Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Where Are They Now?

Shelter Beds at Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford CT

This photo haunts me. How are the Hartford area homeless families that once slept in these beds coping today? Where are they? Where is home? 

On a freezing February 11, 2020, one of the fifteen Tuesday nights from this past December through March that Hartford's Immanuel Congregational Church volunteered as an overflow shelter during the coldest months of the year, I paused to take this photo of the shelter's "bedroom." The photo's image has stuck in my mind ever since. An Immanuel teammate and I had just set up Hartford Fire Department supplied cots in the church chapel, covering them neatly with fresh, clean sheets and pillows, and warm blankets. The converted chapel would sleep twelve members of homeless families that night. Where are they now? How are they?  Where is home?

In November 2019, with Hartford's citywide shelter system rightly anticipating being pushed beyond capacity, Immanuel Congregational Church leadership answered the city's call for help. It rallied eighty church members and friends to volunteer hosting an ad hoc shelter with the express purpose of serving overflow homeless families: parents, teenagers, and toddlers unable to secure shelter anywhere else in the Hartford. 

Championed by church members Nancy Rion and Barbara Shaw (no relation), the Immanuel team was one of several Hartford faith communities committing one night a week during the winter to host homeless families. Its mission was to welcome, feed, and house stressed and confused families desperately seeking warmth, comfort, and nourishment. Homeless families swallow their pride moving from one place to another night after night, eating dinner with strangers, sleeping in crowded lodgings, accepting their surroundings silently, all the while tearfully hoping for a miracle. Their stories are complex, heartbreaking, and compelling.

With the current COVID-19 crisis mandates to stay home and maintain social (physical) distancing, the participating faith communities closed their volunteer shelters mid-March. Wreaking countrywide havoc, the pandemic is affecting our lives in ways never imagined. Thousands of individuals and families heretofore living within relatively stable and secure comfort now face the daunting, if not overwhelming, challenges of finding food, employment, childcare, housing, and healthcare. The homeless are even more vulnerable. So, what do we do?

We need to learn from this critical moment engulfing our world. We need to learn what's truly important in life. We need to learn the importance of dignity, equality, and respect. We need to learn to share our world's abundance. We need to learn the importance of healing healthcare for everyone.  We need to learn how to help others help themselves. We need to recognize that everyone has a personal story of a real life filled with the hopes and dreams most of us share, and most of all to be accepted and pursue a purposeful life.

While I may be haunted by the photo of the empty beds, and thoughts of the safety and well being of the homeless we served, I believe we all need to step up and learn how to build a better world. How do we begin? Consider the words of my friend Rev. Dennis P. (Denny) Moon, Senior Minister, South Congregational Church of Granby CT; "Living in our society isn't just about individual rights, but also the common good. In order to understand the common good, you must enter into the suffering of others."

Don Shaw, Jr.
Director Emeritus, Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Indifference Helps the Oppressor, Never the Oppressed

A sign at a march on the Connecticut state capitol, March 24, 2018.

Indifference manifests itself in ignorance, silence and blind acceptance. Turning our backs to the injustices suffered by the marginalized, vulnerable, and victimized in our local communities and around the world is a weak and heartless admission that the status quo is just fine with us when it doesn't affect our lives directly -- at least not yet. And that's a very big "yet" because unchecked turmoil can arrive anytime at our doorsteps regardless of who we think we are.

"It is not enough to limit your love to your own nation, to your own group. You must respond with love even to those outside of it. ...This concept enables people to live together not as nations, but as the human race." These words of Clarence Jordan, scholar, author, activist, and founder of Koinonia Farm, are his charge to all of us to follow a path of love, acceptance, and respect.

Let's face reality. The other, the stranger, the not-of-my-kind are real people, not abstractions. Each has a story -- a personal story of a real life, filled the with the kinds of hopes and dreams most of us share in wanting to be accepted, and allowed to live in peace and pursue a purposeful life.

A wall plaque at Habitat for Humanity's Atlanta, GA headquarters quoting Clarence Jordan

The challenge is to move us from uncaring indifference, or gratuitous caring with no commitment, to making a genuinely positive difference, large or small, however we are able. We must move from ignoring today's reality to facing it head-on. We must take a stand, and turn ignorance into awareness and action.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel fought relentlessly against the force of indifference. It's dangerous. It's deadly. In his December 10, 1986, Nobel Prize acceptance speech Wiesel said,

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe." 

Let's face reality. Let's take a stand. Let's make a difference. Today and always.

Don Shaw, Jr.

