This article is one of a series GOOD Morning Wilton is doing as the lead sponsor of the Wilton House Tour “Opening our Hearts and Homes” benefitting A Better Chance of Wilton on May 29.
The Walden Family has a busy schedule. With Emily, their eldest, just finishing up her freshman year at Wilton High School, and two boys–Tucker in 7th grade and Nicholas, their youngest, in 4th grade–their lives are active, to say the least. But for parents Heather and Michael, it was important for them to make room for one more person.
This past year, they began the experience of being a host family for Joel, one of the A Better Chance of Wilton (ABC) scholars. Joel spends Sundays and one weekend a month with the Waldens. But as Michael shared with GMW.com, it’s become a much bigger experience than just a few scheduled days a month.
GMW: Why did you and your family decide to become an ABC host family?
Michael Walden: I’ve been a big brother in the Big Brother/Big Sister program with a boy since he was 8 years old–now he’s 34–and I’ve been involved in a number of mentoring programs. That has been an important part of my life and my journey.
We saw this as an opportunity for our family to get more involved in our community and to support a young person who is doing everything they have to on their side–we thought it was the least we could do if they’re making that effort, that we could extend our hand and say we’re willing to help. There are so many young people who are trying so hard, and they just need that one extra hand to kind of pull them through. We just felt like this was a great way in our own community to do that.
We live in a very privileged community. No matter how much we appreciate it, I think we all tend to take that for granted some days. To have these kids in our own community who have done everything they can to get there, we just felt it was important for us as a family to say we’re willing to take that step with you.
GMW: It’s the first year for Joel in ABC, and it’s the first year for your family to host a scholar. How has this impacted everyone?
MW: From our perspective, we’ve learned a lot. It’s not as easy as we thought it would be. The dynamic has been one that took adjusting to on the part of everyone. They all have a different relationship with Joel, and it’s been interesting to see how that has played out.
Number one, you’re introducing somebody new into your home. We’ve got three kids, including a daughter who’s in the same grade as Joel. For her it’s been sort of embarrassing to have somebody from her grade now [living] in her house in the beginning. For Tucker who is always protecting his territory, he’s like, “Who’s this guy and why is he eating all our food.” And Nicholas has been, “This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened. I have a new friend who’s really nice to me. I never would have predicted that Joel and Nicholas spend the most time together, and Nicholas just loves doing anything with him.
It’s an evolution. This past weekend, Tucker and Joel went to go shoot baskets together. That wouldn’t have happened so easily three months ago. When he first started coming to our house, Heather would be nervous, like we were having a guest to entertain–“What do we have planned for him? What are we going to do?” Now, he’s just part of our group. “Here’s what we’ve got going on, here’s where we’re all going.” Joel is part of the fabric of our family.
What transitioned and what we learned through the winter when Joel played basketball, it doesn’t stop on Sunday night at 9 p.m. You’re really integrating somebody into your life. It’s not like we’re ‘hosting’ him. You care, you’re involved, you’re engaged, on a daily basis.
GMW: That’s interesting…we’ve talked about how the kids adjust. But to take on ‘parenting’ somebody who is already a full-formed person, it’s not like you’re adopting a baby. You’re a stand-in parent for a teenager, someone who has had a life before you. How has that been for you and Heather?
MW: One, we had to learn what our responsibilities were and figure out the boundaries. Joel’s parents are lovely, well-educated, good people who have done such a great job with their son. You don’t want to overstep and say we’re a surrogate parent. We were hesitant at first, and had to learn what our role was.
As we got into this, we learned that he’s a 14-year-old boy who’s essentially living without his parents for the first time in his life. He’s a 14-year-old boy! They forget stuff, he doesn’t do stuff. He’s had some academic challenges. Finally I had to step in and say, “I’m not just going to be picking you up and dropping you off and doing stuff with you, I’m on you now. I’m going to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. I’m going to ask you, I’m going to be tougher on you.” We get his report cards and we try to hold him to standards we would expect. They need that. They’re in a highly structured program [with ABC] but they’re still kids.
You’ve still got to connect with them. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I’m his parent. But you have a level of responsibility to him and to his parents and family that you’re going to help shepherd this kid. He’s 14, and like all 14 year old kids, he can do dumb stuff, and he forgets stuff or he doesn’t get off the couch. [laughs] For Heather and I, it was learning where our boundaries were and where it was okay to step in on. You learn that over time.
His parents have been great in asking us to participate. I represented him at Open House night at the High School, and went to all his classes. I’m more direct with him, and have a better level of comfort with him too.
It’s not easy every day–you are adding another layer onto an already busy life. It’s one more child to run things over to school for. Like we found out Joel’s got bad allergies–the pollen is much worse in Wilton than it is in the Bronx, and for the first time he’s having bad allergies. No one knew ahead of time, “Maybe you should be on Claritin.” It’s little things.
But you feel an obligation. We have to talk about him as part of our weekly plan. We don’t not talk about him during the week, or not worry about him during the week. We want him to be successful.
GMW: There’s an unspoken thing about the ABC program–a cultural and racial difference that they find coming to Wilton. How have you helped Joel with that and how has that been for all of you?
MW: I’ve been so impressed with how adaptable and comfortable he is. I think he puts people at ease and I’m not sure he’s felt any of that. Maybe it’s something we need to be more open about and talk with him about.
He’s been so comfortable, and has such confidence. I’m sure there are a whole lot of challenges for him every day that we don’t even know about. That’s a good question.
Before we lived in Wilton, we lived in a more diverse place. For us it hasn’t been something we think about. I’d love to say we’re blind to it, but I’m sure that’s not the case. His integration with our family has been so easy. But it has heightened my awareness around Wilton.
GMW: I think that’s one of the best things about the ABC program, what it gives to Wilton and our kids–perhaps a better understanding more than just what’s here in Wilton.
MW: I think this program is a really important one to have in our town. The scholars aren’t the only ones benefitting. Look at someone like [senior ABC scholar] Monei [Walker]. Tell me all the levels our town has benefitted from having that woman in our town. Who could be a better ambassador for more diversity in our town and for looking beyond this bubble we live in? How fortunate have we been to have someone like that spend three years in our town. How many kids in town have benefitted from being friends with her, or from hearing her story. How do we measure that?
You can’t tell me our town isn’t benefitting immensely from having this program in our town. I think it’s an important piece of the fabric of our town that we’re trying to build, and being vigilant about making it a better place. The ABC program is kind of an unsung piece of our town, an important piece. I don’t know that it gets credit for giving back to us like that.
I try not to be condescending about it, that we’re ‘helping these poor kids.’ Because these kids are really smart. That was one of the misconceptions I had originally, that the scholars were coming from challenging family situations. Joel’s family is unbelievable. They’re smart people who are working really hard to make sure their kids have a ton of opportunity. They’re really impressive people.
The benefits we get from these scholars are just as important as the benefits they get from being in Wilton. I don’t know if people appreciate that or understand it enough.