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150 laps for Bridgeport schools

February 22, 2019 GMT

In any given month during the Bridgeport school year, some 900 volunteers give their time in the classrooms of the city’s 30 public schools, adding an extra pair of hands and eyes — not to mention heart — and providing a little breathing room to hard-working teachers and their students.

The volunteers may do nothing other than read to children. Some tutor in specific academic fields. Some act as mentors. For some, the assignment may vary depending on the day’s circumstances. (By way of full disclosure, my wife is one of them.)

This remarkable network is the School Volunteer Association, managed by a two-person staff that oversees the intake, screening, assignment and scheduling of the volunteers. The organization also provides books to the schools, sponsors a Read Aloud day, involves businesses in the schools, and so on.

For a perennially challenged inner-city system like Bridgeport’s, people familiar with the SVA’s work will tell you, the volunteers and the organization are a godsend.

Chief among those perennial challenges, though, is money. Tough choices abound. For this school year, the $170,000 line item for SVA staff salaries and benefits was eliminated. The organization, a registered, independent nonprofit agency, from savings accumulated during its 52-year existence, gave a grant for that amount to the Bridgeport Board of Education to keep the program operating this year.

But the future is in jeopardy. The SVA does not have deep pockets and will not be able to make an annual grant to keep its administrators employed.

Enter Jatin Mehta, of Trumbull, a 78-year-old retired financial analyst. He noted — proudly — the other day that he is marking his 50th anniversary in America. He came here in 1969 from Mumbai in his native India. Fifty years on, he still carries the accent of his homeland. He is an immigrant.

Mehta is on the SVA board and is the organization’s treasurer. He also is a two-time past president of the Bridgeport Rotary Club. Among other things, he is dealing with a recent diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects bone marrow.

“Until I was 75, I was water skiing and healthy as a horse,” he said the other day in the lobby of the downtown Bridgeport Holiday Inn after a Rotary meeting. He shows me a picture of himself, at age 75, taken from the boat, a grinning Mehta carves a frothing wake with his skis.

“My advice to most people is ‘Enjoy the moment.’ You never know when life can change,” he said.

Nevertheless, to raise funds for the SVA — and to note the 150th birthday of Indian statesman Mahatma Gandhi — he plans to swim 150 laps in the pool of the Bridgeport YMCA on three separate days starting next month. Eight years ago, when the Rotary was engaged in a fight against polio, Mehta swam across Lake George in the New York Adirondacks, where his family vacationed regularly, and raised $30,000

His own SVA experience began many years ago when he was living in Bridgeport and working at Wright Investors’ Services. One of his two sons went to Geraldine Johnson School at 475 Lexington Ave., in the Hollow section of the city, and Mehta decided to get involved.

The side effects of his ongoing immunotherapy treatment have been unpleasant, he said. “But I will get in shape before my swim,” he promised, with a slight laugh.

And he intends to reach out to his connections in India, including the international Rotary community, to appeal for help in raising money for the Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA public schools.

As noted, he is a financial analyst. He estimates the annual value of the SVA contribution to the school system — the books, the hours, scholarships, etc. — at roughly half a million dollars. “To let this organization die,” he said, “just doesn’t make sense.”

But the financial analyst also knows the Board of Education needs to meet its budget. “They are hard pressed. They have to decide between, say, dropping a teacher, or volunteers.”

So he intends to march — or swim, in this case — forward.

“As far as I’m concerned this organization is going to find one way or another to succeed,” Mehta said.

At a time when immigration is discussed in contentious tones — and when the president’s son refers to “loser teachers” — Mehta has an appreciation not only for the struggle of those who educate a city’s children, but also for his own good fortune.

“I want to pay back to this society, which has been very kind to me. This is still the best country in the world,” he said.

Michael J. Daly is retired editor of the Connecticut Post editorial page. Email: Mike.Daly@hearstmediact.com.