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Article Published July 3, 2019
BCF’s Berkson Helps Hometown Harmonies Celebrate Branford’s 375th
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Did you hear? With Hometown Harmonies, Branford Community Foundation (BCF) is throwing Branford’s official 375th birthday bash, and everyone is invited. The second annual Hometown Harmonies community celebration is set for Friday, July 19 at 6 p.m. at the Owenego Beach and Tennis Club, 40 Linden Avenue, Branford.

As a BCF board member, Rita Berkson has been working to help spread the word about the big event, which is open to the community with a “pay-what-you-can” entry fee. Walk-ins are welcome, but due to the overwhelming response to the inaugural celebration last summer, advance registration would be greatly appreciated, Rita notes.

“We thought maybe 200 people would come last year. We had 700!” says Rita of last year’s very successful gathering of community on a beautiful summer night in Branford.

To register, find “Hometown Harmonies Celebrating Branford’s 375th Birthday” at www.eventbrite.com.

This year, BCF is prepared to welcome a crowd (to date, 500 have already made reservations) with plenty of food, entertainment, and community spirit lined up for a special summer evening in Branford. Rita encourages folks to bring a blanket—and bring the entire family—out for a rare night to enjoy the gorgeous waterfront grounds of the Owenego and the celebration that’s planned.

Beginning at 6 p.m., participants can partake in offerings for sale from food trucks including Consiglio’s on Wooster Street, Holy Guacamole, Lobster Hut, Shoreline Prime, Ben & Jerry’s (ice cream), and Sugar (cupcakes). The evening’s main event arrives at 7 p.m., when the curtain goes up on the stage under the huge tent made available to BCF through the generosity of the Owenego and Camp Rising Sun (which holds its annual night out at the venue on Wednesday, July 17 this year).

Hometown Harmonies event coordinator and BCF board member Colin Sheehan has planned a night of musical entertainment including many performers with Branford roots, says Rita.

“Colin Sheehan, who produced it last year, is back; and he’s amazing,” she says. “He’s lined up some really good performers—Greg Nobile, Ryan Bloomquist, Connecticut Yankee Chorus, Tabor Arts of Branford [among them]. He’s bringing entertainment that’s local and expanded for this celebration.”

BCF will also honor a “local legend” (to be announced) during the celebration. Last year, BCF honored local legend Eunice LaSala for her decades of service to Branford, which continues unabated. This year, BCF will also host a private, pre-celebration event to thank all of the sponsors of Hometown Harmonies, without whom this event could not take place, says Rita.

Funds raised by Hometown Harmonies will go toward assisting non-profit BCF with its mission of supporting Branford-based community causes, programs, and organizations through grants. Since 1980, contributions to BCF endowment funds have allowed BCF to invest more than $1 million in the community. From its recent, landmark $100,000 matching grant for the Campaign for the Blackstone Library renovation, to helping Branford Historical Society purchase the historic Harrison House museum, to annual scholarships awarded to Branford High School (BHS) students, and support for programs ranging from basic needs to arts and culture, assistance from BCF can be found spread across the town.

As chair of BCF’s Community Investment Committee, Rita and her committee members review grant applications annually and award funds to support as many worthwhile causes as possible.

“We have about a dozen people on the committee. It’s a broad collection of board members and community people, so we really know many of the groups and issues in the community,” says Rita. “We really work hard to figure out which projects are going to have the most impact on Branford residents and on the community, and which ones sound innovative. Some are new organizations that are just starting, others are those which have been around forever.”

Most recently, BCF awarded $45,000 in competitive grants to organizations serving Branford; after receiving and reviewing a record number of grant requests, up 20 percent from 2018.

“We received 30 applications for funding, and we were able to fund 17,” says Rita, adding that although she’s been a Branford resident for more than 25 years, “...I’ve learned more in my two years on the board about what needs, opportunities, programs, and innovations are in town than I ever knew. That’s why it’s so exciting to me. It gives me insight.”

Recent awardees include Branford Compassion Club, Branford Early Learning Center, BHS Robotics Team, Camp Hazen (for Branford campers), Clifford Beers, Community Dining Room, Feed Branford Kids, Legacy Theatre CT, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven (for English as a Second Language Branford adult learners), Orchard House Adult Medical Daycare, BHS Project Graduation, Read to Grow, Special Olympics CT, Tabor Arts Branford, VNA Community Healthcare, and Women & Family Life Center.

As a professional organizational development consultant for non-profits including community health centers, Rita has served on other boards in the past, including Fellowship Place (New Haven) and New Haven Greater United Way. She recently retired and the timing was perfect to get involved with BCF, at the invitation of immediate past BCF chair and good friend Stephanie Farber, she says.

“I have pretty much retired, recently, so it was good timing for me to come on the Branford Community Foundation board; because I have the freedom now to be concerned about my own community, and to think about where I live and how to become involved,” says Rita.

Rita and her husband, Randy Reinhold, came to live in Branford due to Randy’s selection as chairman of the Department of Surgery at St. Raphael Hospital and general surgeon, posts he held until his retirement in 2009. The couple’s four children now live in the greater Boston area but come back home often to visit, which also gives Rita cherished time with her four grandchildren. So it was truly a full-circle moment last year when she was able to share Hometown Harmonies with those who were in town for a summer visit.

“They loved the idea, and we’re doing it again this year. The grandkids loved the food trucks; we brought a blanket and sat outside here, in this beautiful setting at the Owenego. It was a wonderful night,” says Rita, who encourages everyone to share in this year’s memorable event.

“Come, bring the family,” she says. “It’s a terrific family event. That’s what I learned, having my grandchildren here.”

Branford Community Foundation presents Hometown Harmonies & Branford’s Official 375th Birthday Party on Friday, July 19 at 6 p.m. at the Owenego Beach and Tennis Club, 40 Linden Avenue, Branford. The fundraising event is open to the community, RSVP required with a “pay-what-you-can” entry fee. Register at www.eventbrite.com/e/hometown-harmonies-celebrating-branfords-375th-birthday-tickets-55218234225. For more information about BCF’s grant making process, or how to donate, visit www.branfordcommunityfoundation.org.