Heroes Among Us

They shed light where there is darkness, offer hope where there is need.


It’s that time of year again—a time when we stoke the flames in our fireplaces to warm our bones and honor those who give back to warm our hearts. There will be no toastier place in November than Moffly Media’s Light a Fire awards, to be held on Thursday, November 29, at the King School (lightafireawards.com for tickets). Read these interviews with the honorees and you’ll understand why. From a father who lost his son and has since saved countless families from the same pain to a teen determined to get 100,000 meals into the mouths of the hungry around the globe, our honorees believe one person can change the world. And they are changing it—for the better—every day.

New this year is our partnership with the Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, an organization that promotes philanthropy as a means to create lasting change by advising donors, providing training and resources for area nonprofits, and unifying communities through targeted initiatives and programs. Every year a portion of our proceeds from the event has gone to support FCCF’s mission. This year we invited FCCF to highlight two organizations that are closing the opportunity gap for the underserved of Fairfield County. The honorees, All Our Kin and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, will each receive a $2,500 grant from FCCF.

Our other honorees were chosen by our readers who noticed and nominated the most admirable among us. Your thoughtful letters are fuel for the best kind of fire there is.

Peter Malkin

ORGANIZATIONS: Greenwich Green & Clean, Greenwich Adopt-a-Road and Greenwich Tree Conservancy (founder of all three); Merritt Parkway Conservancy, Greenwich Historical Society, Lincoln Center Emeritus Council (cochairman), National Trust of Historical Preservation (trustee emeritus), Harvard Board of Overseers, Harvard Kennedy School Dean’s Council (chairman emeritus), among numerous others


“My inspiration is my wife, Isabel,” says Malkin. “She has carried on the tradition in her family of community involvement and urged me to as well. She has the ideas and it’s my job to carry them out.” He adds, “I believe in the Athenian Oath. The citizens took an oath to leave the city better than they found it, and I feel that is everyone’s responsibility.”

Courage into Action
“Our family feels very fortunate to live in this extraordinary community,” says Malkin, who has called Greenwich home since 1966. “We think it’s important that residents undertake programs for the benefit of the community and not simply rely upon the government. I’m a strong believer in public-private partnerships, where individuals provide ideas and initiate programs that support what the government may not be able or choose to do.” The list of all that Malkin has done is too long to include here, but he humbly mentioned several highlights.

“I’m really proud of preserving and enhancing our landmark former downtown post office. I led the purchase and the restoration and enhancement of the building by Restoration Hardware as a tenant,” he says. “The other is chairing the capital campaign for the Greenwich Historical Society, which opened its new structure on October 6.”

“Peter Malkin is a visionary who rolls up his sleeves and reaches new heights,” comments JoAnn Messina, executive director of Greenwich Tree Conservancy. “He has routinely seen opportunities in town that need attention and has created a solution, the Greenwich Tree Conservancy being one. He saw the dying and degradation of trees and with a handful of like-minded individuals began the GTC, which is thriving under his leadership a decade later.”

Hopes & Dreams
“The crucial thing is that these activities continue,” says Malkin. “I think that one of my responsibilities is to help select and support the staff of each organization, the people who carry the programs forward. My hope is that Greenwich will continue to preserve and improve the things that make it special.”

Polly Perkins Johnson


“Cliff McFeely decided to launch a new nonprofit in 2009 and someone suggested he call Eads Johnson,” recounts Polly Perkins Johnson, a New Canaan resident. “My sweet, adorable husband told him, ‘You don’t want me. You want my wife!’ I knew when I met Cliff that it was time to take all the amazing lessons I learned from my career launching and turning around magazines and help him realize his dream of Future Five, which stands for the five most important people to help you find a path to an appropriate college and an ideal future career. We believe that the difference between the poor and the rich is not just money; it’s also the connections that more affluent individuals have. If you believe you can change your life—whether you have a 1.7 or 3.7 GPA—we will work with you.”

Courage into Action
“For the first few years, keeping the door open is a major achievement,” says Polly. “You’re going month to month, donor to donor, student to student— doing anything you can with the little money you have.” She was instrumental in creating the board of directors in 2013. “Pulling that together is something I’m very proud of,” she says. During the past year, she has helped Future Five based in Stamford secure space in an adjoining building, adding 2,100 square feet to their existing 1,400. The organization has grown from one workshop and fifteen students to sixty mentors/coaches, 150 students including forty-eight graduating seniors going to college, and an annual budget of $800,000. “Polly is way beyond chairman of the board; she is my business partner, and we would not be anywhere near where we are today if her energy had not been part of the propulsion,” says McFeely.

