Westport’s nurturing home for teenage girls in crisis
Susie Basler, Executive Director, on the project return birdhouse auction
photographs by lorin klaris
Professional photographer Lorin Klaris is the president of the board of directors at Project Return.
At the top of the staircase of a hundred-year-old renovated farmhouse in Westport hangs a replica of a scrawled self-portrait of John Lennon, the man who cowrote what could well serve as this home’s mantra: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” The landing leads to four bedrooms where seven teenagers nest; they are the residents of Project Return, a group home for girls who have been broken by physical or sexual abuse, eating disorders, depression, self-mutilation, or rejection by their adoptive families. One girl, who had suffered beatings with a two-by-four, sought refuge at the friendly beige home with the red shutters because her foster parents simply weren’t equipped to help her heal.
Helping that young woman (now a married mother of two) is just one example of how the trained social workers who comprise the live-in staff often “touch a girl’s soul,” says Susie Basler, the home’s executive director since its inception in 1986. With her white hair and gentle voice, Basler has the mien of a favorite aunt, as she provides a tour of the home, proudly displaying a holiday card picturing a baby girl and her toddler sister, the children of another Project Return alumna. Basler’s office is filled with photo albums of the more than 130 girls who have lived in the group home and gone on, not only to raise families, but also to earn degrees and pursue careers.
“Their pictures reflect hopeful teenagers celebrating birthdays, holidays, graduations—rites of passage that become fixed in adolescent memory. It is the staff’s commitment to the healing and growth of each girl, and its belief in unconditional love and acceptance, that carries each girl forward in her personal journey towards a fulfilling life,” notes Basler.
The staffers accompany the girls on the big trips and small, such as the school runs and errands familiar to many a mini-vanned mom in Westport. “We feel like we’re collectively these girls’ parents,” says Basler.
Laura Bard, director of development, admits to taking time out from fundraising to cook the girls their favorite hash browns. In the kitchen, at the oversized table, the girls share meals and adhere to the list on the fridge to see whose turn it is to cook dinner or clean up.
Just beyond the kitchen’s typical family computer station lies the staff bedroom, where a cushioned rocker is stationed next to the quilted bed, just in case one of the girls needs an ear in the middle of the night from Laurie Bucci. One of Project Return’s four resident managers, the twenty-eight-year-old Sacred Heart University graduate with a master’s degree in social work calls herself, “basically, their mother.” She says her age helps her relate to the girls.
But the staffers agree that with a house full of teenagers, feathers can get ruffled. It can be “lovely” or “gnarly, icky,” says Basler; it depends on the mood of the girls and the mix of personalities.
In the living room, those personalities are captured in black-and-white photographs of the residents; the portraits have been shrunk to miniature and adorn the otherwise stark white walls of a birdhouse, which looks just like an art gallery, replete with shiny hardwood floor. The birdhouse is one of 2,200 created over the past fifteen years by artists from all over the country and auctioned at Project Return’s annual fundraiser. For this April’s sixteenth annual gala at the Rolling Hills Country Club on April 1 in Wilton, some 150 artists have created their vision of a birdhouse. All symbolize the temporary haven Project Return provides until the moment arises when the bird has learned to fly again.
To look at the birdhouses of years past is to take a tour of a miniature Westport: a birdhouse Joey’s by the Sea with a painted brick façade and lone seagull; birdhouses covered in doodles by the late denizen who perhaps best captured Westport’s dual devotion to the arts and philanthropy—Paul Newman. Yet another birdhouse, cleverly named “Bye Bye Birdie,” is an uncanny reproduction of the Westport Country Playhouse. Other birdhouses, which have fetched anywhere from $25 to $11,000, aren’t houses at all. Some are sculptures or intricate pieces of bird-themed jewelry. But all are works of art, even collected by past bidders.
Hans Wilhelm, a popular children’s book illustrator and author, designed the artwork for the event’s invitations and promotional material—including colorful bird cut-outs, which have become an unofficial sign of spring in Westport. They signal the Birdhouse Auction and preliminary Stroll, in which the birdhouses are displayed in stores around town and a contest is held to name one of them. This year, that designated birdhouse is designed by the internationally known assemblage artist Nina Bentley, who constructed an extraordinarily chic Louis Tweeton handbag birdhouse for a previous auction.
“The event lifts all our spirits,” says Basler. The birdhouses get homes, the girls eventually leave their temporary homes, but, she says, “Project Return will live in this girl for the rest of her life.”