The late Rev. Dr. Gary A. Wilburn was and remains, by all accounts, an extremely well liked citizen of New Canaan for many reasons.

He was the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan from 1995 to 2007 and focused much of his life on uniting people of different faiths, ethnic groups and cultures.

He began a research project at the Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith and Culture, which is attempting to uncover "the ethical underpinnings that are shared by all the world's religions."

After he died in 2010, many of his friends and colleagues wanted to expand his legacy even further, and created the inaugural Wilburn Fellowship for New Canaan High School.

"Gary and I were very, very close. I used to call him my spiritual captain," Warner Depuy, a member of the Wilburn Fellowship Committee, said to students at the high school March 1. "Gary was a great believer in diversity. He believed we should celebrate our differences and that we all don't have to be the same."

"We thought that Gary was such a believer in this stuff and especially in this community that this was the place to start," Depuy said. "We hope it's not the place to end but certainly the right place to start. The Wilburn Fellowship grew out of that as a continuation of Gary's legacy where he believed completely in justice and fairness of all people, of all races, creeds, colors, you name it."

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Another colleague and friend of Dr. Wilburn, Moaiz Daya, discussed how they hope the fellowship will impact students and their surroundings.

"We need to appreciate, understand and, not just understand, but actually welcome and celebrate and embrace this diversity of thinking," Daya said. "So really the bottom line here is that the Wilburn Fellowship is not just about tolerance. It's not about tolerating differences. It is about celebrating, embracing and welcoming it because that is how change comes about. The future of mankind depends on us being able to change. Now are we going to be able to change the whole world? Not yet, but what we can do is change the thinking amongst this group. One Wilburn Fellow at a time can bring about the change as he or she brings it to his household, neighborhood or town. It's not going to happen overnight. But let's get the conversation going."

The fellowship is open to any student or group of three students in 10th, 11th and 12th grade. Fellows are required to complete a research or community-service project that embodies Rev. Wilburn's ideals.

Applications and information are available at www.thewilburnfellowship.org. The projects can take any form and three finalists will each receive a stipend of $1,000. The winner of those three finalists will receive $2,000 and be named the Wilburn Fellow of the year.

"We proceed, we grow and we get better because we are different, not because we're the same," Depuy said. "If we were all the same, we would stagnate. But because we are all different, in so many different ways, we all learn from each other and the world proceeds forward. So that's the real reason this began. We hope that many of you will apply if not this year, next year, we hope this will be an ongoing legacy of his at New Canaan High School for many, many years to come."

pjha@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; www.twitter.com/pjhancnews