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Outdoor Classroom at Westmoor Park will Honor Memory of Brigid Curtin

Brigid Curtin had a special relationship with the animals at Westmoor Park, including the chickens. Courtesy photo

West Hartford resident Brigid Curtin was born on Jan. 8, 2006, and died tragically on Dec. 17, 2018.

Rendering of the outdoor classroom at Westmoor Park. The Friends of Brigid Curtin campaign is raising money for the project. Image courtesy of Tom Daly

By Ronni Newton

Westmoor Park is a West Hartford gem, an oasis of natural beauty and agriculture in the midst of an inner-ring cosmopolitan suburb that’s nationally known for its great schools, thriving restaurant scene, and as a top place to raise a family.

West Hartford is also a caring community, and now a family that faced unfathomable tragedy a year ago is looking to honor their daughter in a way that benefits all West Hartford children.

The hope is that by next summer the “Friends of Brigid Curtin at Westmoor Park” GoFundMe campaign, which launched Dec. 2, in combination with the sizable memorial fund established right after Brigid’s death, will allow for the establishment of an outdoor classroom at a place Brigid loved so much.

“The outpouring of the community has just been unbelievable – the support from people known to us, from people unknown to us, the school system, friends, family, neighbors, sports teams in town that the kids played for, it’s just been overwhelming,” said Tim Curtin.

“It started Dec. 18, [2018], people reaching out to see how they could support us. I think people felt sympathetic, and were finding ways to cope with it themselves,” Curtin said. That was the day after his 12-year-old daughter, Brigid, died tragically.

In the past year Curtin and his wife, Jane Murphy, haven’t spoken publicly about what happened, and while they don’t want to discuss the tragedy itself, they have now found a way they think best honors the memory of their daughter.

They shared their plans in an interview with We-Ha.com last week.

When writing the obituary, Curtin said they decided to ask for donations to “The Westmoor Park Fund” in Brigid’s name. At the time it was really a “place keeper,” he said, and they didn’t know how the funds would be utilized but knew that Westmoor Park was very special to Brigid so it just felt right.

Donations to that fund have now reached about $55,000, Curtin said – and have come from several hundred people, a combination of small donations, fundraisers from Brigid’s travel soccer team and Sedgwick classmates as well as some larger donations. “We are so very blessed to have so many people interested in supporting our family,” he said.

And the answer to how to use those funds to best benefit the park arose organically from the park itself, its leadership team, the counselors, and the instructors.

An outdoor classroom at Westmoor Park

“I know it means so much to Jane and Tim to honor Brigid in this way,” said West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, who met with them multiple times after the tragedy as well as when plans for use of the memorial funds were being discussed. “They have such incredible strength, and we’ve spoken about how they can make a difference at a place their daughter loved so much. Westmoor Park is already one of West Hartford’s gems, and the outdoor classroom will make it even better.”

Curtin and Murphy learned that Westmoor Park staff had already identified a need and had already been considering building an outdoor classroom so that programs would no longer be sidelined during inclement weather.

Director of Leisure and Social Services Helen Rubino-Turco said that a combination shelter/outdoor classroom had been identified as a need at Westmoor Park several years ago. The park, the town’s premier center for environmental and ecological education, attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, and serves about 900 summer campers as well as more than 3,000 students through the school-based EcoVenture program.

“We wanted to build an accessible structure to complement our existing uses,” said Rubino-Turco, a structure that would be ADA compliant, maintain the integrity of the programming and the beauty of the park, and “blend in with Westmoor Park’s rustic aesthetic.”

A community project

Tim Curtin holds a rendering of the outdoor classroom at Westmoor Park, the subject of a fundraiser in his daughter Brigid’s memory. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Curtin and Murphy brainstormed with their friends Tom and Tracy Daly. Tom Daly is a civil engineer with Milone and MacBroom, and their son, Patrick, had been Brigid’s counselor at Westmoor Park. Their daughter, Corinne, had attended programs with Brigid Curtin and the two planned to be CITs together. Friends Chuck and Mary Coursey, Director of Leisure Services Helen Rubino-Turco and Westmoor Park Assistant Naturalist and Educational Coordinator Christy Page weighed in on the plans.

