Enrolling Now: People Empowering People Communities

Our communities need leaders, and empowered people create positive action. We are registering community members for our in person and online People Empowering People (PEP) Communities Facilitator Training now. Learn more at https://pep.extension.uconn.edu/.

Elevating Voices with UConn PEP

UConn PEP Goes Online

family poses for a front porch portrait as part of the Wethersfield PEP program
A Wethersfield family poses for their front porch photo.
Photo courtesy of Jeanine Berasi

Our communities are stronger when all voices are elevated and included. UConn Extension’s People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program elevates voices by empowering individuals through community-based parent leadership training. People Empowering People builds on the unique strengths and life experiences of the participants. The program emphasizes the connection between individuals and community action.

We collaborate with community organizations to offer UConn PEP. Trained facilitators guide participants through 10 educational sessions plus additional weeks for completion of individual or group projects before graduating from the program. Cherry Czuba, a retired Extension educator, started the program 25 years ago. The program was revised and updated while Dr. Cathleen Love was coordinating the program. Over 3,110 participants have graduated from UConn People Empowering People programs located in three states.

COVID-19 affected UConn PEP – as it did with all other aspects of our lives. But the need for personal development and empowerment programs increased because of the pandemic and racial injustice. We rose to the challenge by transitioning our programs online. We continued to offer programming, trained facilitators in a new online certificate program, and community participants graduated from local programs.

The program was offered in eight communities, seven of these in Connecticut and one in Miami, Florida. Our Connecticut programs were in offered in Middletown, Stamford, New London, Wethersfield, Hartford with Community Renewal Team (CRT) and Family Life Education, and Meriden – with Meriden Children First. Program graduates made a difference in each community.

Community-based projects are always an impactful part of the UConn People Empowering People Communities program and had a positive influence during the pandemic. Two participants in our Meriden program created a project called, Sprinkle of Kindness and Twisted Vines. They collected donations of hand sanitizers, masks, and snacks and gave them to police departments in Waterbury and Torrington. Seven women in the Wethersfield UConn PEP 2020 program, with the help of a few key volunteers organized Wethersfield Front Porch Portraits. Over 120 families participated, and the project raised over $3,500 for the Wethersfield Foodbank. Their project was shared with the Wethersfield Historical Society.

Robin Drago-Provencher and Sheri Amechi.

People Empowering People’s impact on individuals has a ripple effect of positive outcomes for the community that continues beyond graduation. Sheri Amechi participated in the Meriden UConn PEP program in 2017. Her initial involvement with UConn PEP was a catalyst for transformative changes in her life and the community. When asked how the UConn PEP program made a difference in her leadership journey, here is what Sheri said, “When I interviewed for PEP in 2017, I had mentioned that my goal was to run for a seat on the Meriden Board of Education. I had participated in other Parent Leadership programs in the Meriden community prior to UConn PEP. These programs reinforced what I already knew, I wanted to make a difference in my community. Through People Empowering People, I learned valuable lessons in communication, problem-solving, and I improved my leadership skills. These lessons  prompted me into taking the step to run for a seat on the Board of Education in Meriden in 2019. Sadly, I was not successful in my attempt to win a seat (losing by 41 votes), but I am determined to run again in 2021. To my excitement and surprise, I was appointed to fulfill a seat on the Board of Education, achieving my goal I set many years ago.”

“After graduating from UConn PEP, I continued my community involvement when I was elected to the Local Advisory Committee of Meriden Children’s First non-profit,” Sheri continues. “From this group I was eventually elected as President of Meriden Children’s First. Currently, I am the Vice President of the organization.”

Sheri knew what she wanted, set her goals and continued until she achieved her goals. People Empowering People opens doors, brings people together, provides training, builds skills, creates connections, and opportunities for participants to follow their passion and make a difference in their communities.

The positive effects of UConn PEP are the same across all participants – in any location – goals are set, relationships develop, projects are completed, a shift happens, and the goodness grows. When participants were asked at the completion of the program, what they learned during UConn PEP, one participant stated: “I’ve learned from the entire PEP program and how important it is to me. I’m going to continue using the tips and tools I’ve learned in these sessions. I want to continue to grow.”

Our communities need connection and leadership now more than ever. UConn PEP is rising to the challenge and helping participants to find their voice, elevate others’ voices, and create a better place to live. Programming may have shifted online during the pandemic, but we can still create that personal connection that allows people to thrive.

