Reverse migration: Young people return to the Northwest Corner
A few months ago, we noted that many young people who had grown up in the Northwest Corner were returning here after living, working and studying in other places.
At that time, we sent out a few of our youngest reporters to interview some of these young people (which we defined as mid-20s to early 30s) and find out what had brought them back.
These interviews were all done before COVID-19 brought many young people here to the Northwest Corner, seeking refuge with parents and other relations from their city homes. Perhaps in the months to come, these young people will discover that, hey, it’s kind of nice here! Perhaps they’ll stay.
The return of those young people is more than just an interesting footnote. Our local towns have an unusually high percentage of residents who are over age 65; and an unusually high percentage of weekenders, renters and other part-time residents — and those percentages are increasing.
As a result, the student population at our local schools is shrinking, to the point where every spring at least two elementary schools have fewer than 10 students in their graduating classes.
This is also a region that relies almost completely on volunteers for fire and ambulance service. While volunteers of all ages do valuable work, it is usually the younger men and women who do the heavy physical labor needed to stop a fire and carry a patient to an ambulance.
The Lakeville Journal offers a hearty welcome to all young people who have already returned and who are considering making the move here.
Note: All the photos for this article are “selfies” taken by the interviewees.
— Cynthia Hochswender
By Sam Foley
NORTH CANAAN — Will Perotti, 25, is a North Canaan native who recently moved back to the area.
He grew up on Lower Road in North Canaan and attended North Canaan Elementary School and then Housaonic Valley Regional High School. During his time at Housaonic, Will played football, baseball and was on the ski team. After graduating, he attended Plymouth State University, where he again played football and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He then took a job at a ski resort in Plymouth, Mass., working on improving the ski slopes and doing other general maintenance.
He continued to live and work in Plymouth for two years, but while he enjoyed it, he longed to come back home.
Perotti saw that there was an opportunity at his family’s business (William Perotti and Sons Plumbing), as there is for many trades in the Northwest Corner. He decided it was finally time to come home to North Canaan. He missed the strong sense of community that there is around here and how it feels as though people in the community genuinely care for the well-being of others.
When asked where he sees himself in five years, he said, “I still anticipate being in North, Canaan — hopefully deeply ingrained within my community.”
By Willy Yahn
SHARON — As someone who was born and raised in Sharon, appreciating life in the rural Northwest Corner takes a little effort. There are a lot of fun things to do here, you just have to go find them.
This is my first time being back in the area for this long, close to five months, since I was in high school; 2019 was my third year of Minor League baseball, playing from mid-February to September while living in Florida and Maryland. I was a substitute teacher, baseball coach and reporter for The Lakeville Journal while I was living in Sharon (until Feb. 3). Considering the paychecks that Minor Leaguers get, many of us get multiple offseason jobs to make some extra money.
I finished my degree in journalism at the University of Connecticut in December 2018, but I did not think I would get the chance to put stories I wrote in print during my baseball career. I heard about an opportunity to apply as a freelance writer here at The Journal when I came home in September and the fun began in October.
I then applied to be a substitute teacher in the Region One School District. Just over five years after graduating from Housatonic Valley Regional High School, I was there teaching history, French and gym among other subjects.
Last but not least, for the second year in a row I also coached baseball clinics in Winsted, which started after Thanksgiving. I worked with Housatonic baseball coach Darryl Morhardt at Brooks Belter’s new baseball academy in Winsted (@belter_baseball_academy on Instragram and email@example.com for questions.)
[Note: Belter is a Salisbury native and a 2006 graduate of Housatonic Valley Regional High School. He is the son of Jim and Mindy Belter.]
I like to keep myself busy even in the offseason. I believe that is the best way to live in the Northwest Corner. Work hard and in the free time find fun ways to get involved, check out the different eateries and new breweries and go for hikes.
This offseason consisted of some hikes and a lot of pick-up baseball. Either with two teams of seven or two full lineups, there was going to be a ballgame every Sunday behind the gas station in Lakeville or somewhere else in the region. We even had a night game in the snow at Veterans’ Field in Sharon.
Predicting the future, in one’s baseball career or what their lifestyle will be like, is almost impossible. No matter how talented someone is at the game, things have to go your way. The key is when things do swing in your favor to make the most of the opportunity. Five years from now, I could be competing with a winning, rebuilt ball club in Baltimore or I could be working on my career in broadcasting or writing. But for now, I am going to focus on Plan A.
I love living in the Northwest Corner. While working a few jobs was enjoyable and I will dearly miss my family and friends, I’m excited to leave three jobs and disappear into the south for seven months. That’s something I never thought I would say.
The Northwest Corner is a place you choose to make the most of, rather than choosing to see it as a boring area in the middle of the woods. There are many things to do with great people living and working in the area, including the ones that I got to work with this offseason.
By Sam Foley
NORTH CANAAN — Rene Boardmen, 29, grew up in Sheffield, Mass., but she has most certainly been adopted by theNorthwest Corner’s Region One School District.
