February 27, 2015 09:00AM
By BROOKE CONSTANCE WHITE
Special to The Sun
WESTERLY — A huge crowd flocked to the Washington Trust Ice Rink Thursday afternoon to meet and skate with two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan at a fundraiser to benefit Westerly mentoring programs.
As a huge supporter of mentoring, Kwan said she was more than happy to attend the event and skate with some of the attendees to show her support for the local mentoring programs.
“I know how important mentorship programs are because when I was growing up, I had a lot of mentors and I wouldn’t be here without them,” she said. “Kids really need people they look up to and they need an extra confidence boost, especially when they are young.”
Proceeds from the event will benefit two mentoring programs in Westerly: the Ocean Community YMCA Reach and Rise mentor program and the Westerly Mentoring Program at the middle school and high school.
Stephen Iacoi, co-chair of the Westerly Mentoring Program, said he hoped Kwan was an inspiration to the families and kids in attendance at the event.
“Michelle is an example to us that through hard work and dedication, we can achieve our dreams and goals,” Iacoi said. “This is the foundation of our program and what we want to share with our kids.”
Iacoi worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Clay Pell, Kwan’s husband, and had asked Kwan if she would be interested in putting on a fundraiser for the programs in Westerly, said Judy Serra, co-chair of the Westerly Mentoring Program.
“She’s been greatly involved in the special Olympics and we knew she would be happy to come out and support us,” Serra said. “Michelle attributes much of her success at balancing being an ice skater and a successful student to her older siblings, who helped her a lot while she was growing up.”
Pell was in attendance at the event as well, and also wanted to show his continued support for community involvement.
“It was so exciting during my campaign to see people of all ages working together,” Pell said. “I think anytime young people and older people bridge the generational divide and all work together, everyone wins.”
Although he is married to the most decorated figure skater in US history, he says that he’s only been ice skating a handful of times with her.
“I’m a difficult student,” he said. “Michelle is a wonderful teacher, but I’m just a bad student. ... I’m still working on my triple lutz.”
Paula Fusco, principal of Westerly Middle School, has been involved in the Westerly Mentoring Program since its inception 14 years ago and was happy to see so many of her students at the event.
“Events like this are great ways for students to be more social (and) become more a part of the community,” she said. “It seems to me that the program is just as important for the students as it is for the mentors; both student and mentor learn all sorts of things about themselves, the community, and the world around them.”
Barbara Iacoi, sister of Stephen Iacoi, remembers being absolutely enthralled with Kwan during her years competing in the Olympics.
“Watching Michelle on the ice is a thing of beauty,” Iacoi said. “I’ve known the Pell family for years and I’m so happy Clay and Michelle came out today to support our mentoring programs.”
Westerly High School Senior Kerry Tiedemann attended the event to support her friend Sydney Iacoi, daughter of Stephen Iacoi.
“I’ve met Michelle two times now and she’s really great,” Tiedemann said. “I’m happy to support the programs and my friends, the Iacois.”
Ninth-grader Megan Parrin, of Westerly was thrilled to be at an event with someone as famous as Kwan.
“I really like figure skating and I’ve never met someone as famous as Michelle,” Parrin said excitedly. “I have a friend who’s in the mentoring program at the high school and they really like being a part of it.”
As an avid ice skater, Cailee Smith, of Pawcatuck, said that although she mainly came out to meet and see Kwan, as an educator at the Mystic Aquarium, she sees the importance in mentorship programs.
“I’ve always looked up to Michelle as a skater and as a person,” Smith said. “I think it’s very important for students to have role models and guidance in their lives and I want to get more involved in some sort of mentoring program.”
Reach and Rise started in 2013 and is a therapeutic mentoring program where mentors and kids are matched up and then meet together on a regular basis, said Reach and Rise Director Debbie Scheinblum.
“There is no specific goal for every child that comes through the program, but each individualized match has goals, whether it be building more self-esteem, becoming more involved in the community, or being more social. We are all about helping kids grow,” Scheinblum said.
The Westerly Mentoring Program was formed 14 years ago by Iacoi when he was a juvenile officer for the Westerly Police Department and saw the need for students to have role models and mentors. Iacoi says that more than 300 mentor-student relationships have been formed through the program, in which students and mentors meet once a week to hang out and talk.