Hopes & Dreams
“We have hired a new executive director, and our hope is to create a sustainable organization in Stamford that’s here for the next ten to fifty years,” explains Polly. “We are so happy with our model of networking and taking a holistic approach to working with kids. We help with parent issues, personal issues, getting a driver’s license, getting into college, and then from college to job-hunting.” Polly is comfortable that now is the time to pass the chairman baton. “Cliff and I—we are like the entrepreneurial grandparents,” she says. “Our hope is to pass on the infrastructure and have hundreds of kids go through this new beautiful space. One thing I swore when I came on was that we would create an organization that will live on successfully beyond the founders and be a major part of the Stamford community for many years.”

Karen Keegan
ORGANIZATION: Greenwich United Way (GUW)


“My early inspiration came from my parents,” says Karen. “They were always involved in community service.” Karen followed suit, and while at UCLA for a master’s in business, finance, and marketing, she earned an Outstanding Community Service Award. While living in London, she joined the Junior League. In 1993, the family moved to Greenwich. The Great Recession hit and took a toll. “The financial need in the town was going up while private funding of services was going down,” says Karen, who joined the board of the Greenwich United Way. “Across the country most United Ways were experiencing declines in fundraising. If the United Way in Greenwich could figure out what to do, we would be a beacon to other communities. That was exciting to me.”

Courage into Action
“In 2015 we restructured the organization. We changed every aspect of our business in order to meet increasing needs, give donors quantifiable results and meet the needs of our partners.” When the CEO resigned in 2015, Karen helped lead the organization for almost a year. “That year the board led the organization as a team. We worked hand in hand with staff and shoulder to shoulder with other town agencies. The whole community got behind the effort.”

Fellow board member Brook Urban comments: “Leaders inspire, motivate, create, manage, listen, guide, take risks, build teams and move an organization forward. As a GUW board member since January 2010 and the chair of the board from January 2015 to January 2018, Karen did all of these things in an outstanding manner, all the time.”

GUW CEO David Rabin states: “Without Karen’s approach to the challenges that faced the GUW when she became board chair, we would not be anywhere near as well positioned to address the health, education and self-sufficiency needs facing our most vulnerable population. Karen has allowed the GUW to continue its mission for another eighty-five years and beyond.”

Hopes & Dreams
Karen serves on numerous committees at GUW and beyond. “Given the funding landscape in our state, and in Fairfield County in particular, budget constraints on nonprofits are on the rise” she says. “More and more people will be unable to afford basic needs, so we need individuals to come forward with personal support, whether through hands-on help, sharing expertise or lending financial support. We all have something to give. We must get behind the needs of our neighbors. It’s the only way forward.”

Gary Mendell
ORGANIZATION: Shatterproof


“It was a situation that happens too often,” says Easton resident Gary Mendell. “My son Brian went into the woods with friends to try beer or pot, as kids do. If ten kids try it, one will get addicted.” Heavier drugs followed. “Brian had a little anxiety. Did that first beer soothe his anxiety? Maybe. By his junior year, it became a problem.” The school psychologist recommended a wilderness program, which went well but the ensuing therapeutic high school did not. “It led to eight different programs,” says Mendell. “We didn’t realize their treatments were not based on current science. In his seventh program, Brian was put on medication. He never used substances again. The final program advised he go off it. On October 20, 2011, Brian wrote a suicide note, lit a candle and took his life,” recounts Mendell. He was 25.

“Four months before that he told me, ‘I wish that someday people would realize I’m not a bad person; I’m a good person with a bad disease, and I’m trying my hardest,’” says Mendell. He felt frustrated by the programs’ inconsistencies, misunderstood and ashamed.

Phone calls flooded in from people Brian had helped: staying up all night to give a depressed patient hope; whispering “It’s going to be OK” in the ear of a new arrival.

Courage into Action
“I was inspired by Brian to help others” explains Mendell. “I learned we had all this research in medical journals, not being used. For every major disease, we have a well-funded national organization. But nothing for addiction. I remember thinking how this information could start saving lives.” He founded Shatterproof five months after Brian died.

“Gary is unyielding in his goal to change the way our country thinks about and treats addiction,” says Holly Jesperson, Shatterproof’s senior communications manager. The nonprofit has passed life-saving legislation in fifteen states, established a community alliance program with over 1,300 ambassadors, advocated for safer opioid prescribing practices, hosted the largest event series for addiction ever with the Rise Up Against Addiction 5k Walk/Run and created a national standard of care for addiction, among numerous other accomplishments.