“Tom began conceptualizing what it would look like and talking with potential vendors to ballpark a cost for it,” Curtin said. They walked the site and considered where an outdoor classroom might best fit.

The goals were for the classroom to have utility, to be able to be used for programs during inclement weather and as an escape from the summer sun. It needed to be “modest in its presentation, in keeping with our daughter, definitely not something that was too ostentatious,” said Curtin, and also a structure that would be acceptable to neighbors on Flagg Road and Pioneer Drive.

The project required approval from West Hartford’s Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ), and Chuck Coursey donated his time to do community outreach, with Daly donating his services in creating the design for the structure.

Daly said Westmoor has been an important place for his family as well, with all three of his kids attending programs there since they could walk. The two oldest, Patrick and Bridget, are now counselors and the youngest, who was friends with Brigid Curtin, is a CIT.

“All summer long Westmoor Park is our only conversation at dinner,” Daly said. The kids who always hang out there together in the summer become a close-knit group.

Daly said that Brigid Curtin was his son, Patrick’s, favorite camper.

“My family was struggling, finding a way to remember Brigid,” Daly said. There was talk of a tree, of a walking path, but it didn’t seem to be enough, but after a few months the idea of the outdoor classroom was brought up.

Daly said his wife reached out to Curtin and Murphy and showed them some examples. Then he reached out to Rubino-Turco and learned it was a need that had already been identified but the question was how to pay for it.

Raising funds

Westmoor Park barn. Courtesy photo

Westmoor Park is town-owned, but entirely self-funded through interest from an endowment that was gifted to the town at the same time as the land, plus program fees and fundraisers. Rubino-Turco said there was some discussion about using Feast on the Farm as a fundraiser for the outdoor classroom after renovations to the barn had been paid for.

“In the midst we also received the memorial donations in Brigid’s honor,” Rubino-Turco said. “There was some discussion about using those funds, but the family didn’t just want a memorial named for her, they wanted it to be something the park needed.”

While the need existed before the tragedy, moving forward with building the outdoor classroom would be something sensitive to both the needs of the community and the family.

“We wanted the project to be driven by the park itself,” said Curtin, “We didn’t want this project to be about Brigid.”

They wanted neighbors, and TPZ, to approve of the project on its own merits, not just as a memorial, and Rubino-Turco also said she didn’t want to go forward with the project until outreach had been done.

“We never brought the Curtins into it until after TPZ approved,” Daly said. “We didn’t want that to influence the approval.”

Plans moving forward

TPZ approved of the project on Nov. 6, and that’s when Curtin and Murphy officially declared their plans to use the existing funds that had been raised as well as launch the GoFundMe to raise an additional $200,000.

The outdoor classroom is expected to cost roughly $250,000, including site work, the cement foundation, landscaping, and the wooden structure itself.

It will be constructed of solid timber frame, 24-feet by 44-feet, open on all four sides, and will have a metal roof. The look will be “very farm,” Daly said, and it will be made of solid and high-quality materials.

Daly said he has spent time visiting other parks to get ideas for the design, and Westmoor Park staff has been involved in the plans as well.

The outdoor classroom will be an assembly area for outdoor programs at Westmoor Park, but will not be able to be rented by outside groups for events, Coursey said. “This will not be able to be rented out for cocktail parties, or bar mitzvahs, or receptions. No sound amplification, no exterior lighting up the area at night,” he said.

Following talks with the neighbors, the decision was made to locate the outdoor classroom near the parking lot, the assembly area for the programs.

“It definitely can add to their programming, because they are able to do more classrooms outside,” Murphy said. “The inclement weather was driving this from the counselors’ point of view. Now they have nowhere to go during inclement weather.”

Coursey said a range of sizes were considered for the outdoor classroom, but the size chosen, which has been approved by TPZ, will be able to accommodate 75 campers plus Westmoor Park staff, with furnishings consisting of tables and seating. It will be handicapped accessible.

