leadership

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

Meet Zachary Duda: Litchfield County 4-H Intern

Zachary DudaHello my name is Zachary Duda and I am excited to be an intern this summer with Litchfield County 4-H! I am currently a senior pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut. At UConn I serve as the President of the UConn Agricultural Advocacy Club and am active with the UConn FFA Alumni. My agricultural experience is broad having jobs in areas such as nursery and landscaping, forage crop production, and dairy science. As a former FFA member I was able to learn the value of hands-on applications and want to bring agriculture to the younger generation of agriculturalists in Connecticut.

This summer I will be working on a series of virtual lessons on all aspects of the agricultural industry as well as some leadership skills and techniques. The topics include tractor safety, weaning cattle, nutrition labels and food packaging, potting plants, quick cooking recipes, and many more. I hope that these lessons will provide younger learners with a platform to build off of so that they may enter the field of agriculture with ample knowledge and a set of skills that will benefit them for years to come.

I am eager to learn more about 4-H and the extension system as I believe it serves the state well in multiple aspects of community and overall well being. I look forward to being part of the great things 4-H has done for countless individuals over the years.

New UConn PEP Facilitators Trained

Group activity at the UConn PEP facilitator training in Haddam in early October Robin Drago leading group of new PEP facilitators at training session in Haddam

New UConn PEP facilitators in a group discussion Robin Drago and one of our new UConn PEP facilitators

Congratulations to our newest People Empowering People (UConn PEP) facilitators who completed their training last week. UConn PEP is an innovative personal and family development program with a strong community focus. Learn more or join us at https://pep.extension.uconn.edu/

My 4-H Story: Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith with chicken

4-H has impacted my life by teaching me that even in the hard times you should hold onto your project and never let go.  4-H has also taught me how to do math. 4-H has helped me with my spelling. Through my 4-H years I have learned a lot. I have learned patience while working with my animals.  It has helped me with setting and reaching my goals. It has made it so I know how to set goals that I can reach in a set time. The rewards that I have gotten out of my 4-H years are knowing how to deal with all sorts of different people.  I have also learned a lot from being president in my club. I have learned how to deal with adults and how to talk respectfully to them. I have learned that people like to have fun and I want to better learn how to incorporate more fun into our meetings to hopefully keep everyone involved.  The rewards I got from my citizenship and leadership opportunities are wisdom, understanding, and knowledge on how to deal with all sorts of people. I think I need more experience in being a leader to expound on my leadership skills. Some of the problems that I have experienced from these experiences are trying to keep the other members of my club interested in the meetings and getting people to come to the bake sales and the community services that the club does.  I hope that by going on this trip I can learn how to better myself in these areas so the club will be more profitable for our community. I hope that the experiences I have had in 4-H and the ones to come will help me with getting in to the college that I want to go to, and I hope they will help me get a job when I am ready to get one. Sure not all my 4-H experiences have been good ones, but I have learned from all of them. I hope to learn from the ones I get in the future.

By Samantha Smith

My 4-H Story: Olivia Hall

When I joined 4-H 5 years ago, I thought that I would just be learning about animals.  I had no idea that I would learn leadership, citizenship and public speaking skills that I would apply to many situations both in and out of 4-H.  I never imagined that when I joined 4-H, I would meet some of the best people in the world that would help me to grow as a leader in my community.

Through 4-H, I have set many goals related to my project and my community.  I used to think that because I had a goal, I had to achieve it, even if it was a minor goal.  4-H has taught me that I didn’t have to achieve my goal; as long as I tried my hardest, I was still achieving something, even if it wasn’t what I hoped for.  I would achieve the ability to say “Congratulations” to someone when they won the prize that I set as my goal. I would achieve the ability to say “I’ll try again next year”, when I didn’t get voted into the officer position that I hoped for.  Through 4-H I learned that no matter what I set as my goal, I will attain something.

Throughout my 4-H career, I have had many rewarding experiences, such as becoming involved in my community.  Through my club, I have raised funds for the Torrington Police Department for a K-9 bullet-proof vest. I have also assisted my club in raising money so that a veteran was able to get a service dog.  We also raised money for a shade awning at a local pound. It has been very rewarding to see a change in my community that I helped to facilitate. Another rewarding 4-H experience was when I ran for a leadership position on my county’s Fair Association committee.  I ran for the position of publicity chair, and was elected! I am enjoying having a role in planning and promoting this year’s 4-H fair. This has enabled me to meet people and network in my community.

After becoming active in my community, my biggest challenge has been the realization that 4-H is not widely known.  While venturing out into my community, I have had the opportunity to educate people about 4-H. By participating in the Litchfield County Ad Campaign, I have raised funds and helped raise awareness about 4-H and the opportunities that it provides to youth.

By Olivia Hall

My 4-H Story: Maria Grillo

Maria Grillo

4-H has, in a sentence, taught me how to be myself and to tap into my full potential.  I was once a quiet kid who desperately wanted to speak out and have an impact but didn’t know how.  Now, I am a determined, confident young adult who can be heard the minute I walk into a room. I’ve come to realize that I love management and situations that involve directing or engaging others, especially to the goal of helping someone or having a positive impact.  My management skills have been built up through 4-H, during the many situations wherein I was responsible for leading a group. Leading camp activities has taught me quite a bit about flexibility in particular, as last-minute situations that need quick thinking to fix come up often at camp.

I attribute many of my successes thus far in life to 4-H.  This fall, I will be attending Yale University, and am certain that the time I spent with 4-H over the last several years contributed directly to my acceptance to that prestigious institution.  Indirectly, 4-H has made me the person that I am today, a person who can and will accomplish great things.

