A successful business professional and mother of two, Naomi Kydes, 32, has put a childhood and adolescence filled with alcoholism and sexual abuse behind her.
After running away from home when she was 15, Kydes found welcoming arms at Project Return, where she was placed by the state of the Connecticut.
"They always made me feel at home there," Kydes said of the residential facility for girls located in Westport.
For two years, from the time she was 16 to 18 years old, Kydes received room and board and so much more from the caring professionals at Project Return. Some of these women remain her friends today.
"Even though I am in my 30s, I still call them if I've had a hard day," she said. "They care so deeply for every girl that walks through their doors and the work that they do doesn't end when you leave."
Kydes left the group home when she was "lucky" enough to get her foot in the door of a retail fashion company and start working full-time.
She lives today with her husband and children in Norwalk.
To support Project Return's efforts on behalf of young women, Westport resident Totney Benson founded a fundraiser called the Birdhouse Auction. Now an annual event, artists from all over the country create and donate artwork focusing on the theme of birdhouses which, are bid on in silent and live auctions.
Project Return's Director of Development Laura Bard explained that the transitional housing program operates in a similar fashion to a birdhouse; the girls seeking refuge are nurtured until they are emotionally and physically strong enough to fly away on their own.
"The Birdhouse Auction has really become a community event that everyone embraces," Bard said.
There are 154 artists donating birdhouses of all shapes, sizes and styles for this year's auction. The community is invited to preview the one-of-a-kind artwork which is on display in 61 storefront windows along Main Street in downtown Westport.
The annual Birdhouse Stroll, to preview the artists' work, will take place on Thursday, March 11, from 6 to 8 p.m. Kicking off with a wine and appetizer reception at Brooks Brothers, artists will be on-hand to guide tours that stop at stores where birdhouses are exhibited. Refreshments will also be served at Brooks Brothers Women and Tiffany & Company, and dessert and coffee will be provided at the end of the evening at TD Bank. Door prizes -- such as gift certificates from J. Crew, Eileen Fisher, Jacadi, and Fast Frame, along with luxury items including an ostrich clutch bag from Lucy's -- will be also be awarded.
The Birdhouse Auction is on Friday, March 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. Tickets are $140 per person; included in the price is dinner and dessert, provided by The Pantry in Fairfield. Guests can also enjoy a martini bar, compliments of Tito's handmade vodka.
Like previous years, Bard noted the birdhouses are exquisite but also very diverse.
"It's an eclectic group of items," she said.
Project Return is grateful to have six artists contribute their talents to the fundraiser since it began 15 years ago. They are Howard Munce, Dick Reilly, Pat Scanlan, Miggs Burroughs, Cathy Osterhaut and Carol Brezovec.
Although building the birdhouse each year exercises their creative souls, all of the artists said that they enjoy helping out this worthy cause.
"It's therapeutic," said artist Patricia Scanlan. For the past 11 years, Scanlan has been a member of Project Return's board of directors and directly involved with the Birdhouse Benefit's administrative committee for 14 years. "I believe very strongly in Project Return," Scanlan said.
During the auction, when some of Project Return's alumni share their experiences, Scanlan added that there is "not a dry eye in the house."
Also once involved on the organization's board, Dick Reilly said that he, too, takes a personal interest in the project. Each year he likes to write a letter to the girls and staff members. He takes the time to describe his work, what he was thinking as he made it, and how it relates to their lives at Project Return.
This year Reilly created "The Homestead," which he describes as "a sod house on the prairie."
"The key word is love," Reilly noted.
As he worked on its architectural design model, Reilly thought about the girls banding together in love so that they could move forward, much as our country's pioneers did centuries ago, he added.
Renowned Westport artist Howard Munce noted that he usually submits a sculpture with a birdhouse theme; however, this year he and his son, Andrew, together worked on an oil painting depicting an elderly man feeding a wild bird.
Carol Brezovec and Cathy Osterhaut decided 15 years ago to contribute to the Birdhouse Auction when they owned a craft store together. Although they no longer operate the business, both artists continue to donate a birdhouse each year.
Brezovec's contribution this year is a mosaic birdhouse that is covered in diamond-shaped mirror tiles. Osterhaut made a lighted purse with feathers and beads.
"We still find it challenging to create new items each year for the auction," said Osterhaut.
Burroughs noted that he enjoys the "healthy competitive motivation" that naturally occurs since so many prominent artists are involved in the Birdhouse Auction. "We all want to do our best work for PR as well as for our peers," he noted. --After 15 years and thousands of birdhouses, we are all still amazed and inspired by the depth of creativity on display at every auction."
Burroughs' entry this year is called "Shelter from the Storm."
Burroughs said, "Inside a clear Plexiglass birdhouse, a pose-able wooden hand is seen emerging from a sea of broken glass. A tiny bird is perched on its thumb, with the fingers curling overhead, protecting it from danger. It is not about the surface or structure of the house, but about the troubled girls and dedicated staff within."
Tickets for the Birdhouse Auction may be purchased online at www.projectreturnct.org or at the door for $150. For further information call (203) 291-6402.