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Light a Fire 2009

A Celebration of Giving

photographs by william taufic
hair and makeup by warren-tricomi, greenwich: edita evon, gina marie matta, susan monohan, monica robinson and destiny sorice

in an age when so much seems out of our control, there is a compelling way we can drive change. Giving to others gives us perspective and positive vibes. And there are so many circumstances virtually begging for help: families coping with their children’s cancer, patients who have no insurance, teens struggling with abuse.

Thanks to the quiet work of certain gold-hearted people who live in our backyards, several of these causes are changing for the better. These are the people who light the flame, stoke it with commitment and pass on the fire. They’re visionaries who stand back and see where help is needed. Then they graciously lend a hand.

When we asked you, our readers, to help us recognize the outstanding people in our towns who give back—by nominating them for our second annual Light a Fire awards—e-mails came flying in. As we read every ballot with care, we were reminded of John F. Kennedy’s words from the famous City on the Hill speech delivered in Boston not long before his inauguration as President. “For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” he said. Words that ring true almost fifty years later.

This year’s exemplary honorees span a range of causes, from the mother who fought an uphill battle to help troubled teens to the successful executive who discovered that the secret to a fulfilling career involves helping others along the way. We’re proud to recognize them and we’re so very thankful for their work. Most important, they inspire us to give back too.



Lifetime Achievement, Barbie McKelvey

It was 1976 in Greenwich, the year America turned 200 and celebrated with a parade of tall ships on the Hudson River. Life was lovely on the surface but sometimes churned-up underneath, especially for the increasing number of teens calling a service called Hotline to report that things were so bad at home, they were planning to run away to New York City.

Enter Barbie McKelvey. A young mom with a first-grade daughter and a two-year-old son, she was a member of the Junior League of Greenwich, and involved in a joint project with Hotline to help troubled teens.

“I’ve always been drawn to children,” she says. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she worked for a camp for underprivileged kids and gave free water-ballet lessons to kids at the local pool. So working with teens was perfect. “I was young enough that I could still relate to their problems,” says Barbie. “When I spoke about the project, I didn’t need a written speech. I felt like I was speaking from my heart.”

But the road to establishing an adolescent emergency shelter was rocky, Barbie says, especially because of the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) reaction from some residents who didn’t want it in their neighborhood. Kids in Crisis (KIC) had two failed attempts before getting a house on Prospect Street near a parking lot.

“It took a lot for people to admit that Greenwich had a problem,” she notes. “That having troubled teens was not an economic issue, but a family issue.” KIC opened its doors in 1978.

Now, it has moved to a two-part facility in Cos Cob: a farmhouse converted into a crisis nursery for newborns through age twelve and a brick building right near it with ten beds for children from age thirteen through seventeen. The agency provides free, round-the-clock hotline help for Fairfield County kids and parents who are dealing with family crisis or pressure—from teens who need a sympathetic ear to teachers who suspect abuse and grandparents who see their families being torn apart by alcohol or mental illness.

“Barbie is a relatively tiny woman,” says Shari Shapiro, mother of three and KIC’s executive director for thirty years. “But she knows how to be that visionary. She spearheaded our funding. She had to educate the community, let them know these are our kids. I shudder to think what would have happened to the thousands of kids who have walked through our door if Barbie wasn’t here.”
Check kidsincrisis.org. Hotline: 203-327-KIDS.

Most Involved Couple, Allan and Tamara Houston

NBA legend Allan Houston and his wife Tamara of Greenwich have five young children, strong legacies and a winning commitment to helping others through the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation, which is focused on family, economic empowerment, education and spiritual growth.

“It’s a reflection of how I grew up in Kentucky,” says Allan, a towering six feet six inches of determination. “My parents made a big difference with the principles they taught us, the faith they instilled in us. They are true warriors of the work ethic.”

Allan played for his father, Coach Wade Houston, at the University of Tennessee. And he had big shoes to fill. Wade was one of the first African-American basketball players at the University of Louisville.

Looking back, Allan credits basketball with teaching him about commitment, trust, performing under pressure, setting goals and being teachable. But as his professional All-Star career heated up—he played for the Detroit Pistons and then the New York Knicks, retiring as one of the most prolific scorers in Knicks history—he noticed something was missing.