* This post is adapted from one of my previous posts. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, An Accessible Path to Nature

Clockwise L-R: A Palm Warbler seemingly jumping for joy, an Eastern Towhee,
and a Red-winged Blackbird photographed along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail

Celebrating the Trail's Accessibility to Nature 
April is here. The weather warms, days lengthen, plants sprout, and birds arrive. Earth Day, April 22nd, is a day to celebrate one of my favorite stretches of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, the roughly three and one quarter miles running through wetlands and farmland from Copper Hill Road in East Granby CT to Congamond Road in Southwick MA. Like most of the trail's entire route from New Haven to Northampton, it's accessible to almost anyone who wants to be outdoors enjoying nature without having to hike through fields, forests, and marshes. In step with the countless walkers, joggers, cyclists, and dogs pulling their masters, you can find folks using walkers, pushing baby strollers, and motoring in wheel chairs along this comfortable, level pathway. The trail's accessibility to people from all walks of life is a celebration itself. So for anyone who wants to be outdoors enjoying nature, especially birding like I do, the trail has much to offer. While its path is different from the terrain of nearby hills, woods, and swamps I often hike, the trail provides excellent opportunities to exercise, socialize, and bird watch all at once.

Cyclists and walkers enjoying the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail
between Copper Hill Rd, East Granby and Phelps Rd, Suffield

For the better part of the past two decades I've walked, run, and cycled along many miles of the treasured Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, however it's only the past few that I've spent countless hours on it observing and photographing birds, especially on the East Granby to Southwick section. I owe much of my new found hobby to my friend Chris Fisher, an expert nature photographer of distinction from East Granby who travels the trail, too. He's coached me on camera selection, and more importantly on techniques to improve my photography skills. Check out Chris's website at Natural Expressions Photography to learn more about him and his nature photography exhibitions. 

Birding Along the Trail
In March bird activity along the trail picks up and lasts through most of the fall. Some birds are year-rounders, some are flying in during the spring to nest and raise their next generation, while others are passing through en route to breeding grounds farther north, and then passing through again in early fall southbound for their winter home.

To capture the essence of what the trail's accessibility can yield for birders, I've created several collages of bird photos I've taken without having stepped off the path, not even an inch. Certainly, there were many days (the majority, in fact), when I saw nothing of note and left without any pictures. Often it's when the trail is busy with foot and cycle traffic that birds keep their distance, but when I have successfully photographed a particular bird, I've reaped the rewards of persistence, patience, and calculated timing that are the keys to what it takes to be in the right spot at the right time to photograph nature in the wild.

Clockwise from top left are a Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Common Yellowthroat Warbler photographed soon after arriving in April and May along the wetlands nearing the CT-MA border between mileposts 21.6 and 22.0.

In this collage Eastern Bluebirds are making sure their chicks are well fed in the Bluebird house near milepost 21.0 in Suffield CT. I first photographed this couple as they were building their nest, and then later as they were feeding their brood. Unfortunately, I was not present when their young fledged, though I visited nearly every day. It happens quickly, and timing and chance are everything.

Clockwise from top left are a Cedar Waxwing, Gray CatbirdRed-winged Blackbird, and Eastern Towhee. The Cedar Waxwing was photographed along farmland near milepost 21.0 in Suffield; the Gray Catbird was photographed in the trees along wetlands between mileposts 21.6 and 22.0; the Red-winged Blackbird in the marsh just north of milepost 20.0; and the Eastern Towhee near milepost 22.5 in Southwick. 

These Eastern Phoebes arrived in mid-March in Suffield near the bridge at milepost 22.0 at the CT-MA border. They are among the earliest spring arrivals as they migrate to breed in this area.

Late last summer for two days in a row I was fortunate to observe this Great Blue Heron fishing in the swamp between mileposts 21.6 and 22.0 in Suffield. On the day I captured these photos, I patiently leaned against a trail fence for almost an hour with my camera focused and ready for the heron to strike. When it did, I clicked away in rapid fire bursts capturing the action of a successful catch.

Spring is mating season. These three couples were sharing the same stream one morning north of milepost 21.6 and just past Mountain Brook bridge. Clockwise from the upper left are Canada Geese, Mallards, and Common Mergansers.

In this final collage are, clockwise from the top left, a male Wood Duck, A male Mallard, and a Mallard couple with their ducklings. The Wood Duck and Mallard were in the stream near milepost 22.0 at the CT-MA border; and the Mallard couple were in a vernal pool just north of the trail's entrance at Copper Hill Road in East Granby.

Final Thoughts on Celebrating the Trail
I've seen many other birds along the trail during the years I've been walking it. They include birds that typically gather around my home feeders, or nest in the trees in my yard such as Eastern Cardinals, Eastern Mockingbirds, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, and Blue Jays, among many others. Also, I've seen Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Northern Flickers, and Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated woodpeckers. Clearly, many species of birds may be seen simply by venturing up and down the highly accessible stretch of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail from East Granby to Southwick. Beyond being able to walk among the birds that thrive in this habitat, what makes this section of the trail priceless is that's it's made for anyone and everyone to enjoy, and that's cause for an Earth Day celebration!

Don Shaw, Jr.

