Tomorrow is the 2017 Wilton House Tour to benefit A Better Chance of Wilton (ABC). This year’s tour features six spectacular Wilton Homes, and GOOD Morning Wilton is pleased to once again be a lead sponsor. The tour lets attendees unlock the doors of some of the most extraordinary homes in Wilton, celebrating ABC Wilton’s 20 years of unlocking the key to success for ABC scholars.
Seeing inside these exclusive homes is the bonus, but more importantly the money raised by the event supports an extraordinary mission. ABC Wilton provides deserving students from economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods with ‘a better chance’ by placing them in an environment that encourages academic excellence, improves their college acceptance chances, and lays the foundation for an improved future. Since 1997 Wilton has graduated 38 scholars, who have gone on to colleges like Duke, Tufts, Princeton, Notre Dame, Amherst, NYU, Princeton, and more.
This year, ABC Wilton graduates four of its current 17 scholars: From the boys’ house, there’s Darvin Molina, from the Bronx, NY, who has played on the Wilton High School basketball team, is involved in the school’s Top Inclusion Models Club and the Full Court Peace Club, and aspires to pursue a career in business; and Zachary Melo, also from the Bronx, who runs on the Cross Country team, is involved in the Buon Amico and Peervention, spent a week last summer in Spain living with his host family from The Experiment in Learning, works at the Wilton Sport Shop, and wants to be a lawyer for children with special needs.
GMW‘s senior interns spoke with their fellow seniors, girls’ house ABC scholars Essence Williams and Aqueelah Muhammed, to get a better picture of what the experiences as A Better Chance scholar is like.
Essence hails from New Brunswick, NJ. During her summer approaching senior year, she traveled to northern China to study the culture and took Mandarin lessons. She actively participates in Wilton High School’s School Climate Committee and was inducted into the German Honor Society. Following graduation, Essence would like to major in International Relations and Global Studies. In the future, she hopes to work with the Peace Corps.
GMW: How did you get started with the ABC program?
Essence Williams: When I was in middle school, I didn’t want to go to any of the high schools in my town. I decided that I would either go to a charter school or I would go find something else. I approached my counselor asking if there was something different that I could do and she brought up this program. I just brought it up to my parents after that.
GMW: What was the application process like?
EW: You have to have a written essay with recommendations, something standard with a college application and then you send that in. If you’re accepted into the second stage, you’d do an interview process and you’d go through parents and admissions counselors in the ABC program. If you pass that stage, then they will send you a list of schools that they would recommend that you apply to that fit your interests and personality. If you get into any of those schools, which is the third stage, then you can pick from there. ABC doesn’t place you in a school. It helps you narrow down your choices. Whatever the schools give you financial aid-wise is their own choice but it’ll help you direct yourself.
GMW: Were you looking at schools all around or in this area specifically?
EW: All around. I wasn’t interested in coming to Connecticut when I first applied. There was a private school that I wanted to go to in Princeton, NJ. My choices kind of ranged from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut was definitely the furthest. This is the only school that was on my list in the northeast.
GMW: How has your experience been generally with your host family?
EW: Since I didn’t want to come here myself, my mom told me that it would be a good opportunity so I came here. It was good because I’m really big on family values. It was a good time to be in a house with other people where you can build up a family and community. I don’t really think that’s something you can do at private school because you’re by yourself and you wouldn’t have that support network.
It’s been amazing having all of these girls with me. I have a large age gap with my sister so we didn’t really connect much. Since I’m closer in age to the girls here, which has been good, we have a much stronger relationship. We started going to YMCA camps to build leadership and teambuilding. Every weekend once a year, we go with all of the new girls to get closer. It’s amazing. Just the relationships we’ve built, the connections.
I’ve been with the Freliechs as my host family for two years–it’s amazing. They’ve introduced me as their adopted daughter, their fourth daughter, which is so nice. I spend Sundays with them and one weekend a month. I feel like we’ve really connected and gotten really close. They’re a nice grounding presence here.
GMW: What’s been the most interesting opportunity that the program has offered you?
EW: Every summer, there’s an unspoken rule that we can go abroad wherever we want. We have to apply through a program but ABC helps you pay for it which is so amazing because if I were home, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I wanted to experience international living so I went to China for a month. One of the girls went to Spain, another to Mexico, and another to Costa Rica. Through the program, we’ve built up a network of us going to these different countries when we’re in junior or senior year. They have someone who is strictly in charge of summer programs who will help you find one. It’s not just strictly limited to trips abroad. Someone did a summer program for medicine at George Washington University and someone did an Eleanor Roosevelt leadership training camp in Pennsylvania. I think that’s the best part. They want us to keep busy and learn something while also having fun.
GMW: What did you do in China?
EW: My program was culture and traditions in northern China. I toured every cultural spot that I could in China so I saw The Wall, the Forbidden Palace, Nanjing city, Tiananmen square. We also stayed with two different host families and it was a merging culture experience. I don’t plan on studying it but it was a really fun time. I stayed with a host family in an urban city and then also in a rural village where they farmed.
GMW: What was the language gap like?
EW: In the urban cities, they spoke a little English. They have English schools. One of my host brothers was 11 and his English was amazing. It was like he had been speaking it his entire life, he was so fluent in it. I would say the younger generation spoke English better than the older generation. They didn’t speak any English at all in the rural village. They told us to download two translator apps and there was also a lot of hand signaling.
GMW: What was the most eye opening/transformative experience that you’ve had as part of ABC?
