The principles and values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are fundamental pillars of having a healthy community and society.

That’s why Ridgefield continues to remember and celebrate his legacy with music, songs, speeches and awards every January.

“Next year will be our 25th anniversary,” said Mark Robinson, ceremony organizer and former member of the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission. “I’m totally blown away by the amount of support we’ve received. I had no expectation of every reaching that milestone and I’m just very grateful to the community for embracing this event and making it a tradition in Ridgefield. The ceremony has become very important to people — it’s something they deeply care about. They make it a thing to come out for it no matter what the weather is that day.”

The spirit of Dr. King Jr. will be honored at the Ridgefield Playhouse from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20.

This year’s ceremony will include a special posthumous award presented to the family of long-time Ridgefield resident Sharron McCleery Lavatori, who passed away in September 2018.

“She was somebody who sought out ways to contribute to the community and make a difference,” Robinson recalled. “ ... She was the type of person who would ask, ‘How can I be useful to the community? How can I contribute?’ And she never stopped.”

McCleery Lavatori, who graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1975, was a 50-year resident of Ridgefield. She was an active and involved member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and volunteered at the church’s annual Nutmeg Festival.

“She was a Eucharistic minister and lector over at St. Stephen’s,” Robinson said. “She volunteered at the Ridgefield Playhouse and the Danbury Women’s Center and Amos House in Danbury.

She also volunteered at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, CT Mobile Food Bank, and Ridgefield Social Services — experiences that helped lead her to the founding of the Ridgefield Mobile Food Pantry.

“She actively developed the mobile food pantry here in town — she made it viable and successful,” Robinson said. “The food pantry in town hall collects nonperishable food items and the mobile food truck at St. Andrew’s carries perishable items like produce. It’s very complimentary of the food pantry and it’s a significant contribution to the community.”

McCleery Lavatori’s family, who established the Angel of Ridgefield in her honor last year, will be there to receive the award on Jan. 20.

“The overriding criteria our commission uses when selecting someone is that it has to somebody who has given of themselves — their time, their efforts and energy,” Robinson explained. “Ridgefield is a community that has quite a few generous people who donate to great causes and nonprofits, and we value and celebrate that but the purpose of this award is to recognize individuals who are giving more on a personal time and commitment level.”

Project Resilience

This year’s ceremony will also honor Dr. Carol Mahlstedt, who has been instrumental in leading the creation and operation of Compassionate Ridgefield and Project Resilience, which develops programs that promote the social and emotional growth and resilience of children and adolescents in Ridgefield.

“I’m on the Ridgefield Youth Commission and there’s a lot of appreciation for the work that Carol has done with Project Resilience,” Robinson said. “It’s a very important initiative in Ridgefield that provides programs and resources to families to raise kids to be emotionally healthy. It helps kids cope with all the things that life throws at them. It teaches them how to handle bullying and other conflicts they might see in and out of school.”

Dr. Mahlstedt, who works as a psychologist on Bailey Avenue in town, specializes in the treatment of mood disorders, anxiety, stress, trauma, loss and grief. She works with children, teens and adults, ages 10 and older.

She will receive the Spirit of Dr. King Community Service Award for her demonstrated commitment to community service and selflessness in the finest traditions of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“The programs she organizes are always very hands-on, and she’s played a direct role in the implementation of so many great initiatives in town that are always centered on one objective: The well-being of all of Ridgefield’s youth,” Robinson said. “If you haven’t gone to see one of the Project Resilience speakers, it’s definitely worth your time whether you’re a parent of a school-aged child or not.”

‘Something grand’

This is the seventh year that the Martin Luther King Day ceremony has been held at the Ridgefield Playhouse —indicative of the ceremony’s growth in size and scale, with multiple performers and drawing crowds upwards of 250 attendees.

“The town looks forward to the celebration of the King Holiday. The King holiday serves as a focal point for establishing and maintaining community service involving millions of Americans throughout the year to address critical social problems of this nation and to help improve the quality of life for humankind,” said Robinson.

“... I don’t think that we need to react to whether this was a good year or a bad year in terms of applying his values in our community,” he added. “It’s an ongoing set of values that should always be embraced, both individually and collectively.”

The ceremony, which will have performances by the Ridgefield Chorale, Broadway performers Daniel C Levine, Katie Diamond and Bryan Perri, actress Kimberly Wilson, among others, is open to the public at no charge.

In addition to musical performances, the event will include readings and remarks by selected speakers.

“Our clergy members are always an integral part to the ceremony,” Robinson said. “And so are [First Selectman] Rudy [Marconi] and Allison [Stockel of the Ridgefield Playhouse].”

Begun in 1997 as one of several community activities and initiatives organized and sponsored by ROUND (Ridgefielders Organized for Understanding and Diversity), the MLK celebration has become an enduring and highly regarded new tradition in Ridgefield.

The purpose is to ensure that the spirit with which Dr. King lived and the struggles for which he died are remembered and live on in the hearts and minds of the community.

When Rudy Marconi took office as first selectman in 1999, he became Ridgefield’s first elected official to formally participate and has joined Robinson as a co-organizer of the event ever since.

“We haven’t started talking about next year’s ceremony just yet but I’m hoping for something grand,” Robinson said.