I am nominating my soon to be 68 year old mother for the 2021 AARP CT Andrus Community Service Award.
I have nominated her, as have others, for the past few years. I decided to nominate her again. This pandemic has provided two silver linings related to this nomination: 1) my mom survived Covid-19, and 2) I now have first-hand knowledge of what it is she has been doing daily for nearly a decade. For the last 7 weeks, I was part of her team. Yesterday, she released a Newsletter with links to the outcomes of the summer program. It can be found here.
From Halloween to New Year’s Day, I helped my mom navigate phone calls and texts. The 24 x 7 community TV station still needed to carry on even if she could not. Yes, some days she could not care for herself, but she managed to focus enough to answer questions related to station tasks. Fortunately, she had been training someone to learn the day-to-day when she was stricken with Covid. And one of the Board Members had enough familiarity with operations to handle many of the necessary tasks with her remote guidance. However, because of Covid nothing was routine. Remote church services were new, and the countless other programs that fill a 24 x 7 play schedule (including programs submitted by AARP CT) were undergoing change. Every operation was in flux. A weekly LIVE CT music series was in process. She had conceived of a way to produce the series safely because local musicians faced limited options to perform live for a community that craved their music. Tribute page here
Community TV serves individuals and organizations that support the community. It became her volunteer organization of choice in the 1980s. My mom has years of service as many things: foster mom, VISTA Volunteer, President of the League of Women Voters, Chairman of a Cable Advisory Council, Prison Chaplain’s Toy Drive Coordinator, Fantasy of Lights Holiday Team Lead, Church Treasurer. I am sure I missed a few. Serving in some capacity has been part of our life now for 35 years. I was that baby wrapped to her as she testified at board of alder meetings, that toddler entertaining the children of families she helped relocate from motels to better housing, the toy collector with 19 years on the job for the prison ministry, and that Santa in the fat suit at the Fantasy of Lights (carrying the torch for my grandfather, a man for whom no fat suit was necessary). It is not the work; it is the life-style that inspires me to nominate her again.
AARP VISION | A society in which everyone ages with dignity and purpose and in which AARP helps people fulfill their goals and dreams. AARP PURPOSE | AARP empowers people to choose how they live as they age.
How has the nominee’s work supported AARP’s vision and purpose?
Every organization mom has been associated with has a vision similar to AARP: Empowering people to live with dignity and purpose. Most have been related to justice, democracy, and transparency which are, ultimately, about dignity and empowerment. WPAA-TV, the TV station she administers, has the hashtag #MoreThanTV. As TV, the tools, stage, training, and support are provided to individuals eager to share their passions and talent.
The “more” comes from the activities that empower people to express themselves, learn and collaborate. Empowering happens through art, conversation and advocacy. The projects are inclusive, and participation is diverse. They happen because she does not take any compensation for her job. Whether it is a first job for the socially and emotionally challenged, or college interns at prestigious colleges, she is an advocate and mentor supporting their goals. But few know about her side gig: providing transitional housing in her home and assistance for those needing letters regarding a variety of court proceedings. Dozens of strangers whose lives were changed for the better because her mission remains to invest in people.
How has the work of the nominee improved the community or enhanced the lives of its residents for which/whom the work was performed?
In both 2019 and 2021, the communityTV station was deemed the best in the nation for its size by its peers. In 2020, the station won the Community Impact Award for the StreetshotZ Project. StreetshotZ, the Gallery, book and video feature the photography of another senior, Charles Buzinsky. She collaborated with the photographer on two collages in the collection. She designed the book. This #socialactionarts project has no expiration date. Donations go to programs serving the food and housing insecure. In addition, dozens of local producers have been recognized for their video-story work in the past three years. They all attribute their success to her support; be it the longer hours to keep the doors open, feeding the crews, finding just the right piece for the set, or matching the talent that walks through the door to the projects at hand. She is the lynch pin that makes our station successful.
Enhancing lives is the role of the station. It is a role that became a reality because of her commitment. The station is in the town center. It was a cow-barn in 1924. It was renovated and adapted for reuse by volunteers under her leadership with my step-dad. Within 10 years, it is owned outright by the nonprofit. Its services were extended beyond TV making, creating a media center with a gallery, public art mural and community space. It is used by individuals of all ages.
What is inspiring, courageous, unusual or innovative about the nominee’s achievement?
The transformation of the station into a viable community resource was an act of courage. Unfortunately, the Mayor of Wallingford would prefer Community TV did not exist. There are legal actions and public statements to prove this assertion. Therefore, the evolution of the station into a highly respected, award winning facility has been an act of courage overcoming barriers that need not have existed.
From mobilizing a handful of users around a strategic plan, to keeping abreast of technological innovation, and community engagement, one person at a time, the impossible remains a work in progress. And every day, she schedules, teaches, writes, calls, edits, creates and connects the dots moving the organization to a sustainable future – one that will no longer need her. The building was the easy part. The pandemic of 2020 made real the prospect of WPAA-TV continuing without her guidance and it drives her now more than ever to fulfill its mission.
Her enduring full-stop commitment is both unconventional and uncommon. A few years ago, during the W.C. Graustein Memorial Fund Community Leadership Training, she made some discoveries about how her work was perceived. The assumption was that she had plenty of privilege underpinning her level of availability and commitment. Not so. She also took stock of what that commitment added up to in actual hours, weeks, years and, yes, decades. She started public service with a 2-year VISTA enlistment. She is currently approaching her 10th anniversary as a full-time volunteer Executive Director. In between the two, the hours of service, on nights and weekends and always with family, exceeds 40 years. A full career on top of the one she had.
How has the nominee’s work impacted other volunteers or inspired others to volunteer?
WPAA-TV is volunteer run and operated. Every aspect of its operation, from building renovation to mural painting, or improv theater classes, or youth employment training, is connected to volunteers in service. Serving the idea of building a better community through arts, understanding, and action.
No volunteers – no building. No volunteers – no shows. No volunteers – no programs. The output of this channel is the equivalent of many with 3 to 5 employees. The total paid staff at WPAA-TV is less than 1 FTE.
She describes her impact as: One story or project at a time. New skills, forever mates, a job, a friend, a new perspective, a place to live, a new language, a movie made, a fear overcome, a new passion discovered, a network created, a hashtag connection, a song that gets a whole room singing, a gallery of #SocialActionArt, a mural, and a blue penguin that is a metaphor for civic engagement by whoever walks in the door at WPAA-TV. Thereby enabling a TV station to be ‘more than TV.’
Josiah Houston – Story coach, educator, author, son