“A lot of young men that I’ve played with and become friends with did not have a dad,” says Allan. “Every son, especially in the African-American community, needs a healthy relationship with his father or a male mentor. Young men really gravitate to a man who’s older. Someone who is going to be there and listen.”

Now Assistant to the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks, Allan is in center courts from Atlanta to New York, determined to better the world one rebound, one assist, one point at a time. He and his father run “Father Knows Best” Basketball Tours for young men ages seven through fifteen (and their fathers or mentors). The goal is to strengthen father-son relationships through communication and leadership skills. The foundation has also developed business education and development programs to help young adults in communities from Harlem to New Orleans become entrepreneurs.

Tamara, who has her master’s in education and mentored at-risk students in New York City at the 34th Street School, has a legacy to follow too. “My dad made sure to speak to the youth who would come through his dental office for regular checkups. He would say, ‘Are you going to go to college?’ He would plant seeds for the future,” she says. “Now we’re trying to plant seeds in our children and in other young people,” she explains. Tamara has been a committed board member of REACH Prep and the Urban League of South Western Connecticut. Closer to home, she sat on the board of the family’s church, Harvest Time, to help develop the preschool program there.

It is clear that the Houstons are all about sharing their passion and empowering those around them. Renee Litt of Greenwich, a family friend, echoes the sentiment, “Anybody who knows the Houstons loves them. They’re real people.”
Visit allanhoustonfoundation.org or call 800-806-8647.

Greenest Volunteer, Deirdre Imus

Deirdre Imus of Southport is serious about greening America—starting at home and in schools—to protect the greenest among us, our children.  

“If we truly made our children’s health a priority, we would be a much healthier nation,” says Deirdre, who cofounded—with her husband, radio personality Don Imus—the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer in Ribera, New Mexico. “To date, this generation of
children is sicker than other generations. We haven’t solved the problem of cancer, there’s a significant increase in brain tumors, and autism is huge.”

The mission at the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC) in New Jersey is to identify, control and ultimately prevent exposures to environmental factors that may cause adult, and especially pediatric, cancer as well as other children’s health problems.

Imus Greening the Cleaning products—a not-for-profit venture that supports the Imus Ranch—are nontoxic, biodegradable and tackle everything from dishes to laundry. (“I use the all-purpose spray on our computer keyboards and to wipe down the leather seats in the car,” says Deirdre.)

Deirdre advocates greening hospitals too. “Fundamental changes like that impact thousands of patients and employees and save millions of gallons of water that are not chlorinated by toxic cleaning products,” she says. Hackensack University Medical Center, the first to convert to the Greening the Cleaning program in 2001, reported a 15 percent cost savings.

Deirdre was also instrumental in greening the HUMC’s Sarkis and Siran Gabrellian Women’s and Children’s Pavilion, the largest green hospital building of its scale in the country and so wholesome that the layettes are made with organic cotton and the menus offer organic berries and greens.

“Green your school, church or restaurant. Have us come up and green them,” says Deirdre. One organization that took her up on her offer was Gilda’s Club Northern New Jersey. At its ribbon-cutting ceremony in September, the clubhouse for people with cancer and their families unveiled its new glamour—bamboo cabinetry, ceiling tiles made from recycled materials, eco-friendly paints, telephones with toxin-free circuit boards, and a commitment to green cleaning site-wide.

“We knew we needed Deirdre and her team’s expertise,” says Lenore Guido, CEO of Gilda’s Club Northern New Jersey. “They guided us through every step and took our constant phone calls. We couldn’t have done it without them.” 
Visit dienviro.com or call 201-336-8071.

Best Friend to Children, Roger Hanley

There are two sides to every story. It’s March 2005. A guy walks into a bar. He had read in the newspaper that some men were shaving their heads to show solidarity against childhood cancer and earn pledges for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to help find a cure.

“I read the article and cried,” remembers Roger Haney of Fairfield. “Without telling my wife and kids, I went and had my head shaved.”

