Heart & Soul

It’s been a stormy year. Harvey ravaged Houston. Irma hit hard in Florida and the Caribbean. D.C. has experienced tempestuous times with a capital T. North Korea’s threats hang like a black cloud. Syria is flooded with tears. And most recently, Las Vegas was the site of the deadliest mass shooting in our modern history. In Fairfield County, we have been fortunate to be spared on many fronts, but the barrage of bleak news still weighs on us. What we all need is a chance to savor a story about goodness, giving and gratitude.

There is a boy who loves his grandmother and wishes there were a cure for her Alzheimer’s; now, barely a teenager, you won’t believe what he has accomplished. There was a girl who fled her war-torn homeland, Iran, at age nine; now she is helping war-affected children blossom. There was a boy who loved his mom and watched her die of cancer; his boys, now grown men, are carrying on a legacy that changes lives every day… .

We are blessed to have many heartwarming stories to choose from when honoring the most inspiring and philanthropic residents in Fairfield County. It would be nice to have a channel devoted solely to honoring them. For now, turn off the television and meet our 2017 Light a Fire honorees.



Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, William Raveis Charitable Fund Fellowship

“Having the president of my company, who has been with me for thirty years, announce that she has breast cancer—that was pretty devastating,” says Bill Raveis, founder of William Raveis Real Estate and Fairfield resident. “Then three years ago my wife, Candy, was diagnosed with acute myeloma leukemia. It hit home twice for me. We’ve been involved with cancer research for the past thirteen years.” The idea for the William Raveis Ride + Walk, a local community fundraising event launched three years ago “came out of a family conversation about what we could do to give back more,” says Raveis. He credits his daughter-in-law, Meghan Raveis, for spearheading and coordinating the event.

“Since the beginning of William Raveis Inc., Bill has always made supporting the community a top priority,” says Marni Lane, cofounder of Kriskey Lane Communications. “These efforts ranged from wildlife preservation campaigns to supporting cancer patient facilities all over the Northeast to now directly funding groundbreaking cancer research at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.”

Raveis, who sits on Damon Runyon’s board of directors, says, “We have raised 3 million to 4 million dollars to fight cancer. Since my wife got sick, I got very involved in the whole process of research and finding a cure. We funded six scientists last year. It has been a win-win. With 4,500 people working for us, many are affected by cancer. Having Damon Runyon available to us has been a tremendous godsend. We have access to great doctors and the newest drugs. My wife was able to take an experimental drug that put her cancer into remission.”

Marni adds, “Local members of the community have directly benefitted from William Raveis’ partnership with Damon Runyon as well. This partnership allows local cancer patients to access the top-level advice and care available through the organization, and increased research funding means getting one step closer to finding a cure for all forms of cancer.”

Hopes & Dreams
“Thirteen years ago, the research was rudimentary,” says Raveis. “Now, they are knocking it down. I have a good friend who had lung cancer, and through experimental immunology, he is now cancer-free. Things are happening. The hope is there. You can see it! Scientists are very close to having a cure—or at least a cocktail of pills that will contain the disease and allow people to live with it. The ability to do that is coming within the next ten years, and the cure is coming after that. I’m very optimistic.”


Weston Fire and EMS, Weston Historical Society, Westport-Weston United Methodist Church, Weston Historic District Commission

As a teen, Paul Deysenroth joined the Rowayton Fire Department as a volunteer, and his passion for helping others has burned brightly ever since. “I followed in the footsteps of my father, who was a fire chief for Rowayton during World War II,” says the Weston resident. “He taught me that you give back to the town you live in. Seeing a baby born, saving someone who was seriously injured—it’s very rewarding and most of the time people are very appreciative of what we do for them.”

Deysenroth’s volunteer service spans over six decades. He has been an EMT and firefighter for many years, as well as serving in a leadership role as a fire officer and as chairman and treasurer of the Weston Volunteer Emergency Medical Services (WVEMS).

