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Local businesses offer hope to 700 with graduation gift boxes

By now, we all know the deal with teenagers, perhaps best espoused by author Ray Bradbury in his novel "Dandelion Wine."

"When you're 17, you know everything," he wrote. "When you're 27, if you still know everything, you're still 17. That's the beginning of wisdom."

And so amid the inimitable way teenagers can turn the humdrum into the apocalyptic, they've had to cope with a pandemic of all things, too, costing them a chance at life as they know it. Coping is not easy, especially in a country where many adults who should know better can't agree the sky is blue on a sunny day.

This is why dozens (and dozens) of local businesses have offered us hope this month. They conspired — with Filomena's owner Mike Buscetto as the quarterback — to fill 700 "graduation boxes" with goodies for every kid graduating from East Lyme, Waterford and New London High Schools. None of the boxes were the same, but all had $100 worth of loot, indicating this was a $70,000 undertaking. In a time when even spare change isn't prevalent.

What they just conveyed to the kids: Even people you don't know you care about you. Enduring message.

"A fabulous project," said Laurelle Texidor, the interim director at New London. "It's been a difficult year. Our youngsters were feeling so down and dispirited with so many regular activities like the prom and Senior Trip they missed. This filled a wonderful void, knowing folks who they don't know care about them."

Volunteers came to Filomena's to fill each box. One of Buscetto's normal banquet rooms looked a little like Target for a few weeks — swag, swag everywhere. The kids got the boxes upon their official graduations.

"It's unbelievable," outgoing East Lyme principal Mike Susi said. "You just can't ask for better people in the community stepping up like that. When I say community, I mean across town lines. People caring for people. The fact that so many stepped up — it's so much work to get people together from three different towns. Nothing short of amazing. It's really cool stuff, too. They're all unique — and that's a pretty cool flavor, too. The generosity was unprecedented."

A drive past Filomena's any day of the week now produces a scene that's become unique in our COVID days: a bustling business. Buscetto's spacious tent and expansive parking lot have made Filomena's a destination during a time when many other eateries have struggled. It's part ingenuity, sure.

But then there's this: Buscetto has been this corner of the world's cleanup hitter during COVID-19. No other individual among us has done more to help kids, healthcare professionals and many others. Don't think that's not a factor in a thriving business. People know who cares and who doesn't.

"Mike is amazing," Waterford assistant principal Alison Moger said. "I went to Filomena's with (high school secretary) MaryBeth Strout to fill the boxes for the kids. I couldn't believe how much stuff was there. Blown away. Mike did a lot of the legwork. MaryBeth made them look so pretty. Our Waterford Youth Services (with whom Buscetto partnered) is awesome, going above and beyond for the kids."

It wasn't a bad graduation after all in Lancerville. A ceremony at the beach and $100 gift boxes.

"The community came together to give them best experience possible given the situation," Moger said. "I think the effort from the whole community helped the kids and the parents. I think this really affected the parents, too, not having a prom and things like that."

Buscetto, by the way, has heard some waves of criticism come his way about his name being in the paper so much. Ah, jealousy. Not a good optic. As previously stated: This is what happens when you care about other people. Karma works the positive way, too. Buscetto's got some good karma coming. Seven-hundred gift boxes say so.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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