Remembering Brigid

The GoFundMe campaign and Facebook page will go live in time for “Giving Tuesday,” Curtin said, and people can also contribute directly to Westmoor Park in support of the project.

The town will be putting out bids for RFPs in mid-December, with the goal of opening by July 1, 2020, so it will be ready for next summer’s programs. The structure will be built offsite, and then assembled at Westmoor, in an area at the south end of the Games Field, tucked into the edge of the tree nursery.

It will be a daunting task to get everything done by next summer, but everyone is jumping in, rolling up their sleeves to make this happen, Daly said.

“This is a project that really caught the eye of Brigid’s family because of her love for Westmoor Park, so it was a natural fit,” a way for them to have their friends also support the outdoor classroom, Rubino-Turco said.

“No town monies are being used,” Curtin added.

“We intend on being long-term supporters of Westmoor, and if we can convince others to join us in those endeavors that would be great,” said Curtin. “It was one of Brigid’s favorite places to be.

Coursey said that if goals are exceeded, there may be other things that can be done to support Westmoor Park.

At Feast on the Farm auctions over the years, the family had purchased naming rights to some of the animals on the farm. Brigid named one of the sheep “Kelly,” Curtin said, and one of the twin goats is named “Brigid.”

The outdoor classroom, Curtin said, is a great intersection of supporting the park she loved so much, and benefitting the broader community, the best way they thought they could honor their daughter. Westmoor Park is such a gem. “We’re getting behind it because Brigid loved it so much,” he said.

“We’re very keen on having a project be understated and in keeping with the park itself, because that was Brigid. She was a very unassuming little girl and she loved that place,” Murphy said. “It was her second home in the summer. She wanted to go there all the time year round and visit the animals.”

Curtin said Brigid interacted with all of the animals as if they were her friends, and many responded to her.

There’s a sign at Westmoor that says not to chase the animals, Murphy added, but one time Brigid decided to chase a goose and that goose became the only creature on the farm that didn’t like her and would always honk at her.

“But she could pick up a chicken and put it on her shoulder,” Murphy said. “She was a chicken whisperer. “She also loved snakes and other rodents, which we could not understand.”

There was also a photo taken of Brigid kissing a blue-tongued skink “… we were horrified,” Murphy said.

The outdoor classroom will become an important feature of Westmoor Park, and really make a difference. Daly said this project has been a great way for him and his family to give back to a place that has given so much to his kids, and to help the Curtins.

“It’s really about the park, and finding a way to memorialize Brigid,” said Daly.

Every kid in West Hartford who is in sixth grade or below will have the opportunity to visit Westmoor Park at some point this year,” Daly said. And when the outdoor classroom is built, it will be the first place they step onto.

In the introduction to the GoFundMe campaign, Westmoor Park is referred to as Brigid’s “home away from home.”
It notes that she loved working with the animals, even cleaning out their stalls, and the relationships she formed with the other campers, counselors, and instructors.

“She would have been so excited to see this addition to the park. Stop by Westmoor and visit sometime – you will love the beauty and tranquil nature of the park. And think of Brigid if you do,” the intro states.

Around his wrist Curtin wears a yellow bracelet, and many of Brigid’s friends wear them as well. In blue lettering – Brigid’s favorite colors were blue and yellow, he said – it has words and symbols of things that were special to her. “Duffy, Sedgwick, she played the saxophone, TOTS and Sounds, Westmoor Park, the Vineyard, and No. 40 in soccer,” Curtin said.

“It was her place to be,” Curtin said of Westmoor Park. “When I’m on those grounds I feel her presence. It was so special to her.”

Donations to the “Friends of Brigid Curtin at Westmoor Park” GoFundMe campaign can be made through this link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/brigidcurtinwestmoorpark. Those wishing to support the project can also make a tax-deductible donation in Brigid Curtin’s name through Westmoor Park’s website, http://westmoorpark.com or through Leisure Services’ Rec Desk (https://westhartford.recdesk.com/Community/Home). A Facebook page has also been set up for the campaign.

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