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Celebrating Fifty Years of Hands On Hartford

It's Time to Celebrate Fifty Years of Hands On Hartford!
That's right, fifty years! Fifty years of Hands On Hartford helping Hartford. Since its founding as Center City Churches in 1969, Hands On Hartford has been committed to feeding, clothing, housing, and caring for Hartford's most vulnerable residents, all with the helping hands of countless generous donors, volunteers and collaborative community partnerships. Mark your calendars for Thursday, October 24, 2019, from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm at the Hartford Marriott Downtown to celebrate Hands On Hartford's 50th anniversary. Details about sponsorships are posted at the following links: Sponsorship Package and Sponsorship Form. Tickets for the celebration will be available soon - contact for more information.

To learn more about Hands On Hartford's fifty year impact, I recently met with Hands On Hartford Board Chair Rev. Donna Manocchio and Executive Director Barbara Shaw for lunch at The Café at Fifty-Five. It's a café with a cause in its third year of operation serving up many new HOH opportunities for community engagement.

The Café at Fifty-Five
55 Bartholomew Avenue, Hartford CT

The Café at Fifty-Five
Located at 55 Bartholomew Avenue in Hartford's Parkville neighborhood, the Café is HOH's mission-driven restaurant offering healthy, everything-tastes-good selections for breakfast, snacks, and lunch, including specialty crepes and a full coffee-tea-smoothie menu. And what makes frequenting this bright, welcoming eatery even more nourishing is that the Café's proceeds feed directly into HOH's revenue stream supporting its many services to people in need throughout Hartford. To make this happen the Café employs people committed to overcoming employment barriers, engages volunteers as kitchen team members, and offers a pay-for-a-neighbor program to help bring together people from all backgrounds and means to enjoy food and camaraderie together. Additionally, the Café's licensed commercial kitchen is in high demand for shared use membership. Currently, thirty-two qualified entrepreneurs and organizations schedule time 24/7 for their food preparation operations. And topping it all off in the spirit of good neighborship, its convenient and comfortable community spaces are available to the public for meetings, conferences, or social events.

Crepes are a Café specialty. 

During lunch, where my Sweet Chili Asian Slaw Wrap with grilled chicken proved a delicious introduction to the Café's offerings, Rev. Donna and Barbara recounted one success story after another explaining how each program helps realize HOH's "commitment to increasing food security and nutrition, improving health, and providing housing" by engaging volunteers and connecting communities. Barbara summarized HOH's mission in just six words, "serving neighbors, engaging volunteers, and connecting communities. "

The Next Success: Affordable Apartments Planned for Bartholomew Avenue
Following in the path of the Café's success a new initiative to provide much-needed affordable housing is on the table for 2019, the construction of thirty affordable rental apartments.

A rendition of the planned apartments after renovating the adjacent coal power plant,
which is shown in the background advertising the old Spaghetti Warehouse

In a 2015 initiative to consolidate its scattered site operation under one roof, HOH purchased a vacant building (formerly home to the Spaghetti Warehouse, and then Trout Brook Brewery & Pub), and an adjacent abandoned circa 1912 coal powered energy plant. With Fifty-Five Bartholomew Avenue now housing its community center and café, HOH has turned its attention to renovating the power plant into affordable housing. Twenty-three one-bedroom units and seven efficiencies are planned. Four units will be designated for disabled homeless people, with the remaining available as affordable rentals for people with incomes between 30 - 80% of local average median income (AMI). With a groundbreaking expected later this year, apartment occupancy is planned for mid to late 2021. The new units are certain to give a quality of life boost to this corner of Hartford's historic Parkville neighborhood.

And There's So Much More to Celebrate
Throughout its fifty year history of fostering collaborative community engagement, Hands On Hartford has provided hope for the homeless, nourishment for the hungry, and aid for the ailing. To fully appreciate the scope of HOH's services, all one needs to do is checkout its website, which is replete with information about its programs, services, and opportunities to put your helping hands to work. HOH's seven broad-based programs, as noted below with direct website links (red text), encompass all of HOH's essential community services.

MANNA Food and Neighborhood Services
MANNA food programs provide basic needs to thousands of individuals in Hartford each year. Through Community Meals, Community Pantry & Neighborhood Services, and its Backpack Nutrition Program, HOH provides food and other supportive services to those in need.

HOH's halal friendly Community Pantry, which offers a wide selection of food,
always has been at the core of HOH's mission.

The MANNA program also provides supportive health screenings and a 
Backpack Nutrition Program serving more than 250 students every Friday 
to ensure they have food each weekend.

HOH Housing
In addition to its planned new thirty unit apartment building, HOH Housing provides safe and affordable supportive housing and related support services for individuals and families with serious health issues (including those living with HIV/AIDS), both on site and throughout the Hartford area.