Other side of the story: Dana and Mike McCreesh of Southport were also there. Their son, Brent, almost three, was really sick. He had been diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer.

“We had been chained to the house for months,” says Dana. “We were out because my husband and twelve of his friends were shaving their heads for Brent. A man walks up to me and says, “Hi, I’m Roger Haney. I’m a Fairfield father. I read the article and felt compelled to come here and shave my head for your son.’”

Soon Roger was enlisted to help transport the TeamBrent bikers to the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), an annual two-day, 192-mile biking event from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, to the tip of Cape Cod, to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Since then, TeamBrent has raised $3.49 million, with Roger steering—and cheering—from the sidelines. Happily, Brent is now a thriving first grader and a Yankees fan who loves playing baseball and soccer.

“Brent has made it,” says Dana. “We fundraise to fight and help the other kids.”

In dozens of Light a Fire nominations, Roger was lauded for contributing $10 to every TeamBrent rider (last time there were forty-seven), arranging transportation, getting team T-shirts, making banners and even doing impromptu bike repairs.

“Roger goes the extra mile. We’re proud and fortunate to have him as part of the PMC,” says Meredith Beaton Starr of the event’s executive team.

Brent’s mom is forever grateful. “Roger is the best person I know,” says Dana. “All we asked him to do was drive a carload of people. Thanks to Roger and TeamBrent, my kids think everyone in the world is a good person.”
Visit teambrent.com; pmc.org; stbaldricks.org; or dana-farber.org.

Most Dedicated Committee Member, Leelee Klein

Like a storybook stork, Leelee Klein of Darien brings a special bundle to new parents of preemies. Her experience as the mother of twins—born at twenty-six weeks and under two pounds each—adds sweetness and strength to her role as President of The Tiny Miracles Foundation (TTMF), a group that supports parents in caring for their premature babies.

“Most of the time, there’s no warning,” says Leelee. “And you feel guilt, fear, anger and an incredible sense of loneliness. Your baby is taken away while the woman next to you is holding her baby in her arms. The first time you see your baby, she’s attached to wires, beepers and monitors.” Her girls, Grace and Larsen, will turn a healthy ten years old in January. But Leelee has not forgotten the stress she and her
husband, Michael, faced; Grace was in the hospital for three-and-a-half months and Larsen went home at four months.

“The only place I could sit and pump [breast milk] privately at the hospital was an old converted cleaning closet,” Leelee says. That’s why she’s so proud that TTMF has furnished family resource rooms at Stamford and Norwalk hospitals. Open 24/7 for NICU families, the rooms have Internet service, toys for siblings, a couch, TV and DVD player and a bookcase full of books about preemies. The group plans a room at Bridgeport Hospital next.

TTMF volunteers—most of them mothers of preemies themselves—can train to be mentors in the resource rooms and visit moms in the NICU and on bed rest. At all three hospitals, TTMF provides Tiny Treasures Welcome Bags, each with a soft Ookie bonding doll (which retains mom’s scent and can be placed with babies in the NICU), a mini hospital-approved shirt, and more. Families also receive home-care kits with preemie clothes and diapers, bottles and other supplies when their babies are discharged. 

“My experience was so traumatic, I probably didn’t get a normal night’s sleep for the first year and a half of my twins’ lives,” says Leelee. “That’s why I’m helping other families. It’s medically proven that babies have a better outcome if parents know how to take care of them.” 

Says Becky Esposito of Darien, a TTMF volunteer, “Leelee’s energy turned a small seed into a tree that supports over 800 families a year.” With the rate of preterm births in the U.S. now topping one in ten, TTMF is more important than ever.
Visit ttmf.org or call 203-202-9714.

Outstanding Philanthropist, Joel E. Smilow

Great philanthropists like Joel E. Smilow of Southport are born, not made.

“I trace my passion for philanthropy back to my childhood in greater Washington, D.C., when I watched my father, who was a patent examiner in the U.S. Commerce Department, making out five dollar and ten dollar checks to a number of not-for-profits,” says Joel. Shortly after graduating from Yale in 1954, where he worked at a student-run sales agency to supplement his scholarship, the deal was cinched. “I concluded that success in business, coupled with helping others, would lead to a fulfilling career.”

