The outpouring of support for Horizons at New Canaan Country School, during its 50th anniversary gala Saturday, sent a clear message about how much this program means to the community.

Horizons -- the brainchild of NCCS's former headmaster George Stevens -- has involved literally thousands of kids from low-income families from around Stamford and Norwalk in not only a unique six-week summer program, but has also offered them year-round mentoring, tutoring, care and guidance throughout their formative years.

Close to 450 people attended the biennial fundraiser at the Greenwich Hyatt Regency, which was hosted by renowned news anchor and New Canaan resident Brian Williams. His wife, Jane Williams, chairman of Horizons' national board, was one of seven people honored for their service to Horizons.

"It's really life-altering for so many kids," Jane Williams said, noting that by this summer there will be a total of 29 other Horizons programs in operation around the county, thanks to New Canaan's original endeavors.

"It works so beautifully," Brian Williams said before the event. "It's one of the most pleasing charities. It just helps kids. You can change children's futures."

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Stevens' original motivation for starting the program, which began under the name Horizons Summer Program, was merely his disappointment at seeing the school grounds going unused throughout the summer. At the start, it only serviced 20 students during the warm months.

In 1995 it expanded to a full-year program, and ultimately blossomed to the current 400 year-round students. Last year there were 265 students enrolled in the K-8 summer program, 165 of whom also participated in tutoring throughout the academic year. Another 140 students took part in the high school program, which began in 2000. This program includes academic coaching, financial aid workshops, SAT prep, and college tours.

"Our main objective is to service children who come from low-income families," said Alan Arellano, school year program director for Horizons. He said this is done both academically and through a variety of activities -- most especially swimming.

"We put a major emphasis on swimming," he said. And while they incorporate academic attention during the six-week summer program, they also keep involved with students throughout the year.

In fact, once admitted into Horizons, students will remain involved for an average of seven years. In many cases, for both Horizon students and those who attend NCCA, the ties extend well-beyond their school careers.

"I went to New Canaan Country School, so I was involved with Horizons when George Stevens was there," said Jane Schoenholtz, who currently serves on the board of governors, but has been a longtime participant in Horizons.

"Once you actually meet the kids and see what goes on, you never leave," she said.

The program itself, she said, ends up being beyond the dreams of the children who participate.

"Horizons will change children's lives," she said. "When kids arrive at Horizons, they won't even dream of where they'll end up."

Horizons enjoys a symbiotic relationship with NCCS, which not only provides the use of its grounds for free, but involves its students in mentoring and tutoring with younger kids. Many NCCS alumni also return to offer help as teaching assistants, as do many Horizons grads.

"I went through the entire program and then I came back to teach," said Angela Zhou of Stamford, who currently attends Manhattanville College, where she's majoring in international studies.

"The support that you get and all the friends that we made," she said, earmarked her experience with Horizons.

"I can't imagine what I'd be doing each summer if I didn't have Horizons."

Melissa Serrano, 15, of Norwalk, concurred.

"I started in kindergarten," she said. "I didn't know what to do with my summer.

"It taught me great morals," she said, "so I feel like I was prepared when I left."

Serrano now hopes to become a teacher herself, "partly because of the Horizons experience," she said. "I saw how they influenced me, and I want to do the same."

Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer