This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

Article Published November 13, 2019

David Fernandes: Back Home and Loving It

By Aviva Luria/

Just over a month ago, Westbrook Parks & Recreation hired a new youth program coordinator, Westbrook native son David Fernandes. Known around town as “D.J.,” David graduated in 2010 from Westbrook High School, where he played soccer and served as captain of the soccer team. He also competed in premier soccer and served as a team captain in that league, too.

“D.J.” stands for “David, Jr.,” he explains. “It wasn’t until after college that I just started introducing myself as David because I think it’s just easier, at least in a professional setting.”

His most recent job was at the newly established Ocean Avenue LEARNing Academy in New London, which serves children with developmental and behavioral challenges from pre-kindergarten through age 21.

“I went as Mr. Dave,” he says. “I didn’t want to be Mr. D.J.,” he adds with a laugh.

David has long had an interest in education. At New England College, a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, he majored in physical education (PE) while playing on the school’s Division III soccer team.

Starting when he was a sophomore, he worked summers in Westbrook.

“I worked at the elementary school camp that’s at Daisy Ingraham,” he says. “I would coordinate the sports for them.”

He says he always sort of thought he would end up back home.

“I love Westbrook,” he says. “I definitely like the people here. I like the small-town feeling. And I feel like you can learn more because it’s more one-on-one when you’re working with students” here.

Working with children requires patience and understanding. So does nursing an injury when you’re an avid and talented athlete.

As a college junior, David broke his foot while playing soccer and had to sit out the rest of the year.

Many of his teammates “wanted me to come back and play once the cast came off,” he says. “I was in a cast for almost two months.” But “my leg was really weak after that and I couldn’t just jump in and play. That was also tough because...some of my friends, it was their last year to play. I couldn’t play with them.”

He continued with his classes, but didn’t want to miss out on a year of playing college soccer. So he “medical redshirted”—took a year off for medical reasons—and retained a year of eligibility. As he was on track to graduate in 2014, he changed his major to kinesiology to stretch his education out for another year.

Kinesiology is “pretty similar” to a PE major, he explains.

“You take a lot of kinesiology classes when you’re a PE major,” he says.

But some additional requirements, such as anatomy and biology classes, meant an additional year of classes.

While he was redshirted, “I was still part of the soccer team,” he says. “I just couldn’t play, so I got certified to drive the bus. So for away games, I was the one that was driving the bus for some of the games because I just wanted to contribute to the team.”

Finding a Calling

Many kinesiology majors end up as physical therapists or strength trainers. After a post-graduation internship in Virginia Beach as a strength coach, he realized his interests were in educating and helping people, so he moved back to Connecticut to work for LEARN, a public education agency that serves 21 school districts in southeastern Connecticut and along the Connecticut Shoreline and also operates several schools.

David’s first job with LEARN was at the Friendship School, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten magnet school in Waterford. He credits his experience there with helping him to use “different styles of teaching...helping [young children] with social skills, and learning how to share, how to interact with one another,” he says.

As youth program coordinator, David oversees the Parks & Recreation department’s pre-school program, which is held five mornings a week from 9 a.m. to noon. His college education classes also provided him with an understanding of the different ways students of all ages learn.

He took “a lot of curriculum design classes and through taking those classes, I learned that not each student learns the same way,” he says. “I know that it’s important to teach visually, to also teach to the auditory learners.

“In the pre-school we do a lot of songs because, for example, for your ABCs, you learn that as a song and that pretty much sticks with you your whole life,” he explains. “That’s the goal.

“Kinesthetic learning is important, too, for body-space awareness,” he says. “We’ll do [something] as simple as Duck, Duck, Goose. By doing that, they’re learning how to move in space without running into each other, tripping. We’ll also do different types of stretching. I call them animal walks, but they’re stretching and hopping, getting their bodies in motion, warmed up properly.”

Arts and crafts activities, in addition to having a connection to the time of year and seasonal activities, “work on the fine motor skills that they’re developing, like cutting, using scissors, manipulating the craft,” he says.

The pre-school program meets at the Teresa Mulvey Municipal Building on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and at the Westbrook Public Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Enrollment isn’t limited to Westbrook families, David points out, and he’s eager to get the word out about the program.

“The principal of Daisy Ingraham has only had good things to say [about] us and how prepared [the children] are when they come into kindergarten,” he says. “We’re working on writing their name, learning ABCs, learning numbers—they can all count up to 10 right now. They all know their colors and their shapes. And I’ll go over that every day—I’ll probe them without them noticing. I’ll ask them in midst of play: What color is this? What shape is this?”

The pre-school program has two teachers in addition to David.

“[C]ollaboration is key with me and my co-workers,” he says. “I ask them what they see or what they think could be done differently because they might notice some things that I don’t notice. And I think that’s a really good thing to have two teachers there. If we’re on the same page then we can accomplish the same goal of preparing these students for kindergarten and making sure that they’re ready.”

David says he shares LEARN’s vision about teaching.

“Their philosophy is to provide an equal opportunity for education for all,” he says. “And I really like that philosophy so I still...think that way, that everybody deserves a chance for education no matter what skill level they’re at or what ethnicity or gender. It doesn’t matter—everybody deserves the opportunity to learn.”

Also in David’s purview is the Westbrook Middle School after-care program. It meets after school lets out, at 2:30 p.m., and runs until 6 p.m. The kids first do their homework—David will “point them in the right direction” if they need assistance—and then play games in the gym, in addition to other activities.

David sees part of his role as encouraging kids to be more physically active.

“When they finish their homework, they are allowed to use their laptops...but I try to limit the time on there to get them out and active and playing different games,” he says. “And I try to switch up the games, too, so they don’t become bored. They love kickball, but I try to do different tag games and play some soccer, go outside to [play] four square.

“We just walked around the tennis court one time and they had so much fun just trying to find the tennis balls that people had hit over the sides,” he continues. “We’ll go on a nature walk. They have some trails in back of the middle school and just getting them out in nature, too, they really like that.”

Another thing David learned at LEARN was how to address any conflicts that arise. At Ocean Avenue LEARNing Academy, he used a technique called applied behavior analysis to de-escalate tensions, or help students work through a period of intense frustration.

“I’ve already used those strategies at the middle school program,” he says.

On Saturdays, David works with Westbrook Parks & Recreation Director Rich Anino to coach sports programs for kids.

“Every seven weeks, it’s a different sport,” he says. “There were seven weeks of soccer and now there’s going to be seven weeks of badminton and after badminton there’s basketball and so on and so forth throughout the season.”

The program teaches kids in different age groups the fundamentals of each sport, David explains, giving kids a chance to see where their interests lie.

“They come and they see how much they like it,” he says. “Sometimes there’s just not enough room for them on a team. And so that’s why this program’s good for them...they can still play.”

He also organizes a men’s basketball league, which meets once a week at Oxford Academy.

“They come and pay to play and we’ll break up into teams of five and we’ll play...on Monday nights...Right now there’s actually so many people there I can’t take any more people in,” he says. “So it’s pretty popular and it’s a good group of guys. It’s competitive but fun.”

The group breaks up into different teams each week, David explains.

“So there’s not one powerhouse team that will basically stay on the court,” he says. “We try to divvy up the skill level so everybody gets a fair chance to play. It gives people the opportunity to exercise without even realizing it, almost—they’re having a good time playing basketball, but they’re getting their exercise.”

David doesn’t just stand around and coach.

“I choose to play,” he says. “It’s fun.”