For more information about UConn People Empowering People (PEP) Communities go to pep.extension.uconn.edu.           

Article by Robin Drago-Provencher and Stacey Stearns

County Connections: UConn 4-H Teen Council’s Quarterly Newsletter

4-H clover

In an effort to enhance the UConn 4-H program, members have gotten together to form the UConn 4-H Teen Council. The Council consists of active members in UConn 4-H between the ages of 14 and 18, with no more than 2 members from each county in the state.

Check out UConn 4-H Teen Council’s Quarterly Newsletter, County Connections, to learn more about the council’s vision, officers, and more!

Access the newsletter here.


Wethersfield PEP: Growing Community and Expanding Opportunities in 2021

Article by Jeanine Berasi

Wethersfield PEP is our community name for the UConn Extension People Empowering People Certification Program facilitated here in our beautiful town. Overall, PEP is a 10-week information and action driven course with a community service component as designated by UConn Extension. Upon graduation participants receive official certification through UConn Extension.

PEP classes have flexibility to be many things depending on community needs and plans. UConn trains facilitators and enables them along with coordinators to establish unique community programs all across the country. Trained in 2015, Jeanine Berasi is Wethersfield’s PEP Facilitator. Kimberly Bobin, Wethersfield’s Family & Early Childhood Coordinator, coordinates.

The focus of Wethersfield PEP has been to connect culturally, linguistically and socioeconomically diverse groups of parents and encourage the growth of communication, leadership and community participation through hands-on learning of how to implement new ideas. 

Wethersfield PEP has certified 36 amazing Wethersfield Parents in 4 completed cohorts since 2017. Parent leaders have represented every Wethersfield school including each of the public schools K-12, Corpus Christi, The CREC Discovery Academy, the Open Choice Initiative and Preschools.

These parents came together and participated in 20 hours of classroom learning. They came with a wealth of personal and professional experiences to learn how to better speak up, creatively tackle challenges and motivate others. They worked on service projects that are self-driven and meaningful to the Wethersfield Community.

Before the pandemic struck, PEP met in person at the Pitkin Community Center. Childcare and dinner were provided. During class and shared mealtimes, ideas and personal connections were strengthened. The dynamic energy of a PEP class creates a safe space to discuss personal and community challenges. PEP participants try out new ideas, look at past examples and work together to find new paths and improvements.

Growing is hard. Sometimes it is messy. Sometimes people are not ready for change and sometimes PEP is the encouragement and the environment needed to build one up to meet the next challenge life brings. PEP embraces it all, loves the person that is present, in all their human messiness, and tries to nudge both the group and the individuals towards improvement.

When COVID-19 shut down communities in March, PEP took a breath, reevaluated what could and couldn’t be achieved. PEP pushed forward online. Dinners were delivered from local eateries at our regular time and we practiced both in Zoom and Google Meet with each other to determine what worked best for our community. We were all learning and adjusting to the necessity of new ways together.

The brightest moment of the early quarantine was creating a parade of positivity.  With a hand painted, colorful sign that said, ‘You are AMAZING!”, locally bought bouquets were gathered together with other PEP gifts and delivered door to door.  Really, it was sidewalk to sidewalk! PEP’s Facilitator, Jeanine Berasi and PEP’s Coordinator, Kim Bobin traveled (in separate vehicles) to each participant’s home. Masked, gloved and armed with lysol spray, they placed flowers and gifts on the steps, sprayed, backed up a respectable distance. They cheered PEP participants, waving the sign and pom poms. A welcome boost for both participants and their families!

Family is at the core of PEP.  Choosing to take time to build leadership and communication skills and to commit to working to apply it within one’s family and larger community circles is the PEP way.

In Wethersfield, PEP extends participants’ community circles by inviting community leaders in to speak. This leads to mutually beneficial small group experiences for both the speakers and the group. In an array of different formats, PEP has connected with the Superintendent and school officials, Mayors and Town Employees, State Representatives, Board of Education Chairs and the Director of PEP from UConn.