Community Engagement
Through its Community Engagement program HOH involves the public by engaging volunteers in the following ways: serving lunch at its soup kitchen, helping in its food pantry, organizing customized day-of-service projects, and hosting team building service immersion programs, including HOH's unique Dash for a Difference events.

Faces of the Homeless
The Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau travels throughout Connecticut (and beyond) to share personal experiences of homelessness, dispel myths, educate audiences on the causes of homelessness, and encourage others to get involved in making positive changes in the community. Groups or organizations are encouraged to host a speaking event or get their feet-on-the-street by engaging with Faces of Homelessness speakers in a walking tour on the streets of Hartford, which includes a visit to a local shelter, to learn about the challenges people face when experiencing homelessness. 

The Café at Fifty-Five
As previously highlighted, the Café is a mission-based restaurant at HOH's Center for Community offering an excellent menu with low prices, and a pay-it-forward option so that all who enter may enjoy the Café.

Caterers Who Care
You can support Hands On Hartford by having Caterers Who Care, HOH's mission-based catering service, custom prepare and deliver breakfast, lunch or dinner for your next meeting or event at your offices or off-site location, including one of the beautifully restored meeting rooms in HOH's community center. 

The Shared Use Kitchen is an invaluable asset to the community. Currently, thirty-two
qualified entrepreneurs and organizations schedule time for their food preparation operations.

Shared Use Kitchen and Meeting Space
Through annual memberships, HOH offers 24/7 scheduled use of its well equipped, licensed commercial kitchen to qualified food operators, such as food truck vendors, specialty catering services, and small bakeries supplying local markets.

Time to Celebrate!
Hands On Hartford's fifty year history of turning caring into action has affected thousands of lives by creating paths to better futures for people in need. As helping hands and advocates gather to celebrate HOH's fiftieth year in October, may they join their hands in thanks and shout a cheer for the next fifty! 

Don Shaw, Jr.

Photos and images courtesy of Hands On Hartford, and by Don Shaw, Jr.
Program and mission description texts courtesy of Hands On Hartford.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Navigating a Segregated Nation with the Green Book

The Green Book

"For African-American travelers in the Jim Crow-era South—often journeying from the north to visit relatives who had not joined the Great Migration—an unprepossessing paper-bound travel guide often amounted to a survival kit. The Green Book often functioned as a lifesaver," writes Kathleen Burke of the Smithsonian.

The recently released movie Green Book, which opened to much acclaim, depicts a historically relevant tale based on one family's recounting of a story that reconciles the racial divide between two very different people, people who ultimately recognize the common, race transcending humanity that ties them together. While the movie is worthy of its accolades, and offers an important view into America's history of racism, its references to the real Green Book provide scant insight into the book's importance as a once vital African-American travel guide for navigating the country safely. Even traveling with his white bodyguard, Don Shirley, the world renown classical and jazz pianist depicted in the movie, couldn't be guaranteed protection from the violent racist reality of the time. Deeper digging is required to discover the Green Book's true historical significance, and how it links to today's reality.

In early 2016, especially in February during Black History Month, I prefaced a few of my posts with the words "Essential American History." One of them was about the Green Book. Learning about the Green Book is to begin to understand how heartbreakingly difficult it was for many Americans to navigate a segregated nation. It is one more story in the countless many about racism that are critical to our understanding why it is no simple task to bring people together in trust and harmony given what we've done to each other. 

To fully understand history details, context, and personal stories matter. They are essential. Not enough detail, context and personal stories find their way into our typical high school American history curricula and textbooks.

Arguably, there is only so much history that can be presented in a school year leaving students (and most of us throughout our lives) with only basic themes and highlights, omitting essential points that I believe affect how we look at one another in the United States, how we look at the rest of the world, and how the world looks back at us. A rudimentary history of the United States, let alone the world, is not sufficient to fully appreciate and celebrate the richness of our diversity, and what it means to the future of our country. 

Without awareness of history's details and context we miss points that may make a significant difference in how we relate to each other; how we welcome or exclude each other; and how we enact laws and promote behaviors that either treat everyone fairly, with dignity and justice, or discriminate against certain people leading to unfair treatment, degrading and devoid of the justice our country promises to all Americans.

The Green Book's Black HistoryBrent Staples' opinion piece that recounts "lessons from the Jim Crow-era travel guide for African American elites," along with The Smithsonian and PBS stories listed below, documents the Green Book's importance and relevance in American history. They are well worth reading to gain another much needed view into the cruel and demeaning realities created and sustained by white America.

How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation in the April 2016 Smithsonian Magazine is a story about The Negro Motorist Green-Book. It is accompanied by a Smithsonian online story, “Driving While Black” Has Been Around As Long As Cars Have Existed. Included with the online story is a link to a powerful and telling video clip from Green Book, a Ric Burns documentary scheduled for release in 2019. If anything, view the clip!

Further details, as well as links to Green Book copies, can be found in a 2013 PBS story "Green Book" Helped Keep African Americans Safe on the Road.

