Zone still empowering city families

Zone still empowering city families


Lupita Gonzalez of Meriden and children Brianna, 5, and Isaac, 9, sit in their home Friday, August 9, 2013. Gonzalez has benefited from Meriden Family Zone's programs and courses. Since being involved Gonzalez said her English had improved and she wants to become more invovled in the community. | (Dave Zajac / Record-Journal)

MERIDEN — When Lupita Gonzalez was first told about Meriden Family Zone programs she was apprehensive. She said she didn’t have the time to attend, she was too busy with her three children.

After some encouragement, Gonzalez attended a Family Zone People Empowering People Spanish leadership training course last year.

“It was a really good experience,” Gonzalez said Friday morning at her home. “English is not my first language, I thought I’m gonna do this, I’m going to get involved.”

The Gonzalez family is one of about 40 families who have benefited from the Family Zone, a Meriden Children First Initiative program that provides support and educational opportunities to families and children in the Miller and Twiss street area. The zone has been in existence for three years, and while funding is lacking, program officials say they plan to continue empowering children and families for years to come.

In December 2011, the city was one of 15 communities across the country to receive $465,000 in federal funding through a Promise Neighborhood planning grant. The money was used to plan an expansion of work already being done in the Family Zone.

In July 2012, Children First had hoped to submit an application for the Promise Neighborhood implementation grant but missed the deadline. It which would have put Meriden in the running to receive money to carry out the planning that had taken place, as much as $4 million over five years to increase educational opportunities for children.

Due to the federal budget cuts known as sequestration, the grant money is no longer available. But the situation isn’t holding the Family Zone back.

“The work continues,” said Marisol Estrada-Soto, Meriden Children First Initiative chairwoman. “We’re just going to continue to do what we’re doing. We’re going to continue to look for different funding, going after grants.”

“The primary goal is to work with the schools and partner agencies to engage more families,” said David Radcliffe, director of Meriden Children First, in an email.

When the Family Zone was first developed it began finding families in need through the Women Infants and Children program. The zone took on about 11 low-income families and eventually grew. There are no prerequisites to be part of the program other than living in the zone. Today, there is a waiting list of households looking to get assistance through the Family Zone, said Estrada-Soto. Once a family comes to the zone, an outreach workers evaluates their needs.

“A lot of families lack basic needs,” she said. “They don’t have beds, they’re struggling with that.”

The zone directs families on how to get the services they need and how to get involved in the school system all while providing them with a sense of confidence and empowerment. The program is modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

“We let them know the schools belong to you,” Estrada-Soto said. “You’re allowed to talk to the teachers and principals.”

Courses and training are offered to parents and children have the opportunity to attend a variety of enrichment activities.

After a while the intimidation goes away and parents show up for meetings and conferences, Estrada-Soto said. Such attitudes rub off on children who become excited for school. According to a project status study provided by the Meriden Family Zone, zone children have fewer chronic absences than other children in the district.

With more children and families reaping the benefits of the zone, more goals have been put in place for the program.

“Part of our emphasis in the coming year is to focus on early literacy skills to instill a love of reading – and to improve reading scores. We will also work closely with the Housing Authority, City of Meriden and area families to help transform the Mills,” Radcliffe said, referring to the Mills Memorial Apartments public housing complex downtown.

“Additionally, we are working hard to involve other community partners in a nationally recognized data management system called ‘Efforts to Outcomes,’” Radcliffe said in an email. “This will help measure impacts of local efforts on kids and families who live in the Zone.”

According to the zone’s project status study, efforts continue through working committees. Each committee, which includes health, youth and parent engagement, is assigned to keep an eye on trends and opportunities. Some of the committees’ goals include “working with the state to maximize resources and supports to advance local priorities,” “integrate career awareness into earlier grade levels,” “engage families living in the Mills in family support,” “housing transformation activities” and “connect family zone parent leaders to leadership training programs.”

At Gonzalez’ home, her 5-year-old daughter Brianna watched TV while her 9-year-old son Isaac, played on the computer that was given to the family by the nonprofit group, Concepts for Adaptive Learning. The group partnered with the Family Zone and Board of Education to offer the technology to 40 zone families. On the rainy, muggy day there wasn’t much the children could do but stay inside, Gonzalez said. Her youngest, Christian, 3, was at preschool.

Gonzalez, 38, moved to Meriden in 1998 after leaving Mexico. She has struggled with her English, she said, but wants to become more fluent. Getting involved with the zone has motivated her.

“If I want to be a leader, I need to be able to express what I think,” Gonzalez said.

After taking the People Empowering People Spanish leadership training course last year, she joined Children First’s Parent Leadership Training Institute, a 20-week course that teaches parents how to be effective advocates for their children. She graduated in June.

“All of this gets me motivated,” she said. “My next step is the PTO. I want to know what’s going in the schools...I want to be there for my kids.”

Gonzalez said she practices her English with her children. She watches their cartoons and reads with them.

“I need to learn more English for my kids,” she said. “I need to understand my kids.”

Gonzalez said she doesn’t want to make her children translate for her, like other parents do. Knowing the language they speak is important, she said.

While Gonzalez says she has benefited greatly from the Family Zone, so have her children. The outreach worker comes to the house once a month to check up on the children, talk to them about school and see what they’re involved in. Gonzalez’ children participate in the Summer at Sherman Enrichment Camp, a program that provides young people with fun and hands on learning activities at Roger Sherman School. Her youngest, is enrolled in the Head Start Preschool program. She said all of her children enjoy going to school and never complain about it.

“The Family Zone has been great,” said Gonzalez, adding she can’t wait to participate in her next training course with the program.

Gonzalez has recruited a couple of people to the leadership training course and leadership institute. Some people she encourages say they don’t have time for it.

“That was me,” Gonzalez said. “I try to tell them all the things they can learn and all the real nice people that help.” (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @KPrimicerioRJ

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