One of the amazing organizations in Wilton is A Better Chance (ABC), a program in which teenagers from economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods come to live in Wilton and attend Wilton High School. They benefit from Wilton’s commitment to education, and the Wilton community benefits from the diversity and enthusiasm that the students bring, as it’s described on the ABC website.
There are two separate residences–one for the girls and one for the boys–where the scholars live. They’re also matched with a host family from the Wilton community, spending weekends and each Sunday together.
Monei Walker is an ABC Scholar who will graduate from Wilton High School in June. Monei came to Wilton from New York City, where her mother still lives. She has an older brother who is currently a sophomore at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City.
Bright, enthusiastic and confident, Monei reflected on her experience as an ABC scholar–both as a student and as a teenager who has made life-long connections and friendships. She’s looking forward to her senior internship, trailing an OBGYN at Norwalk hospital, and then on to graduation and college. She’s already been accepted at several schools, but she hasn’t made that final decision–yet.
GMW: Were you a scholar from freshman year on?
Monei: I came in as a sophomore.
GMW: Before you even knew you were going to come to Wilton, what was it about the ABC program that made you say it was the choice for you? It’s such a big choice to make, leaving home to go to a different community in your teens.
Monei: I think it started with how my mother raised us. In my home there was always a standard we had to live up to. My brother and I were very smart, my mom recognized that and she held us accountable. We always got good grades in school and weren’t allowed to slack off. Homework was important, school was important, doing well in school, behaving, that kind of thing… My mom knew we would be exceptional and she looked for things that would help us achieve our potential. Programs like ABC or Children’s Aid Society, she always signed us up for things like that.
I went to a preparatory middle school, [Ethical Culture Fieldston Prep] and a lot of my friends were in the FEP–Fieldston Enrichment Program–that’s how I found out about ABC. It was too late in 8th grade so I applied in freshman year.
I came to Wilton for a visit. I knew, it just felt right. I was comfortable. It felt really good.
GMW: I imagine one of the things that feels good is being in the house with the other scholars.
Monei: We are a family here. I feel like everyone in this house is my sister. It’s so great to have that place to come back to, to people who have the same experiences. It’s a family here.
GMW: Explain about the host family part of ABC and what that means to you.
Monei: I love my host family! I honestly think that was God. I love them so much. They take me on vacations, we visit colleges together. They have three other children. My host mom said, “If you act like a guest, I’ll treat you like a guest.” [she laughs] I got comfortable very quickly!
GMW: You go from just your mom and you, to suddenly your ‘family’ mushrooms! That can be a lot of things–amazing, overwhelming… you have a lot of places where you can take refuge or get advice, have fun, have opportunities to try new things… diving into everything must have been a lot?
Monei: [laughs] I think I’m a pretty adaptable person and I also like to take things head on. I don’t like to shy away from things–If I’m doing it, I’m giving it my all, because I want to take full advantage and get everything out of it that I can. I didn’t come to Wilton to sit on the sidelines and watch everything go by. I came to meet people, make connections, because I think a big part of it is the experience. The education is the main thing, but a large part of it is the experience. That’s what drove me most to come here. I wanted to take it all in.
GMW: I want to address something up front. Wilton has a pretty lily-white face. How is that for you coming to this community?
Monei: It hasn’t been completely easy, but it hasn’t been the worst thing in the world. We have ABC orientation before we come, they try to prepare you for the challenges you’ll face. We’ve talked a lot about hair–I’ve gotten a lot of comments about hair! [laughs] I know it’s not coming from a place of harm, people are just curious. They haven’t been exposed to this before. I don’t mind sharing because how else will you learn?
The first year, someone asked why the lines on my palm were darker than my skin tone. It’s something I never thought about until someone mentioned it to me. Being here, you’re very aware of how you look. At home it’s not something I thought about, like, “I’m black.” Sometimes I feel it here–not too much anymore because I love the people in this town and I really love my class and the relationships that I’ve made. But my first year here, walking through the hallways, people were staring and I definitely felt it.
We talk a lot about it in the house.
GMW: Looking back at what you’ve been through, can you describe what the last three years have been like for you?