Growing up on her family’s farm, Carlwood Farm, in Sheffield, Rene was always close to North Canaan in terms of proximity, and she was always heavily involved in the town.
She was in the 4H chapter in North Canaan as a youngster and attended Housatonic Valley Regional High School as a tuition student, where she was active in the FFA program that trains students for careers relating to farming and the environment.
Then she went to the State University of New York at Cobleskill to pursue a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
She wanted to go far enough away from home o get a unique experience, but remain close enough that she could come back and help on the farm.
Cobleskill is well-known for its agricultural studies program; growing up on a farm, Rene knew that she wanted a career in agriculture.
While she was at school, she had to do an internship, and she chose to do it in Bantam, Conn. This little internship showed her how much she really appreciated small-town life and how much she wanted to stay close to home.
In 2013 she got her degree and came back to the Tri-state region, not knowing what she wanted to do. Someone had mentioned to her that getting on the substitute teacher list at Housatonic could be a good idea, so in 2015 she followed through with that. She became a long-term sub later that year and went on to get her teaching certificate in 2016.
Before the 2019 school year she was hired full time as an agricultural education teacher.
When asked where she sees herself in five years, Rene pointed at the floor of her office at the high school and said, “Right here!”
Rene always knew she wanted to work with animals. Now she works with animals and kids and she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
By Cynthia Hochswender
SALISBURY — Caitlin Hanlon, 27, grew up in the Lime Rock section of Salisbury. After graduating from Housatonic Valley Regional High School, she attended the University of Connecticut. “My first year was at the Torrington branch,” she said; that branch closed in 2016. “Then I went to [the main campus in] Storrs for another four years. I received a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (Photography) with a minor in anthropology.”
Caitlin is now a graphic designer at The Lakeville Journal. “This July, it will be four years.” And she’s living in Salisbury, with her parents.
“I think there can be a stigma around living with your parents when you are well into your 20s,” she said. “It can seem like you’re being lazy and just don’t want to ‘grow up.’ For me, and I think a lot of young people now, a large part is just the affordability of it.
“I love this area and I have looked at other possible living options, but it is very, very difficult to find affordable rent around here.
“I’ve always loved the area growing up and still do. I have a friend who lives in New York City who doesn’t really understand why I don’t move to a more urban area, but I much prefer being surrounded by nature.
“Also, 99% of my family is still living in this area and I am very close to them. I have ancestors from Ireland who are buried in Millerton. My family, on both my mom and dad’s sides, have been living around here for many generations, so there is a super strong connection to this area for me.”
Five years from now, she said, she expects she’ll still be in the area.
“I hope that by then I’ll be starting a family of my own and will raise my children in a small community.”
By Kaelin Hester
LAKEVILLE — Sarah Cuoco, 33, grew up in Lakeville and attended Salisbury Central School and then Housatonic Valley Regional High School. She did a couple of semesters at Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted, but her real education was teaching dance and helping at the ballet school started and run by her mother, Sandra Cuoco. She also choreographed shows at area schools while she was still in high school.
She stopped taking classes in Winsted, determined to focus on dancing. She moved to New York City for a decade, did shows there and went on a European tour with a show in 2018 —and then decided to return home.
She currently manages and teaches a movement training class called bodyART at Buddhi Tribe in Millerton, is part of the education committee at the Sharon Playhouse and works on the children’s theater and other programs, and she works at Danceworks, a new dance studio in Millerton.
Originally, she says, she came home as “a reset,” because she wasn’t quite sure where to go or what to do. She was done with the city and it seemed like the right thing to do, to come back here. She felt like she was working 40 hours a week or more and was barely even able to pay her rent.
“I wanted to focus on dance and choreography; and the arts in this area are on an upward trend again, so there’s lots of opportunity if you’re willing to work hard.”
Her interest in dance isn’t solely based on her own professional dreams. She also feels that “dance helps build discipline and creativity and teaches teamwork.”
There aren’t many places in this area where young people can learn dance, so she’s glad to be back, glad to be teaching and looking forward to developing “lasting relationships and creating lasting impacts through dance.”
She hopes that five years from now she’ll still be here.
“I’m starting to develop roots here. I don’t see myself leaving unless a great opportunity comes my way. For now, I’m looking for an apartment.”
By Kaelin Hester
SALISBURY — Documentary filmmaker Ben Willis, 34, grew up in Salisbury, went to Salisbury Central School and Housatonic Valley Regional High School and graduated in 2008 from the College of Santa Fe.
His first filmwork was a mini documentary series on folk artists in New Mexico, focusing on the Gerald Peters Galler. While in the Southwest he also worked with Michael Paul Stephenson on the award-winning documentaries “Best Worst Movie” and then “The American Scream” (which was filmed in Massachusetts).
He made back-and-forth trips between the Southwest and the Northwest Corner in 2010 and 2011 before returning full-time to take part in Connecticut’s (now defunct) Film Industry Training Program (FITP), where he got certified as an assistant director.
