Local farm stand supports ABC House
By Natalie K. Pollock
In turbulent times, two Simsbury families came up with an idea to help young people secure a brighter future. As the Schreijack and Marchinkoski families were watching the Black Lives Matter movement grow, discussions turned to finding some way to participate. Another neighbor suggested donating to the Simsbury A Better Chance Program (ABC).
A national nonprofit, ABC seeks to make a difference in the lives of academically talented young men of color from underserved communities. Since 1973 students from around the Northeast have been living in Simsbury and attending the local high school for four years before graduating and going on to college.
Bryan Marchinkoski and Eric Schreijack have been friends for 20 years, before marriage and children, and now they live with their families just a short distance away from each other in the same neighborhood.
“Our other friends had just moved to our street and were donating their proceeds from a lemonade stand to the BLM movement. One of our kids said we should do something in town. A neighbor overheard and suggested the ABC House because it’s in the area and benefits the school system,” said Marchinkoski.
In early spring the families erected the farm stand in his driveway on Arrow Head Drive. He remembered that Douglas Nielson, a business teacher at the high school, lives at the ABC House. Marchinkoski saw him putting up signs for Little League baseball and asked if he could display some of theirs too, and the new enterprise was born.
“I coached at Simsbury High School before my children were born. I had a baseball player [on the team] who lived at the ABC House during high school,” said Marchinkoski.
The mission of the Simsbury ABC program is to increase the number of minority young men at the high school and assist them in graduating from college. Students are selected based on their academic abilities, motivation and character. Simsbury ABC receives from 20 to 30 candidates from National ABC, and selects two to three participants each year, usually as incoming freshmen.
Robert Pearce, president of Simsbury ABC, explained, “Students live in the 835 Hopmeadow Street house near the fire station and share a parking lot with the Methodist Church. There are two apartments for the resident director and tutor, and five bedrooms for up to nine students.”
Bryan and his wife Emily Marchinkoski are both teachers in town. He has worked as the instructional technology teacher for grades K through 12 in all eight Simsbury schools for 12 years now, and she teaches special education classes at the Tootin Hills School. Their two children are Alex, 11, and Avery, 9.
“Emily is a gardener, and Alex has always been an entrepreneur with his lemon stand and tag sales. He suggested the farm stand. His friend Charlie provides the eggs. Eric and I built the stand from wood scraps,” said Marchinkoski.
Schreijack works in international sales for a fire and life safety division, and his wife Katherine Schreijack is an elementary-grades reading specialist in West Hartford. Their children are Charlie, 10, and Will, 7.
“We started our farm stand two years ago. Alex Marchinkoski down the street invited my kids to join their stand. We have 10 chickens, so we donate the eggs. My kids help with the chickens. This year we built a larger garden at our house too,” he said.
The children made signs listing the items and their prices and set out a metal box for cash payments. They open and set up the stand in the morning and at dark they bring everything in. During the day oftentimes there is no one handling the purchases, so the enterprise depends on the honesty and good will of the area’s residents and passersby.
“Most people could tell from the look of it that it’s a kids’ farm stand. This year we added the charitable donation idea. Both families are involved. Emily, Bryan’s wife, does the primary gardening, and my wife helps with the chickens,” said Schreijack.
His sons are active in Cub Scouts, and he has been teaching them that there is more to life than making money; that it is important to give back to the community. In addition to making donations to ABC House from their farm stand, the boys have been messaging on Facebook to ask if a local business would be interested in matching their donations as well as soliciting for more donations from the public.
“We’ve put the farm stand away for the winter. We will build it bigger and sturdier this year in front of Bryan’s,” said Schreijack.
Robert Pearce, who retired from a career at Westinghouse focused on commercial nuclear power, became interested in getting involved with Simsbury ABC when his wife Trudy Pearce, who had been volunteering with the organization for several months, asked him to attend the 40th anniversary gala in May of 2013.
“I was so taken by the people who spoke from the original class. One was a white man, the only one allowed early on in the program. In his family two people had died, two had been in jail, and he was here. The other speaker was a black man in risk management in insurance. His talk was more professional than personal. Both stories were so compelling about the program’s effect on them,” said Pearce.
He came on to the board as secretary and has been serving as president for six years. ABC board members interact with the students. As board president he and his wife have taken them on field trips to the Bradley Air Museum and the Nautilus Museum at the submarine base, among other places, as well as engaging in sports and the annual graduation party.
If there are any disciplinary issues, Pearce is the one that meets with the student, so he tries to maintain an arms-length relationship with them.
“The ABC board is a working board. They get close to the students as academic advisors and host families. Each student gets a lot of support. Over 90 percent of our students completes college in four years,” said Pearce.
Each student is assigned to a host family in town, usually with a son the same age. The ABC student spends one weekend a month with the host family and joins them for a family dinner on Wednesday nights. They go home to their own families in the summer and during school vacations.
At the organization’s house they each have chores to do inside and out, are required to complete 20 hours of community service each semester and participate in extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs.
“The reasons their parents [want them in the program] is so they can get a better education than by their local high school, and so they can get into college with a financial package. Most kids struggle academically in the beginning at Simsbury High School, and most are from majority minority communities,” said Pearce.
The Simsbury program has selected Hispanic, Black and Asian students over the years, and all have been males. Some programs in other parts of the country are all-female.
“Simsbury is a very generous and welcoming community, not with lots of sharp edges. If there is a bump in the road, it is dealt with immediately. It requires a lot of grit at age 14 and to graduate at 18,” he said.
The Simsbury ABC program costs $100,000 annually to operate, all of which comes from donations in town and from surrounding communities, as well as from foundations and businesses.
“[At the farm stand] our kids saw how generous people are. One man stopped and talked with Alex and asked what they are doing with the money they earn. Then he gave them a donation of $10 without buying anything. Our goal for the children is to see how their small act of kindness can have a much bigger impact. It’s more than just $220. It’s a whole summer of work for a good cause,” said Marchinkoski.
Schreijack asked if people would like to donate as a result of this story, they should send the donation directly to the Simsbury ABC program at simsburyabetterchance.org or on Facebook, and include a note that the donation is in response to the children’s farm stand. VL