Month: May 2016

Reading garden new alternative to a classroom

originally posted in The Bristol Press by Susan Corica on October 23, 2015.


10/22/2015 Mike Orazzi | Staff The South Side School has a new reading garden that fifth graders and parents helped design.
10/22/2015 Mike Orazzi | Staff The South Side School has a new reading garden that fifth graders and parents helped design.

PLYMOUTH–The new Reading Garden at South Side Elementary School is like an outdoor classroom, one with grass instead of a tile floor, wooden benches and colorful Adirondack chairs instead of desks, and a brilliant orange maple tree instead of a whiteboard.

“It’s still in the process of being designed, so teachers haven’t been able to use it yet, but the idea is that instead of always being in the classroom the teacher and kids can come out here,” Gail Zimmermann, staff member at South Side’s Family Resource Center.

“The teacher could read tot he students, they could do activities around the story, or the children could come out and do some silent reading in small groups,” she said. “As long as it’s nice out, in the fall or spring, it’s a classroom in the fresh air.”

“Turning the area of the school grounds facing Wolcott Street and enclosed by a chain link fence into a reading area was originally the idea of the fifth graders in the school’s Community Club,” she explained.

Through the University of Connecticut and the Family Resource Center, Zimmerman runs a parents’ group called People Empowering People, in which members work on a group project to benefit the school or the community at large.

The People Empowering People parents decided to take on the Reading Garden as their project, collecting donations, getting the benches made an planting flowers, she said.

“It’s just about done, but we’ll have an official opening in the spring when the flowers come up,” Zimmermann said.

Parent Christina Wilson said the People Empowering People members brainstormed ideas for the garden last spring and worked hard on it when school began again.

“September and October have been a go go go!” she said.

Wilson and her husband Dan weeded the area and planted a bush, some trees and a bunch of spring bulbs.

Sharon Pratt and her husband Brian built the wooden benches and bolted them to the ground.

Dawn Raymond and her husband Darren, who own Fleetwood Industries in Plainville, donated money to the project.

“We still have a few dollars left to spend and we are not quite done yet,” she said. “We want to work on the gravel path and we’re going to get engraved stepping stones for outside of the fence thanking the people that made the donations.”

True Value Hardware in town donated the four Adirondack chairs, Raymond said. “I drove by there one day and saw them. I said ‘hey I love those chairs, they would look great in our garden! They didn’t even hesitate to offer them to us.”

Fresh Worx and Carvel also made monetary donations to the project.

10/22/2015 Mike Orazzi | Staff The South Side School has a new reading garden that fifth graders and parents helped design.
10/22/2015 Mike Orazzi | Staff

Erica Myers drew the mural that decorates the fence and gives some privacy from the road. Myers said she only draws casually for fun and she never did anything on this scale before. The other parents helped paint the design she came up with.

There is also a brightly colored butterfly bench, which was donated by school nurse Mary Tomasi, and a plan for a rainbow banner with a Dr. Seuss quote to go on the brick wall on the side of the garden.

Once the cold weather sets in, the chairs, butterfly bench and other furnishings will be taken in for the winter, but will return next spring, Zimmermann said.

Vicky Frye and Francesa Papasso were also part of the [UConn] PEP group that worked on the Reading Garden.



People Empowering People leads to success for Enfield’s Latin community

By Annemarie A. Smith in the Journal Inquirer

Posted Thursday May7, 2015 11:15 a.m.

Angela Gomez has a huge smile after getting her certificate from Lorena Cisneros, program facilitator for the University of Connecticut’s People Empowering People program, following the program’s graduation ceremony Tuesday, May 6, 2015, at St. Patrick’s Church in the Thompsonville section of Enfield. (Jim Michaud / Journal Inquirer)

ENFIELD — Lorena Cisneros is a force to be reckoned with. The 36-year-old mother of two is vivacious, determined, and whip-smart.

As she arrives at Thomas G. Alcorn Elementary School with her family in tow to begin setting up for the night’s University of Connecticut’s People Empowering People class, she chats about how the program, for which she is the Enfield coordinator, changes lives.

“I have so many people say to me how happy they are because of the program,” Cisneros says.

The almost two-decade-old statewide People Empowering People program, also known as PEP, seeks to provide training and support to targeted adult populations to catalyze change in their lives and their communities.

Director Catherine Love explains that PEP grew out of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for assisting children, youth, and families at risk.

“At the time, there was a lot of talk about what was wrong with people instead of what their strengths were … We wanted to develop a curriculum that was strength-based,” Love says.

The resulting 10-week program teaches adults cross the state life skills, including decision-making, problem solving, and communication skills, as well as community values during weekly, two-hour classes.

“We give parents leadership skills so they can be advocates for their children,” Love says.

As part of the curriculum, participants develop and complete a service project they see a need for in their community.

During the 2013-14 academic year, Love says, over 1,300 community service hours impacted more than 5,000 people across the state.

At the end of each program, PEP hosts graduation for all participants as a way to celebrate their accomplishments.

On Wednesday, the Enfield program hosted graduation for its 12 participants at St. Patrick’s Church in the Thompsonville section.

Love emphasizes that PEP works to improve the lives of its participants.

