people. But she’s really strong, and she’s trying to do the best she can for her kids.”

The Swindell children — Bo, Will, Katie and Elizabeth — have helped with book drives, diaper drives and food drives, some distributed to a church in Bridgeport through Sister Celine at St. Michael. But, says Betsy, they started adopting families because she wanted her kids to see how lucky they are. She and her children “just have so much better conversations all year long because of those experiences,” she notes, adding that they do keep in touch with their family.

Marsha and Ken Mifflin and their daughters, Brooke, Julianne, Genevieve and Devon, now ages eight through twenty-five, sign up for a different family every Christmas.

They’re contacted by Alison Brush and asked if they want a family with children. “I usually say if they have girls, it’s good for me. I can identify!” says Marsha with a laugh. So they’re assigned a family, and Marsha calls them, asking if they’d like the Mifflins to deliver the food baskets to their home. Since few have transportation, most people like that. Only once did a family prefer to pick it up at Town Hall.

Marsha does the shopping, first for several reusable containers like canvas tote bags and a wicker laundry basket she lines with a tablecloth. Then for the ingredients of a festive holiday dinner — the Stove Top stuffing, rice, cranberry sauce, a ham and a turkey, colorful cookies, chocolates, a Bundt cake — adding a doll or maybe a teddy bear for each child and gift cards from Gap or someplace nearby for the grown-ups. The girls are in charge of filling the baskets and, with Ken, delivering them. It takes many hands to carry the load.

“People have called back to thank us, which is really nice,” says Marsha, who is delighted that her girls have done so much community service through the Outreach Program at Greenwich Academy and that sixteen-year-old Genevieve worked at Neighbor to Neighbor this summer.

Mareta Hamre is a bell-ringer. Seven years ago, Mareta, her husband Mark Abbott, their children Nick and Maddie, along with Mark’s mother Christine, started singing carols and ringing in the Yule for the Salvation Army on Greenwich Avenue every Christmas Eve. Sometimes their yellow Lab joins them, wearing his antlers for as long as he’ll have them on. “Which isn’t too long,” Mareta admits.

Not only is this a good excuse to sing carols (Mark has even put together a songbook for them), filling the kettle in front of Starbucks has become a real family tradition. “We enjoy it a great deal,” says Mareta, noting that people are much freer with their $20 bills on Christmas Eve.  “They’re in the giving spirit. It’s last minute, they’re spending whatever is necessary to get presents and reminded that part of that little extra can go to help somebody else.”

Alison Brush explains that every town has a service unit of the Salvation Army and that 90 percent of the money collected in Greenwich stays here. As part of Social Services’ Holiday Aid Program, Alison is involved in staffing the kettles with volunteers along the Avenue. “We just couldn’t survive without our volunteers,” she points out.

And Greenwich wouldn’t be the exceptional town it is without Greenwich families who, like Alison, care so much.