Understanding history matters. It is essential.

This blogpost was published in The Connecticut Mirror's CT Viewpoints on February 13, 2019.

Don Shaw, Jr.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In Honor of a Doughboy's Service

PVT Howard Emanuel Stickles,
Simsbury, CT native and WWI Veteran

A few years before he died in 1988 at age 98, my grandfather shared some his World War I memories with his nursing home friends. While scarce on details, what he did share remained strong in his mind. Howard Emanuel Stickles, a Simsbury, Connecticut native, served in France with the U.S. Army's 76th Infantry Division 303rd Machine Gun Battalion. Because he shared the reluctance most veterans have of telling stories of their war service, it remains unclear to most of my family what our beloved "Grandpa" actually experienced, but it is eminently clear that he served his country faithfully with honor and pride, and that is what truly matters.

In the Service of the Nation

Grandpa's recounting of his service with the 76th Division began after completion of his basic training at Camp Devens, Massachusetts in 1917 when he and his fellow doughboys boarded a train in Thompsonville, CT destined for Montreal. From there, he recalled, they climbed aboard an English transport bound for Cardiff, Wales, before steaming on to South Hampton. While briefly in Cardiff he wrote his first letter home telling his parents "It makes your heart ache to see how the people over here are suffering in this war." And that's just what he witnessed in Great Britain before he entered the war in France (The war's impact on Great Britain alone left nearly one million soldiers dead with over two million more wounded, many crippled for life, and created an economic panic that easily could have pushed the country into bankruptcy).

Soon after arriving in South Hampton Grandpa said his division embarked for France, "crossing the the English Channel at night, arriving in  LeHarve." From there "we were transported by train, 40 in each boxcar" first to "Langres and then to St. Montigny and onto Metz ... While there, some of my company were in a very large battle outside of Metz," he recalled, not revealing the many more memories that I'm sure remained unspoken.

With a towel over his left shoulder, Grandpa posed with his unit in France
as they looked forward to returning to the USA in 1918

Grandpa's Dog Tags and Medals

Yet what I do know is that Grandpa returned from France with the deep pride of a veteran who served his country well fighting for liberty and justice. His commitment and pride grew even stronger when his son Jim, a highly decorated Army combat medic and first wave Omaha beach survivor, returned home from World War II. As for me personally, I remember with much fondness the luncheon he treated me to in Hartford at the elegant but long gone Hotel Sonesta Rib Room a few days before I departed for Navy basic training, and I'll never forget his welcome home handshake and hug when I returned home from my Vietnam service. As a faithful member of Simsbury's American Legion Post 84 Grandpa participated in every Memorial Day parade he was able, whether marching in stride with fellow veterans, riding with old timers in a fancy convertible, or simply watching from a lawn chair as the parade marched along Simsbury's Hopmeadow Street.

Howard Stickles with cane in hand and hand over heart
honoring his country and veterans circa 1980s

Howard Emanuel "Grandpa" Stickles was a kind and gentle man, always understanding and unpretentious. He was a dear and generous friend to all who knew him. Grandpa went to war as a young man, and returned living to be an old timer who never forgot the commitment, service and sacrifice he, his comrades in arms, and following generations of veterans gave to make the world a safer place. On this Veterans Day, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I honor his service, and treasure my memories of him and the love he gave to all.

Howard Stickles front and center on point at the
Get Together Dinner of the 303rd Machine Gun Battalion
at the Hotel Bond in Hartford, CT on October 28, 1950

Old friends Howard Stickles, Florence Laughlin and George Kennedy
outside Simsbury's Eno Memorial Hall on Memorial Day circa 1980s

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos are from my family's collection

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Perfect Match

Georges Annan Kingsley with one of his art works displayed at an Asylum Hill art show.

On Saturday, October 20, 2018, Georges Annan Kingsley awoke to a new life. Georges received his long awaited kidney transplant the night before. A perfect match, his new kidney worked immediately. This perfect match was on top of another successful transplant just twenty-three days earlier. On September 27, 2018, the United States welcomed Georges as a new citizen. It's a blessing for Georges and his family. It's a blessing for the greater Hartford community. It's a perfect match.

Georges at his citizenship ceremony on September 27, 2018 in New Haven

Georges' citizen celebration party  hosted by the Asylum Hill Welcoming Committee 

All who know Georges love him, his wife Asse Marthe Ntchohou, and his son, Joe-William.  A well respected resident of Hartford's Asylum Hill Neighborhood, Georges is a community leader. He's an accomplished artist (he has a painting on display in the White House), a teacher, and a radio host, as well as an Asylum Hill community organizer championing the acceptance and well being of refugees and immigrants. Despite being tethered to exhausting dialysis sessions three times a week prior to his transplant, Georges' prolific production of paintings and sculptures ensured his works were always on display at local art shows. Most recently he had a two-week exhibition at Connecticut's Legislative Office Building. Incredibly he found even more strength to organize cultural celebrations, sponsor clothing drives, teach art classes, and promote job skills training for new arrivals in his welcoming Hartford neighborhood.

