Let’s be frank: For the most part, we live in a pretty homogeneous area.
For everyone’s sake, then, I’m grateful we have an organization like ABC of Wilton, a vibrant, thriving program that is making a difference.
ABC, or ‘A Better Chance’ is a 50-year-old national organization that provides educational opportunities for high school aged people of color. Wilton is one of only 309 affiliates around the country that offer four-year residential spots for students that would like to be part of the program.
Wilton’s program is even further differentiated by being one of only 22 ABC programs supported wholly by the community—which means that our ABC is a program aligned with a local public school district, rather than a private boarding school.
Through ABC, these students come to Wilton from backgrounds that may not present the easiest of opportunities to reach beyond high school. Most are from inner-city neighborhoods, and some, according to ABC board president John Klein, are the first from their families to graduate high school and go on to college.
The students who apply to be part of the program are most usually incredibly motivated to achieve academically and to be involved in their communities. More than 3,500 teens apply to enroll as freshmen. It’s a rigorous process, with extensive applications that get reviewed at the national level and then locally, as the teens get matched up with a residential placement—they need to find a fit that makes them and their parents comfortable, and then the local affiliates need to extend an invitation.
The Wilton program is even further distinguished by being one of only four ABC affiliates to offer both boys and girls a chance to participate. There are two houses that ABC Wilton owns where the scholars live, one for the eight currently enrolled boys, and one for the six girls now in the program.
It Takes a Village
What ABC is really about is the cliché of ‘It Takes a Village.’ Because inherent in the program is significant help from well over 150 Wilton community members who really help make the 14 scholars a part of the Wilton ‘family.’
Right off the bat, the kids get actual Wilton families. Each scholar is placed with a host family—almost always with a family with school-aged children to help them feel the kind of support only a family can give.
“You have the scholar over every Sunday, and one full weekend every month. You’re really going to bring this scholar into your family and treat them as a family member. It’s bringing them in and integrating them into the family,” Klein explained. “Over the years both the scholars and the host families develop enduring relationships that last long after the scholar leaves Wilton. They are life-long relationships, and very rewarding for everyone involved.”
There are resident directors who live in the ABC homes with the scholars during the week. Plus volunteers help out in many different capacities: driving the teens to sports and after-school activities, or to get haircuts or to their host families; helping out with maintenance and repairs at the two residential properties; or hosting events for the kids.
Board member Robin Fields said that ABC welcomes any way that members of the Wilton community want to contribute. “It’s not a huge time commitment, but it’s a really important thing so those kids don’t feel that they’re trapped there at the house. Volunteering to drive, if you wanted to host a picnic for them, or you wanted to do something special—for example, if you have a boat, take them sailing. People will drop off food or school supplies. There are a lot of ways people can volunteer, there are always opportunities.”
ABC is also intricately interwoven with the school district. Scholars attend Wilton High School and members of the school community offer them special guidance.
“We are able to function through the support of the Board of Education and the high school. Were we to have to pay for the education, it would be prohibitive and we would not be able to run the program. It’s not just the community [volunteers and donors], it’s also the BOE who made a conscious decision that this would be good for the community,” Klein said.
[Of note: The entire cost of the ABC program is borne by the organization itself. According to Klein, it costs approximately $18,000 per scholar per year, and he said the non-profit’s budget is met entirely through donations and fundraisers.]
There are school administrators who sit on the ABC board and widespread support from high school faculty. Every scholar is assigned a teacher mentor who helps them navigate the system and who keeps a protective eye on them at the school. WHS assistant Principal Linda Lyall, an ABC board member, oversees the scholars’ academics.
The scholars are supported during their summers as well. Sometimes they’ll get tutoring during the summer after freshman year, Fields explained, “but by the time they finish their sophomore year, they’re typically caught up. So then we try to get them into a leadership program—camp or an outward bound program, for example. They might travel through Europe on a leadership program. For most of these, we get scholarships. There’s a board member who does nothing but try to get the scholars into summer programs, and funding for all of them.”
Toward the end of the four year program, ABC has an advocate for each scholar whose primary function is to insure that when the scholar is getting ready to leave Wilton, they make a smooth transition to college.
“We found that they didn’t know how to get books, how to register for classes. That call you would make home to your parents or siblings, they didn’t have that resource,” Fields said.
In addition, there’s one other person that plays an integral role in the life of each scholar. During a scholar’s junior year, a volunteer gets assigned to be the college coach. “They hold their hand through the entire application process—often it will be a teacher or someone from the educational community; but often it’s someone who has gotten four of his kids into college. That is a huge component in their success,” Fields explained.
The program evidently pays off for these kids, and then some. “We do have a 92-percent rate of graduation from college after five years, which is more than twice the national average for minorities,” Klein said.
The Give-Back to the Town
I’ve personally gotten to know a handful of the girls enrolled in ABC. They’ve babysat often for my children over the last few years. Sometimes talking with the teens, you forget that they are just that—teens. They speak with a certain maturity, which is unsurprising, considering how motivated you need to be at 12 or 13 to apply to a residential program based on rigorous academic aspiration and community involvement—especially to leave home for a program in a community so different from where you’ve grown up.
One of the ABC scholars who I’ve befriended is 18-year-old Sophie Delfeus, who is in her senior year. She’s from Rockaway Beach, Queens. Hearing from a national ABC application screener tell her that she’d be a great fit for the program in Wilton made a huge impact.
“Having someone look at me, not just as another piece of paper but actually taking a look at the school years and the hard work I’d put in and how much he thought I could thrive through it—and thinking how much relief this would be on my parents and how much better it would be for me…knowing how much support and opportunity I would get, it made me say, ‘yes,’” she said.
“This program takes you out of your environment, away from all the things that might stop you from becoming successful later in life. For some people that could be taking them off the streets. Having an extra person to talk to, to keep them on track or to ask them about their homework—sometimes their parents aren’t home or sometimes they need that person to say, ‘How can I help you?’” Delfeus added.
Often Wilton is very different from the places where the ABC scholars grew up. Of the 14 current ABC scholars, one originally hails from Haiti, another from Ghana. Klein put it in perspective: “We have a scholar who was at one time homeless. We have another scholar who at one time was a ward of the state.”
Fields candidly puts it out there about one of the things the ABC program gives to the Wilton community. “It brings diversity not only to the High School but to the entire town—as much as these kids are benefiting our town is benefiting from this program as well. They bring so much to the school and the community. Wilton kids sit next to these scholars and realize how lucky they are, and see how motivated the ABC scholars are, and it’s a pretty powerful message you give to your privileged child living in Wilton, CT.”
It’s a great opportunity for everyone, but of course, most especially for the scholars. In fact, the organization has a motto that sums it up perfectly: “A Better Chance, A Better Future.” It doesn’t get more clear, simple or easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3 than that.
This Sunday, February 10, 4:00 p.m. there will be an ABC-hosted event, the fifth annual “I Dream a World” concert at the Clune Auditorium . Intended to be a community outreach event, it will feature music from the communities where the scholars grew up. There will also be performances from the Middlebrook School Choir, as well as some of the ABC scholars. There will also be an art show with artwork from Wilton children. Tickets are on sale at the door or on the ABC website.