Person of the Week
Kovi Helps ‘Harbor Lights’ Return to Branford Dec. 19
Volunteer Rob Kovi and friends are planning to light up their Branford Point neighborhood with more than 1,200 luminaria for all to enjoy during the second annual Branford Harbor Lights CT, set for Saturday, Dec. 19. (Photo courtesy of Rob Kovi )
A shot of the luminaria set out last year at the Branford Point/Parker Memorial Park seawall. (Photo courtesy of Rob Kovi )
Luminaria alight on Harbor Street during the 2019 event to benefit Community Dining Room. (Photo courtesy of Rob Kovi )
“The feeling that night in the air, so to speak, was really remarkable,” says Rob Kovi. “We’ve talked about it since. It was, ‘Is this a Hallmark movie? Are we living in a Hallmark movie somewhere?’”
From the looks of the way Rob and a handful of like-minded neighborhood visionaries managed to set up 1,200 candle-lit luminaries from the Harbor Street bridge to the sweeping seawall of Branford Point last December, the answer is “Yes.”
The good news?
Rob and company are planning to do it again this year, on Saturday, Dec. 19 (rain date Sunday, Dec. 20).
Better still: Once again, all proceeds from luminaria kits purchased by the area’s residents will benefit a local non-profit. Last year, more than $1,100 was raised for the Community Dining Room. This year, proceeds will support efforts of the Branford Community Foundation.
Perhaps what makes the entire event even more remarkable is that Rob and his wife, Lori, have resided in the area for just over three years. But almost as soon as they moved into their home on a quaint street beside Parker Memorial Park at Branford Point, the wheels were turning.
“When my wife and I moved to Branford in May 2017, we felt we were so fortunate to find our little place in that little neighborhood. We enjoy walking up and down the streets—it has such a nice little neighborhood feel to the area,” says Rob. “And I just always felt this was the kind of community, with that identity, that would do neighborhood-type things.”
Rob even looked into whether the area had a neighborhood association like so many other Branford enclaves along the water, but learned it was a thing of the past. Luckily, says Rob, he also discovered that his neighbor, Sally Esborn, happens to be one of the area’s deeply rooted residents. And he just couldn’t shake the thought that “this is the perfect place to do neighborhood-type things.” From that point, it all came together in the summer of 2019.
“I had seen some luminary events, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this would be the perfect thing to do right down Harbor Street, and you have the park, and the seawall.’ So I was talking with Sally, because our backyards abut one another, and I asked if she thought something like that would work in the neighborhood,” recalls Rob. “And she said, ‘Wow, that sounds like a great idea!’ And I said, ‘Well, I think I want to do it, but I’m new to the neighborhood. You know everybody in this neighborhood—would you come door to door with me?’”
The partnership formed up quickly and the door-knocking sessions began. As Rob found out, “there’s still a lot of old-time families that are in that neighborhood—it’s surprising how houses pass from parents to children there—so when she was dropping the Esborn name, it helped us get a little bit of energy going.”
As Sally notes, “Rob has embraced his new neighborhood and it has been a pleasure to work with him on this project...He does most of the work!”
As Rob recalls, last year’s effort started out with a goal of lighting the front of their Harbor Street neighbors’ homes from the bridge to Branford Point.
“And then we said we wanted to light the seawall, so we asked [more area neighbors] if they’d be willing to buy some luminaries for the street in front of their house and contribute some towards the park,” he says. “Altogether, we sold 1,200 luminaries last year.”
To tie in the fundraising aspect, the bags and candles are offered at $12 for a set of 10, with $2 from each sale covering the cost of materials and $10 going to benefit the non-profit group, says Rob.
As a curriculum coordinator for career and technical education for Wallingford’s school district, Rob also knows his way around a computer and organized an email list of contributors as they came on board, which he also used this year to jump-start participation. Rob has also set up an event page on Facebook (HarborLightsBranfordCT) with news and updates as well as images from last year’s event, including drone footage shot by a friend (some still photos also appear with this story at www.zip06.com).
