A Better Chance (ABC) has been part of Wilton for nearly 25 years. The national, non-profit organization’s mission–to increase access to high-quality education for students of color, so that they may achieve positions of responsibility and leadership in American society–was embraced by the community in 1996, when the first ABC scholars enrolled at Wilton High School under the auspices of ABC of Wilton. 

But 2020 has brought about many changes and ABC of Wilton began the new school year with new leadership, new students, new dynamics in the house, and plenty of new, COVID-related challenges.

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Jeanne Robertson, a Wilton resident and member of the ABC of Wilton Board of Directors, to learn how the program is adapting to all the shifts.

Reopening The House

Just as schools, businesses, restaurants, and other enterprises have grappled with how to operate in the coronavirus era, the ABC program faced myriad challenges preparing to open the ABC house for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

Robertson emphasized that the top priority was the safety of the ABC scholars and staff.

In addition to purchasing PPE and implementing new cleaning protocols, the program had to make numerous modifications to its usual procedures in order to open safely.

For example, ABC scholars normally spend every Sunday and one weekend per month with local host families; those policies, among others, had to be reviewed and modified with COVID in mind. In fact, visits initially were put on hold until very recently, when scholars and their host families have begun meeting again, but not yet on weekends and only for a few hours at a time.

The program will continue to adapt as the board looks to safely reintroduce more interaction between the scholars and other community members.

Robertson acknowledged the leadership of fellow board member Gary Hirsch, who steered the ABC committee dealing with COVID-related issues to ensure the organization was following the best possible protocols.

“We had about 15 board members on the COVID planning committee,” Hirsch explained in an email to GMW. “That sounds like a lot, but there was a lot to do, from research and policy drafting, to communications with families and the high school, staffing arrangements, healthcare, and testing plans, PPE procurement, and house preparations.”

Even the home’s wi-fi required an upgrade.

Early in the planning process, the committee recognized that the role of the resident directors (RD’s) would need to change, particularly in terms of their time commitment. A resident director is required to be in the house any time a scholar is present. While in non-COVID times this would leave the RD’s school days free, now an RD must be onsite whenever scholars are in the home on a distance learning platform.

“This meant we would need an adult at the ABC house potentially 24/7,” said Hirsch. “Thankfully, our resident directors Jay and Damone Johnson stepped up without hesitation to answer the call.”

The Johnsons are a husband-and-wife team who are relative newcomers to the ABC program; this is only their second year as RD’s in the ABC of Wilton house.

Jay Johnson, who holds a master’s degree in public health, coincidentally left her “day job” at the very start of the pandemic and had the flexibility to devote the additional hours as an RD. “I’m really a stay-home-mom now,” she said.

“Needless to say, [all of] this has put a strain on our already lean operating budget,” said Robertson. “We will be seeking the support of the community to help cover some of these additional costs.”

Robertson pointed out that “community” includes the business community, which for a limited time has a real incentive to help ABC through a tax credit program (enacted as part of Connecticut’s COVID relief efforts) for corporate donations to select non-profits struggling during the pandemic. Corporations will receive a tax credit equal to 60% of their donation to ABC of Wilton.  Importantly, to receive this credit, donations must be made by October 1, 2020. (Not all businesses will qualify, but they may email ABC of Wilton for details.)

Not Just Policies And Procedures

The planning process was far more nuanced than simply identifying the right protocols and allocating budgets. As Hirsch explained, “Our primary challenge was to… strike the right balance. We had to consider questions like what does social distancing mean and what happens if one member of the household becomes symptomatic. It was important to keep the central idea of the program alive, that our scholars at the ABC house live like a family. At the same time, we needed to adhere to CDC and state guidelines for people living under one roof who are not technically family.”

Hirsch acknowledged the support of the law firm, Pullman & Comley, and also highlighted the benefits of working in concert with other ABC programs in ways they have never done before.

Referring to that collaboration as a “silver lining,” Hirsch also said, “A Better Chance has community programs like Wilton’s throughout the US, yet we hadn’t collaborated, even with our closest ABC program neighbors in Fairfield County… suddenly everyone was on Zoom, grappling with the same issues. These programs that previously never worked together now plan to continue collaborating on issues beyond COVID planning.”

New Leadership

In its fall update to supporters, ABC of Wilton announced new co-presidents: Nancy Peters (far right) and Lynn Shuster. Bother women had previously served on the board of directors and worked in a variety of capacities for the program.

Peters and Shuster have taken the helm as the program looks forward to its 25th anniversary in 2021. The organization is hoping to mark the occasion with a celebration on May 1, 2021 (and even has an optimistic “hold” on an event space). Any volunteers interested in working on the celebration committee may contact ABC of Wilton.

More Focus

In order to become part of ABC, students undertake an extensive application process and qualify as scholars only after meeting rigorous academic standards and low-income requirements.

ABC of Wilton began with a boys’ residence in 1996. The girls’ program was added in 2008. Wilton was one of only two ABC programs in the country that maintained two residences.

Since then, the program has graduated 52 scholars from Wilton High School. This includes four graduates in the class of 2020; two girls and the last two boys to graduate before the boys’ house was closed in a difficult decision last spring.

ABC of Wilton’s co-president at that time, Derrel Mason, said, “In the interest of being the best stewards of the resources that the community has so generously donated, the Board has decided to invest its energy and concentration in the girls’ house.” A decline in qualified boys’ applications and an array of competitive boys’ programs were cited as reasons.

