Chris Collins moved to Meriden, Connecticut four years ago with his girlfriend and her two children. In his professional capacity he serves as a substance abuse counselor at Rushford at Meriden, an organization that offers a variety of outpatient programs and services, including counseling young adults about substance use disorders. A longtime friend of Chris’ invited him to participate in the University of Connecticut People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program. Because Chris wanted to learn ways to engage with the Meriden community, understand the school system, and make a positive difference, he agreed to attend.
The UConn PEP program in Meriden was funded through the Nellie Mae Foundation. Other UConn PEP communities apply for funding through the Connecticut Parent Trust Fund or local resources like the Liberty Bank Foundation. UConn Extensionprovides training and support for community agencies, school districts, hospitals, family resource centers, and correctional institutions across the state offering the UConn PEP curriculum and course.
Participants such as Chris come together for two hours a week for ten weeks to discuss topics including communication, problem-solving, values, parenting and other life skills that enhance parent leadership skills and community engagement.
For Chris, the content and format of UConn PEP fit his lifestyle and addressed his interests. Because dinner and day care were provided, participation did not require additional juggling of work and family time. Chris was seeking an opportunity to be more involved with his family, the schools, and the community. UConn PEP was a vehicle to make that happen.
In discussing the impact of the UConn PEP program on him personally, Chris recalled when his facilitator mentioned that the loudest voice is heard on most issues, he realized that unless he spoke up about his concerns than no one would know what they are. He said the resources and networking that are part of the 10-week program gave him perspective on power, and empowered him to become more involved. Learning about active listening also impacted Chris in that he realizes that listening first allows him to reflect on the issues before considering solutions.
Parent leadership skills are central to the UConn PEP curriculum. Before participating in the program, Chris thought using the “hammer,” or authoritative style, to discipline children was the only approach. UConn PEP classes discussed other tools for caring about his children while still providing a safe home with healthy boundaries and using alternative disciplinary techniques. Chris said having more “tools” for parenting is helpful in working with his children. These tools also impacted how Chris became more involved in the schools. Resources and networks in the UConn PEP program gave Chris ideas of techniques to use in working with teachers and parents in schools.
Participants in every UConn PEP program commit to finding and carrying out a community project. Chris shared that the impact of helping others makes you feel better than he could have imagined. His group collected books for children and they far exceeded the number of books they had put in their stated goal. When he assisted with the distribution of the books he said the smiles and joy he felt from the kids matched the smiles and joy of those giving them out.
Chris is currently serving on a Local Advisory Committee and he uses skills learned in UConn PEP to engage members of his community. According to Chris, the community seeks him out when they have questions or concerns. The community knows he will listen and that he cares about their issues. With parent leadership and community engagement Chris believes the UConn PEP program impacted how he makes a difference in his family, in the schools, and in the community.
Chris Collins along with Meriden Children First (MCF) Local Advisory Committee Members (LAC), with the support of Meriden Children First and the Meriden Public Schools, developed and implemented the UPSTANDER Awards. They established guidelines for nominating middle and high school students who through their actions have made a difference in the community. Chris along with the other LAC members worked on this project after one of the LAC members shared a story of her son being repeatedly bullied on his way home from school and another teenager deciding to walk him home every day. This intervention stopped the bullying. Chris and the other LAC members passionately turned a community story into action, by recognizing student UPSTANDER‘s who are doing the right thing without any expectation of recognition. Winners were chosen by the LAC after nominations and meeting rigorous guidelines. These award winners have stood out among their peers, going above and beyond with their actions. Thestudents received their awards in school and were recognized at the UConn PEP graduation on June 26, 2018.
During the graduation Chris spoke about the character of each award winner and the meaning of the UPSTANDER award. He also shared how important it has been to him to have the chance to participate in the UConn PEP program to continue to give back to the Meriden community while collaborating with other dedicated parent leaders. Chris and the other MCF UConn PEP graduates have gone above and beyond continuing their leadership journey in the Meriden school system and community. In addition to graduating from UConn PEP, Chris is a member of Meriden Children First Local Advisory Committee. He and the other LAD members have continued their leadership training by attending a public speaking workshop with Paul Vivian, 12 hours of Race and Equity training through National Conference for Community Justice (NCCJ) and attending a Nellie Mae conference.
UConn PEP is an example of how a research grant can turn into over twenty years of service to the state. UConn Extension received a USDA State Strengthening grant in 1996 to create, deliver, and evaluate a parent leadership program in Connecticut. Since receiving that grant over 3,000 state residents have participated in UConn PEP, the parent leadership program created by the grant. Over 25 community agencies, school districts, family resource centers, and faith-based communities across the state have partnered with the Extension to offer the program. The research on the program suggests that the UConn PEP program was effective in influencing positive changes in participants’ life skills, personal relationships, and community engagement among an ethnically diverse sample.