Mill River overflows with fun for Duckie Derby benefit
Updated 9:25 am, Sunday, May 22, 2011
The way the crowd was hugging the race course and the emcee was calling out the action, a more appropriate name for the scene unfolding Saturday on Brookside Drive might have been the Ken-Duckie Derby.
But Duckie Derby is the name the event's been called for the past four years and despite the threat of "fowl" weather the event, which sent 1,000 rubber ducks down the Mill River, delighted hundreds of spectators lining Brookside Drive. Ducks could be sponsored for $10 each; a larger version was offered for $15, to be decorated. Proceeds benefited St. Catherine's Academy, a Fairfield-based school for children with intellectual disabilities.
Following a blessing of the flotilla of bright yellow ducks, the faux fowl were dumped into the river for a quarter-mile journey downstream. With a portable public announcement system on hand, Charles F. Chiusano, the master of ceremonies and chairman of the Advisory Board of St. Catherine's Academy, kept pace with the flock, peppering the crowd with periodic updates.
"My role is to pump up the fans and make sure the ducks float the right way, bottom down," said Chiusano. "We've gotten a lot of support from Kohl's, Fairfield Bank, Whole Foods and local residents."
"Now we're coming down to the white water rapids," announced Chiusano, stepping along quickly. "Which ducks have the courage to go over the falls?"
Last year, recalled Chiusano, technicians at Lake Mohegan, the source of the Mill River, had to be called to open a valve as a work project had stopped the water flow. But there was no flow problem this year.
"These ducks are really moving along," called out Chiusano again. "I hope they've taken their Dramamine."
Hustling along the riverbank was Fairfielder Marie Cairo, with her 4-year-old daughter Rosie. "Our duck number is 85," she said. "I don't know where it is in the pack. We've been training for weeks. I think he was swimming backwards at one point."
Steps ahead of them, the Iacano family -- Tom, Sheila and children Sophie and Jack -- were monitoring the progress as well. "Our duck numbers are 41 and 42," said Sheila. "We hope they're in the front, at least in the top 25 percent. It's fun and a great cause. We bought the additional decorator duck as added support."
Ultimately, the bobbing duckies floated into a mesh net where the top three finishers emerged through a center opening, were scooped up and were placed in Ziploc bags marked 1, 2 and 3. Cross-referencing the duck numbers to raffle tickets, event co-chairwoman Kelly Weldon determined that the winners were Easton resident Ryan Wheatley, New Canaan resident Rosie Albright and an unnamed entry bought in honor of the students of St. Catherine's Academy.
A trophy presentation, as well awards ceremony for best-decorated ducks, followed. The latter had names like Barney the Duck, Hawaii Duck and Crash Test Duckie and were adorned in related themes.
"This is a great event for families to support the academy," said Weldon, "ducking" for cover as rain started to fall post-race. "It's a silly event but for a serious cause. We raise approximately $13,000 per event. One thing I love is that all families can participate. It doesn't price families out of supporting something that's near and dear to their hearts."
Weldon said the sponsors showed tremendous support. "They went beyond just funding to offer interactive support like face painting, balloons, in-store displays, activity staffing and volunteers," she said. "Kohl's even came with plush toys to sell on site as additional fundraising. Whole Foods, a Fairfield newcomer, is already connected into next year's event."
Pleased with the turnout was Nancy Fontana, mother of Kelsey Fontana, a student at St. Catherine's. "This is absolutely phenomenal," she said. "Most of the people that participated don't have students at the school. It's overwhelming. My daughter was born with special needs and has epilepsy. This is the best school for her and it's important that its good work be continued."