Volunteering earns Lori Berisford Martin Luther King service award

“One person can make a big difference,” said Lori Berisford.

She’s made a difference as president and board chairman of SPHERE, serving disabled adults, and with volunteer work for a who’s who of local charities and organizations that benefit others — often, people with disabilities.

It’s earned her recognition with the year’s Spirit of Dr. King Community Service Award, to be presented at the town’s Martin Luther King Day ceremonies on Monday, Jan. 15, from 3 to 4:30 at the Ridgefield Playhouse.

“I was surprised,” Berisford said of the honor. “And literally kind of joked about it — ‘Are we at the bottom of the list here?’”

People who’ve seen her quiet, continuing contributions don’t view it that way. The Spirit of Dr. King Community Service Award is given annually to a Ridgefielder “who has demonstrated outstanding commitment to community service and selflessness in the finest traditions of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

“From my perspective, Lori Berisford is the consumate behind-the-scenes doer,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “She is rarely out front, ever, looking for any credit, but is steadfast in her dedication to whatever the organization’s mission statement may be. She assumes positions of leadership, but often demonstrates a philosophy of leading by example — unselfishly.”

Ridgefield Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel praised both the breadth and depth of Berisford’s commitment.

“In addition to Lori being involved with pretty much every non-profit in the area (from the Playhouse to Ability Beyond to the Women’s Center, etc.), she really has helped keep SPHERE going,” Stockel said. “Her commitment to SPHERE and many other non-profits is exemplary.”

As Berisford describes it, her dual leadership position at SPHERE simply evolved.

“I’m president and chair of the board — I hold both roles,” she said. “We always intended to fill the president role and never kind of did.”

Joy and happiness

Besides SPHERE, Berisford volunteers with organizations like Ability Beyond and Sunrise Cottage that also serve people with disabilities.

She’s a board member of Founders Hall and the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury, does volunteer work for the RVNA (Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association) and the Ridgefield Playhouse, and has worked with Kids in Crisis.

Volunteering is its own reward, she said.

“Speaking for SPHERE, which is closest to my heart, the joy and the happiness that our programs bring to our members — and if not for our programs a lot of people were housebound and had no socialization and friendships, joy in their lives — to watch it and see it is pretty cool,” she said.

“I think one of our proudest things we’ve done with SPHERE in the last couple of years is form these partnerships with the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance and Ridgefield Chorale and Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “I think because of those partnerships people who aren’t exposed — or weren’t exposed before — are, and are touched.”

It helps makes Ridgefield welcoming, inclusive.

“Is that everywhere? I’m hearing no,” Berisford said. “We get a lot of the: ‘How did you do this?’ and ‘We’d love to do it in our town.’”

“SPHERE, there are families that have actually moved to Ridgefield to participate in our programs because of isolation in their towns. …

“I think we’ve made a big difference. We now have members coming from all parts of Connecticut and Westchester County. When I started, it was mostly Ridgefield-based,” she said, “...and much smaller, probably 20 or so members going back four or five years. We’re up to 65 members, and members who travel from Norwalk, Brookfield, we have a girl who drives from Sherman, just all over the place.”

Support system

Berisford grew up in Rye, N.Y., went to Katharine Gibbs after high school and got an associate’s degree, then got her bachelor’s degree attending Pace University at night while working for Pepsi.

She met her husband, John, when both worked for Pepsi in human resources. He’s now president of Standard & Poor’s financial rating agency.

They moved to Ridgefield in 1999. Their daughters — Lane, 19, and Liza, 18 — both study at Fairfield University.

Volunteering with SPHERE followed her daughter Lane’s involvement.

“I used to drive her to SPHERE and go to their meetings, and after she went to boarding school I continued going to the programs, got more involved and joined the board,” Berisford said.

“I don’t really think about what I do, I just do it,” she said. “I’m pretty blessed. I have a pretty great husband who supports whatever I do, both financially but, more importantly, from a time perspective. SPHERE is a full-time job, most weeks. And I’m pretty lucky and we’re pretty lucky in our lives. So to me, giving back is just my way of kind of paying it forward. I’m very lucky in my life and I know what I do makes a difference and hope to teach my kids to do the same and hope that other people follow that lead.”