Today, the program is able to consolidate its resources with a singular focus on the girls’ house. This year, the girls’ house added two new freshman scholars. They join three other students, two sophomores and one senior, in the house.

Now a few weeks into the school year, Jay Johnson felt the girls were “settling in” to the new daily routines. “Now they’re used to me taking their temperature every day!” she said.

“The girls are really, really, really careful,” Johnson observed. “But we do have a plan in place for quarantining if someone in the house shows symptoms [of COVID]”.

Looking forward, Johnson is a bit apprehensive about the arrival of cold weather and the girls having less opportunity to socialize outside. “One thing that has been kind of challenging is making sure everyone is still involved in extracurricular activities. Especially for this year, the community support is essential. A lot of the usual activities just aren’t available. The girls are resilient and flexible but we’ve noticed it’s hard [on them] and we need the community to continue to embrace them… in a socially distanced way of course… so they can continue to have a rewarding experience here.”

ABC of Wilton welcomes creative ideas from community members for activities or programs that could be implemented to enhance the scholars’ academic, social, or personal experience here. Robertson cited one example of a volunteer who led a series of workshops to help the scholars come up with inventive menu plans.

A New Atmosphere

All of these new developments at the ABC Wilton house are taking place in a new atmosphere of heightened awareness across the country regarding social justice and issues of race.

When protests after the death of George Floyd and riots over racial equality became a flashpoint across the country, the national ABC organization made the following statement in a number of major newspapers and on social media:

“A Better Chance stands for education, access, and opportunity. The unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have made clear the gap in justice and opportunity for people of color in our nation. A Better Chance grieves with their families. We have been fighting these injustices for 57 years by fostering leaders of color in our society and promoting educational access for young students. Our 16,500 Alumni are assuming leadership roles across our nation to help move our country forward and serve as a vision of what’s possible when afforded equal opportunities.”

This statement by the ABC national organization appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

ABC of Wilton reposted the statement on its website to affirm the national organization’s stance.

“That’s a good statement,” according to Adrienne Reedy, an ABC host parent and longtime, active program supporter, who is volunteering with ABC of Wilton to “facilitate the conversation” here about these sensitive topics. No specific plans have been announced, but Reedy reports a team is being assembled and ideas are evolving.

Reedy brings unique experience from many years ministering in the religious community hoping to advance what she calls “racial reconciliation.”

Elaborating on the ABC statement, Reedy said, “The temperature continues to rise, so yes, there is an awareness that is causing, forcing, people to have the conversations [about bias]. This is a pivotal moment in our country to have this conversation for change.”

In an earlier interview with GMW back in June, Reedy said, “I believe that we can do better and be better citizens in the area of racism. There are a lot of good people in this community, which is why we chose to move here over 23 years ago. Families have the power to change the narratives and it starts in the home… parents must look beyond the overt racism and recognize it’s covert racism that impedes societal wholeness.”

Reedy believes that everyone should take this opportunity to engage in real dialogue and to gain a deeper understanding and empathy for the experiences of people of color in our community. But today, Reedy says, “People don’t know how to talk about it. But we must be able to talk about it” so that meaningful change can occur.

Even residents who believe they are already “helping” the cause of social justice and racial equality will benefit from deeper dialogue about racial issues, Reedy believes, and with that deeper understanding, the ways in which people “help” might be quite different.

Reedy wants residents to consider that what the ABC scholars experience here in Wilton may be different from what residents may imagine.

Robertson made a similar point: “We’ve done really well to support [the scholars] academically, but we need to make sure they have good pastoral care too, [here], where it is very different from the communities where they grew up.”

Meet ABC’s 2020-2021 Scholars

Isabelle, Class of 2021:  Isabelle is a senior from Brooklyn, New York. She enjoys photography and fashion design. Her favorite class in school is Spanish because she loves learning about the language and would like to be fluent someday. She’s in the photography club, fashion club, and Red Cross Club and will participate in track during the winter and softball in the spring.

Cindy, Class of 2023:  Cindy is a sophomore from Harlem, N.Y. and was a member of the Fieldston Program where she demonstrated good leadership and debate skills. Her strengths are math and writing. She also loves dance and was co-captain of her Cheerleading team. She loves the challenge of exploring new learning ventures and is eager to pursue her third language, German, as a student at Wilton High School.

Suvani (Nia), Class of 2023:  Suvani (Nia) is a sophomore from the Bronx, New York. She loves music and has participated in the Bloomingdale School of Music and has also completed several contemporary compositions for the NY Philharmonic Very Young Composers Program. In Wilton, she aspires to play piano in the Wilton High School jazz ensembles. Aside from music, her academic strength is in writing. She also loves meeting new people.

Courtney, Class of 2024: Courtney comes from the Bronx, New York, where she lives with her mother. She is a graduate of the Equality Charter Middle School, and she participated in the Fieldston Enrichment Program and the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program. Courtney’s academic strengths are in science and English language arts. She enjoys singing, swimming and community service.

Fatoumata (Fatou), Class of 2024:  Fatou comes from New York City, where she attended Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. She lives with her mom and has three siblings. Her older sister is currently an ABC scholar in Andover, MA. Fatou’s academic strengths are in science and history. She also enjoys language arts and loves to read in her free time. Additionally, Fatou likes volleyball, cheerleading, and swimming.