At the end of the 10 weeks of class, a community service project is created. It can be a personal, small group or whole group venture. PEP provides 4 short weekly check ins culminating in an official PEP Graduation Ceremony. Some of our outstanding projects have been: Wethersfield Porch Portraits (2020), 8 weeks of free Spanish language lessons for preschoolers (2019), Wethersfield Is Kind (2019), Informational/Activity binders for educators on Muslim culture and holidays (2019), Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (2019, 2017), Holidays of Wethersfield’s World – a summer art installation at the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center (2018), Bosnian Moms of Wethersfield (2017), Madres Latinas (2017), and Trees planted in  the Housing Authority (2017).

Additionally, every November, Wethersfield PEP graduates meet for a reunion. PEP Reunion provides the opportunity for individuals from all completed cohorts to meet and share ideas over the course of 3 weekly meetings. Most recently PEP Reunion 2020 was held via Google Meet.

Wethersfield PEP is a grant funded, UConn Extension Certified program. It brings together a diverse group of Wethersfield parents to build relationships and explore and increase personal, family and community leadership skills. We are so proud to be offering a fifth year of Wethersfield PEP beginning in January 2021. For more information contact: berasij@yahoo.com or kbobin@wethersfield.m


Connecting and Transforming Communities with Rich Mutts

Rich Mutts speaking at a PEP programRich Mutts ’06 (CLAS) graduated from UConn with a bachelor of arts in human development and family sciences. The New Haven school system quickly hired him. As his career progressed, he knew that he wanted to do more to make positive changes in the community. In 2016, Rich had the opportunity to join the Meriden Children First Initiative (CFI) as a program director.

One of his early responsibilities at CFI was recruiting parents to participate in the UConn People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program. CFI regularly hosts a 12-week PEP program for parents and community members. There are 12 to 18 participants in each cohort, and the groups also complete a community project. Over 75 participants have graduated from the UConn PEP programs sponsored by CFI.

UConn PEP is an Extension program in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. It is an innovative personal and family development program with a strong community focus. UConn PEP builds on the unique strengths and life experiences of the participants. The program emphasizes the connection between individuals and community action.

Empowering Parents

“I looked at the parents I was recruiting as unpolished diamonds,” Rich says. “The 12-week course changes their lives. They’re back in school and have the opportunity to feel that self-growth again, and it increases their self-worth. I wanted to empower them to use their voices. Watching the parents grow is the most fulfilling part of the PEP program for me.”

Community projects are an important component of the UConn PEP program. They provide participants with an avenue to create a positive change in their community and work collaboratively with their UConn PEP cohort.

Robin Drago-Provencher and Rich Mutts at a PEP program in 2017
Robin Drago-Provencher and Rich Mutts at a PEP program in 2017.

“Connectivity is the one word I would use to describe UConn PEP,” Rich says. “The overall theme of the UConn PEP programming is taking people and letting them know they are already leaders. We are pulling a dormant fire and determination out of them. They often feel overlooked as just parents, but they are great leaders.” The community projects that the groups select prove what great leaders they are and empower the participants to continue making a difference in their communities.

Meriden saw an influx of displaced families after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017. The PEP class at CFI that fall quickly pivoted their project to create a directory of everything the displaced families would need.

Another cohort from CFI sponsored a book drive. Meriden has a Summer Discovery Program that is free for youth, and 80 children were participating during this cohort year. The summer program lasts for three weeks, and the PEP parents’ goal was for each child to leave with a new book every day of the program. The group set up drop-off points around the city and collected over 2,700 books, then they sorted and distributed them.

“Our participants are so empowered when they finish their UConn PEP projects,” Rich says. “We are there to make connections for them. We encourage our PEP graduates to sit on boards or on the CFI advisory council after they finish classes. CFI also provides an opportunity for them to receive training to become a PEP facilitator.”

Born Rich

Rich is also a musician and video producer. A few years ago, he created the Born Rich documentary about the disconnect between police and the community. The documentary focused on emotions and he wrote and performed the songs for it.

“I’m from Hamden,” he says. “I knew I could do more and make a bigger impact. I wanted to expand who I help.” Rich transitioned to a part-time director of programs role with CFI in January of 2020 when he created the Born Rich Foundation.

The Born Rich Foundation focuses on youth and connecting communities to their municipal leaders. “Rich can mean many things, including our family and health,” he says. “True wealth is our happiness. The documentary and our foundation are all about healing.”

