“You can feel the love in this room,” said master of ceremonies Michael Whalen, a Branford attorney who volunteers his services for the event every year. He was right.
The event was the annual “Kinship Dinner” to benefit the Thomas Keyes Grant Fund on Feb. 10 at the New Haven Lawn Club. The dinner is held annually to raise money for the grant fund that New Haven Probate Judge John A. Keyes established in the name of his late father, who was also a New Haven probate judge. The grants help court-appointed guardians of children cope with financial emergencies that aren’t addressed by any governmental assistance program. In addition to raising money for a worthy cause, the dinner committee recognizes individuals who have done outstanding work for families in the court system, and some of the guardians and the children they care for who represent the system’s success stories.
As the administrative judge of the New Haven Regional Children’s Probate Court, it was my honor to be part of the committee and to help present the awards. It may have been a coincidence that the dinner fell so close to Valentine’s Day, but it was certainly appropriate. There are no better examples of deep and persevering love than the stories of the guardians and children who were recognized that evening. Grandparents who came to the aid of their grandchildren when the parents themselves were unable to fulfill their responsibilities. Non-relatives who stepped in to become guardians of a severely disabled boy needing an extraordinary level of daily care. Children on the verge of entering college after overcoming great adversity, publicly thanking the guardians who helped them through the hard times.
For me, the highlight of the evening was the opportunity to present an award recognizing the efforts of a senior citizen named Lessie, whose story is touching and amazing. After she raised her own children to adulthood, Lessie saw that her grandchildren were at risk because their parents were unable to care for them. Lessie stepped in to become the guardian of her grandchildren, raising them to adulthood as well.
This alone is admirable and worthy of an award, but it is a fairly common story among the cases that come through the Children’s Court. The rest of the story is what sets Lessie apart. You see, she came to the rescue again when she saw that her great-grandchildren were in need of care, becoming their guardian as well. This lovely, soft-spoken woman has raised three generations of children in her family, not to mention taking in a couple of kids who were not even related to her.
I kept my introduction of Lessie very brief, as there was a special treat in store for her and the others in attendance. One of the children Lessie had raised, her grandson Jermaine, wanted to sing a song in her honor. After a short recitation of Lessie’s story I called Jermaine to the microphone.
What followed was perhaps the most poignant moment in an evening full of them. A hush came over the audience of 200 people as Jermaine, in a strong, clear, beautiful voice, began to sing, a cappella, the Stevie Wonder song, “Ribbon in the Sky.”
Despite the large crowd, it felt as though Jermaine and Lessie were the only two people in the hall. His eyes were squarely on hers, across the room and across the generations, as he thanked her for all she had done for him in the best way he knew how. When Jermaine finished the song with its final verse,
We can't lose with God on our side
We'll find strength in each tear we cry
From now on it will be you and I
And our ribbon in the sky
Ribbon in the sky
A ribbon in the sky for our love,
the crowd erupted in applause for the most moving public expression of a loving relationship that many of us had ever witnessed.
Michael Albis is a lifelong East Haven resident with a law practice on Edward Street.