The most impactful moments for Mendell have been hugs from people whose family members have been saved by Shatterproof.

Hopes & Dreams
Shatterproof is poised to transform unregulated, outdated rehabs into regulated treatment programs. “We are close to finalizing $6 million in funding to build a rating system for every treatment program in the country,” he says.

Diana Degnan
ORGANIZATION: Feed My Starving Children


“I had gone to [food] packing events since I was a little girl and fell in love with them,” says Diana, a Darien resident who attends the King School in Stamford. At the events volunteers pack the organization’s MannaPack rice meals, which are then shipped to remote areas in the world. “You were helping kids in a way you could really see and feel. I would be there for two hours, but it felt like fifteen minutes. The events were organized through local churches and the public high school in Darien. I wanted to bring it to King, as I thought a lot of my friends and community would love it too.”

Courage into Action
“I contacted the organization and found out how to have an event, how many meals we would need, how much it would cost—all the details,” explains Diana. “I made a PowerPoint presentation and presented it to the administration at school.” She was persuasive with both her school and Feed My Starving Children and got the go-ahead to launch her own MobilePack event, which would require raising $22,000. “I went to big corporations and asked how to best approach the fundraising aspect,” says Diana. “I did a big email campaign to everyone I had in my contacts and raised about $9,000.” She then planned three field hockey clinics, which her coach from King volunteered to run. She raised another $5,000. “I have $8,000 more to go before the event, which will be in March. I’m doing a ‘King Talk,’ an assembly where I’ll talk about what I’m working on.” Diana finds public speaking a little daunting, but she’s not deterred: “I’ve been working so hard and am so excited, so I want to share it.”

Kathleen O’Rourke, director of marketing and communications at King, comments: “All sixth- through twelfth-grade students at King will pack over 100,000 meals to be sent to children in need throughout the world. Diana is so excited for the event because it will allow kids in our community to make a real difference in the lives of thousands of hungry children throughout the world.”

Hopes & Dreams
“I really hope that people fall in love with the event and that others are inspired to do something like this in the future, with a charity they are passionate about,” says Diana. “I hope they will see that you can make an impact when you are a kid and that community service can be really fun!”

Want to help Diana reach her goal? Contribute at give.fmsc.org/kingschool

Jeff Scanlan
ORGANIZATION: Homes with Hope


“I joined the board of Homes with Hope in 2006,” says Easton resident Jeff Scanlan. “I’d just retired from Wall Street and I had time. The idea that there were homeless in Westport was a bit of a shock to me.” In 2007 Scanlan was named chairman of the newly formed fundraising committee. “Homes with Hope started in 1984, as an emergency shelter for men, where food was served,” explains Scanlan. “We wanted to create an event to jack up our fundraising so we could offer more.”

Courage into Action
“There’s nothing funny about homelessness, but we thought we could attract an audience with comedy,” says Scanlan. “Stand Up for Homes with Hope is a play on comedy and on what we want people to do. It’s not only entertainment. We tell the audience about Homes with Hope, which now offers forty-one units of permanent housing and shelters at the Gillespie Center and Project Return in Westport. In 2008, we sheltered fifty-two people a night; now we’re at 115. Some of our clients get up in front of this rapt audience and share how they became homeless and how Homes with Hope got them back on their feet. It takes a lot of courage on their part, and listening you realize you may not be so far away from being homeless. Life can unravel quickly.”

The first year the committee underwrote the appearance of Lewis Black to a sold-out crowd at the Quick Center. “The evening was a remarkable success,” says Jeff Weiser, president of Homes with Hope. “Since 2008, this iconic event has entertained over 6,500 people and has netted our agency nearly $2 million. Jeff has spearheaded every committee meeting, and subsequent versions of this critical annual appeal have welcomed the likes of Martin Short, Paula Poundstone, Wayne Brady and Darrell Hammond.”

Scanlan says, “This community is amazing. We always have a full house at the event, and serving dinner at the Gillespie Center is the hottest ticket around. We hardly ever have any openings—that’s 30,000 meals a year.” Scanlan also emphasizes the importance of the permanent supportive housing Homes with Hope offers. “This is for people with diagnosed mental illness who are chronically homeless. Without it, they’d be homeless again,” he explains. “We all know people with family members with these problems, but the people we are housing are without that family support.”

