Access and inclusion were celebrated by the Special Education Legal Fund (S.E.L.F.) at their 5th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, November 11. Held at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, the event raised nearly $375,000 in critical funding.
The evening honored the legacies of George H.W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, and Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., 85th Governor of the State of Connecticut, as S.E.L.F. Champions for their tireless efforts on behalf of individuals with disabilities. Thirty-three years ago, on July 26, 1990, following the legislative efforts of then Senator Weicker, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) into law.
Dignitaries in attendance included Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, his wife Annie, Congressman Jim Himes, Mrs. Claudia Weicker and her son Sonny Weicker, Mrs. Dorothy Walker Stapleton, and Ambassador Craig Stapleton. Wendy Stapleton and Henry Hager served as the event Co-Chairs, and Emmy Award-winning television sports reporter and anchor Noah Finz was the evening’s emcee. “Over fifty years ago, our government took steps to protect the educational rights of students with special education needs. Over thirty years ago, our government took the monumental step of prohibiting discrimination based on disability. We are here tonight to honor those efforts and individuals who paved the way for S.E.L.F. and the advocates who continue the fight for future generations,” said Christine Lai, S.E.L.F. Executive Director and CoFounder.
Himes presented the S.E.L.F. Champion to Claudia Weicker, who accepted the award on behalf of her late husband, Lowell, and thanked S.E.L.F. for opening doors of opportunity. “No child wants their expectations diminished, and every parent wants all the services and opportunities rightly available for his/her child. Through S.E.L.F., those expectations are fulfilled,” said Weicker. To introduce the next award, Andrew Niblock, Director of Schoolwide Initiatives at Greenwich Country Day School, read the poem “Losing a Day” from his book The Art of Marrying Well, followed by a video tribute to President George H.W. Bush from President Bill Clinton. Himes then presented the second S.E.L.F. Champion award to Dorothy Stapleton, who accepted the award on behalf of her cousin, President George H.W. Bush.
S.E.L.F. has established the President George H.W. Bush Disability Advocacy Award to honor individuals who exemplify President Bush’s commitment to children, education, and the rights of people with disabilities. Attorney Andrew Feinstein and activist Stephanie Cowie were this year’s award recipients.
A congratulatory video introduction by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and remarks from special education attorney Melissa Gagne detailed Andrew Feinstein’s impact. Gagne explained that Feinstein represented her son 22 years ago when he was just five. Through Feinstein’s “stellar advocacy,” her son was able to attend a school “that entirely changed the trajectory of his life.” Feinstein explained how “S.E.L.F. provides funds to needy families to wage the battle. Hundreds of students are now receiving decent educations because of S.E.L.F.”
Greenwich Hospital physician Dr. Sandra Wainwright introduced Stephanie Cowie as a person “who demonstrates the transformative power of service and who drives significant and sustained impact through her everyday actions and words, thus lighting the path for others to become points of light for the good of the Community.”
Since suffering a devastating and paralyzing stroke in her spinal cord in 2018, Cowie has dedicated herself to raising awareness for access and inclusion for the physically challenged.
“We should focus on abilities rather than disabilities and provide the necessary support and accommodations to ensure everyone has equal access to opportunities and services,” Cowie said when accepting the award.
Following the program, guests enjoyed dancing to the vibes of DJ April Larken. Sponsors of the S.E.L.F. 5th Anniversary Gala included Presenting Sponsor Kenneth C. Griffin, the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, the Stapleton Foundation, Wealthspire Advisors, Winston Preparatory School, Greenwich Education Group, American School for the Deaf, Chapel Haven Schleifer Center, Eagle Hill School, Fusion Academy, and Villa Maria School and Fairfield County Look as the Media Sponsor. Emboss, L.L.C. was the event planner, florals by Arcadia Floral, video production by Kendra Farn of P. Garyn Productions, and technical production by E.S.U. Entertainment.
S.E.L.F. was founded in 2018 to level the playing field for families in need with children in the special education system. It provides resources, knowledge, and support to parents, guardians, and self-advocates in order to facilitate successful navigation of the special education process. S.E.L.F. supports families who have fallen through the cracks in the special education system and endeavors to help resourced-challenged families.