Elena Moffly comments: “When I joined WVEMS, I met a lot of wonderful people. Paul was one of the first people who came up to me and introduced himself. He is one of the early members of WVEMS—he joined in 1965. He still volunteers, very actively, with both the fire department—mostly as fire police now, and is there on almost every call—and the EMS. Each EMS member must be on duty a minimum of forty hours per month, and he does that plus goes on calls when off-duty—plus, plus, plus …”

Deysenroth was also president of the Historical Society for two terms and recently organized a fire and EMS exhibit. “I maintain the museum in the barn there,” he says. “It’s very rewarding. We have had second-grade classes come in the past, and we show them what Weston was in the 1800s.” Deysenroth is chairman of the Weston Historic District Commission and says, “We work with the town of Weston in trying to protect houses in the district and maintain some semblance of the rural atmosphere of the town.”

He happens to mention a little award he received last year: “I was given the Lifetime Achievement Fire-EMS Award from President Obama. It was the last award of the evening at Weston’s fire and EMS holiday dinner, and I didn’t realize until halfway through that they were talking about me! I received a nice document and letter from Obama and a pin to wear. That was a very great honor.”

“My hope is that I continue to do the things I’m doing for a number of years,” says Deysenroth, who is eighty-one. “Doing volunteer work keeps me very active. I’m extremely physically fit. I don’t go into burning buildings anymore, but I still respond on calls and do traffic duty. I was out last night at an accident. I want to do it as long as I can.”


Open Arts Alliance, Shakespeare on the Sound

“About five years ago, my father passed away from multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer,” says Rocco Natale, a Greenwich resident. “He had an amazing team at Yale New Haven, but it was nontraditional forms of healing that proved really invaluable. It got me thinking about my legacy.”

A New York University graduate, Natale studied production in a program that emphasizes the power of theater for social change. He decided to form a nonprofit, the Open Arts Alliance, which brings the performing arts to senior citizens, veterans, and students in underserved communities. “It’s really a social service agency in the guise of a theater company,” explains Natale. “It’s a form of nontraditional healing. So many kids in hospitals or seniors in facilities have no access to the arts.”

To make his idea a reality, Natale, who runs Open Arts Alliance 100 percent pro bono, recruited friends to help him. “I said, ‘I’m doing this; will you join me?’” They did. “In the past three years, we have brought over 5,000 people live theater free of charge,” he says.

Through a collaboration with the River House Adult Day Center of Greenwich, the Open Arts Alliance offers two courses—the improv class “Yes, And…” as well as “Broadway by the Year.” Both are based on the belief that cognitive stimulation and movement are critical to the health of seniors. “The River House has been so welcoming to us,” says Natale.

“Through our junior ensemble, kids from local communities are given the tools to create their own musical revue,” he says. “Then they tour to senior centers.” Lily Bartels, a thirteen-year-old from Greenwich, says: “I have especially enjoyed the opportunities to work with senior citizens over the holidays. It’s a great feeling to see how much those audiences enjoy our shows, and spending time with them after the show makes me feel like I am doing a little something to make the holidays brighter for others.”

Natale adds, “We also have a professional touring production. We hire actors, and they go to schools and children’s hospitals throughout Connecticut.” This year’s production, Alice in Wonderland, features full puppet integration, “which helps autistic children and English Language Learners access the message.”

Open Arts Alliance will also produce Into the Woods Jr. in 2018 with auditions (this December) open to local kids.

“I hope we see a climate shift where people acknowledge what an integral part of education the arts are,” says Natale. “I’d love to see people turn to the arts to solve problems. Thinking outside the box, collaborating, communicating—these are areas businesses struggle with, while artists have cracked the code. I’d like to see the arts considered a necessity, not a luxury. Arts are the most necessary thing we can do as human beings.”


