people empowering people

Chris Collins: Making a Difference

By Cathleen Love

Chris Collins presenting the UPSTANDER awards at the Meriden PEP graduation in June
Chris Collins speaks at the Meriden PEP graduation in June.

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.

For more information on the UConn PEP program visit pep.extension.uconn.eduor email Cathleen.Love@uconn.edu.

2017 UConn PEP Graduates

Enfield graduates
Photo: Cathleen Love

The University of Connecticut People Empowering People program (UConn PEP) is a personal, family and leadership development program that began in 1996, and is through the Extension program in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Empowerment is a way that individuals and social groups express their needs, present their concerns, and devise strategies for involvement in decision-making. UConn PEP helps participants to understand empowerment as a social process that can help them gain control over their own lives. The focus is on empowerment as a process that fosters power (i.e., capacity to implement) in people for use in their own lives, in their communities, and in their society, acting on issues that they define as important. The outgrowth of these experiences is the development of self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as more tangible results such as building skills in problem solving and decision-making, developing relationships, and a broadened experience. Participants in UConn PEP begin to see themselves as powerful rather than powerless. UConn PEP opens to participants the recognition of their own values and beliefs and encouragement to express their own issues as they define them. The focus is on the connection between individual action and community action, encouraging individual change through training sessions and discussions, and supporting community action through participants’ efforts to change their community for the better. While we cannot give people power and we cannot make them empowered, we can provide the opportunities, resources, and support that they need to empower themselves.

In 2016, UConn PEP celebrated 20 years of offering the program in partnership with communities throughout Connecticut. The program is also being offered in Miami, Florida and other states such as Vermont and New Hampshire have sent professionals to be trained to deliver the program in their states. In the 2016-2017 academic year, twenty-two cycles of UConn PEP were offered through the following community agencies:

Middletown Schools

New London Youth Services

United Way and Plymouth Family Resource Center

East Hartford Public Schools – 2 cycles

Family Life Education in Hartford – 2 cycles

The Bridge Family Center

CREC – 2 cycles

Families Network of Western CT

Northeast Early Childhood Council

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Hartford – 2 cycles

Stamford Public Education Foundation – 2 cyles

AFCAMP

Manchester Public Schools

Human Services Council of Enfield – 4 cycles

Meriden School District – 2 cycles

Wethersfield Early Childhood Collaborative

Funding for these programs came from the Parent Trust Fund, the Graustein Memorial Fund, the Liberty Bank Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Foundation. The programs were offered in English, Spanish and Arabic.

The contributions made by these UConn PEP programs to their communities are based on the interests of the participants. In Wethersfield for example, participants who immigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia realized that there were many families in the community from Bosnia and started a group called Bosnian Moms of Wethersfield. Enfield brought together families from different cultures and shared cultural games with each other’s children. One participant translated the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) driver’s manual into Japanese for her community. Several programs collected donations for homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and for our veterans and military serving overseas. Two UConn PEP participants worked on a manual to assist families with special needs to understand and complete the forms needed for the public schools because they realized how difficult it was for them to learn the processes for their children.

When asked how UConn PEP has helped them, participants shared comments such as:

  • I am feeling self-confident and feeling more a part of my community.
  • Treat others as you want to be treated.
  • Be mindful.
  • I want to continue to learn and serve the community.
  • Our facilitators allowed us to be who we are. We didn’t have to pretend.
  • I feel empowered to improve myself as a single mother and how to be a positive team leader in my community.
  • The program has been a godsend for me. It allowed me to pause and do something positive for myself and for my community. It gently took me out of my comfort zone and gave me the confidence to push myself to do something I have wanted to do in my life.
  • I was finally able to find gateways and connections in the community to be able to be more helpful in the community.

Engaging Communities with UConn PEP

The University of Connecticut People Empowering People (UConn PEP) is a personal and family development program with a strong community focus. Retired UConn Extension educator Cherry Czuba started the program in 1996 with a USDA State Strengthening grant to the Department of Extension in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Building upon individual strengths the program encourages growth in communication, goal setting, problem solving, parent and family relationships and community involvement. While participating in the UConn PEP program, participants set goals, develop relationships and make connections. They also find their voice, share stories, and begin to believe they can make a difference.

family at PEP
A family at a 2016 PEP program.

UConn PEP expanded to other states, including Michigan, California, and Missouri. Connections were made with professors in South Africa and Egypt to establish the program in universities in those countries. The broad reach of the program continues with Massachusetts, Vermont, and Florida actively teaching PEP programs in 2016.

PEP participants realize their leadership potential and invest in themselves, their families and their communities. The program continues to grow through support from our partner organizations, including school districts, nonprofit organizations and faith-based communities. Funding for the programs comes from the state and local government, foundations, and local businesses.

Questionnaires are administered to all participants before programming begins and after it finishes in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in Human Development (CARHD) at the University of Connecticut. The pre-test questionnaires contain close-ended questions to measure self-assertive efficacy, sense of mastery, parental satisfaction, family problem-solving communication, and community engagement. The post-test questionnaires include the same questions as the pre-tests, as well as open-ended questions that asked participants about their overall satisfaction and feedback about the program.

Based on the data collected, CARHD assessed the effectiveness of the programs. Key findings from the analyses of the close-ended were that UConn PEP participants showed significant positive changes on self-assertive efficacy, sense of mastery, parental satisfaction, family problem- solving communication and community engagement.

Cherry Czuba
Cherry Czuba

The UConn PEP program has positively influenced communities across the state, as over 50 towns have had programs in the last twenty years. Participants enjoy the classes, the stories shared, the laughter, the trust within the group and the comfort in sharing and speaking with one another. The UConn PEP conversations empower participants to accomplish or obtain something. Every moment, every word, every tear, every laugh and every lesson becomes permanently ingrained in their minds and in their hearts.