That healing can come in many forms and one is through the personal empowerment that Rich saw with UConn PEP. The Born Rich Foundation offered a 10-week virtual learning series in August and September. Experiences were offered every day from 8 AM until 5 PM. Participants could join whenever they were available to receive multiple levels of learning. These included a health and fitness series on Wednesdays, meditation hours, and seminars on substance abuse led by health clinicians.

The newest project for the Born Rich Foundation is a public service announcement video series on the importance of connecting the community and police officers. Rich is working with Hamden, New Haven, and East Haven on the project. It includes the mayors and municipal leaders from each city and has the support of Senator Chris Murphy. The series is being released in February 2021.

The Future is Bright

PEP will evolve and grow in the future, and Rich expects it will be a hybrid course as we continue recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. He stresses that connecting over words and the internet is still a transformative educational experience.

“Getting parents to understand that their voice matters and that it is needed is a challenge,” Rich says. “UConn PEP can continue expanding and growing; there are so many people that need this program. As facilitators we get to see the smiles and tears; and hear the stories. We need to expand UConn PEP to children, city leaders, and teachers.”

“The future is bright,” Rich says. “We’re in uncertain times right now, but it is bright. Everything the Born Rich Foundation is doing is grounded in what I learned in UConn PEP. It’s all based on equity and I’m incorporating that into all of our programming.”

For more information about the Born Rich Foundation you can watch part one of the documentary. Watch the music video HOME and listen to his song ALRIGHT. Learn more about the UConn PEP program at https://pep.extension.uconn.edu/.

Article by Stacey Stearns

People Empowering People

A UConn Program Partnering with Correctional Institutions

Trish and Edna standing in front of the prison they volunteer at
Trish Spofford and Edna Johnson at the York Correctional Institute, one of the UConn PEP locations.

UConn Extension has partnered with the Department of Corrections to offer the UConn People Empowering People Program at Correctional Institutions (UConn PEPCI) for over twenty years. UConn PEPCI is a personal and family leadership program modeled after the community UConn People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program and focuses on keeping people from returning to prison.

UConn PEPCI is currently offered in six correctional institutions. Volunteers who teach the UConn PEPCI program are exemplary. In the past year four UConn PEPCI volunteers received Department of Corrections awards for their outstanding contributions. Trish Spofford, coordinator for the UConn PEP CI program is recruiting new volunteers to expand the program to other facilities and offer additional programming for UConn PEP CI graduates.

The program encourages inmates to be self-reflective and draw on their unique strengths, life experiences, and capacities. Our volunteers create conditions that help offenders develop the willingness and ability to take responsibility for their lives and become empowered.

The UConn PEPCI program creates a sense of community when teaching the curriculum so that inmates can support and encourage one another. By enhancing inmates’ self-worth we hope that they become more self-sufficient and independent. Inmates can reflect on their lives and make better decisions in the future after participating in the program; and they can explore different options and develop more positive ways of thinking and behaving.

Lesson topics include: values, community and self esteem, learning to feel good about myself, understanding my personality, communicating so people understand me, listening and relating well to others, problem solving and  managing conflicts, coping strategies, choosing and enjoying healthy connections, family relations, parenting from prison, goal setting and skills for returning home. Every session begins with the UConn PEP Pledge

The feedback from inmates about the UConn PEPCI program is consistently positive and shows how grateful inmates are for what they learn. Comments always include a thank you to the volunteers and fellow inmates for their time and for creating a safe environment where they can share. One inmate summarized what many said in their comments, “Choices and decisions affect my tomorrow so I must be patient and stay in control. I must build within me the power to make the right decisions, set goals and achieve them for my own mental health and self-empowerment. I have to believe that I matter, and I have to be better than the hand I was dealt.”

Another inmate said, “This program gives me a starting point to build empowerment within myself from the bottom up. I have to believe in myself or no one else will.”

The Department of Corrections supports UConn PEPCI and other programs because programming and support for rehabilitation lowers recidivism rates. Connecticut dropped its inmate population in recent years, but the United States continues to have the largest known incarcerated population in the world at about 1.5 million people according to 2017 data. At least five million children— or seven percent of American youth—have had an incarcerated parent, with African American, low-income, and rural minors disproportionately affected. Our volunteers continue expanding UConn PEPCI and helping inmates develop skills to re-integrate into their families and communities.

Article by Cathleen Love