OrganizationBlossom Hill Foundation

“I am Iranian. I lived through the revolution in 1978 and a year of the Iran-Iraq War as well,” explains Shiva Sarram. “One day you are going to school and coming home and doing homework, and almost overnight the country was in such upheaval. I had to do homework by candlelight and was going to sleep to the sounds of bombings and sirens. I got home from school one day and my parents said, ‘Pack your bags. We are leaving and don’t know when we’ll be back.’ We left food in the fridge, stuffed animals on the bed.”

The seed was planted that day in the airport. “I knew I wanted to do something,” says Shiva, who was nine at the time. “I was able to escape and I knew so many couldn’t. Even though it was a short amount of time of conflict, war and turmoil, it marks you for life. My hope is that we can plant a brighter future for war-affected children.”

In 2009, Shiva, a New Canaan resident, founded Blossom Hill Foundation, with a goal of helping children from war-torn countries “feel safe and free to express themselves—to heal themselves—so that they may grow into thoughtful, productive women and men.” The alternative is grim, with so many children used as sex slaves and soldiers.

Shiva, who used to work on Wall Street at Tiger Management, formed a small board. “I served on the board of the Tiger Foundation, so I really understand good grant making,” she explains. Blossom Hill has raised $1.2 million to support programs for children from countries of conflict. “Two years ago, we added a fellowship for social entrepreneurs. We have funded sixteen fellows from eight different countries, implementing twelve different ideas,” says Shiva. Examples include science kits that transcend language barriers, art therapy for trauma victims and computer coding classes for girls in Afghanistan. Blossom Hill Foundation has touched and improved the lives of 45,000 children, and a new round of fellowships will be granted next year.

Susan Barr, who has been a donor since Blossom Hill’s inception, comments: “Shiva is incredibly passionate and sincere about helping others, especially children. Blossom Hill is an extension of Shiva’s caring and dedication, and the impactful work of  the Foundation directly helps those in tragically war-torn areas and is a wonderful bright spot in our challenging world.”

“We want to continue to light the path for a better future, plant the seeds, so that these children can blossom,” says Shiva. “They are capable of so much and are so resilient. They are bright, eager and hardworking. They just need opportunities.”


Western Connecticut Health Network, Norwalk Hospital, Stamford Hospital, American Cancer Society, Mill River Park, Palace Theatre

“It started with my parents,” says Andrew, when asked what inspires the Whittinghams to give back. “My father made a donation to Norwalk Hospital to start the cancer center. At the time, he shared the story of his mother dying of cancer when he was young. After watching her suffer, he made a vow that if he ever had the means to help people with cancer he would. Michael and I continue that.”

Michael, former associate dean of admissions at Amherst College, adds, “I’ve been involved in education for over twenty-five years and promoting access to higher education and other opportunities to disadvantaged students. Through the Whittingham Foundation, I’ve been able to continue that work. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the results of giving someone an opportunity they would not have had otherwise.”

Almost twenty years after the original C. Anthony and Jean Whittingham Cancer Center opened, the next generation of Whittinghams made Norwalk Hospital’s largest expansion—a 35,000-square-foot cancer center—possible. The family is also the leading sponsor of Norwalk Hospital’s annual Whittingham Cancer Center Walk & Run. The event has raised over $3 million in fifteen years. Andrew serves as secretary of Norwalk Hospital’s board and vice-chair of Western CT Health Network (which he will chair next year).

Michael Daglio, president of Norwalk Hospital, comments: “This year marks the Whittingham family’s twenty-year anniversary of philanthropy to advance the health care mission of Norwalk Hospital. Andrew and Michael’s remarkable generosity promises to touch the lives of thousands of men, women and children in our community for generations.”

Beyond a dedication to health, the brothers also are passionate about community. The Andrew and Michael Whittingham Family Discovery Center is a stunning contribution to Stamford’s Mill River Park. “We saw its location in the middle of the city as a means of bringing the community together,” says Andrew.

