Meet the Stamford Residents Who’ll Inspire You to Give Back This Year

above: Paying for college is the mission of the Matthew Gaffney Foundation. – Photographs: Contributed

Darkness descends on the parking lot at Inspirica on Franklin Street when Anna Bane and Fahima Kowtal pull in. They lug to the front door four huge trays of baked ziti and broccoli, fresh from Bane’s oven. Trays of salad follow. Gallons of juice. Dozens of rolls. Two full sheet cakes from Costco—in other words, their usual donation on the third Wednesday of each month. The friends don’t stay long; they have another food run to make, to the Women’s Emergency Shelter on Woodland Place.

It’s another day, another 200 meals supplied by neighbors’ generosity to homeless and formerly homeless people at Inspirica.

Inspirica volunteers sort through food.

“It doesn’t take much to come out and help people. It’s maybe two or three days of work out of 30 days,” says Bane, who works as a paraprofessional at Newfield elementary school. She and her friends at Islamic Family Services have provided a night’s worth of meals to Inspirica clients once a month for more than 35 years, religion being the primary motivator for giving. Like Bane, many Muslim community members donate at least 2.5 percent of their income to charity.

“God always wants us to help others. If everybody comes together, people won’t be suffering as much,” Bane says. “For me, it’s really nice to see people happy. To show people you care about them. When you’re in that corner of society, you might feel like people have forgotten you. It’s important to know that people care about you.”

On the same Wednesday up in North Stamford, it’s crunch time for Margaret Benedict, Ph.D. College applications are due soon and the former college professor who gave up professing to help disadvantaged high schoolers get into and through college without debt has back-to-back Zoom sessions with students struggling through their essays. In time, she’ll drive kids to prospective schools and even take them shopping, all for free.

Years ago, shortly after 9/11, Benedict was in Kansas presenting a paper on Shakespeare when this question seized her: “Why would I want to be an academic? It doesn’t really measure up to giving back. I thought, my life needs more meaning.” Her kids were in college and would graduate debt-free, but other kids weren’t as lucky. Yet many colleges granted 100 percent aid to students who qualified. Benedict hoped to find, prepare and match qualified, needy students with those schools.

“I wanted to get money into the hands of the kids who needed it,” Benedict says, “so I got a group of my friends together and formed a board of directors.” Together they created the Matthew Gaffney Foundation, named for Benedict’s father, a school superintendent who led efforts to desegregate public schools outside of Philadelphia.

Since then, more than 200 Gaffney students, mostly from Stamford and Norwalk, have attended college at no cost.

left: 18-year-old Sophia Seeger educates about epilepsy. right: Seeger raises funds through bake sales for comfortable NillyNoggin EEG caps.

Over in Glenbrook on this same Wednesday, 18-year-old Sophia Seeger is posting flyers advertising her upcoming bake sale. Seeger is on a quest to buy enough reusable NillyNoggin caps for every patient undergoing testing for brain surgery in the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at Yale New Haven Hospital.“When you have an EEG, they put tape, glue and electrodes all over your head. It’s no fun. A Nilly Noggin provides comfort. It’s something I would have loved to have when I was going through this,” says Seeger, whose seizures from epilepsy were diagnosed when she was two years old and whose new non-profit group, Milo&Me, raises awareness of the neurological disorder and provides girls with epilepsy a forum for support.

Multiply these actions on one random Wednesday times tens of thousands for a sense of how people in Stamford help each other every year. The city counts more than 50 charities and nonprofits, from the disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization Americares, which generates more than a billion dollars in donations and grants annually, and as tiny as Seeger’s Milo&Me, which raises money cookie sale by cookie sale.

With the new year comes a period of reflection and resolution, a chance to consider how you’re woven into the tapestry that is Stamford. In short, it’s a great time to learn to be a better giver, suggests therapist Scott Simon.

The Stamford resident and Wharton School of Business graduate worked on Wall Street for 33 years when he felt called to “help those who are faceless,” Simon recalls. He studied the art and practice of empathy, started a ministry at Trinity Church in Cos Cob and served a wide-ranging community that included prisoners in Bridgeport, single mothers in New Rochelle, and immigrants and the hungry in Stamford. In the meantime, he earned a Master’s degree in counseling. Now, he devotes his life to giving.

“The ministry of presence is to sit down and listen to someone. They may be grieving, they may have lost a job. Some people are very alone. Your being present is a gift of time. There’s always time to give, if you make it,” says Simon, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Redeem Wellness Center.

Scott Simon, Minister at Trinity Church in Cos Cob

Giving comes in three forms, Simon suggests: time, treasure and talent. “The easiest is treasure—you give money and feel good. But the joy of giving comes from more than that.”

