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Tuesday, June 2 News

A bond built through chess: Fairfield families help peers at Bridgeport’s Batalla School

FAIRFIELD — When Matt Tuccillo heard that some students of the Cesar A. Batalla School in Bridgeport and their families were struggling because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he said he knew he needed to find a way to help.

Tuccillo is the director of Riverfield Elementary and Roger Ludlowe Middle school chess programs.

In 2018, he and Batalla teacher Ana Batista created what he called a trans-municipal chess program: Riverfield students go to Batalla to teach and play chess with the students there in February. Batalla students come to play at Riverfield in April.

“In February, we take 45 kids there,” Tuccillo said. “I teach a lesson. Our kids then pair up with their kids and show them how to play. Then they have lunch together. Then, in April. It’s the reverse. They come to our school and do the same thing.”

Batista, a bilingual Talented and Gifted Program teacher at Batalla and the recently elected president of the Bridgeport Education Association, said the program was designed, at least in part, to serve as a bridge between urban and suburban students.

While most Batalla students did not have experience with chess before the program, she said, Tuccillo kept them engaged and comfortable learning the fine points of the game.

“Whenever people want to work with our kids, that connection is key whether they’re going to like something or not,” Batista said.

The students from both schools get along great, she said, and if it wasn’t for the uniforms students at Batalla wear, it would be hard to tell them apart. She said the connections extend to all the students and adults who participate.

Once schools shut down because of the spread of COVID-19, Tuccillo said, the program was obviously no longer possible in that form.

Instead, the connection has “shifted to an assistance program for their community which has been hard hit,” he said.

Tuccillo said Batista told him some student’s families have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and have been struggling with job, food and housing security as well as virtual learning challenges.

“I was confident that the chess families first, and maybe more (families after), would be able to help,” he said. “Some of our families are hard hit as well. But I just knew people would want to — and many could.”

Over the past five weeks, Tuccillo said, Fairfield’s families — most with children in the Riverfield and Ludlowe chess programs — have purchased and reserved about $6,500 worth of Stop & Shop gift cards for families at Batalla.

“You can purchase Stop & Shop gift cards online and have them delivered to a specific store,” Tuccillo said. “So, I’m pairing up specific donor families on our side with specific families in need on their side.”

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Tuccillo said he gives the donors the option of connecting with the beneficiary families.

“It’s just the right thing at the right time,” he said. “It could happen to anybody. It helps to have a helping hand, especially one that you didn’t expect. Nobody asked for any of this. It’s just Ana and I working together.”

He said they have also coordinated the donation of “several car loads” of books and clothes, the former organized by grade level and the latter organized by gender and size, to students at Batalla.

“(Batalla) families have to come to the school to drop off homework and pick up more,” Tuccillo said. “So, the idea was, when they come, they can grab a few books, grab a bag of clothes and be on their merry way.”

Batista said the Fairfield community, whether it be through the school system, businesses or universities, have always been very supportive of their neighbors in Bridgeport. She said the program between Batalla and Riverfield is another iteration of that sense of community, with chess as the vehicle driving it.

According to Batista, the way Tuccillo and the Fairfield families has handled the donations has been respectful and thoughtful. She said that all three avenues of donating have been received graciously, adding that moments like that “are just the little special things.”

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