Joel’s rising star led him to Procter & Gamble and later to Playtex Products, Inc., where he eventually became chairman and CEO. He never forgot his commitment to giving back. Following generous gifts to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the New York Philharmonic, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, NYU Medical Center and others as well as the Smilow Family Breast Health Center at Norwalk Hospital, he made a “transforming donation” to Yale-New Haven Hospital for its Smilow Cancer Hospital. The nearly $500-million state-of-the-art facility opened its doors in October and offers the most comprehensive cancer care between Boston and New York City. All this from a man who “had never been in Connecticut or seen Yale prior to showing up on the Old Campus in September 1950.”

He gifts others but seems gifted himself with an eye for visualizing the jewel in the crown, the contribution that will spark a dramatic difference in quality of life.

“The Smilow Cancer Hospital’s primary purpose is to provide outstanding, compassionate care for, and treatment of people with cancer. Great facilities help attract great people, and this facility will help Yale Medical School recruit top researchers,” says Joel.

According to Marna Borgstrom, president and CEO of YNHH, “We have built one of the finest patient-focused cancer care facilities in the country and are very grateful for Joel and Joan Smilow’s overwhelmingly generous gift, and for sharing our vision of creating
a place of hope for patients.”  
Visit ynhh.org or call 203-688-4242.

Corporate Good Neighbor, Kathleen Ryan Mufson for Pitney Bowes, Inc.

Committed to literacy and learning, Pitney Bowes, Inc. makes between sixty and eighty grants every year to underserved school
systems, funds that help thousands of kids—from younger students struggling with reading to older teens aspiring to careers in science. The company’s financial dedication is serious: $2.14 million donated to Stamford charities alone since 2005. But what’s equally impressive is the way the company encourages volunteerism among its employees.

The employees have flexible schedules that allow them to fit mentoring and tutoring into their work days. For instance, through the Learning is for Everyone (LIFE) program, in conjunction with the Stamford Public Education Foundation, students from Stamford’s South End and other districts come to the corporate office once a week, toward the end of the day, for tutoring. “People here are passionate about their volunteer work and they bring that back to the company,” says Kathleen Ryan Mufson, director of corporate citizenship and philanthropy for Pitney Bowes, Inc. “They have a real commitment and connection after mentoring one student for a few years.”

Another volunteer effort is Power Lunch, a recurring LIFE program where employees take a bus to local schools to eat lunch with individual students and read to them. Additional programs include a science-focused initiative called Find Inspiration Research, Science & Technology (FIRST), which incorporates the annual Lego League competition; a partnership with the Women’s National Basketball Association to promote reading; and backing for the new Kids Space at the Connecticut Science Center.

“The LIFE program has been running quietly for seventeen years and it has a profound effect on the  students, says Susan Rigano, executive director of the Stamford Public Education Foundation. “As a former volunteer, I can tell you that the sense of excitement these kids have is huge. There’s a giant hallway at Pitney Bowes and when the kids arrive, their voices really echo. They come running in and you can just hear their enthusiasm. For me, that was always one of the best moments of the day.”
Visit pb.com.

Best Health Advocate, Jack Falsone, M.D.

With more Americans losing their health insurance every day, the AmeriCares Free Clinic of Norwalk is busier than ever, serving uninsured, low-income Fairfield County residents. What the adults and kids who go to the clinic don’t know is that one very important man is the muscle behind the magic that provides everything from vaccinations to labwork totaling more than $1.2 million in free medical care annually. His name is Dr. Jack Falsone.

“The clinic is like a one-stop shopping center,” says Dr. Falsone of Westport, who was born to Italian immigrants in Queens, New York, in 1923 and has now come full circle, helping today’s immigrants get medical care at a clinic that provides translators and has Saturday hours.

A former Norwalk Hospital assistant chief of pulmonary medicine, Dr. Falsone has volunteered since the clinic opened in 1994; he’s credited with recruiting two-thirds of the doctors who work gratis. The patient base consists mainly of working domestics. “They’re usually afraid to go to the hospital, even if it’s only three miles away,” says Dr. Falsone, medical director. That’s where modern telemedicine comes in—a doctor and patient at the clinic can consult with a Norwalk Hospital specialist (who is also volunteering) via teleconference.

