Julie Mombello '83 is changing lives, a few children at a time

Julie Mombello '83 works with students at the Adam J. Lewis Preschool in Bridgeport, Conn.
Julie Mombello '83 works with students at the Adam J. Lewis Preschool in Bridgeport, Conn.

Julie Mombello ’83 doesn’t work for free. She is paid daily in hugs and smiles.

Her end-of-the-year bonus? Watching a group of 4- and 5-year olds leave the Adam J. Lewis Preschool feeling smart, confident and ready for kindergarten.

It’s a huge accomplishment for the children, many of whom live well below the poverty line. For Mombello, it has been life-changing.

Mombello, a certified teacher who spent much of her career teaching at private schools in the wealthy suburbs of Connecticut’s Fairfield County, helped her friend of 20 years, Patty Lewis, open the nonprofit school in December. With its spacious classrooms, enviable four-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, quiet reading nook and even a class pet, Flipper the fish, it looks a lot like the classrooms Mombello is used to. But this school is in Bridgeport, Conn., where as many as 40 percent of children live in poverty and up to half of all students drop out of high school. 

“Our goal was to take a Westport preschool and drop it in the middle of Bridgeport,” Mombello says. “It’s what everybody should have access to.”  

Access to education was important to the school’s namesake, Patty Lewis’s late husband Adam Lewis, who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks while working in the World Trade Center. Growing up in the Bronx, Adam Lewis earned a scholarship to The Dalton School, a prestigious private school, and went on to graduate from Hamilton College. He was working for the investment-banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods when he died.

“After Adam’s death, it became a dream of Patty's to create an enriched, stimulating preschool in Bridgeport, so that the disadvantaged children living there would have an opportunity to receive the same high-quality education as their neighbors living just a few miles away in wealthier towns,” Mombello says.

Studies show that children from disadvantaged neighborhoods are much less likely to attend preschool and be ready for kindergarten. And once they are in school, their chances of catching up only diminish.

So when Lewis told her over lunch about her idea for the preschool, Mombello, who majored in English and later earned a master’s degree in teaching, was intrigued. Initially, she offered to help with public speaking and fundraising. The more she learned about the project, the more involved she got.

“A lot of people offer to help and it’s just a token,” says Lewis, “but she said, ‘No, really.’ She has been a godsend.”

Lewis had purchased a foreclosed building in Bridgeport’s west end, and the two got to work renovating it. The playground, donated by Adam Lewis’s former company, is Mombello’s favorite part. “The children love to get on their bikes and ride around and around, and they love to plant things in the garden,” she says.

Mombello and Lewis hired a few additional teachers and officially opened with 12 students in December 2013. Full tuition for the five-day-a-week program, which runs from 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., is $175 a week, but families pay only what they can: one family pays as little as $15 a week, while the highest-paying family pays $100. The vast majority of the funding comes from donations, and Mombello and Lewis volunteer on a full-time basis.

Mombello was hoping to see the children make progress, but she is amazed at how quickly they have excelled.

“The child who spoke no English is now speaking in full sentences. The one we thought might be on the autism spectrum is now a chatterbox,” she says. “It’s so emotionally rewarding.” 

Word of their program is spreading quickly, and this fall, Mombello and Lewis hope to expand the enrollment at the school to 16. Long-term plans include the possibility of opening a second school in Bridgeport.

“It’s small scale, but we hope we can make a difference, a few children at a time,” Mombello says.

December 11, 2014