The list continues, with the name Whittingham a prominent one at Stamford Hospital as well (The Whittingham Pavilion). “I asked my dad why we put our name on buildings,” says Michael. “He told me, ‘It’s to inspire other people with similar or more means to do the same.’”

“We’d love to devote resources to so many areas,” says Michael. “Finding a cure to cancer is still a battle, but we are in it with the hope to win it. For now, we can at least make sure those who are afflicted are well taken care of.” He adds, “I also want to continue supporting educational programs that help people reach higher and further.”

Andrew says, “At the end of the day, you’ll be on this earth for a reason if you’ve made a difference in others’ lives. People come up to me and remember my parents that way. It’s a nice legacy.”


Neighbor to Neighbor, Christ Church, Children’s Day School, Green Fingers Garden Club, Greenwich Library, United Way of Greenwich, Sole Sisters, Garden Education Center, Greenwich Point Conservancy

“I was raised in a family where community service was valued,” says Karen Royce. “I saw both my parents do it. When I came to Greenwich and had retired from my career, I wanted to put my skills to work. It was a natural non-paying career to have.” Karen says she is drawn to human services and is motivated by her interactions with the professionals and volunteers at the many organizations with which she is involved. “I love the arts and I’m passionate about the environment,” she says, “but I get the most satisfaction from doing things that improve people’s lives.”

Eileen Bartels, who met Karen twenty years ago at the Junior League of Greenwich, comments, “Her hands are quietly guiding so many things in Greenwich. Karen has made making a difference in the lives of those here and all over the world a core priority and value in her life.”

“I’m not bashful about speaking up if I see a change that is needed,” says Karen. She noticed that the Garden Education Center had an inadequate greenhouse and teaching facility, “so we did something about it. I had a career on Wall Street as a stock broker, so I’m not afraid of asking people for money.” Karen credits her early experiences volunteering at the YWCA and Putnam Indian Field School (where her daughter attended) for giving her good training in a volunteer career that has spanned thirty-one years.

As cochair of Outreach at Christ Church of Greenwich, Karen is one of the founders of Enduputo Primary School in Tanzania. The Maasai children who attend would not have access to education without it. Karen was also instrumental in extending affordable day care and early education through Children’s Day School in Greenwich. Fifteen years later, she remains on its advisory board.

In 2012, Karen received an honorary doctorate from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

“I’d love to live in a bipartisan town and world, where it’s about the best person being elected to a position, and we had a federal government that worked together regardless of party,” she says. As the head of the capital campaign for the project, Karen hopes that “Neighbor to Neighbor will be in its new building in the not too distant future.” Finally, she has watched the children progress through the school in Tanzania and “dreams that some of the students now in secondary school there seek higher education.”


Fairfield Foundation for Education (FFE), Center for Family Justice, Bridgeport Public Education Fund, Assumption Catholic School, Bridgeport Diocese, Center for Not-for-Profit Organizations at Sacred Heart University

“I’m inspired by helping kids and teachers,” says Ann Clark, PhD, who founded FFE in 2009, shortly before retiring from her job as Fairfield’s superintendent of schools. Board member Beth Fitzpatrick says: “Dr. Clark’s retirement gift to the Fairfield community she loves and calls home was this foundation to fund innovative projects and curriculum in classrooms throughout the town.” Concerned about an increase in standardized testing and budget cuts, Ann felt compelled to help. “A great deal of our future is going to rest on our ability to innovate and create,” she says. “Other countries can manufacture at a lower cost; we have always been the innovators. I found that when teachers were motivated to innovate, kids had more fun in the classroom and they learned more. With grants from FFE, teachers don’t have to spend their own money to bring in creative ideas.”