“It’s something a lot of us doctors do,” Dr. Falsone, says modestly of volunteering. “They’re my colleagues. I catch ’em in the elevator. I’m conning people all the time. Giving back to the community has always been the thing in medicine. In the old days before Medicare and Medicaid, everyone gave back.”

“Dr. Falsone is on a tireless crusade to provide high-quality care for the uninsured,” says Karen Gottlieb, executive director of the AmeriCares clinics in Norwalk, Bridgeport and Danbury. “He takes a personal interest in the patients. It’s that caring spirit that makes him such a standout.”

Though he may not corner you on an elevator, Dr. Falsone wants you to know that the clinics still need more doctors, nurses, administrative assistants, translators and screeners to donate their services.
Check americaresfreeclinics.org or call 800-486-4357.

 Best Friend to Animals, Claudia Weber

If animals could talk, we’d hear Claudia Weber’s name from a menagerie, including cats and dogs who were abandoned and left to die; Canada geese, coming in for graceful landings when their feet aren’t tangled in fishing lines; and even a stately chestnut stallion who was slated for a meat factory but relocated to greener pastures. This special woman speaks for the creatures who can’t speak for themselves.

In 1985, Claudia left behind life in D.C., where she had worked for the Reagan Administration, and founded Strays and Others, a volunteer-based, private nonprofit in New Canaan that now receives nearly 5,000 calls per year. Claudia, who also wears the hat of Town Clerk and Justice of the Peace in New Canaan, has loved animals since childhood, when her parents presented her with a white miniature poodle who was her best friend for sixteen years. What really stoked her passion was the 1983 New Canaan fire she read about, in which two elderly people and twenty of their forty cats perished. She helped place some of the remaining ones, who were going to be killed, even taking a few home.

“Whether you’re two-footed or four-footed, feathered or furred, every life matters,” says Claudia as Snowy, a fifteen-year-old cat on chemotherapy, purrs contentedly in her lap. Even after a full day at work, Claudia puts in a second shift to keep things purring smoothly on behalf of the animals in her home and in shelters, waiting for the right owners to adopt them.  She dreams big. “We rely entirely on donations from the public now,” she says. “I hope we can get greater funding to acquire property for rescue, rehabilitation, and education, and to offer sanctuary to animals who can’t be adopted so that they can live out their lives comfortably.” Strays also needs more volunteers, to help at the cat shelter, walk dogs in Norwalk, and pitch in with marketing and grant writing. “We’re about adopting animals, but we need to be adopted too,” Claudia explains.
Visit straysandothers.petfinder.com or call 203- 966-6556.

Outstanding Teem Volunteer, Gia Vaccarezza

Most of us have heard the public service announcement targeting young drivers: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” But the Greenwich Red Cross chapter goes a step further, recruiting and training high school students to safely transport their peers home, no questions asked. Since 1982, the Safe Rides program has allowed kids to call for a lift when they’re under the influence—or have a gut instinct that they shouldn’t get in a car with a friend (or adult) who’s had too much to drink. The success of the program hinges on amazing teens like Gia Vaccarezza, who are on call to drive on rotating Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Gia started driving for Safe Rides in her senior year at Greenwich High, and prides herself on learning along the way to read maps so well that she could maneuver up through the backwoods without getting lost. She also got to map out some valuable life lessons during her term as president of the sixty-five-member Red Cross Youth Council.

“One of my favorite programs was Open Eyes. As seniors, we were trained to educate sophomores about HIV/AIDS,” says Gia, now a freshman at Skidmore College. “Presenting the information was nerve-racking at first, but then our group relaxed and I think we were more successful at getting the message across than adults would be.”

“The number of lives that Gia has touched is already more than most people will ever reach,” says Jessica Chapman, director of preparedness and community outreach for the Greenwich Red Cross chapter. “I depended on Gia so much for years. She is a wonderful example of what a volunteer can accomplish.”
For details, visit greenwichredcross.org or call 203-869-8444.