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Sailing at Longshore Sailing School.

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Horizons GFA

Creating Opportunities for our Children to Succeed

We have many reasons to be proud of our town, one of which is, as of this publication, none of us have been implicated in a college admissions scam.

I’m only half-joking. Higher education goals are what inform almost every decision we make for our kids after the age of, say, four months in utero. We perceive our children’s college applications as a medal in their Life Olympics. (Whether or not their young lives should revolve around a college application is debatable, but… yeah.) Regardless, the important takeaway is this: we believe in preparing children for a life-goal beyond high school.

Testament to this belief is Horizons GFA (HGFA), a program that not only helps children in Bridgeport but also offers our own kids unique volunteer opportunities. At the odd age when they’re too old for summer camp but not old enough for paying jobs, these volunteers spend purposeful time with HGFA students. Yes, volunteering looks great on a college application, but this goes beyond an expensive student trip to build things in a developing nation. Working with HGFA students is about creating bonds and impacting the lives of children who, though five miles away, live in an entirely different world.

But first, Horizons.

Horizons National, in its original form, launched in 1964 in New Canaan. Now there are 59 Horizon programs in 18 states. Their mission is to offer underprivileged children the educational and emotional support necessary to “to succeed in school and pursue a meaningful, choice-filled life.” (HorizonsGFA)

Started in 2000 at Westport’s Greens Farms Academy, HGFA’s education enrichment program has enabled Bridgeport students living below the poverty line to achieve academic success.

Kids may apply if they live in Bridgeport, attend a Bridgeport public school and their family income is beneath the poverty level. Entry points are in Pre-K, Kindergarten, or 1st grade and students must commit to the entire program, K-16. Incredibly, 2/3 of the kids selected are academically below average. According to HGFA Director Joe Aleardi, “the beauty of this program” is providing opportunities for kids who are struggling. “No one is bad [at academics],” Joe insists, “you just have to put in the time and energy.”

Sometimes spots in upper grades become available, but rarely due to high retention rates. Yes, it includes (an enviable) college program. The make-up of the participants mirror the population of low-income Bridgeport and, of the approximately 150 who apply each year, about 30 are accepted.

Once selected, K-8 students attend a six-week summer school program at GFA every year, no absences allowed, and 11 Saturdays while in school. Large “anchor” events include all HGFA families, to inspire camaraderie and connection.

So how can Westport/Weston (and other) kids participate? HGFA accepts 30-40 middle and high school volunteers each year. “[Volunteers] help in classrooms, often tasked with working with higher-achieving kids,” Joe explains, “this frees up teachers to work with the kids who are struggling.” Volunteers also assist with afternoon recreation including rowing, sailing, swimming, and more. Staples student Harry Almansi states, “The Horizons program gave me an opportunity to help kids. I built a strong bond with the 2nd grade classroom and I am really happy to be back with them in 3rd grade.”

Longshore Sailing School (LSS) and Saugatuck Rowing Club (SRC)* offer HGFA students sailing and rowing lessons. Ty Chung, Staples student and volunteer at SRC says, “Some [of the HGFA students] were scared at first, but then they really liked it… watching their reactions [to rowing] made me appreciate how much we have in Westport.”

After 8th grade, HGFA students attend programs at their Bridgeport facilities. During college, HGFA provides check-ins, academic coaching, summer workshops, and more. “We don’t want the student to fear they can’t finish for whatever reason,” Joe states. If they prefer a path other than college, that’s fine, too. The goal, according to Joe, is “For every child to be excited about where they go, that they have a career and choice in life.”

For our children, being part of an HGFA student’s personal journey is more than just a line item on their college application. It’s an experience that instills compassion and understanding and, hopefully, motivates them to work with underserved people beyond their college years.

For HGFA children, the program enables them to define themselves not by their economic status but by their confidence and potential. Emory University and HGFA graduate Jazmin Reyes recalls, “I became a teacher because of educators I had growing up, especially [HGFA Director] Joe and [HGFA teacher] Lisa Moore. Miss Lisa would say ‘No, you are enough. You can do this.’”

Of the volunteers, Jazmin recalls, “I remember almost all of my student volunteers, especially… Mr. Brian. We were like, ‘this is our best friend!’ even though we were in 4th grade and he was in high school.”

Ultimately, a whopping 90% or more of HGFA students graduate from college, which is incredible given that only 9% of children from the lowest income quartile are expected to obtain a college degree.

That statistic gives me goosebumps every time I read it. Kids are amazing. Adults are, too. From now on, when my kids tell me they’re incapable of weeding flower beds I’m going to tell them about what kids at Horizons are accomplishing. They’ll love that.

*LRS and SRC provide their own student volunteers.

  • 1st Grade Students.
  • 8th Graders rowing at Saugatuck Rowing Club.
  • Sailing at Longshore Sailing School.
  • Learning how to row at Saugatuck Rowing Club with junior coach Jacqueline Yeranossian.
  • Students at Saugatuck Rowing Club.
  • Teacher Sabine Januski working with an HGFA student on a writing assignment.
  • Stanley at GFA Summer School.
  • Math Teacher Rose Okai teaching HGFA students, assisted by Classroom Intern Darcy Whitman, GFA '18.
  • Sailing with an instructor at Longshore Sailing School.