Georges hosting this Good Times show which airs
Saturdays on Ghana Beats Radio from 12:00-2:00 p.m.

George is a transplant who has taken root in Hartford successfully. His compelling stories about escaping from political persecution in Côte d'Ivoire and his quest for a kidney transplant are well documented. I've covered a bit of them in my blog posts: My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant, and Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford about Ghana Beats Radio, the on-line radio station he and his business partner, John Ackeifi, launched to serve the sub-Sahara African diaspora living in greater Hartford. But those posts only tell a small bit of his story.

To learn more about Georges I've compiled a series of links to stories that present a more complete appreciation of this talented and compassionate man who was a model citizen long before he actually became one. His perseverance and optimism embody Connecticut's motto Qui transtulit sustinet: "He who transplanted sustains."

Links to articles, videos, and a podcast about Georges Annan Kingsley:

Political Refugee Showing Art Work at Passages Gallery

New Voices of Asylum Hill

New England Public Radio Words in Transit (podcast)

My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant

Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford

The National Arts Program

Nine Neighborhood Murals Chosen for Hartford Paint the City

Ivory Coast Artist at Hartford Public Library

Voices of Wisdom: Newcomer Stories

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.; the photo of Georges with the judge was submitted by the Georges Annan Kingsley family.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Habitat Homeowners Help Others Help Themselves

Janice and Kerry Foster with a KJ Foster Scholarship Fund recipient

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowners Janice and Kerry Foster for the event. Here is their story.  

Raised in Hartford’s Stowe Village housing project, Janice and Kerry Foster lived first-hand the challenges facing their families, friends, and neighbors striving for better lives and looking for a way out of poverty housing. Throughout their school years they were close friends, eventually marrying  and raising a wonderfully close-knit family. Though they lived through some tough times and a searing family tragedy, they became pillars of their Hartford neighborhood, always championing better lives for anyone in need.

As a nineteen-year old seeking his path in life, Kerry seized the opportunity to join the Hartford Fire Department (HFD), and a rewarding, three-decade public service career ensued. Racing to the rescue became a way of life for Kerry. As a member of HFD's Tactical Unit 1 (Tac-1) Heavy Rescue, Kerry fully embraced his career of running toward emergencies. He proudly boasts that TAC-1 is “one of the busiest emergency rescue units in the country.”

While Kerry was pursuing his HFD career, Janice was employed as a medical office assistant and living in substandard Northeast Neighborhood apartments, the only housing her limited income could afford. When she gave birth to her first child, her building’s infestation of mice and roaches became too much to bear. As a caring single mother struggling to make ends meet, it was a call to action. While searching for better housing, Janice heard about Hartford Habitat for Humanity. With a quick inquiry about the process to become a homeowner, Janice thought that Habitat could be the answer to her prayers. It was. 

When her application was accepted, Janice began her sweat equity as soon as she could under the firm but gentle guidance of former Habitat Family Services Director Steve Zwerling, and the one-on-one coaching of Ruth Puff, her Family Services partner, both of whom the Fosters regard as family. It’s been more than twenty years since Janice moved into her Habitat home. A couple of years after settling in, she and Kerry married, dedicating their lives to each other and their family. Though his successful firefighting career enabled them to live almost anywhere, Kerry emphasized that he and Janice are “anchored to the Northeast Neighborhood forever. We will never leave our 52 Clark Street home,” a home where they raised four children, and welcome visits from their four grandchildren.

Janice and Kerry Foster's Habitat Home

It was a neighborhood they loved - a neighborhood where they could channel their love of Hartford by extending their generous helping hands to ensure their neighbors in need are sheltered, clothed, educated, and fed; they are always cooking for families and big community functions often using the two barbecue smokers in their backyard. Habitat’s mission played a large part in “opening our eyes even wider to the needs of others,” said Kerry.  Yet it all could have ended when they lost their son Kerry Jr., known as KJ, to a senseless random drive-by shooting on Memorial Day in 2006. 

KJ was a bright, popular eighth grader simply playing in his yard when he tragically died. A visiting friend was wounded and survived. Through the strength of their faith, and to honor of the memory of their beloved son, KJ’s passing became another call to action for Janice and Kerry to give even more of their time and treasure to the community. In memory of KJ they established the KJ Foster Scholarship Fund, and then they poured even more of their personal savings into setting up another scholarship, the Janice and Kerry Foster, Sr. Scholarship Fund, both of which are managed by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Also in memory of KJ, the Fosters sponsor a Waverly Park Little League team, and during Hartford's annual Safe Night Out event a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Losing our son made us stronger. We’re proud to be role models and help make things happen. People need to take charge of their lives, and we’re glad to help them. You don’t always need money to do good, most of the time you just need to dedicate the time,” said Kerry.

