In the natural world, the springtime hatching of eggs has yet to occur. And while birds are busy building their nests, this is the time of year the supporters of Project Return are feathering theirs.
The 19th annual Project Return Birdhouse Auction and Gala on Saturday attracted about 450 people. They participated in silent and live auctions of bird-themed art, the proceeds of which help maintain the Westport nonprofit's residential house for teenage girls in need of guidance and a nurturing environment, as well as its outreach programs. The event took place at Rolling Hill Country Club in Wilton.
"I've never seen so many feathered friend supporters. Mother Nature's quite proud," said Mar Jennings, and author and lifestyle guru who had the winning bid on a replica of his own Westport residence, which he calls Rose Brook Gardens. Builder Rick Benson created two compartments for birds in the 3/8th-scale model, but Jennings said he will display the Rose Brook Cottage in his garden studio so it won't be subject to the elements; "where it will last forever."
The program's supporters, many of whom were first-timers to the event this year, were emotionally moved, some to tears, when they got a first-hand glimpse into the life of one Project Return graduate. Megan Merritt of Fairfield spoke movingly about her difficult childhood as the child of deaf parents and how she transitioned from "angry young lady" in 1998 when she first moved into the Project Return house to the a productive young woman who's life now has real purpose.
Merritt is a full-time student working toward a degree in social work and the first of the almost 150 former Project Return residents who has taken the organization's name to heart and returned to the house. Many of the graduates stay in touch and return for visits, but Merritt is the first of the former residents to become an intern at the house.
"I can contribute to a place that helped me get through some of the worst years of my life ... My life is coming full circle during this internship opportunity," Merritt said, calling Project Return "an important place to young girls in distress."
At Project Return, Merritt said "For the first time in my life I was living in a clean house with food and the ability to fully communicate with everyone around me. For the first time I was being heard ... The love and care I felt was overwhelming," she said.
"You listen to this girl who was up there and it's phenomenal what they do (at Project Return). They reclaim lives," said Lewis Shaffer of Ridgefield, an artist who has created birdhouses for seven Birdhouse Auctions. This year he used recycled bicycle parts to make a birdhouse with wind chimes and swiveling bird.
"It's so touching," said Francie Morris of Houston, Texas, who visits a friend in Westport this time each year so she can attend the Birdhouse event.
The birdhouses symbolize the safe haven offered by Project Return, and one current resident named Eliza, donated a pen and ink drawing titled Safe Place to the auction.
The artists continued their tradition of creativity donating, in addition to unusual birdhouses, other avian-related art including pottery, jewelry, mosaic, seashells, metal and other media.
Westport artist Jackie Weisburger created Fine Feathered Friend of clay. Eileen Lavigne Flug of Westport used white feathers to create Project Return ... A Soft Landing. Fairfield artist Betsy Hulme made saltbox birdhouse titled New England Chasm.
Ali Walker, a board member and co-chair of the event, said the auction is Project Return's largest annual fundraiser. "This is a significant source of funding to perpetuate the program. It's sort of like the cycle of life. We call it the cycle of love," Walker said.