Monei: I’ve grown a lot. When I came here I felt pretty independent, that I was mature. I’ve learned to relax and soften a bit, because Wilton is very different from New York City. When you walk down the street there you have to have a hard face on so no one will approach you and I’ve learned to soften my face, that it’s okay to be approached by people.
I’ve learned to be more open, open to more opinions and ideas. Knowing that people haven’t lived the same life I have–helping people understand things I know. Learning and understanding things that others know. I’ve grown in that way.
I’ve become a lot stronger since I came here. My first year was hard–I had a really good year, and I did well, but it wasn’t easy having to adjust to a new town, a new community, new people. My confidence has wavered, but I’m happy to say that now, in my last year, and having accomplished a lot, I believe in myself and I’m happy with who I am and who I’m becoming. The experiences I’ve had here and who I am as a result of having been here.
GMW: The friendships you’ve made with kids outside of the house, how have those relationships been?
Monei: I’ve made some of my best friends here. I love this town and I love the people in it. They’ve been really nice and welcoming. I have really great friends, I have to say. I’ve never felt uncomfortable around them or that I’ve had to hide who I am.
GMW: Have you ever had an honest experience with anyone, where you’ve said, “You guys don’t know what it’s like.”
Monei: Wilton is kind of a bubble. I have said behind closed doors, ‘I wish they’d understand.’ But I’d never come out and say, ‘You just don’t get it.’
GMW: Let’s change gears. What kind of activities have you been involved in?
Monei: I swam, I did cheer for a little bit. I played hockey. I usually did musicals, but I didn’t this year. I’ve done Operation Smile, Key Club, Amnesty, International Club for a little bit. We volunteer at the library, we have the ABC House garden–we have to weed and plant and harvest. And I got into the National Honor Society this year!
GMW: Imagine you get asked to give an 8th grader advice about taking part in the ABC program. What would you say?
Monei: It might seem scary to take this big step but it’s absolutely worth it. It won’t be easy all the time, but it’s definitely worth taking the risk and having the experience. Even if things don’t go exactly how you intend, you’ll gain so much from being in a new environment so different than your own–having experiences, meeting people, and building those relationships, it’s definitely worth it.
GMW: What would you say to a family who was considering becoming a host family?
Monei: You gain another child and that child gains another family. I think it’s a really great feeling to have someone who supports you that much, that really cares and looks out for your best interests. And I think it’s fun to have another child–someone for your kids to talk to; if you have young kids, for your kids to look up to. Both parties benefit.
It makes such a huge difference. Sometimes, if I call my mom and she can’t make it up for a swim meet, having my host parents there means so much. It’s a great feeling to know that there’s someone out there that loves you and is always going to be there for you while you’re here.
GMW: With the ABC House Tour Fundraiser coming up, why is it important for people to support ABC?
Monei: It provides such a good opportunity for some kids. Most of us come from not-so-safe neighborhoods, or not-so-great situations in the city. I think it’s a great opportunity for kids to come here to Wilton. I could not have imagined going to high school in the city, because I know the life I’ve had here. I’ve grown in a good way and how much I’ve learned. The experience I’ve had here, you can’t equate it with anything you could have somewhere else.
You learn another side of life, and that if you work hard you can get it.
I’ve had the best time here. I’m starting to feel like this is my second home. I love it and I love the people here.
It’s also good for the kids from Wilton, to meet kids and make really good friends with people who aren’t from your town, to get a different perspective–that the life you see every day isn’t the only thing out there. That there’s another side to life.
On Friday, May 29, A Better Chance of Wilton hosts its second “Opening Our Hearts and Homes House Tour” to benefit the Wilton ABC program. GOOD Morning Wilton is pleased to be one of the event’s sponsors.
Tickets can be purchased in advance at Open House, Signature Style, and Wilton Hardware and on the ABC of Wilton website. Tickets for the main house tour are $50 in advance and $60 the day of the tour. Tickets for the tour plus one additional home and garden luncheon are $80 and must be purchased by May 26.
Pictured above, (L to R): Essence Williams, Adriana Deonarine, Monei Walker, Lia Tavarez, and Aqueelah Muhammad.