One of the incentives to return here was the Northwest Corner’s proximity to New York City, and its many film making opportunities.
“I did the opposite of what New Yorkers do,” he said. “I spent weekends in New York and weekdays here.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, he found that there are ample opportunities for work here in this rural region where so many nationally famous artists live and work.
“There are lots of opportunities in small towns.”
Among other things, he said, there is less population density here so there is less competition for work.”
He’s also found that there are “lots of interesting people in the area, and it’s possible to make a lot of connections very quickly.”
Locally, he’s worked with several filmmakers including Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur at their Cornwall-based documentary production company Global Village Media Right now he’s working on a project with documentary filmmaker Anne Makepeace, who lives in Lakeville.
He’s been able to work with them on projects that have a civil and/or political component to them, which he has particularly enjoyed.
He runs a summer film program with Dan Bolognani for the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area; student interns work with him on documentaries about cultural and historic sites in the region. He also teaches photography and film studies at the Marvelwood School in Kent.
Since returning, he’s lived in Falls Village, Kent, Lakeville, Millerton and Torrington (“They all have their charms,” he said).
Overall, he said, he’s been surprised at how happy he is to be back here.He’d expected this to be a transitional move, but he’s found that there is plenty of opportunity here “if you’re young and willing to work hard.”
Being a relatively young person in an area with an older population also has its advantages.
“People get excited when they work with young people,” he observed. “It’s special to them; they want to help you.”
It’s important to have young people in the community, he noted.
For the future, he is now married (to Katie Shanley, who was interviewed for this article as well). They expect to remain here and hope to buy a house.
By Kaelin Hester
SALISBURY — Katie Shanley, 33, hasn’t quite “returned” to the Northwest Corner in the same way as other young people interviewed for this series.
She grew up in Brooklyn, where she went to high school at Poly Prep, but she was a weekend and summer resident (which is how she met her now-husband, Ben Willis, who was also interviewed for this series).
After high school, she went to the University of Vermont to study animal science, and graduated in 2009. After college she moved to Portland, Ore., and then she returned to New York City before moving to the Northwest Corner in 2011.
She is now a certified health coach and has earned a wide range of holistic and wellness certifications, including aromatherapy, herbalism and plant-based nutrition. Perhaps most important, she is a yoga teacher with certifications in various styles and is the owner of Buddhi Tribe, a yoga studio and wellness center in Millerton. She is also a private wellness coach.
As a person who seeks balance and peace, it’s not completely surprising that she decided to leave the city.
“I wasn’t loving the grind of New York,” she said.
It was particularly difficult for young people at the time because New York was still recovering from the financial crash of 2008.
“Young people were invisible in New York City,” she said.
Her parents had by that time moved full-time to Salisbury, and “It felt weird to be in New York City without a home base.”
The Northwest Corner had always felt like an escape. Now she realized that she liked the respite it offered and she wanted to live up here.
“It’s beautiful and there’s a lot of culture,”she said, adding that she doesn’t really miss the city.
Like her husband, she feels that there are advantages to being a young person in an area with so many older people. She feels that she stands out, and there are lots of opportunities here.
She’s also happy to be contributing to the life of the region in a meaningful way. Young people are needed here, to keep the economy going and for fresh perspectives, she said.
For other young people thinking about making the move here, she advises that, “The area is growing, and the opportunities for remote jobs are increasing, so this would be a good place to live and work remotely.”
A future won’t be handed to you on a platter, however.
“There are opportunities, but you have to create your own work opportunities too.”
As for the near future, she and Ben hope to buy a house here and really settle in.
By Kaelin Hester
NORFOLK — James O’Brien, 36, is a familiar face to many Tri-state region residents from his work as a therapist at the very busy Geer Physical Therapy in North Canaan.
James is an energetic presence there, not only speaking fast and fluent Spanish, presenting the latest therapy techniques to his clients and maintaining an active website at www.perfectingmovement.net.
It’s somewhat surprising to learn that he’s locally grown, a native of Norfolk and a graduate of Botelle Elementary School and Northwestern Regional High School in Winsted.
He attended the University of Connecticut in Torrington for a year and then moved on to the main campus in Storrs, where he completed his degree in 2009.
O’Brien originally left the area to serve in the Army Infantry as a paratrooper, and returned to Norfolk in 2004. He finished up his degree at UConn and then found a place to live in Torrington, while he worked at Waterbury Hospital, Sharon Hospital and Canton Physical Therapy before coming to Geer.
A married father of two girls and a boy, one of the draws of returning to the region was to be close to his family and friends and to give his children the same excellent quality of life that he enjoyed growing up here.
His wife is from Costa Rica and they frequently travel there to spend time with her family.
An active outdoorsman, he loves the beauty of the region. And while of course Norfolk has more nature to offer than Torrington, the cost of living is lower in the larger town and he’s happy to be there.