“We have almost no overhead costs, and we have board members who are really committed to putting funds in the hands of creative people,” explains Ann. “It took commitment more than courage. But it does take gumption to ask people to donate and attend fundraisers.” She says the administration has been “really supportive.” Grants have gone to setting up an in-classroom salmon fishery; standing desks for fidgety kids; and lighted “electric strings” for orchestral students to perform techno-funk pieces. Beth notes, “FFE has funded more than fifty innovative programs in classrooms throughout town and invested tens of thousands of dollars into teacher-conceived projects.” Successful projects are considered for integration into the broader curriculum.

In addition to FFE, Ann is a board member of the Center for Family Justice, where she has focused on ways of helping children impacted by domestic and sexual violence. She is on the board of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund, striving to give inner- city kids the same opportunities suburban children enjoy. And that is only a sampling of the many organizations Ann supports in her quest to make kids’ lives and educational experiences better.

“I hope that every child comes home every day having had some measure of success in school, because achieving is a motivator to continue achieving,” says Ann. “My dream is that every child, every day, has a good experience in school. We need to understand how critical public schools are to the future of this country and support innovative, creative teachers.”


Building One Community, New Covenant Center, The Stamford Food Collaborative, Person- to-Person, Trinity Church in Greenwich, Food Rescue US

“We’ve been blessed with good health and reasonably prosperous lives,” says Bruce Koe. “We decided that in retirement we would dedicate ourselves to giving back. Our passions are for immigrants, feeding the hungry, and women in engineering.”

Bruce zeroed in on immigrants, as they make up 38 percent of the population in Stamford and because he “realized through experience that these folks are interested in making a livelihood here, not looking for handouts. They work hard, have great pride and integrity, and are willing to make any sacrifices necessary to ensure their kids get a good education.”

Linda adds, “Part of our inspiration comes from our church [Trinity Church]. We really feel that we’re called to help those in need. The Bible says ‘feed my sheep’ and I guess I’m trying to do that, one can of corn at a time!”

Linda has been involved with the New Covenant Center for a decade. “It’s the only soup kitchen in lower Fairfield County,” she explains. After chairing some fundraising events, Linda and her friend Moira Colangelo launched Harvest Table, a ladies lunch fundraiser. “We had 100 women the first year,” says Linda. “Now, in our seventh year, our goal is 400 and we hope to raise $100,000.”

Bruce began by forming a social outreach group with men at Trinity Church. “Twenty of us did monthly projects in social justice,” he says. Bruce is also a founding board member of Building One Community (formerly Neighbors Link), which in six years has gone from a budget of $185,000 to $1,471,000. “We have registered over 7,000 immigrants,” he says. The organization offers ESL classes, with 400 volunteer teachers; a job hiring site —4,000 day jobs were filled last year; computer classes; as well as culinary and home care aid programs.

Together the Koes spearheaded a food rescue program with Community Plates in Norwalk—now Food Rescue US—so that food that would otherwise go to waste at grocery stores instead feeds the hungry.

“My passion in the future is to see this great cause of providing low-cost meals to people in need spread to other cities. We are working with Food Rescue US on a program in Chicago now,” says Bruce.

“When I look to the future in Stamford,” Linda says, “I hope we can improve access to food as well as the quality and sustainability of food.” Linda is also optimistic about helping Person-to-Person launch a mobile food pantry. “Instead of people having to come to an agency, we can take the pantry to where the people in need are.”

Catalina Horak, executive director of Building One Community, adds, “The Koes’ genuine and engaging approach to community involvement extends beyond their time and very generous financial contributions. Their passionate desire to work to make change, to create a more vibrant community for all, is infectious.”


Inspirica, buildOn (as well as 150 not-for-profit organizations across the U.S.)

“Synchrony Financial split off from GE, and GE always had a strong culture of giving back to the community,” explains Margaret Keane, CEO of the Stamford based company. “We kept that spirit of giving back and when we were creating our philanthropic program, we chose to focus on families that work—people who are trying to make it but still face daily struggles of paying rent, putting food on the table, taking care of children, finding childcare programs. For the past two years, our Synchrony Families That Work Program has helped alleviate these hardships for families, with our nonprofit partners, such as Inspirica in Stamford.”