As Janice so wonderfully believes, "If you give, give from the heart -- and it's the little things that count. You have to start somewhere. It's a wonderful thing to give back. I wouldn't live my life any other way."

Kerry B. Foster Jr.  3 on 3 Basketball Tournament Shirt

By running to the rescue of others and giving back to the community, Janice and Kerry paved the way for neighbors to follow their lead and work together to make their community safer, quieter and a healthier place to call home. Kerry believes in Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a great place. It offers a lot, but you have to go get it. Take the initiative. They’ll help you help yourself.”

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos courtesy of Janice and Kerry Foster, Rich Wright Productions, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Highlighted Links are to videos and Janice Foster's quotation on the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving website.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

For Robin Roy Life is All About Helping Out.

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowner Robin Roy for the celebration. Here is her story. 

The first night in my new home was surreal,” Robin Roy remembered vividly. It was July 1, 2000. Her two boys were in their rooms, and Robin had a moment to collect her wits and reflect. With the whirlwind of her house dedication and house warming parties over, it was a quiet moment sitting in her living room when she finally realized, “This house is my house. It’s really mine. I thought I’d never own a home, never.”

In 1999, Robin was raising her two sons on her own in a small two-bedroom apartment on Manchester’s Birch Street. Her daughter was a young adult already out on her own. That’s when Robin’s rent notice arrived. Her landlord was raising her rent, which would stress her slim budget even further. But she had hope. She recently received her income tax refund. She thought that perhaps the refund coupled with some other grant could finally open the door to homeownership. She called the Connecticut 2-1-1 Help Line for guidance on possible opportunities to pursue, but after following up she found every door locked shut despite a “pretty good credit rating,” and a regular income working in the Alstom Power company cafeteria. It simply wasn’t enough to obtain a mortgage. Then a chance comment by the 2-1-1 counselor led to another way – perhaps she should try Hartford Habitat for Humanity.

“What’s Habitat for Humanity?” she thought. When she first heard about Habitat, Robin was a skeptic. Her initial reaction was, “Is this organization for real?” But she committed to checking it out at an Applicant Information Meeting, and it was there she listened to former Family Services Director Steve Zwerling explain Habitat’s homeownership program. She learned that Habitat was planning to build three houses in Manchester, including one already under construction on Wells Street.

Habitat Homeowner Robin Roy

Though she took an application, Robin wasn’t fully convinced that Habitat was “for real;” that is until she visited the Wells Street site and saw first-hand “all these guys building away as a team.” She was so inspired that she wanted to “pick up a hammer right then an there” just like she was taught growing up helping out in her father’s auto repair garage.

Robin quickly completed the Habitat application and letter of interest. Where the application asked which of three towns Habitat currently would be building did she prefer, she listed “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester” to emphasize that Manchester was definitely where she wanted to stay. While she knew that if accepted Habitat made no promises as to where she might be offered an opportunity to buy a house, Robin committed to proving she was serious. She volunteered immediately to help build the next Habitat home already under construction on Bissell Street. It was winter, snowy and cold. It paid off.

Robin was working in the cafeteria when she got “the call.” Habitat had accepted her application. Her new home would be built on Manchester’s Foster Street. Taken completely by surprise, Robin, with her eyes welling up in tears, joyfully shouted out the good news right in front of her customers, who then followed up with cheers all around. Many cards and best wishes soon followed propelling her forward.

Robin had never done carpentry, but, undeterred, she pitched in every weekend she could to help build her new home. “I cut the rails on my porch”, she said proudly as she showed off her still sturdy handiwork. “I wouldn’t have gotten a home without Habitat,” she added with the satisfaction of knowing her sweat equity helped build it. She tells everyone Habitat has always been there for her. One winter, a few years after moving in, she discovered icicles were forming in her attic. She asked Bud Moyer, a long time and beloved Habitat Saint who had worked on her house, to take a look. He determined it was because moisture wasn’t venting properly. Without a second thought, Bud voluntarily fixed the problem by installing additional soffit vents. 

Robin Roy's Habitat House

Robin is a big believer in Habitat, and she’ll try to help anyway she can. For Robin, “Life is all about helping out.” Having a safe, affordable home stabilized her family life. It gave her time focus on raising her family, as well as herself. She eventually earned her GED, and now works for Companions & Homemakers serving people in need. It’s a natural fit and a job she loves.  In two years her mortgage will be paid off, and then she can truly say, “This house is my house. It’s really mine."

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Blossoming Partnership Grows Beautifully

Monrovia team ready to plant at the West Granby Habitat for Humanity house.