For more information on the UConn PEP program visit http://pep.extension.uconn.edu or email cathleen.love@uconn.edu

PEP Celebrates 20th Anniversary

family at PEP
A family at a 2016 PEP program.

In 1993, Extension Educator Cherry Czuba and a social services coordinator in a Windham low-income housing project taught family life information and community development strategies to five natural leaders in the community. Each participant committed a year, attended ten 2-hour training sessions, went to monthly meetings, and addressed community issues through projects. In 1994, Cherry worked in Vernon to address growing crime. Then, a VISTA worker was obtained later that year to conduct the program in Brooklyn and Danielson.

Partnering with Extension educators Cathy Malley and Ede Valiquette brought the program to Danbury, Manchester, Hartford, East Hartford, and West Hartford. Additional VISTA members allowed expansion to Vernon, Enfield and Meriden.

From these initial programs, the UConn People Empowering People (PEP) program was founded in 1996, and steadily grew. Over two thousand people have graduated from the UConn PEP program in the past twenty years.

UConn PEP is a personal and family development program with a strong community focus. Building upon individual life experiences and strengths the program encourages growth in communication, goal setting, problem-solving skills, parent and family relationships and community involvement. Cherry retired in 2013, and Cathleen Love, Ph.D., UConn Extension Professor, now coordinates UConn PEP.

While participating in a UConn PEP program, the participants set goals, develop relationships and make connections. They also find their voice, share stories, and begin to believe they can make a difference.

An early participant from Enfield reflected on the program, “UConn PEP changed my life for the better. If it weren’t for UConn PEP, I wouldn’t have the job I have today. UConn PEP helped give me the drive to want something better and gave me the confidence to believe that I could do it. It also helped me be a better parent.”

UConn PEP expanded to other states, including Michigan, California and Missouri. Cherry worked with a professor from South Africa to establish the program at the University of Pretoria. The program continues to have a broad reach, with Vermont and Florida actively teaching PEP programs in 2016.

In the words of one of the recent UConn PEP graduates, “I learned from every UConn Extension PEP participant in my wonderful group. I re-learned things like trust in groups. I came to appreciate different lifestyles and different ways of thinking, living, caring, sharing and teaching. The UConn Extension PEP program helped me renew my faith in how wonderful people are. It has reopened my eyes to how important differences are in people, in every aspect, but yet in the end how we really are the same and that we, each one of us, can make a difference.”

During the UConn PEP program, one woman set a personal goal to go to college. She is now working on her bachelor’s degree. She believed she could do it, set her goal, and her passion and commitment gave her the courage to follow through on her dream to go to college.

The student says, “The opportunity to participate in UConn Extension PEP changed my life. I had begun to feel unworthy, unintelligent, unappreciated. This program built and renewed my confidence in myself. For that I am so appreciative.”

PEP participants realize their leadership potential and take action to invest in themselves, in their families and in their communities. The program continues to grow through support from our partner organizations, including school districts, nonprofit organizations and faith-based communities.

In partnership with the Center for Applied Research in Human Development (CARHD) a questionnaire was administered to all participants before programming began (i.e. pre-test) and after programming finished (i.e. post-test). The pre-test questionnaires contained close-ended questions to measure self-assertive efficacy, sense of mastery, parental satisfaction, family problem-solving communication, and community engagement. The post-test questionnaires included the same questions as the pre-tests, as well as open-ended questions that asked participants about their overall satisfaction and feedback about the program. Based on the data, CARHD assessed the effectiveness of the programs.

Key findings from the analyses of the close-ended were that UConn PEP participants

1) Showed significant positive changes on self-assertive efficacy and sense of mastery.

2) Showed significant positive changes on parental satisfaction and family problem-solving communication.

3) Showed significant positive changes on community engagement.

4) Overall were very satisfied with the program.

Responses to the open-ended questions indicated that participants found the program to be useful and helpful. They felt that the community project was beneficial to the surrounding communities and provided an opportunity to be involved in their community. Overall, the participants showed improvement in all three targeted areas (individual assets, parent/family relationships, and community engagement) following completion of the program.

Cherry Czuba
Cherry Czuba

The UConn PEP program has positively influenced communities across the state, as over 50 towns have had programs in the last twenty years. Looking to the future, UConn Extension has created an endowed account at the UConn Foundation, the Cherry Czuba UConn PEP Program Fund to provide permanent support for the program.

“I enjoyed every moment of our classes,” another participant shares. “I loved the stories we shared, the tears we shed, the laughter, the trust within the group and the comfort we felt in sharing and speaking with one another. Our ‘PEP’ talks empowered us to accomplish or obtain something. Every moment, every word, every tear, every laugh and every lesson will be a permanent tattoo, not only in my mind, but in my heart.”

PEP Graduate Impacts Community

Daniella PierreDaniella Pierre was recently recognized at the United States of Women summit in Washington DC, and is currently being nominated for an award from Legacy Magazine, all this because of her dedicated work in affordable housing for middle class families and empowering young women. She currently works as an academic advisor at Miami-Dade and is a part of the executive board at her local NAACP chapter. During her participation in People Empowering People (UConn PEP) she said she recognized that, “it is my right as a citizen to be involved in local politics, especially on issues that divide us.” The work she does focuses on the development of people and “hopes for a better tomorrow today.”

Daniella is a graduate of the UConn PEP program offered in conjunction with Catalyst Miami.

Thank you Volunteers!

Hartford rain garden

During National Volunteer Week, we thank all of our Connecticut 4-H, UConn Extension Master Gardener Program, People Empowering People (PEP), and other volunteers who make our programs so successful each year! Our volunteers contributed over 100,000 hours, or $2.4 million to their communities served last year.