Historical Society Student Volunteers Give from the Hart
In the summer of 2014, Old Saybrook Historical Society President Marie McFarlin received a student volunteer application from a middle school student. She would be entering 8th grade in the fall, making her a year younger than most students who first apply to the program. McFarlin asked her to come in for an interview.
“There was no doubt when that girl sat down with me that she was going to be an exception,” McFarlin said, noting that Olivia Gaidry, a member of the Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Class of 2019, has always seemed to know that she wanted to pursue theater as a career, and that she displayed poise and confidence unusual for her age.
Gaidry’s family moved to Old Saybrook in summer 2011 and, as Gaidry said in a speech she gave two years ago for the 250th anniversary of the General William Hart House, “one of the first I things I noticed…was the beautiful garden, which I could spy from my house, and I loved spending time there.”
“She lived very close to the house and it was part of her being because she was in the neighborhood,” said McFarlin.
Gaidry passed by the house on her walks to and from middle school and was intrigued. After a friend’s older sister gave her a tour, she decided to apply to the historical society’s student volunteer program.
Now, Gaidry is one of four graduating seniors who have spent four years (or, in her case, five) contributing to all aspects of keeping the house and the historical society relevant and vital to Old Saybrook residents as well as to visitors from outside the town.
A Shared Enthusiasm
Gaidry and the other three seniors, Amy Young, John Gabelmann, and Maddie Bradley, have also been active in the theater program at Old Saybrook High School (OSHS). In fact, Gaidry and Gabelmann shared a Halo Award—a high school theater award sponsored by Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury—for Best Performance by a Couple or a Dynamic Duo in a Musical for this year’s production of On the Town, in which Bradley also had a leading role.
“What is different about this group [of student volunteers] is that they have worked together not only with us but on the [OSHS] plays,” said McFarlin. “And all four of them are very gifted musically.”
The students sing carols each year at the historical society’s Christmas concert.
“They’re so willing to give of that talent,” McFarlin continued. “They’re not boastful about it. They have bonded, not only through this organization” but through their engagement in high school theater productions.
“But they’re a lot like a lot of the kids we’ve had—good kids, responsible,” she added. “Every year we’ve had great groups of kids.”
Student volunteers “have to do a minimum of 15 hours for us a year, which goes toward getting their volunteer credit with the high school. But all those kids…do well over the 15 hours.”
Students go through rigorous training to give tours of the Hart House, McFarlin explained, but the students also “do whatever kind of job we need done: scanning, helping with a fundraiser, move furniture, clean up. They just do everything. And we expect them to keep learning about the history of the town. They mentor younger kids about the [history of the] town.”
During fall tours of the Cypress Cemetery, laid out by Lion Gardener in 1635, students portray historic figures who are buried there. Gaidry has played Anna Louise James (1886-1977), the first African-American female pharmacist in Connecticut. The James Pharmacy, first established by James’s brother-in-law Peter Lane in 1895, is preserved as a bed and breakfast on Pennywise Lane.
OSHS requires a senior project, and some of the student volunteers have focused theirs on the historical society.
“One group put on a tea in the Hart House,” McFarlin said, and took care of the planning “from beginning to end. They ended up making $1,500 for us.”
The students made invitations, did the publicity, and created favors for the guests.
The student volunteers are “just willing to do everything that is needed to do,” McFarlin said. “And they learn a lot about not just the history but how a non-profit operates. So that’s a great experience for them. They give a lot and if you [read] some of their letters, they gain a lot, too.”
For Gaidry, at least, giving her time and talents to the historical society took on a greater, more personal meaning. In her speech for the Hart House anniversary in June 2017, just after she completed her sophomore year of high school, she said:
“The Hart House is so much more than just a house—for many of us it’s our home. A house is a physical structure, but a home offers an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual structure, as well. A house offers protection and rest from the outside world but a home connects us to the world and engages us to participate in the fullness of life. A house offers rooms and doors to separate us when we need privacy, but a home is where we learn to come together as a family and share our unique gifts in the spirit of imagination and abundance. All of you who are a part of the Hart House family and have donated your time, passion, and gifts to the OSHS over the years understand that difference and have made this house your home.”
In the fall, Young will attend Boston College, Gabelmann plans to double major in biochemistry and biomedical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Bradley will attend Emmanuel College in Boston as an honors student majoring in psychology with a concentration in counseling and health, and Gaidry will study musical theater at the University of London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
The four were recognized for their service to the historical society at its board meeting on June 18.