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Extension program fosters
community skills
May 3, 1999

Christine Ball swings her car around the corner and slows to a stop near an apartment complex. Children swarm around the car in anticipation, eager for her to open the trunk and distribute books.

Ball is facilitator of the Cooperative Extension Center's People Empowering People program in Danbury. Last year, she began collecting books, many donated by people in the community, for the families and children involved in the program.

"We believe every person has a gift and the capacity to help the community."

Cheryl Czuba
Extension Educator,
Cooperative Extension System

"The stereotype that low-income families aren't interested in reading is untrue," says Ball. "I was more popular than the ice cream truck."

Ball's program is one of the offered by eight Cooperative Extension Centers around the state. The centers, run by the University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, provide services ranging from nutrition and gardening information to child care and 4-H programs.

The People Empowering People program helps families with limited resources learn communication, parenting and problem solving skills.

"The program improves self-esteem and enables the participants to feel confident about themselves, whether applying for a job or obtaining a driver's license," says Cheryl Czuba, a cooperative extension educator in Haddam. "Some of these adults have no education beyond the sixth grade, and it's inspiring when they complete the program and make the transition into job opportunities or decide to further their education."

The program recruits possible participants through family resource centers, the local health departments or social service agencies. Each person must apply and attend an interview before being selected. Participants attend 10 two-hour training sessions and monthly educational sessions led by a trained facilitator, and must commit to spending one year with the program. Free child care is provided while parents attend the sessions.

During one session, participants talk about an object that means the most to them, such as a driver's license or a picture of their child. They discuss how their personal interests are different, but find many share the same values. They also engage in role playing activities that improve their communication skills. Program graduates sometimes lead discussions on how to improve parenting skills.

The program, based on a model developed at UMass, began in 1994 and is now offered in Enfield, Meriden, West Hartford, Hartford, Manchester and Danbury.

Part of the program involves participants working together on a project to improve their community. "We believe every person has a gift and the capacity to help the community," says Czuba.

In Danbury, the children's need for books became the stimulus for building a children's library in a low-income housing complex, High Ridge Gardens, home to 65 families. Other members of the Danbury community joined in the project.

"This is the tool that brought this community together," says Cynthia Scott, manager of High Ridge Gardens. Scott earned her high school diploma and her driver's license through the program. Now she shares her experiences with others in the program - many of them residents of High Ridge - during weekly discussions.

"I wanted the people of High Ridge to know me as a friend, not just the person who collects the rent," says Scott. "I have the same problems they do."

A volunteer from the Danbury Volunteer Center who knew that Ball distributed books to children suggested the idea of a children's library in High Ridge Gardens. Participants in the program from High Ridge and other volunteers from the community joined forces to transform a small room in the basement of the apartment building into a children's library.

Despite an ant infestation and flooding, the workers persevered. They stripped down old shelves and collected and cataloged books. Now the children's library has books ranging from Anne of Green Gables to encyclopedias, walls full of paintings and even a fish tank.

Children come to the library after school and Michelle Ritterbusch, an AmeriCorps VISTA member, helps them with their homework. The library provides a space where the children can work and, as a result, many of the children have improved in school, says Ritterbusch.

Besides working on homework, puzzles, and reading, children use computers, donated by members of the Danbury community.

Teenagers at High Ridge interested in working in the children's library must apply and go through an interview. It is an opportunity for them to gain experience in a job-like setting.

The children's library will celebrate its one year anniversary in May.

Kirstyn Lazur