Spirit Of Petit Women Lives On; Foundation Distributes $1 Million


Hayley Petit planned to study biology at Dartmouth College and join others blazing a trail of women in science.


Her little sister Michaela, not even a teenager, loved flowers, excelled in school and embodied the family's commitment to helping others.


And their mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit , cared for young bodies and young minds as a nurse at Cheshire Academy, even as she faced her own battle with multiple sclerosis .


All three were lost six years ago this week when a burst of unfathomable violence descended on their Cheshire home, stealing lives with seemingly boundless promise.


"Because you are gone, it now falls to me to be the change you wanted to see in the world," Dr. William Petit said at a memorial concert last year for his wife and daughters. And he has pursued that mission in large measure through the Petit Family Foundation, a non-profit established within months of the July 23, 2007 Cheshire home invasion.


The foundation has grown every year since, and has now distributed more than $1 million in grants that match the interests of the Petit women and support victims of violence.


"I'm happy that we've done a lot of good in Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela's name," said William Petit, the sole survivor of the attack. "I know they'd be smiling mightily seeing all the good that's gone on."


A key goal of the foundation is fostering the education of young people, especially women in the sciences. To the end, $50,000 has been donated to the Connecticut Science Center for "Michaela's Garden," an ambitious horticulture project and rooftop garden featuring one of Michaela's favorite flowers, Four O'Clocks.


The foundation also supports the Connecticut Invention Convention, in which elementary and middle school students showcase creative solutions to everyday problems. (Among the ideas honored this year with the foundation's Promising Young Women Inventors award: a light-up, vibrating bracelet to alert deaf parents that their baby is crying in another room, and a smoke-detector-equipped dog crate that automatically opens in the event of a fire.)


Money has also gone for science programs in the Plainville school system and to Suffield Academy and New Britain and Cheshire public schools, and the foundation has provided funds for more than $100,000 in scholarships for Connecticut students.


Hayley and Michaela raised money for multiple sclerosis research and to assist families affected by MS, and the foundation has continued those efforts, donating more than $70,000 to causes related to chronic illnesses.


The foundation has made other health-related grants, accepting requests from Bristol Hospital, Charlotte Hungerford Hospital and the Hospital for Special Care's "Manes & Motions" riding center, which uses therapeutic horseback riding to improve the well-being of children and adults with physical and neurological disabilities. Money also has gone to the Connecticut Nurses Foundation.


The vast majority of the foundation's grants for anti-violence initiatives have gone to organizations that battle domestic violence.


"That, I'm sorry to say, is not an uncommon request," said M. Burch Tracy Ford, chair of the foundation's grants committee, adding that of the last five grant requests received by the foundation, four were from domestic-violence groups.


Over the years, the foundation has funded programs at the Prudence Crandall Center in New Britain, the Susan B. Anthony Project in Torrington , the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut in New London , and the Network Against Domestic Abuse in Enfield.


"There's never any paucity of requests, and there are always more requests than we have allocated funds for," Ford said. But she said board members hate to say no, and have been willing to stretch the foundation's annual giving budget.


As a result, the foundation's endowment stands at about $3.5 million, somewhat short of the $5 million board members eventually hope to have in assets. Still, the endowment has grown year-by-year, and Ronald Bucchi, the foundation's treasurer, said Petit and other board members ultimately are more concerned with doing good works than building a mountain of cash.


Still, Petit said his wish is for the foundation to have sufficient assets to be making grants for many years to come.


"I'd like it to sort of be the lifetime of the girls," he said. "Jennifer would be 55 now, and Hayley would be 23 1/2 and Michaela would be 17 1/2 now and I'd sort of like it to represent their lifetimes in a way."


As the foundation's assets have grown, board members have decided to award major "signature grants" once a year, including a $100,000 pledge last month to the Prudence Crandall Center. The money will pay for violence-prevention programs in schools and elsewhere, aimed at teaching young women to recognize the elements of healthy and unhealthy relationships.


Barbara Damon, executive director of the Prudence Crandall Center, said the foundation grant is significant because federal money typically only supports shelters and other services provided for women who are already victims of domestic violence.


"We need to provide that safety net of services, but we also need to be about the business of preventing future violence," Damon said. "The Petit Family Foundation has time and again supported domestic violence work at the Prudence Crandall Center, and without their funds we would not be able to do the prevention and awareness raising work that needs to be done."


Last year, the foundation provided $100,000 to WFSB-TV's Channel 3 Kids Camp for the construction of a new nurse's station known as the Jennifer L. Hawke-Petit Health Lodge.


"This was just the kind of facility she loved to work in," William Petit said last October as the lodge was dedicated, "taking care of kids' bumps and bruises and scrapes, as well as their psychological well-being when they're home sick and missing their mom and dad and brothers and sisters."


In all, the foundation has written checks to more than 60 agencies, with amounts ranging from $250 to the six-figure signature grants.


The foundation gave out relatively little in donations during its first three years, as organizers worked to build a sustainable endowment. Through June 2010, the foundation collected about $1.7 million in contributions and revenue from fundraisers, and gave away barely more than $100,000.


But during the following year, a college classmate of William Petit's made a $1 million donation to the foundation, dramatically increasing the foundation's endowment and giving board members the confidence to begin making significant grants.


"That created sustainability for us," Bucchi said. "We were chugging along, but that was a significant gift both in value and in sustainability."


The foundation now receives the bulk of its revenue from several high-profile annual fundraising events, including a 5K run, a golf tournament and a science gala. William Petit has become a fixture at all of them, as well as a familiar face at dozens of smaller events, where he promotes both the direct work of the foundation and the broader legacy of the lives lost six years ago Tuesday.


"If there is anything to be gained from the senseless deaths of my beautiful family," Petit said recently, "it is to live with a faith that embodies action: Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family, go forward and spread the work of these three wonderful, beautiful women."


Information on the Petit Family Foundation is available at