By Annemarie A. Smith in the Journal Inquirer
Posted Thursday May7, 2015 11:15 a.m.
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.”