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Waterford Country School opens Founders Park

Waterford — With the renovation of Founders Park, Waterford Country School is honoring its past.

The 100-year anniversary of the school — a nonprofit agency providing residential treatment, emergency shelters, foster care, special education and therapeutic boarding, among other services, for at-risk children — is in two years.

But Executive Director Bill Martin and the WCS community wanted the project to be completed sooner rather than later. Work on the project will be completed in a couple weeks, Martin said, which coincides with his coming retirement.

He did not want to leave before the project was complete.

“That’s what put it on an eight-week track: six weeks to raise the money and two to build it,” Martin said. “In 2018 we got together with a landscape architect to design for a full renovation, and that’s coming to light right now.”

The project attracted more than 230 donors in six weeks. A member of the founding Schacht family donated $15,000, and a group called the Southeastern Connecticut Power of Together donated $10,000.

“About $30,000 of it had been raised since 2018, when we floated the idea. We put a call out to our board, to our staff, to this group of amazing supporters that we have for everything we do,” Martin said.

The renovated park, which is at the center of the campus off Hunts Brook Road in Quaker Hill, will have a fence that keeps basketballs from rolling down to the school every time it goes out of bounds, as well as a drinking fountain, a new backstop for kickball, resurfaced and painted blacktop, new basketball hoops, a sitting area for lounging, and it will be lighted.

Martin spoke to why he feels this is an important initiative for the kids.

“Their lives have been tough, and we believe kids who’ve had a tough run deserve the best that we can give them,” Martin said. “They walk across that space every day. It’s just going to feel good. We built a brand new gym back in 2015-16, it was remarkable how important that was for them. We want the best for our kids because they deserve it.” 

An extensive social media campaign accompanied the effort to bring the park to fruition. In one video, Casey Saunders, the occupational therapist at Waterford Country School and a member of the founding family, gave an indication of how staff members may use the park.

“I plan on using this as a classroom space and being able to just be outside,” Saunders said. “If 2020 taught me anything, it’s nature and the beauty of being outside, being able to learn, and move, and socialize. This area is everything.”

Pam Schacht Lewis, another member of the founding family, touched on the school’s deep history.

“The particular area that is going to be named Founders Park and is being restored was a huge part of my childhood. I remember on a daily basis being able to pick and choose which activity I might go to that evening,” Schacht Lewis said. “I’m still proud to be a neighbor of Waterford Country School, and I appreciate the property so much. It’s a sacred place. It’s so heartwarming to see kids still utilizing all of the grounds.”

The institution was modeled on a school for gifted and ill children founded by two teachers, the late Ettie and Henry Schacht, in their Brooklyn, N.Y., home in 1922. It later expanded to two buildings in Brooklyn and a summer program in Far Rockaway, N.Y. That school closed in 1951. In 1929, the Schachts bought more than 500 acres of farmland in Waterford and established a summer camp for children with disabilities and mental illnesses, now the Waterford Country School.

The Schachts continued to operate the Waterford school until their son, Herb, took over. He ran the school for more than 40 years. He was born in 1922 to Ettie — whose family fled Russia when she was a baby and who taught George and Ira Gershwin in a New York elementary school — and Henry, also a teacher as well as an actor and Cornell University graduate.

s.spinella@theday.com

 

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