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Wendy Mill enjoys giving back to her community as part of Old Saybrook’s Youth & Family Services. (Photo courtesy of Wanda Barnes )
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For Wendy Mill, her 13 years at Old Saybrook’s Youth & Family Services (YFS) brings together many threads of her life and weaves them together.
“I’ve always had a sense of community,” she says. “It’s from my childhood: the importance of giving back to your community and giving back to others and supporting those around you. That’s always been part of who I am.”
Raised in Connecticut, for college she decided to check out the Midwest and attended Miami University in Ohio, majoring in education. Then, deciding she preferred the East Coast, she returned to Connecticut. But teaching jobs were scarce and she ended up working at small community banks: Essex Savings Bank and later Guilford Savings Bank (GSB). But not without applying her teaching background.
At GSB, “I was a human resources administrator and oversaw all the training in the bank,” she says.
In 2007, when her children were students at Old Saybrook High School, she started part time at YFS as volunteer coordinator, recruiting members of the community to teach after-school programs and clubs at the middle school. This work drew on her experience creating a mentoring program at YFS for Guilford High School students.
As for her role at YFS over the years, “[r]ather than a transition it’s been more of an evolution,” she explains. “I’ve not strayed too far from where I started.”
One of her primary current endeavors is the E3 program, whose three E’s stand for encourage, empower, and engage. While this peer-to-peer substance-abuse program is administered by YFS, it was created by the Governor’s Prevention Partnership (GPP) and the state Department of Transportation.
“The focus is on [substance-abuse] prevention as a whole,” Wendy explains. “The units that we do in the classroom focus on decision making and making a healthy decision. Our values are connected to our decisions.
“The student facilitators...are really the ones that deliver the message,” she continues. “I can help them in forming it.”
The group meets each week during the school year and is guided by curriculum provided by the GPP, although the YFS group adapts the material for its own purposes. In the past few years, the group has chosen to focus on vaping, which the students see as a huge problem at school.
“Over the last couple of years, this has become such a great issue for them and their world and our world as adults as well,” Wendy says.
“There has been a great rise in the use of vapes in our community and in general across the country in the teen population,” she continues. Old Saybrook Police helped by putting together a confidential buy-back program for students, offering them gift cards for vaping equipment.
For E3’s first vaping-related project, the students designed table tents, which they provided to seven local restaurants to place on tables over the summer. The information on the table tents was presented as a quiz.
“How much do you know about vaping?,” was the overall idea, according to Wendy, devised to “raise awareness and get the information out.”
Next, “[t]hey put together a community conversation for parents last fall about vaping and what was happening now and where do we stand now.”
This led to a presentation to the group’s fellow students at OSHS, and then to an adapted presentation for students at the middle school, followed by a “talk back.”
“Their strength is being peers that can talk to their peers,” Wendy says. “They know their facts. That resonates much stronger” than adults trying to get a message to kids.
Rejigging a presentation for different audiences takes some thought; the group discusses how the perspective of a middle-school student, for instance, might differ from their own. Many E3 members have younger siblings and are able to bring those experiences with them to the group discussion.
“These are the things that we talk about at our...meetings,” Wendy says. “It comes from developmentally, how can we make this meaningful for them? What pieces of our existing presentation are going to resonate with them?”
The meetings took a “brief hiatus when [schools closed and] we first went to social distancing,” she says. But the students saw their E3 work as an ongoing project that deserved their attention, so they picked back up and continued their meetings by Zoom.
“They’ve decided to continue to meet together through the summer,” says Wendy.
After being awarded a small grant through the America’s Promise Alliance, a partnership of organizations working to help youth, the group chose to continue Goodwin Buddies, a high-school/ elementary mentoring program, online. Called Crafty Connections, the program will fill needs the E3 students recognized.
“The umbrella of prevention: having an older mentor to talk to. Parents’ fatigue and needing to have a break,” Wendy explains.
“Beginning July 15 for four consecutive Wednesdays, younger students in grades three to six register to meet with [the E3 students] and do a craft project,” she continues. The crafts will use materials people commonly have at home to make towel animals, origami figures, and friendship bracelets.
“It’s a time to get together with [older students] through Zoom in the safety of their home, see different faces, and reconnect with other friends,” she says.
Sharing the Joy of Music
One of the threads of Wendy’s life that extends back to childhood is her love of music. A minister’s daughter—her father was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Deep River for 13 years—music is central to who she is.
“I have been singing my entire life,” she says.
Her “me” time is as a member of the Con Brio Choral Society, an auditioned shoreline choir founded in 1997 that now consists of 70 members. Singing and connecting with people who love to sing feels vital; now that COVID-19 has prevented even practicing—singing tends to spread those droplets around—the group is meeting online.
Ordinarily, “[w]e have concerts twice a year and we perform at Christ the King Church in Old Lyme,” she says. “It’s a whole lot of fun.
“Our concerts are really diverse,” she continues. “The first half, we do a major piece, and most of the time it is classical. We have an orchestra...that performs with us.”
For “[t]he second half, we lighten it up a bit and we do everything from some jazz” to holiday music, she explains. “We have paid soloists who...perform with us as well.”
Con Brio tours every other year, and Wendy has traveled with the group to Spain, France, and Croatia. She was the tour coordinator for this year’s trip to Italy, but the pandemic forced the group to postpone it.
“One of the highlights of our traveling is we connect with other groups while we’re there,” she says. “We have joint concerts with other groups, get to see them and perform with them.”
Her love of both music and theater both “translated here at the agency through the summer stock program,” which she helped facilitate for years.
Overall, she says, “I do consider myself to be a people person and especially youth have been an important part of my life,” she says. “I can’t tell you what it means to me as I see some student that I have met perhaps in middle school...and see them grow into young adults. It is so rewarding to bump into them in Stop & Shop and see how some of their experiences [with YFS] have moved and influenced them.
“It’s so rewarding to know that we can have a positive relationship well beyond the boundaries of our town here,” she says.
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