Synchrony has donated $100,000 to Inspirica in the past year, but dollars are only part of the equation as the company also looks at change through volunteerism. “We have our employees get engaged with the various nonprofits we support,” says Margaret. “For instance, at Inspirica we have put together meals for families and done gardening work, but we also sent a small team there to help them develop a replication model so they can share how they deliver services with other nonprofits. We look at the skills we have that we can use to give back.” Sixty-six Synchrony employees have volunteered for a total of 432 hours at Inspirica during the past twelve months. As part of Synchrony’s annual Take Your Child to Work Day, sixty-six children of employees also pitched in by making 100 literacy kits. “We are passing on the value of giving back to the community to the next generation,” notes Margaret.

Lauren Dubinsky, manager of communications, events and volunteers at Inspirica, says, “Synchrony Financial invested in our Family Residential Programs, helping us achieve record results in moving hundreds of men, women and children from the streets to health, jobs, home—and dignity.” The ways Synchrony has changed lives at Inspirica are too many to list, but Lauren says Synchrony’s “involvement has expanded beyond our greatest expectations.”

Margaret adds, “We are also very involved in buildOn in Bridgeport and Girls Who Code.” BuildOn empowers and educates students from the most challenged schools in the area. “It can be life-changing to have these students come to our office and engage with our employees. And the girls in our Girls Who Code program are getting this incredible learning and mentoring experience.”

“Our goal is to ensure our business makes a difference to the people around us,” says Margaret. “This is more than giving spare change. This is real change in the community. We could always write checks. But when you get people engaged, individual employees feel like they’re making a difference personally.”


Alzheimer’s Association

“My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was nine,” explains fourteen-year-old Max Rosenberg. “I’m really close to her. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to cope and how to deal with people with the disease.“

Max’s mom, Jennifer, says, “Max was actually my educator. He was the leader in getting through to her and our family members.” Max was only getting started. When he saw a poster for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, he was determined to get involved.

In 2014, his first year participating in the walk, Max raised $2,500. The next year he raised $5,000 and was asked to speak in front of the 2,000 attendees. His eloquence and passion did not go unnoticed. Last year Max was named the Alzheimer’s Association Junior Ambassador to Senator Richard Blumenthal.

“Max quickly became a staple by the senator’s side at events, town halls and rallies,” says Jennifer Walker, vice president of communications for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Connecticut Chapter.

“Senator Blumenthal often says he’s glad Max isn’t old enough to run against him or he might take his job!” State Senator Tony Hwang is also a fan and invited Max to the floor of the Senate, where Max swiftly began collecting donations from senators in the room. Both Blumenthal and Hwang attended this year’s Celebrating Hope, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greenwich benefit, at Max’s invitation.

When Max attended the Alzheimer’s Advocacy Forum in D.C. last March, Walker says that “he quickly became the most popular person at the forum.” Even Maria Shriver began following him on Twitter. “In two years Max has raised almost $20,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association,” she continues,“and was part of an advocacy team that helped move forward $750 million in NIH funding for Alzheimer’s research.”

“I’m a big politics fan,” says Max. “I went to D.C. again in July and I got to meet with all the senators and representatives from Connecticut and other states. I got to speak about the agenda of the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as discuss their politics and my point of view.” His schedule is not that of your average teen: “I put in time every day pretty much, looking over new facts, emailing senators, fielding emails from people on my walk team, and spending time with my grandmother.”

“Obviously to see a world without Alzheimer’s is my biggest hope,” says Max. “More public awareness is key. Not a lot of people know it’s the sixth leading cause of death in America. One person develops it every 66 seconds, and it cost the U.S. $200 billion just this year.” Max, a student at Loomis Chaffee, aspires to be a politician one day. “Maybe even President. My work for Alzheimer’s will end once there is a cure, hopefully. My love for helping others, giving back to the community, and making an impact won’t ever end.”



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