Cherry Czuba

Service is a Family Tradition

The University of Connecticut People Empowering People (UConn PEP) received a generous gift from the estate of the Reverend John Evans, a lifelong Episcopal priest. The donor was Cherry Czuba, retired Extension Educator from Haddam, and niece of John Evans. He was a charismatic and fascinating uncle who endeared himself to many people. Throughout his long ministry he was called the “Singing Preacher” and “Musical Chaplain” because of his musical gifts, and “God’s Funny Man” by one of his former professors because of his wonderful playfulness.

One of the most defining moments of John’s life was volunteering on Ellis Island. He lived at the Seamen’s Church Institute from 1948 through 1954. On Tuesdays and Thursdays in 1954 John took the ferry to Ellis Island and played and taught harp, banjo, guitar, piano, and music to the bedridden detainees through a self-taught numbering system. He was the last chaplain on Ellis Island. At a New York event, Ed Sullivan cited John Evans for raising the morale of seamen. Shortly after, the New York Sunday News carried a picture story of his use of the banjo in quelling a waterfront disturbance. Later in his life John donated two of his harps to the museum at Ellis Island.

The gift to the UConn PEP program exemplifies the values John Evans showed in all of his life work and service. UConn PEP was created to serve families by giving them

UConn PEP Meriden graduates in 2018
Graduates from UConn PEP’s Meriden program in 2018.

skills to lead and make a difference in their communities. It is an innovative personal and family development program with a strong community focus. The UConn PEP program is for adults and older teens, and is designed to build on the unique strengths and life experiences of the participants and emphasizes the connection between individual and community action.

UConn PEP poster from Bristol participants
UConn PEP project description from a Bristol class.

Because the UConn PEP program is adaptable to a variety of settings, the program is offered throughout the state at family resource centers, community agencies, discovery centers, faith-based communities and correctional institutions. Over one thousand people have graduated from the program in its 22-year history. Dr. Cathleen Love has coordinated the PEP program since Cherry’s retirement. “PEP thrived because Extension shifted off of the county-based programs to statewide programming, and that was through the vision of our administrators at the time, Dr. Nancy Bull and Dr. Roger Adams,” Cherry says reflectively.

“My uncle and I enjoy giving back. I wouldn’t have had all of these opportunities without Extension,” Cherry says. “I think many of my fellow retirees can reflect on the wonderful opportunities they have had as well. Uncle John felt a sense of gratitude for what can be done when everyone contributes. I’m grateful for what I have and despair for what others don’t have. We tend to stereotype and not talk about inequality. My uncle fought stereotyping throughout his life and modeled it for me.”

The strength of UConn Extension programs is in our network and our knowledge. We educate and convene groups to help solve problems in the areas of food, health and sustainability. Even in retirement John Evans helped serve others, a family tradition that Cherry continues today. Through his actions, John modeled that when people volunteer, they give back and develop friendships. Cherry really enjoys what she does as a volunteer and gives back however she can to many different organizations. The tradition of volunteering in Cherry’s family taught her to broaden her horizons, build relationships, have fun, continue to grow, and try new things. Communities depend on active volunteer bases to grow, improve, and serve their citizens.

The UConn PEP program serves many first-generation immigrants. “Uncle John so believed in that feeling of being with immigrants, and understanding that we are all immigrants. John would love the fact that UConn PEP is reaching out to such a diverse audience.” John Evans passed away two years ago at age 98, the last of his generation in the Evans family. The gift to the UConn PEP program in his memory is helping the program reach new audiences, and John Evans continues serving communities through UConn PEP.

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.”