Person of the Week
Charlene Fearon: Saying Thank You
Charlene Fearon and her husband Lol are leading the effort to bring an open-air meeting space to Chester Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Charlene Fearon )
Cassandra Archer of Centerbrook Architects donated her plans for the open-air meeting space. Image courtesy of Charlene Fearon )
When Charlene Fearon and her husband Lol told Tyson Stoddard, the principal of Chester Elementary School, they wanted to do something for the school as a thank you gift after the graduation of their grandson Mason, Stoddard suggested that perhaps some outdoor equipment or basketball hoops would be nice.
“We had a bigger vision,” Charlene recalls.
Much bigger, as it turns out. The new Open-Air Meeting Space at Chester Elementary School is the result. The timber-framed, post-and beam building, scheduled to be finished in August, will be roofed but open sided.
“I was astounded. It is amazing,” Stoddard says. “It will do so much for our outdoor learning programs and benefit students for years to come.
Chester Elementary already has an outdoor ropes course, a nature trail, and a rain garden, created with the assistance of the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center of the Connecticut Audubon Society. In addition, as a result of Chester Elementary School’s association with the Rockfall Foundation, a Middletown group with a focus on environmental education, there is a scientist-in-residence program at the school.
The Fearons’ connection with Chester Elementary goes beyond Mason, who lives with his grandparents. Charlene, who retired in 2014, taught special education teacher at Chester Elementary for 39 of her 40 years as a teacher. (She taught in Massachusetts, living at home, during her first year to help pay off college loans.)
Lol Fearon (a 2018 Person of the Week) was the principal of Chester Elementary from 1980 to 1988. Mason’s other grandmother, Doreen Murphy, who lives in New London, had been a volunteer at the school for five years.
“When you add up all those years, it’s quite an amount of time,” Charlene says. “We wanted to leave something substantial in gratitude for the school being such a big part of our lives.”
The Open-Air Meeting Space was the Fearons’ idea. According to Charlene, they started thinking about it during the COVID-19 lockdown last year.
“These were such stressful times and research shows that students de-stress and decompress in a healthy environment. There is a positive effect to more outdoor time. It raises spirits and it keeps people healthy,” she says.
Plans call for the space to be available not only as a classroom but also for community groups after school hours.
“It is a very versatile space,” Charlene says.
The initial question for Charlene and Lol was how to turn their idea into a building. That is where Cassandra (Cassie) Archer came in. Archer, a senior architect at Centerbrook Architects, did drawings pro bono for the Open-Air Meeting Space. Archer said she used timber framing and open sides to emphasize the connection between the structure and the natural surroundings. The building site is behind the school.
In addition to Archer’s pro bono work, Centerbrook Architects will work with the contractor to develop the construction plans.
Charlene and Lol talked to First Selectman Lauren Gister and the Chester boards of Education, Finance, and Planning & Zoning as well as Stoddard and Region 4 Superintendent of School Brian White about the plan.
“Each group thought it was a wonderful idea and that the project was doable,” she reports.
What was necessary was the money. Charlene and Lol made a crucial decision at the beginning of the project. They would take no town money, nor would they solicit donations from local Chester businesses.
“The businesses had a difficult year and they are asked so often for donations,” Charlene explains.
The plan was to raise money from individuals. At the outset, Charlene and Lol talked with Chester residents Barbara-Jan Wilson and Doreen Joslow, both of whom had experience with something the Fearons needed to learn about quickly: raising money.
“We had never done fundraising,” Charlene says, noting there was something else they had never done. “We had never built a house either.”
Charlene said she and Lol started the process with what she describes as “modest seed money,” and then they asked, and asked, and asked some more, mostly by telephone given the pandemic precautions.
“Some people were excited by the idea, some less so; we learned about rejection,” she says.
Overall, Charlene is enthusiastic about the community response.
“People were so generous with time and money. I was amazed,” she says.
So far, the project has 88 donors who have raised the initial goal of $75,000. In addition to individuals, donors include a number of community groups like the Chester Leadership Foundation and Chester Rotary.
Charlene says she and Lol are now raising an additional $15,000 for costs like site preparation and furniture for the meeting space. Tax deductible contributions can be made to the Middlesex Community Foundation with Open-Air Meeting Space on the memo line to direct the gift. The fundraising will continue until Wednesday, April 7.
According to Charlene, there have already been inquiries from other school districts about the project.
Charlene has been a member of the Chester Board of Education since 2014 and a member of the Supervisory District Committee. She and Lol headed the house tour for the United Church of Chester three times and she is a deacon of the church.
This year, Mason, whose elementary school graduation prompted the Open-Air Meeting Space project, has been doing middle school remotely.
“Given our ages, we’re vulnerable,” Charlene explains.
According to Charlene, Mason has a special reason to be proud of their efforts.
“He is glad we have found something to keep us busy,” she says.
To contribute to the Open-Air Meeting Space, checks can be sent to The Community Foundation of Middlesex County. They should be payable to “CFMC” and indicate in the memo line “OAMS@CES” and can be mailed to CFMC 49 Main St. Middletown CT 06457
Credit card donations can be made Foundation website: www.middlesexcountycf.org or by calling the Foundation office at 860.347.0025, referencing the open-air meeting space at Chester Elementary School when making a donation by phone.