To further facilitate the participation process this year, beginning on weekends in November, Rob, Lori, Sally and some other volunteers have been gathering at picnic tables at Branford Point where they’re selling luminary bags and candles to neighbors dropping by.
“We’ve been sitting out there, socially distanced, with masks on,” says Rob. “The first weekend, it was 74 degrees outside, and we just sat there chatting, like a bunch of neighbors. And now because of this, there’s people in the neighborhood that said we want to try to get the Branford Point Association back up and running.”
As for this year’s Harbor Lights Branford event, Rob says one thing he didn’t anticipate is how it’s quickly grown to inspire more participation from neighbors on side streets in the area.
“Last year, there were people from side streets who contributed and usually the question last year was, ‘Are people on my street lighting up luminaries?’ And I would say, ‘No, not necessarily, but they are contributing to the park lighting,’” says Rob. “So now this year, after they’ve seen what it was last year, there’s a little bit of shift to those who want to put some in front of their house.”
Any work to light up homes on side streets is being organized individuals or street captains who are facilitating their own efforts light up those roads, Rob says.
“Anyone who asked, I said if you want to knock on your neighbor’s door, go for it. So that’s kind of how it’s organically grown this year,” Rob says. “We have one neighbor who said they’ll go from the bridge up Harbor Street for three or four houses, so it’s going to start stretching from Stannard Avenue. It’s growing.”
So in addition to Harbor Street and Branford Point, lights will shine outside homes on several side streets this year, including McKinnell Court, Parker Place, Lanphier Road, Stannard Avenue, Mill Creek Road, Driscoll Road, and Reynolds Avenue.
For their part this year, Rob, Sally and company are once again concentrating on lighting up Harbor Street from the south side of the bridge over to the park and seawall. While homeowners are responsible for lighting their luminaries up at dark on the night of the event, the hundreds of luminaries at Branford Point are lit by volunteers who come out to help Rob.
Last year, Rob says he wasn’t sure if he and his small band of helpers were going to pull it off—until many of their neighbors simply showed up and got to work.
“We thought the struggle was going to be to light them all. We started at 4 p.m. last year, which also happened to be the winter solstice—the darkest, shortest day of the year—and there were over 500 luminaries in the park to fill and light,” says Rob.
Fortunately, Rob had sent out an email notice to all of the neighborhood participants about his small group’s plans to get the job done in time.
“So we started filling bags with sand from the beach, and stacking them on the wall. And little by little, one by one, people just started coming, and started to put the bags out. Then somebody went back and put candles in them,” says Rob. “And as it got dark, people showed up with their own lighters, and everyone just descended on the park and lit these things in about 10 minutes, and it was done. And then it was dark and all you could see was the little orange glow in the bags, and the [night] was dead calm, so the water was reflecting the lights perfectly. It couldn’t have been better.”
Looking back on the entire Harbor Street Lights event last year, he adds that “everybody was in such a good mood. Everybody said, ‘Oh my gosh I can’t believe what a wonderful idea this was, we’ve got to keep doing this.’ And it made me feel good, because it was just an idea and it was so successful.”
This year’s outdoor Harbor Street Lights event will once again invite people to stroll the scene or drive and park to view the sight at Branford Point.
“It is a stroll event, it’s a drive-by event, it’s a drive to the park and park and stroll—that sort of thing. It’s outdoors, so people can be masked and distanced. Nothing about the event involves any contact with anyone,” says Rob. “Last year, our only goal was to get people to light up their street in front of their house and maybe take a stroll, but organically what happened is some of the neighbors just decided to invite friends over and took their little fire pits out and had it on their front lawn. So it just became a really nice night for everyone to enjoy.”
Rob says he feels this special event will be something he and his neighbors will continue to participate in and enjoy for years to come.
“I wanted to do a neighborhood event that would bring people together, and I think it did,” he says.
Branford Harbor Lights CT to benefit Branford Community Foundation is set for Saturday, Dec. 19 at dark in the Branford Point neighborhood section of town (Harbor Street Bridge to Branford Point/Parker Memorial Park) with a rain date of Sunday, Dec. 20. For updates and more information, find the HarborLightsBranfordCT event page on Facebook.