On a cool November 3, 2016 morning, a tractor trailer, emblazoned with the Monrovia logo, arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. It was loaded with fresh, locally grown stock from its Granby, CT nursery ready for planting at the new Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity home in West Granby, CT. With tools in hand, a skilled Monrovia team led by Mark Hixson and Jess McCue descended on the site to dig, plant, mulch and water an expertly selected variety of plants, shrubberies, and trees in an artfully designed plan; the  perfect finishing touch to the home being readied for its new owners. With the plantings completed by noon, the seeds for a perennial partnership had been sown.

The Habitat-Monrovia partnership germinated when Mark, Monrovia's East Coast Inside Sales Coach, contacted me after reading about our Granby build on a flyer that I posted widely throughout town. Mark said Monrovia would be keen on donating plants to the local endeavor. It would even include Monrovia's design team's expertise led by Jess. The results speak for themselves. Since the Granby home, Monrovia has helped beautify twelve more Hartford Habitat homes, the latest being in 2018 on East Hartford's Bliss Street and Moore Avenue this past June.

Headquartered in Azusa, California, Monrovia Plant Company is a national nursery whose trademark is Grow Beautifully®. "Since 1926, Monrovia has been the nation’s leading premium consumer plant brand, led by a passion for growing the healthiest plants to enhance the beauty of American landscapes." Monrovia has four growing operations: California, Georgia, Oregon and Connecticut covering the four corners of the United States.

Habitat for Humanity has always emphasized the need for its homes to compliment the architectural styles and needs of the neighborhoods and communities in which it builds. House designs are adapted to ensure they support a city's long-term vision and plan of development. One aspect of that design is best described as "curb appeal," which not only considers what the house looks like, but also how it sits on its property and the landscape around it. For Hartford Habitat, Monrovia's willingness to partner is proving strategic. It's an essential element for elevating the profile of what affordable housing really is, and what it can do for a community. Not only does Hartford Habitat build new homes to create home ownership opportunities, it also rehabilitates homes in disrepair. This is especially critical as Habitat looks to work with the City of Hartford's Blight Remediation Team to eliminate blight and return properties to productive use. It's all part of Hartford Habitat's commitment to Habitat for Humanity International's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

The following series of photographs and captions are representative of Monrovia's commitment to Habitat and the greater Hartford community. As Habitat Executive Director Karraine Moody explains, "It's a blessing to have Monrovia on board as a generous partner dedicated to improving the lives of others by sharing the natural beauty of the world that grows around us."

Monrovia's first endeavor in West Granby village was also Hartford Habitat's first rural build; a build much welcomed by Granby townspeople.

Team Monrovia busy planting a pine barrier along West Granby Road,
along with a Birch tree and Lilacs bordering the driveway entrance.

Planting Hydrangeas, Hostas, Day Lilies, and
Carex along the foundation and front walk.

Mark Hixson explains to homeowners Jaime and Ralph Wyman the plant varieties
Monrovia provided, as well as instructions on how best to care for them. 

Next it was on to Main Street in Hartford on June 14, 2017, site of three single family Habitat homes nearing completion, where Monrovia teamed up with Hartford's Capital City YouthBuild to plant shrubberies, perennials, and ornamental trees around each home. 

Monrovia's tractor trailer arriving with plants for
three Habitat homes at 2636, 2644, and 2650 Main Street in Hartford

Moving plants into place takes some muscle.

Karraine Moody (left), Habitat Executive Director, and
Tracy Thomas, Habitat Family Services Director, set
plants in place along the front porch.

Jess McCue and Hartford YouthBuild leader Frank Mangiagli
were thrilled with the results of the collaboration.
Two YouthBuild team members were still
all smiles after a hot day's work.

On October 19 2017, Monrovia arrived on Hartford's South Marshall Street to landscape the three soon to be completed duplexes. 

Monrovia, with the assistance of Eversource volunteers, landscaped the
South Marshall Street duplexes in half a day!

The results are spectacular!

The curb appeal of Habitat's three new duplexes at
161/163, 171/173 and 181/183 South Marshall Street was
greatly enhanced by Monrovia's landscaping

Most recently, Monrovia landscaped new homes at 66 Bliss Street and 9 Moore Avenue in East Hartford. Again, the results are excellent! As Construction Director Kris McKelvie noted, "People have been slowing down as they drive by to compliment the gorgeous gardens." And later this summer, Monrovia plans to plant similar gardens at the new Habitat homes under construction at 35 and 37 Armistice Street in New Britain.

66 Bliss Street, East Hartford.
The garden is thriving as the lawn begins to sprout.

As of the end of 2018, Monrovia's team will have assisted on fifteen Habitat homes since November 2016, which includes the specialty walkway entrance plantings at a rehabilitated home on Hartford's Roosevelt Street. Monrovia's generosity is making a visible difference in the lives of Habitat families, and the neighborhoods where they live. By working together Habitat and Monrovia have grown a blossoming partnership.  Long may it bloom!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.