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New Canaan High Fellowship Celebrates Differences

NEW CANAAN, Conn. – The Rev. Gary Wilburn wanted people to do more than just acknowledge the differences of others. The former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan hoped people would celebrate those differences in many ways.

“The more celebration of differences we can encourage, the better off we can be,” said Warner Depuy, a longtime friend of the pastor and one of the people spearheading the newly created Wilburn Fellowship Program at New Canaan High School.

Wilburn, who served at the Presbyterian church for nearly 12 years, inspired the program. He left the church in 2007 after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS , a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Wilburn died in 2010. He was 67.

Depuy, who called Wilburn his “spiritual captain,” said he and Wilburn’s other friends wanted to create something meaningful to serve as a legacy to such a caring man.

For the fellowship, New Canaan High students will be asked to develop projects that bring people with differences together; advances knowledge of and promotes respect and enables celebration of differences; and advocates unity and cooperation to make New Canaan High, the town and the world a better place.

“We want students to come up with projects to recognize, understand and celebrate difference,” Depuy said. “It could be research-based, community service-based or fine arts and performance-based.”

Three finalist students or groups of three will be chosen by the fellowship committee and will be given $1,000 each. The finalists may choose to use their project for independent study credit. The committee will select a Wilburn Fellow of the Year from those finalists, and the winner will receive a $2,000 stipend.

“I think New Canaan students will come with some pretty amazing stuff,” Depuy said. He wants the Wilburn program to expand to other Fairfield County high schools.

Wilburn’s widow, Bev Wilburn, said she’s happy to see the program going. “I think it’s a wonderful program. It’s something that was always close to Gary’s heart,” Bev Wilburn said. “His entire career was spent trying to bring people together.”

A kickoff event for the Wilburn Fellowship Program will be held Feb. 24 at New Canaan High School.

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