Hopes & Dreams
“Some people are under the impression that we’ve solved homelessness around here,” says Scanlan. “I don’t think we ever will, but we have come a long way in alleviating it. My hope is that this community, and Fairfield County in general, continues to support the homeless in the way they have. The work of Homes with Hope is so vital because for the homeless, hope starts with a roof over your head.”

Gary MacNamara
ORGANIZATIONS: Center for Family Justice, Fairfield Cares Community Coalition, CT Police Chief Association


“The people at the Center for Family Justice (CFJ) really inspired me,” says Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara. “In law enforcement, our paths cross with a lot of outside agencies. Our response is often limited, so agencies like CFJ help us to help victims. Around the country, there are a variety of Walk a Mile events [men’s marches to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence]. Deb Greenwood [CFJ’s president] and I were having coffee, talking about how to bring awareness to victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. We decided we should do a Walk a Mile event in Fairfield. We all can be victims of crime, but to be victims on such a personal level, we wanted to raise awareness of how impactful that is.”

Courage into Action
CFJ’s Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is now in its sixth year. “The first year we probably had 200 walkers,” says MacNamara. “Last April we had 1,300 and raised close to $30,000.” Every year MacNamara struts for one mile down the Post Road in a towering pair of red high heels to draw attention to the role men can play in breaking the cycles of violence against women. “Chief MacNamara’s leadership has helped galvanize the community around this issue in an engaging, high-profile way,” says Deb.

MacNamara has also been involved with Fairfield Cares for many years. “For the last two years, I have cochaired a coalition to try to reduce substance abuse among residents, particularly youth in the community.” He is particularly proud of their Life Not Wasted campaign. “The goal of the coalition is to not only serve the young adults, but also bring them into the coalition, so they are the ones getting the message out,” explains MacNamara. “It’s twofold: #lifenotwasted meaning my life is not going to be wasted using substances, and a positive spin—like ‘I just climbed a mountain’ or ‘I just ran a marathon’ #lifenotwasted.”

Hopes & Dreams
“My hope is that people realize the impact they can have, within arms reach,” says MacNamara. “Often we look at global problems and forget about local solutions. Domestic violence and sexual assault are global issues, but there are people in your community doing something about it.” He has been doing just that for his thirty-year career as a police officer. He recently announced his retirement and looks forward to his new role as executive director of Public Safety and Governmental Affairs at Sacred Heart University.

Lynn Villency Cohen
ORGANIZATION: Stamford Museum & Nature Center


“My family was the catalyst for my dedication to the arts,” says Lynn Villency Cohen. “My mother dabbled in music, languages, opera and great literature. My father worked as a news reporter, PR executive and writer. And my uncle was an artist and noted furniture designer. In travels to Europe with my parents, I would take notes as an eleven-year-old about ceiling frescoes and paintings.” Lynn earned two master’s in art history (from Boston University and Oxford) and worked in D.C. for the Commissioner’s Art Advisory Panel.

Courage into Action
When Lynn moved to Stamford over twenty years ago, she immediately became involved with the Stamford Museum & Nature Center (SM&NC). “I have worked on a wide array of projects,” she says, “most notably chairing the collections committee to ensure the care and thoughtful display of the art and natural history collection throughout the Bendel mansion, as well as maintaining a robust exhibition line-up of educational, fun shows.”

Kirsten Reinhardt, former Curator of collections and Exhibitions, comments, “Lynn’s knowledge of art history, her keen eye for contemporary art talent and her conscientious insistence on fiscal responsibility ensured that the exhibitions schedule was robust, interesting and complementary to the mission of the SM&NC. She was hands-on and involved while respectful of the professional responsibilities of the staff—a true team player who made time to jury art shows, solicit donations and support exhibition openings.”

Lynn is involved in plans for the new Farm House, which will bring cooking and art classes, speaker events, environmental offerings and more exhibitions to the SM&NC campus. “It’s without a doubt a most exciting time in the eighty-two year history of this institution,” she says.

“I’ve always felt when one enters, you come upon a magical universe,” she adds. Her husband has also been an enthusiastic supporter of SM&NC and her daughter an avid volunteer.

Hopes & Dreams
“My hope is that I have dedicated myself in every way possible to advancing the growth of this institution’s journey and to ensure that it will continue to bring joy, learning, healing and excitement to the next generation of visitors,” she says. “While the arts may not be as crucial as progress and discoveries in science and medicine, museum and art offerings bring joy, enhance learning and offer shared experiences, which can affect life for the better. Visiting a museum or historical property, or attending a theater or music performance, serves to engage, heal, enrich and enlarge our worlds, making our lives fuller, which in turn helps us understand our most complex, intricate world.”


