Darien Community Association: More in store than you may realize

Amy Bell, right, executive director of the Darien Community Association, and Heather Pommernelle, who recently concluded three years as communications manager for the DCA, chat during a visit from The Darien Times —Aaron G. Marsh

Amy Bell, right, executive director of the Darien Community Association, and Heather Pommernelle, who recently concluded three years as communications manager for the DCA, chat during a visit from The Darien Times —Aaron G. Marsh

Most in town probably at least know of the Darien Community Association, but chances are many haven’t experienced — or may not even know about — all the DCA now offers, or how much Darien residents contribute to and have been enriched by it.

For one thing, people sometimes think the nonprofit organization, because of its name, is run and funded by the town of Darien. “But we started out in 1923 as the Darien Improvement Association, and we’ve been the Darien Community Association for quite a long time,” says Amy Bell, the organization’s executive director.

“Some people think we’re town-funded, but we’re totally privately funded,” she continues. The DCA’s programs and activities, which largely take place at the historic mansion and grounds at 274 Middlesex Road, are available to the public, and the nonprofit is involved in the community — and vice versa — in a number of ways.

Roots and branches

From its early 1920s beginnings, the DCA has offered programs aimed at making Darien a better, more welcoming place. The organization “did a lot of beautification projects like beach improvement or helping plant trees,” Bell says, and also helped lead the town’s first Independence Day fireworks display in 1948. The organization purchased the estate, which has evolved into the now widely known DCA Meadowlands, in 1950.

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“It was mostly philanthropy or improvement [projects], and they also started doing things like lecture programs,” Bell says of the organization’s development. The DCA today has expanded on those programs, hosting a range of regular activities and special events like art and academic lecture series that have filled rooms even in the middle of New England’s irascible winters.

Some 1,500 individuals participate in its programs each month, according to the DCA. Indeed, one recent Wednesday morning at about 10 when The Darien Times dropped by for a visit, the DCA’s side parking lot was teeming and drivers were nestling cars into the spacious rear lot.

“We have courses and activities throughout the day, depending on the day,” Bell says, and most of those are run by the organization. That particular morning, attendees had come for a meeting of the Darien Men’s Association, one of the DCA’s groups. A few others include the Greenhouse Group, Page Turners book group and Women’s Group, and activities the DCA offers range from book signings to learning workshops to programs for toddlers and their parents or caregivers.

“It’s a lot of people wanting to do good things for the community.”
—Heather Pommernelle

People also rent DCA’s picturesque facilities — the estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — for weddings, meetings and other events. “Imagine a bride walking up that front lawn,” Bell says, or in the estate’s formal garden, which the organization notes was designed in the 1930s by landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman. The DCA has expanded the possibilities with additions to the house such as a commercial kitchen and the house’s Garden Wing.

“The DCA means different things to different people,” Bell quotes a past president of the organization. “It’s a good quote, because we do so many different things — it just depends on what your interest is.”

‘For the community’

The DCA has several paid staff, but the organization relies on a number of volunteers, many of whom have contributed from their own particular talents and interests in putting together programs. “One of our volunteers loves art, and she helps select speakers and organizes an art lecture series every October,” Bell gives as an example.

“We have many volunteers who have a particular love or passion for particular areas,” she says.

People have been getting involved with the DCA to benefit the community in one very noticeable way in town for nearly 85 years. The DCA’s revenue comes not only from an annual appeal, memberships, programs and facility rentals but also sales at the DCA Thrift Shop in downtown Darien, which was founded in 1931 during the Great Depression, according to the organization.

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In that difficult period, the thrift store helped provide women jobs washing and mending secondhand clothes and household articles. Families shopped there to get serviceable, needed clothing and other items for much less than they’d pay otherwise. Today, continuing the DCA’s community participation roots, volunteers also run the thrift shop on Post Road.

“Thanks to the volunteers and the generosity of people donating things they don’t need, we’re able to resell those at a reasonable price,” Bell says. The thrift shop is popular with locals and visitors bargain hunting, says Heather Pommernelle, who recently concluded three years as the DCA’s communications manager.

“People come from all around — it’s one of the thrift shops people know about and like to stop — and locals go on a regular basis,” she says.

Pommernelle notes that the revenue the DCA takes in supports a wealth of programs and activities and also allows the organization to give $50,000 in college scholarships each year to Darien High School students. She summarizes the DCA’s connection with town residents and visitors: “It’s a lot of people wanting to do good things for the community.”

‘Like a secret’

While the estate house has changed over the years and had additions like a front garden and even a butterfly garden, what’s changed most is the surrounding area, Bell says, which up until 1950 was a single, 52-acre farm. And town residents may not be aware of some much more recent additions, although they’ve been publicized, and they’ve remained hidden to some.

“I think there are things about the DCA that people don’t know,” Bell says. Pommernelle immediately suggests what she notes is “one of the latest open spaces in Darien”: the DCA’s bird sanctuary — which is open similar hours to a park, from morning till sunset — on the southwest side of the property.

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“People may not even know about it,” Bell agrees, adding that the Darien Foundation for Technology & Community and other Darien organizations and businesses supported the sanctuary project. “A group of volunteers spent years revitalizing about four acres on the side of the house with woodchips, redoing trails and benches, clearing invasive species. There are educational features and a deer fence.

“We’ve opened it up to the public to enjoy,” Bell tells the Times. “They’ve given it a lot of love.”

The sanctuary was just opened officially last September. “People might drive by on Middlesex Road and notice something going on there in the woods, but don’t know what it is,” Bell says. Others come for particular activities and may not notice some of the estate’s features almost hidden in plain view, she adds.

How about a walled-in, secluded little garden, complete with arched entryway, running water, flowers and a sitting bench?

“That’s a really nice feature that very few people see, probably,” Bell says of the “hidden” garden you’ll find at the east side of the house. “Many people walk by in the parking lot and don’t even know it’s there.” She says the garden was redone — another of the more recent changes — help of local organizations and businesses including the Garden Club of Darien, Fox Hill Builders and Ring’s End.

“When there’s a wedding party or a bride and groom, often a photographer will take them in there for photos. It’s lovely, and you can remove yourself there for a moment from the reception and so on, but you’re right here on the side of the house,” Bell explains.

“So it’s popular for photos, but it’s very private and it’s kind of like a secret.”

Check out the organization’s groups, programs and activities at DarienDCA.org. Office hours at the DCA are 9-3 Monday to Thursday and 9 to noon on Fridays; call 203-655-9050.


Some visitors may not even notice this "secret" garden at the side of the Darien Community Association estate house —Aaron G. Marsh

Some visitors may not even notice this “secret” garden at the side of the Darien Community Association estate house —Aaron G. Marsh



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