To find meaning in giving is to conduct a personal inventory, first of your interests and passions, then of your talents and resources, Simon says. Do not discount your abilities. Says Simon: “Your talent can be having a compassionate heart.”

Next, find an organization that addresses issues you care about. Start by researching non-profit groups on industry watchdog Charity Navigator, then poke around online to learn about a group’s programs. If the mission speaks to you, pick up the phone and offer to help. Says Simon, “Some people are good at social media, some are good at handing out food or stocking a food pantry, some have work skills. They’re all useful.”

Such is the case at SoundWaters. Volunteers at the Stamford-based organization, which protects Long Island Sound through education and action, donate their time and skills to everything from shoreline clean-ups, boat repair, painting, landscaping, and trash collection by kayak, to training youths in welding and boat-building. Donations fund scholarships to camp, research and education programs in Boccuzzi Park and Cove Island, and more.

“I see my work—our work—as a collaboration. Together we build something forward,” says Leigh Shemitz, SoundWaters president. “When engaging a donor, I don’t think I’m asking only or giving only. I think I’m creating an opportunity to connect with our mission, which I think brings meaning and joy to people. I am giving and receiving and I think they are giving and receiving. It is not binary.”

One SoundWaters board member, a shipping industry veteran, not only keeps tabs on the group’s 80-foot schooner, he hires people, including SoundWaters’ own harbor corps grads.

Giving doesn’t have to happen in any official capacity. In fact, an easy way to incorporate giving into daily life is to practice Five-Minute Favors, made famous by author and Wharton professor Adam Grant. He suggests devoting five minutes each day to doing something helpful for someone else. Send an email of thanks or introduction, share your knowledge where appropriate, thank a small business on social media, share a call for supplies from a teacher, send gift cards to a social service agency or a public school. Read to a child or a patient or a patron. Take time to listen to somebody who would appreciate it.

Members of Norwalk-based Terex Corporation gather in front of Soundwaters headquarters in Cove Island Park.

That’s what Madeline Levin does each week. Every Wednesday after school, the 15-year-old sophomore boards the St. Luke’s School van in New Canaan and heads to Stamford to volunteer at the afterschool program for youngsters who live in transitional housing above Inspirica headquarters. This Wednesday finds her stacking cups with three elementary schoolers.

“Maddy, will you help me with my reading?” says a first-grader missing her front teeth, her cheeks sparkling with glitter. The youngster takes Levin’s hand and leads her to a tiny table where the girls sit side by side, Levin’s knees touching the table’s underside, as the little girl reads aloud. The reading stops for a few minutes as Curtis Troeger, the program director, dishes out pasta with meatballs donated by parishioners at St. John’s, who cook an afterschool snack for the kids each day. Post-pasta, the little one colors in her homework, cheerfully delineating numerators from denominators in a math packet designed by Troeger.

“I like when Maddy’s next to me because she doesn’t give me the answers and she says ‘Good job,’” the glitter girl offers.

While St. Luke’s mandates community service of its students and staff, neither Levin nor her chaperone, Spanish teacher Efrain Pontaza, sees the giving as a burden.

Levin visits because “it’s so fun playing with the kids. It makes me happy seeing them happy. I love it so much that I come on other days too.”

As for Potanza, he appreciates a cultural link. “I choose to come here because there is a connection. I see so many Latino kids here. I came from humble beginnings and I know that having a strong sense of belonging and family could help solve a lot of problems.”

That’s welcome commentary to Kelhens Cherine, Inspirica’s volunteer coordinator. “Not a lot of people consider the kids when we talk about homelessness,” Cherine says. “It takes a community to raise a person. Sometimes these gifts are the only things making a person’s life better.”

Volunteers contibute to the mission of Soundwaters through beach cleanups, boat repair, youth training and more.

7 Simple Ways To Give

Contributing to your community doesn’t require a steep time commitment

1 Thank every single person who serves or services you.

2 Carry around a few protein bars. Offer one to a panhandler in lieu of money.

3 When someone you know is suffering, ask “How can I help?”

4 Leave a message of care and support to a friend in need. Call periodically with similar messages.

5 While you’re buying groceries or dashing to CVS, buy a gift card or two. Elementary school administrators know families that could really use your help. Bring or mail the cards to your neighborhood school.

6 Think about your passions. Food insecurity? Social justice? Veterans? Climate change? The arts? Many Stamford organizations address these issues. Call a volunteer coordinator and offer your time, expertise or money, whichever you can spare. Or spread the wealth and donate to a different group each month.

7 Look around as you travel through the city. What do you love or appreciate? Send an anonymous note of thanks to the people whose efforts make you grateful, whether it’s the guy at the deli counter, the Metro-North conductor, the trash collector or the museum volunteer.

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