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Article Published September 19, 2018
No ‘Mystery’ to Why Stewart Helps Feed Branford Kids
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

She may be a college professor by day, but on the evening of Friday, Sept. 28, Carol Stewart will put on a flapper outfit and pull out all the stops to help Feed Branford Kids (FBK).

For many months now, Carol has been helping plan the Onofrio’s Total Construction annual fundraiser to benefit FBK: a Murder Mystery Night set for Friday, Sept. 28 at the elegant Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club. If all goes well, the swanky event will be thick with mobsters and molls and guys and dolls, including Carol and her volunteer planning committee.

“We’ll be gussied up in our flapper skirts and our headbands and [guests] could wear your best Roaring ‘20s outfit or your Great Gatsby outfit, if you’d like,” says Carol.

Carol is a charter board member of FBK, an all-volunteer, self-funded group founded in 2012 by the late by Johanne Pantani. Initially, administrative assistance was provided to FBK by non-profit Branford Food Pantry, but FBK recently successfully applied for its own non-profit status, says Carol.

To establish FBK, Pantani gathered friends including Pat Andriole, Sue Barnes, and Branford Food Pantry President Wendy Cowles and family, including her cousin, Carol, to join her as charter members. Sadly, Pantani passed away in February 2018, but her legacy continues through their efforts, together with a small group of FBK volunteers who help continue the work.

“Johanne just had vision, and she loved all children. She always saw them as her angels,” says Carol.

And, thanks to the continued support of David and Deborah Onofrio, proprietors of Branford-based Onofrio’s Total Construction, FBK has been the beneficiary of several fall golf tourneys in recent years, each helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the cause.

“Debbie and Dave are wonderful people. They’re very generous. When they approached us a few years ago to see how they could help, we said, ‘We want to do an annual fundraiser,’ and they developed the golf tourney. And now, they’re helping us with the Murder Mystery Night,” which replaces the tourney this year, says Carol.

As a member of the fundraiser’s event committee, Debbie Onofrio has been helping Carol, Pat, Sue, and Wendy plan the big night for months. From the event’s signature drink (dubbed the Mary Pickford) to tracking down an artfully decorated “speakeasy” door, the group has been working hard to immerse guests in a night of classic mystery, fun, and fine dining.

The night opens with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (there’s an open bar from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.), then sends diners to decadently decorated tables named for famous mobsters like Al Capone.

That’s when the fun really starts, says Carol.

“Once they sit down and start dinner, someone’s going to get murdered in the room, and everyone’s a suspect,” she explains.

As they dine, guests will get grilled by detectives and other entertaining characters from a professional acting troupe.

“They’ll get it solved by the time dessert is done,” says Carol of the whodunnit specialists.

A raffle, silent auction, and live auction will also be part of the night’s fun and fundraising. One hundred percent of all event proceeds will assist FBK in its mission.

The FBK Mission

Working collaboratively with the Branford Board of Education (BOE), FBK currently provides take-home weekend meals to Branford elementary school children in need. FBK honors each child’s need for privacy by partnering with school administrators to ensure anonymity, as well as privacy of food delivery (bags are placed in backpacks).

Throughout the academic year, FBK volunteers shop, pack, and deliver weekend meal bags. The bags contain two breakfast meals, two main meals, two cartons of milk, two cartons of juice, and snacks for an entire weekend. The volunteer packers include Carol and the rest of the FBK charter board members.

“We call ourselves the Sexy Senior Packers,” says Carol, laughing.

Of course, there’s a very serious side to the work they’re undertaking—getting food to Branford kids in need. Branford Public Schools’ latest statistics show that 34 percent of all students in the district (elementary through high school) qualify for free or reduced lunches. FBK notes that if half the children who qualify for food assistance in the district were enrolled in FBK’s weekend backpack program, FBK would need an annual budget of $85,000 to provide for them.

While the district’s free and reduced lunch numbers help to show the scope of need, FBK’s weekend backpack program has no income eligibility requirements and includes children beyond those eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Currently, FBK assists more than 1,200 kids each academic year.

“We’re up to almost 200 kids per week,” Carol notes.

The FBK all-volunteer board continues to work toward reaching more students, including older kids. The board hopes to someday tie in with an existing program at Walsh Intermediate School, which currently assists students through Connecticut Food Bank’s weekend food gap program. FBK also hopes to work with Branford High School (BHS) to help provide weekend meals for high school students in need.

How to Support FBK

To support the mission of FBK, Carol and her co-volunteers will continue to do all they can to raise funds—through grants, generous donations from individuals, local civic organizations and businesses, and events like the Sept. 28 Murder Mystery Night.

Supporting Murder Mystery Night is a great way for community members to help, says Carol.

“We still have tickets available, and we’re also still accepting sponsorships, and donations of auction items,” she says.

Among major event sponsors gathered for the event are Fusco Construction & Property Management of New Haven and community volunteer non-profit collaborative Branford Cares. Those who may not be able to meet one of the suggested sponsorship levels can still contribute, any time of year, by sponsoring a child, says Carol.

“For $250, you can sponsor one child for the entire academic year, because that’s what it costs to feed one child for the year,” Carol says. “It’s been really successful for us. We took in well over $15,000 last year, just on that program.”

Tickets and sponsorship information for Murder Mystery Night, together with information on sponsoring a child and much more, can be found at www.feedbranfordkids.com.

Caring for Others

Getting involved in FBK has been an honor for Carol, who is also an active member of Branford Rotary Club. Carol is also an associate professor of management at Southern Connecticut State University’s (SCSU) School of Business.

“I really enjoy working with the students,” says Carol, who earned SCSU’s “Outstanding Academic Advisor” award in 2016.

Prior to teaching at SCSU, Carol earned her doctorate in communication from Regent University, Virginia, and gathered more than 20 years’ experience as a corporate trainer and educator, helping her to become widely considered as an authority on crisis communication. As a member of the International Bullying Prevention Association, she’s looking forward to getting SCSU and her students more involved in Social Justice Month this November.

A native of Branford (BHS Class of 1970), Carol’s outstanding work to assist those in her hometown, including her efforts on behalf of FBK, have been recognized this year with her selection as a 2018 recipient of a Shore Publishing Beacon Award.

“For me, helping Feed Branford Kids is so easy, and it makes so much sense,” says Carol. “When Johanne first asked me, I thought, ‘I don’t have five minutes of spare time!’ But I’ve enjoyed it, and at the same time, it’s rewarding.”

FBK Murder Mystery Night

Guests are invited to attend Onofrio’s Total Construction annual fundraising event to benefit Feed Branford Kids, a Murder Mystery Night on Friday, Sept. 28, at Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club, 2 Club Parkway, Branford. Cocktail hour begins at 6:30 p.m., followed by dinner at 7:30 p.m. and a raffle and live and silent auctions. Tickets, $100, are availabel at www.feedbranfordkids.com.