Monday, July 17
BRATTLEBORO -- One man is hoping his athletic passion can help push over the top a fundraising effort for a local youth group.

New England Youth Theater, which has been raising money for a little less than year to build a new facility, is $250,000 shy of its $1.5 million goal. Its plan is to convert the former Tri-State Automotive building into performance, technical and classroom space. Last month, the group broke ground and hopes to have it first show in its new facility in December.

To do his part to help bridge the gap, one man has stepped up -- or jumped in -- to raise money by swimming across Lake Champlain in August. Battling back from a spinal disc injury, 46-year-old Steve Tavella is spending six days a week in the water getting ready for the eight-mile swim.

"It's absolutely phenomenal that anyone can be so keen to do that," said Rick Barron, the president of NEYT's board, about Tavella swimming across the lake that splits New York and Vermont.

Barron said an anonymous donor set up a matching fund to pay for NEYT's construction project. Barron said since the fundraising began, they have received donations from $10 to $50,000, all doubled by the unnamed benefactor.

Tavella said, being a big fan of the New England Youth Theater, he wanted to contribute in some way to their efforts to build a new facility. He figured by asking for pledges for his swim across the lake, he could help the theater group realize its goal.

Last Wednesday, Tavella had planned to swim on Spofford Lake, in nearby Chesterfield, N.H. It was raining, and normally he doesn't mind swimming in the rain, because most boaters usually stay off the water then. But the rain was falling so hard, he decided it was best to make his laps at the Colonial Motel pool on Putney Road.

"My injury is affecting my preparation," he admitted. "I had to eliminate some races this year. But I think I should be able to do this."

Tavella said the farthest distance he's ever swum was just under six miles, last year on the Hudson River, but he has confidence that he can make it from New York state to Burlington in water hovering at 60 degrees.

"I don't know that I will accomplish an eight-mile swim before this race," said Tavella. "But I plan to swim the Spofford Lake shore, about six to seven miles, before Champlain."

Tavella said he first got seriously involved in swimming while serving in the Peace Corps more than 20 years ago. He spent four years on islands in the South Pacific, swimming in the ocean in his spare time.

Tavella said he has been swimming steadily for the last three years with a local swim group. Tavella, who has lived in Brattleboro since 1986, said he recently asked himself "Why not use this time that I am swimming for the benefit of a local organization?"

Eventually, Tavella said he would like to put together a group of swimmers to raise money through their hobby.

"I would like to start a scholarship program for kids at the pool," said Tavella, adding not all parents can afford to send their kids to summer camp for a week or two. He said he would like to set up a fund to help pay for children who might not get to spend the summer at the pool or on the beach.

Tavella said, next year he would like to complete the 17-mile swim across Long Island Sound. He said his long-term goal is to participate in the 28-mile Manhattan Island Marathon.

"I've been swimming all my life," said Tavella, a software engineer, adding his first job was picking up the trash at a local pool.

The Tenth Annual Greater Burlington YMCA Lake Champlain Swim starts at 8 a.m. on August 5 at Willsboro Point, N.Y. and ends at Oakledge Park in Burlington. Swimmers are expected to reach Vermont between 11 a.m. and noon and are escorted by people in boats, in case of emergencies.

Tavella's pledge sheets can be found at the Colonial Motel and at Burrows Specialized Sports or by calling Tavella at (802) 254-8674. 

NEYT's Barron said participants in the theater program -- more than 400 since NEYT was founded -- range from 6 years old up to high school age. This fall will be the beginning of its eighth season.


Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at (802) 254-2311, ext. 277.