Jessica Sager

What is All Our Kin’s mission?
Our mission it to train, support and sustain family childcare providers offering home care in areas desperately in need of childcare and to give our youngest children high-quality, early-learning experiences that will allow them to succeed in school and in life.

The Fairfield County Community Foundation is based on the values of diversity, equity and collaboration. How does All Our Kin’s mission fit these values?
It constantly astonishes me, the way in which we as a nation have failed to invest in and support families, particularly families with very young children. Families with barriers to accessing care really struggle, and it plays out in the opportunity gap.

We foster diversity, equity and justice on so many levels: investing in caregivers, giving them the educational tools they need, enabling them to create businesses and giving them a voice in the childcare system; giving parents the support they need so they can succeed in the workplace, and giving children the early learning services they need to be successful. It is essential that all families have access to high-quality, nurturing childcare. People assume the women offering to care for children in poor communities can’t give high-quality care. At All Our Kin, we say the opposite. These women are already leaders in their communities.

What do you see as All Our Kin’s biggest accomplishments?
We are making an enormous difference in the supply of home-based childcare for infants and toddlers. We also are having a profound impact on the quality of that care. We are impacting provider earning and quality of life, and parents are entering and remaining in the workplace.

What I’m proudest of is that we’ve really changed the conversation. By valuing and investing in these childcare providers and these families, with the help of partners like FCCF, we are engaging the broader public in a different way. This really is what will lead to these gains being sustained and deepened over time.

What does the future hold?
We’re creating more All Our Kin networks. We are in Bridgeport and Stamford/Norwalk and have already launched a partnership in Danbury. We continue to deepen and expand our programs, as we learn more about what children need. We are also expanding our training through partner agencies. We will keep working to change the conversation around family childcare, build connections and partnerships, and incorporate these home caregivers in a deeper way into the childcare network

Juanita James, president of FCCF, comments: “We are truly blessed to have All Our Kin working to support local family childcare providers caring for young children in Connecticut. There is probably no other nonprofit in the country that has done as much in this field, and All Our Kin was ‘born’ right here in our state!”


Martha Stone

What is the Center for Children’s Advocacy’s mission?
Our mission is to protect low-income children and fight for their rights, including rights to services from the juvenile justice, education, child welfare and healthcare systems. Our legal services help kids by reducing problems that are interfering with school achievement and health. We also advocate for systemic reforms and help parents, doctors and other professionals learn about children’s rights and how to advocate for kids.

Fairfield County Community Foundation is based on the values of diversity, equity and collaboration. How does CCA’s mission fit these values?
Our advocacy is based on the belief that all children should have equal opportunities to succeed. In Bridgeport we’ve brought together schools, police, the juvenile court and community organizations to reduce the number of youths of color who enter the juvenile justice system, and we’re collaborating with parents to improve education for kids learning English. We also teach about the rights of kids with disabilities to participate in after-school programs and camps.

What do you see as CCA’s biggest accomplishments?
Our juvenile justice reforms stopped the state from locking up runaways and truants like they were criminals and made sure the kids get help with what’s causing their behavior. We’ve also changed the way the system decides what to do with kids and reduced the number of youths sent to juvenile detention. We’ve brought restorative justice into secure juvenile facilities to teach youth how to avoid problem behavior.

We led the overhaul of alternative school programs across the state and helped Bridgeport schools reduce the number of kids arrested for minor behavior problems. We also got a law passed that bans out-of-school suspensions of preschoolers through second graders, so those kids can stay in school with the right support.

We’ve developed a band of pro bono attorneys to help undocumented kids who are eligible to remain in the country. Together we’ve represented over one hundred abandoned and abused undocumented kids.

Ninety-five percent of the kids we represent stay in school.

What does the future hold?
We’d like to bring our mobile legal van to Stamford to serve that area. In January we’ll start training pro bono attorneys to represent youth aging out of foster care who are not ready to be independent. In Norwalk, we’re collaborating on a project that supports immigrant children as they strive for academic success and hope to roll this program out to other districts.

FCCF President Juanita James says: “We salute the longstanding work of CCA. The Center’s combination of legal advocacy and community partnerships has turned around the lives of hundreds of vulnerable youth. The staff is relentless in pursuing positive outcomes for their clients.”

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