Residents of all ages have stepped up their efforts to be better people in the months since 12/14. There are concerted efforts to be a kinder, gentler town, and regular reminders to be nice to each other. One resident is among those who has been living a life of purposeful kindness and encouragement for more than a decade.
The Newtown/Danbury unit of Church Women United hosted its annual Human Rights Celebration on March 8 at Newtown Congregational Church. The theme of the celebration was “Through God Our Hands Can Protect.” This year’s celebration continues CWU’s mission of recognizing “that there are many of God’s children in our world who are not able to enjoy life free of oppression and fear.”
The Human Rights Celebration was begun in 2006 by Church Women United to encourage its local units to recognize persons and organizations in their own communities who are doing extraordinary work on behalf of “the least among us,” according to notes from CWU.
“It has been an opportunity to learn of creative, unique, and tireless men and women who are truly inspiring,” Local Unit President Darlene Jackson said Saturday morning.
Michelle Weinstein was the keynote speaker for the celebration, which began in the church’s Great Room with light refreshments and socializing among those presenting the program and attendees. Nearly 50 people attended, one of three annual celebrations hosted by the local unit. Part of Ms Weinstein’s message was something that so many have been trying do regularly in the last 15 months: don’t judge others, be kind. Those thoughts have been part of her personal and work ethos for years.
The residential and clinical services manager for Ability Beyond, Ms Weinstein shared some of the challenges and rewards of her career in the service of helping those with addictions and mental disabilities.
“Ten years ago I applied for a job to help those with mental disabilities,” she told those assembled for the program. After the opening time for refreshments, the celebration relocated into the church sanctuary, and Ms Weinstein was invited to speak from the pulpit. “I had no idea they would impact my life in such a significant way,” she said.
During the past decade, she said, Ms Weinstein has “walked into people’s lives when everyone else has walked out,” including veterans, people fighting with the challenges of sobriety, even “a 13-year-old who was left alone on Christmas Eve while her parents went out to party.”
Not every aspect of her career is negative, she pointed out.
“I have seen hope return to children’s eye. I have seen the tears of a teenager on their 18th birthday, when someone makes the first birthday cake for them,” she said, smiling toward her mother, who was also part of the celebration. “I have been to a high school graduation party for someone who no one else thought they would make it past the fifth grade. I have hugged clients with ten years sobriety, who want to continue moving forward.”
Mental health and addiction are the two diseases that everyone still blames patients for.
“Cancers, diabetes, other health issues, we fundraise and rally for those people,” she said. “Why not mental health? Mental health should be no different.”
Abusive relationships, and those who find themselves in them repeatedly, are their own kind of addiction, said Ms Weinstein.
“People help children in abusive situations, but blame adults when they find themselves in similar situations,” she said.
Many children who were abused grow up and find themselves in an abusive relationship as an adult, she added. It’s a cycle that is repeated, and some people don’t know how to get away from such a relationship on their own.
As part of her presentation, Ms Weinstein challenged those in the audience to think about addictions in a different light.
“It’s March,” she said. “We’re three months into the new year. How’s it going with your New Year’s resolutions?”
Mental health and substance abuse can be just as difficult for those who suffer from either, or both, as it is to suddenly begin a new habit on January 1. It’s a regular teaching tool she uses, said Ms Weinstein. Her New Year’s resolution was to control her intake of Diet Coke, she said. Pointing to a can of the soda she had with her at the altar, she smiled and said, “See how well I’m doing?”
She received nods of agreement and understanding from many in the audience.
“Live by your words,” she encouraged. “Don’t expect anyone else’s behavior to be better than your own.”
She also shared a poem Saturday morning, a very introspective work that had been done by a former Ability Beyond client. The sanctuary was absolutely silent as Ms Weinstein read “What You Don’t Know.” In it, the anonymous writer shared some of the pain of being judged by others, people who have no knowledge of what she faces in her life.
After opening the floor to questions for a few minutes, Ms Weinstein offered a few suggestions.
“Be kind to people,” she reiterated. “The small gesture you make toward someone may be a big change for them.
“Don’t think to quickly,” she said. “Take time to consider how you respond to people. And give people the benefit of the doubt.”
In addition to the keynote address, another highlight of the morning was the presentation by the local CWU unit of a Human Rights Award to Ms Weinstein. The honor was given to her for her “leadership service as a mentor and social activist in human rights and human development, an advocate for peace and justice with no boundaries of political system, country, cultural background or religion,” according to the framed certificate presented to Ms Weinstein.
The award was presented to Ms Weinstein by Mrs Jackson and local CWU Celebrations Chair Linda Manganaro, who is also Ms Weinstein’s mother. The award came from the national level of Church Women United, Mrs Jackson pointed out Saturday morning.
“I should also point out that the first time I met Michelle,” Mrs Jackson said, “she was outside a circus, protesting.
“She has always been an advocate, for everyone and everything,” she continued, drawing a laugh from attendees.
Saturday’s celebration was mirrored by CWU units across the country who were also presenting Human Rights Celebrations. The celebration also included a pair of songs, a scripture reading based on Psalm 95:3–7, and two offerings. The first, announced during the pre-celebration reception, was a collection of pennies to continue CWU’s Fellowship of the Least Coin movement. The second, received during the gathering in the sanctuary, was sent to the national CWU office, based in New York City, to support continued work on behalf of “those whose rights are taken from them,” CWU member Peg Forbell explained.
Attendees had also been asked to bring nonperishable donations for the local food pantries.
Two additional CWU celebrations will be presented this year. In May, the local unit will join those across the country to host a May Friendship Day celebration, following the theme of “Through God Our Hands Can Service.” World Community Day will then be celebrated in November, with a theme of “Through God Our Hands Can Heal.”