“This is evidence-based. We’ve had research done and we can prove it’s making a difference in the lives of participants,” she says.

Family resource centers, Head Start programs, public school systems, nonprofits, towns, and other organizations can apply for state grants to bring PEP to their community.

In Enfield, it was an organization called KITE, or Key Initiatives to Early Learning, that applied for the grant to help the town’s growing Latino community better participate in society.

KITE brought Cisneros on board to run the program.

Cisneros explains, “KITE saw the necessity (for this program) in schools … A lot of (Latino) parents here don’t speak English and have trouble communicating with teachers. They also don’t go to programs the schools have, so KITE wanted to get parents involved.”

Cisneros’ first class had 13 students, and they focused on the language barrier in town.

The group decided to host a community conversation as their service project, which tackled the creation of English as a Second Language or ESL classes in town, ways to help Latino children with schoolwork, and developing better translation services in the schools.

It was such a success, that she will host another one this year on Thursday, May 21, at 5 p.m. at the Angelo Lamagna Activity Center, 19 N. Main St.

Cisneros’ current group of 12 participants wanted to focus not on Latino problems, but on ways the Latino community gives back to Enfield.

Thus, the group organized a Latin dance night for residents of all ages and races in order to raise money for the Enfield Food Shelf.

“We thought, let’s make something healthy,” Cisneros says. “We know about music and rhythms, so let’s do a salsa and meringue class.”

The event, of course, was a success.

Cisneros truly sees firsthand what a difference PEP makes in the lives of her students.

“One said it changed her relationship with her husband,” Cisneros says. “Other people say it is so nice because they know lots of people and if they have questions they know who to call. They know now that they have friends.”

Finding this sense of community, Cisneros says, is no small thing.

In fact, the issue is a very personal one. She tears up as she recalls coming to the U.S. from Ecuador as an illegal immigrant 14 years ago, with no English skills and no job.

“It was like being in jail,” she says.

Still, determined to make a life for herself here, she took English classes at Asnuntuck Community College.

With her new language skills, she was able to navigate the paperwork necessary to become a U.S. citizen.

Now, she is determined to help others in similar situations.

“My own experience when I came here is I didn’t have that person that said, ‘If you want to continue your education, follow these steps,’” she says. “When I have the possibility to be that person now, I say ‘OK!’”

PEP is just one way Cisneros gives back to the country that changed her life.

The work, which marries Latino and American cultures, she says, makes her incredibly happy.

“We (Latinos) have incredible values,” she says. “We just have to share them and then people will be happy to share with us.”

Campaign aims to spread positivity

Originally printed in The Bristol Press

PLYMOUTH– Participants in the People Empowering People–PEP–program decided that Plymouth needs some kindness lately and each individual in town holds the key. The 2015 PEP Class invites town residents to join in the Keys for Kindness Campaign, which will kickoff with the “Kindness Hour” on Tuesday April 14, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., in the Community Room at Town Hall.

Mayor David Merchant will present the first symbolic key and the program members will distribute the initial wave of keys, said Donna Koser, who is a member of the class, aling with Jennifer Yezierski, Jennier DeForest, heather MacAulay, Vianna Hartley, and Tanya Long.

The members have invited a number of local organizations to send one or two representatives to accept a set of keys that can be given out to others for kind acts.

Koser said the mission of Keys for Kindness is “to promote kindness, inspire people to recognize its contagious benefits and power to make a difference in peoples lives and to strengthen out community in a positive way.”

“Research shows that kindness has a positive effect not only on the recipient and the giver, but also on the observer,” she said.

The group has been collecting keys for some time now, she said. “We have created kindness necklaces with them to be give out to individuals showing kindness. If you receive one we ask that you in turn, pay it forward when you notice another being kind.”

Anyone who comes to the Kindness Hour is asked to bring along a gift of kindness, such as a small gift card, a baked item, a special quote, an offer of free service, etc.

“Please put your family name on it,” the invitation to the event says. “As you arrive there will be name tags to fill out and wear. Each family attending will receive a gift and find that family to thank them… and maybe even meet a new friend!”

The program is a free community-focused 10-week training program which encourages growth in communication and problem solving skills, parent/family relationships and community involvement. Participants work on one or more projects that benefit their community.

The program is offered in partnership with the Plymouth Family Resource Center, the United Way of West Central Connecticut and the University of Connecticut.

“In People Empowering People we have to do a community project,” Koser explained.

“I think the whole class just wanted to do something that was positive that would bring a little bit of hope for the community,” Koser said.

They came up with the idea of keys as a tribute to the Lock Museum of America on Route 6 and the old Eagle Lock Co. in town.

The group started a Facebook page for the campaign, where they hope people will post about kind acts they had done which got them a key or witnessed which for which they passed on a key.

“The key is not supposed to stay with you,” Koser said. “So if you receive one you’re supposed to seek out somebody else doing an intentional kindness act.”

The idea for the campaign could catch on and spread to other communities, she said.. “We hope so.”

To attend the Kindness Hour, town residents should RSVP to

For more information, visit Plymouth Keys for Kindness on Facebook. For more information about the program, visit


Author: Susan Corica