EW: Something that was really transformative for me was last year, I got in a really big Facebook battle with a bunch of people in our grade. It was a really big tipping point for my identity. I was like, here we are, they bring these really talented–usually African American or hispanic–students into an all-white town, you’re going to have identity issues and transformative points. That was a really big one though because it was like, ‘OK Essence, here’s what your identity is like in this world right now. You can reconcile that with the circumstances you’ve been given.’ That was a really interesting point for me because a lot of people came to me and said, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes.’ A lot of people also told me that they didn’t believe what I said. While I may not agree, I respect that because everyone has different opinions. That was a really big point for me because if you’re going to go out into the workforce or to university, here’s what you should be aware of and here’s where you stand personally with your own identity.
GMW: Are there any changes you wish the program itself would implement?
EW: Not really, the town has been extremely welcoming to all of the scholars. The school is so open with everything, especially letting us tour them around twice a year. People in town know who we are because we try to contribute as much to the town as it does to us. We do volunteering a lot.
For the program itself, I have spoken to them and said, ‘You know, if you’re bringing students into this environment, make sure they’re aware of some things like cultural differences, maybe language barriers, especially with parents.’ I feel like that’s been addressed, which is good because I want to build a better network for the rest of the scholars to be able to communicate with our board and the rest of the town. Our board is our connection to the town.
GMW: Do you want to touch upon some of the things you’ve done in town whether that’s volunteering or extracurriculars?
EW: I’ve volunteered at the Wilton Library book sale every single year–fall, winter, spring. That’s one of my biggest things because I’ll spend 4-plus hours there every day. We’ve also done Stop Hunger Now for three consecutive years. In school, I’m involved with the School Climate Committee, the German Honors Society, Peervention, and Buon Amico.
GMW: What are you interested in studying next year?
EW: I’m going into international relations [at Seton Hall University] on the diplomacy track. I want to be a diplomat. On the diplomacy track, I’m immediately going to start taking classes towards my major.
Aqueelah is from East Orange, NJ. Some of the activities she has participated in while in Wilton include yearbook, dance, track and field (shotput) and helping new students through the Buon Amico program. She enjoys reading and running in her free time. She hopes to one day pursue a career in film, writing and directing.
GWM: How did you hear about and get involved with ABC?
Aqueelah Muhammad: My mom introduced it to me. She had a friend whose daughter went through the program, and she went to boarding school. From there I did some research, and I liked the idea that I’d be able to go away and get a better education. My school in Long Branch, NJ was good, but it wasn’t really challenging me, so I decided to apply for ABC. It was a year-long process. I started in 7th grade, and I had to get into the program by 8th grade. Then from 8th grade, I had to apply to high school. I applied to different boarding schools and community schools like Wilton. I finally came to Wilton and interviewed, and then they called me the night I got back home.
GMW: What was the interview process like?
AM: I interviewed at a lot of boarding schools. This was actually the only community school program I came to interview at. It kind of felt like fate for me because I interviewed at a lot of different boarding schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and it was just a really long, grueling process. But the Wilton interview was a little different. I really liked it because I got to meet the board members for ABC, I got to meet the girls, and then spend the night and come to school the next day.
GMW: Walk me through a typical day of Aqueelah in Wilton vs. in Long Branch.
AM: My life here in Wilton is very different from what it was in New Jersey. Here, I definitely have a lot more opportunities. I’ll give you an exciting day in the life of Aqueelah. We have a lot of fundraisers and different events for ABC. So I get up in the morning, get ready for school, go to school, and then usually I have a sport of some sort, volunteer drivers come to pick me up, and then at least once a month we have something called life skills. For example, one time for life skills we got to go to a local landscaping business here in Wilton. We got dressed up in business attire and then we went to the business. We sat and talked to the owner of the company and we learned about the company and what they did, and then we go home. We typically eat dinner altogether unless someone has a sport or something like that. Then it’s study hall time, and then finally, chores and relaxation. Lights out.
Back home, it was a lot more lax. I was involved in a lot of stuff: I did theater, I did dance, I didn’t do a sport back then. I was in the choir, so it was usually school, activities, homework, shower, eat, sleep. So I do a lot more here.
GMW: What have been the highlights of Wilton and the ABC Program for you?
AM: For me, it would be meeting all the people I’ve met, and making connections with people in the town, people at the school, and just gaining opportunities that I know I wouldn’t have had back at home.
GMW: What were the hardest parts, socially and academically?
AM: Academically, it was pretty hard at first because I wasn’t as challenged at my old school. So coming into Wilton, my teachers definitely expected a lot more out of me, so I had to get used to the expectations that my teachers had for me. And socially it was hard because everyone in Wilton has grown up with each other since preschool, and it was hard being a newcomer. But people invited me in and I felt very welcomed right away.
GMW: What are you going to take away from your experience?
AM: For me, my takeaway is, as long as you believe in yourself and put your mind to it and work really hard, that you can get anything done. Four years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself here, a senior, doing internship, and going off to college. Who knows where I’d be right now? I really had to put my mind to it, and work really hard. And ABC taught me that.
GMW: I know you’re going to Temple University, but what are your other plans for the future?
AM: I’m going to be majoring in film production, and I plan on also doing athletic medicine. So that is my plan. I don’t really know what I’m going to do after that. I hope to go to California after school, so we’ll see where it takes me. As long as I work hard I know I’ll succeed.
GMW: Anything else to add?
AM: Just that ABC is a fantastic program, and without things like the house tour and all the different people who donate to, fund, and volunteer with the program, it wouldn’t be possible.
If you’re one of the lucky people with House Tour tickets for the Friday, June 2 event, pick up entry passes with important tour details at Comstock Community Center on Thursday, June 1 between 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; or Friday, June 2 from 9-11 a.m.. See you on the tour!