4-H has been a positive constant in my life, always there to remind me to smile.  4-H is one of the reasons that I am such a bright, shining force, dedicated to making everyone around me feel better about themselves and others.  I am passionate about self-love, especially among young people, and my 4-H experience – going to camp, meeting a wide variety of new people, discovering myself – is the reason that I can have such confidence.  4-H not only allowed me to see how widespread self-confidence issues are among teenagers and children by putting me in a situation where I became very close to so many kids, it also showed me that I was worthy of growing and becoming more self-assured.

My mother has been sending children to 4-H camp for twenty years.  I’ve attended for eleven years, and my siblings attended before me.  Every member of my family knows and sees the growth of children who experience 4-H.  Many of my relatives cannot believe how much I have changed in the last few years alone, and I always attribute it to 4-H.  As someone who wishes to someday work in public service, I know that the leadership, management and problem-solving skills that I have attained through my 4-H club will define me as an adult.  I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to 4-H for making me the person I am today, or how certain I am that I want to continue being an active participant in 4-H for as long as possible.

By Maria Grillo

My 4-H Story: Hannah Platt

4-H logo

For the past eight years 4-H has taught me many things that I probably would not have learned without it.  I have experienced how the association for the fair works over the past few years. I learned that without it, the fair would not happen.  Every one of the officers has their own role and has to stick to doing what they have pledged to do over the year in office such as sticking to their specific agenda and timeline, writing officer reports, and attending meetings.  I have learned a lot from helping at my brother’s school and how much effort it takes for some of the kids to do something that may be easy for us to do. It has taught me patience, tolerance, and compassion.

From 4-H, I have made certain goals that I probably would not have set without it.  For example, I would not have knitted certain projects if I did not set the goal to make something for 4-H.  It pushed me to knit something more difficult. I set a goal to learn how to canter off of the lunge line. This is something that I was not keen to when I started but made it a goal for 4-H.  I have also set a goal to either do public speaking, expressive arts, or even both. I learned that setting goals will help you achieve something more than if you just think about it.

From my leadership roles, I love seeing what I can do for other people whether it is making them smile or helping them do something that they need help with.  After helping someone, I feel glad that I made a difference. In Home Arts, I enjoy being a part of transforming the building from an empty barn to a barn full of wonderful projects displayed on tables, organized by category, covered with green and purple table cloths.

I have found that it is difficult for everyone in the meeting to agree on something.  Being a new coordinator, I was told that it would be my ultimate decision but still found it a little difficult to negotiate with people who had very strong opinions.  Also, when it is clean-up time for the end of the fair, a lot of people helped out during the first helf hour to an hour but after that, they did not help as much to clean up the tables and other things that had to be put away for the barn to be cleaned.  Something else that is difficult is not having people show up to the barn when they committed to help out during the weekend.

I need to learn to voice my opinion.  Most of the time, I have the right answer or right question, but I do not tell it.  This is something that I have been working on so I do not let something pass over if either I do not agree with it or have a question about something.  Something else that I need to learn is to feel comfortable in a group of people that I do not know. I am a shy person and do not speak up when I do not know who someone is.  In order to be a leader, people have to know what you want from them. You have to be able to handle criticism and understand someone else’s perspective.

From this past year of being the coordinator, I have been a lot better about speaking up and voicing my opinion.  While I was on CWF, I learned how to come out of my shell and not always need to feel that I need to be quiet or not speak up.  This trip has made me the most outgoing I have ever been in my life. It was an experience that I would never be able to take back nor would I want to.   I made a great bond with my county extension leader and have been able to talk with confidence I have never experienced before this trip.

The leadership abilities that I learn in 4-H will help me in the future because I will know how to lead something in the correct way and not in a rude or disrespectful way.  Everything that I learn in 4-H will help me with many things in the future such as: goal setting, short and long term goals, discussing different opinions and coming to a consensus.  I will know how to mentor someone in the future as others have mentored me. 4-H has also helped me to become curious and try new things. This a great way to come out of your comfort zone.

By Hannah Platt

Garret Basiel: From 4-H Project to College Essay

Garret Basiel was a 4-H member in Middlesex County and is a freshman at UConn this fall in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. This is the college essay he submitted with his application.

Garret helping a younger 4-H member
Garret works with a younger 4-H member at the Middlesex-New Haven 4-H Fair. Photo: Kara Bonsack

My fingers felt raw, but I once again pulled back the bowstring and aimed down range at the target. After my quick lesson on safety and proper form, I spent at least four hours at the archery range that day in 2010 during my local 4-H fair. The arrows skewed across both the target and ground alike, but every time one hit anywhere near the center of the target, I was delighted. This single positive experience led me to learn not only about fletchings and points but about myself too.

As a novice 4-H club member, I made a very small contribution on the range when we brought our equipment out to local fairs. After hauling out the targets and setting up a safety line, I might chip in information on a shooter’s form every once in a while, telling them to “straighten your feet” or “keep pulling back,” but I still lacked the confidence to address the masses that poured through our setup. Despite these crowds, I managed to find time to shoot for myself. I would launch as many arrows as I could, reducing me to sore set of fingers and a pair of tired arms trembling, just as they were my first time there. A year rolled past and, thanks to my club leaders, I was able to consistently nail the bull’s eye.

Yet as my skill increased, my confidence and courage did too, and I came to discover how much I enjoyed assisting others. By the 2014 4-H Fair I felt ready to impart my knowledge onto others. For the first time I was able to walk someone through all of the steps of an archer. I would always begin by strapping an arm guard on them and showing them how to position their feet. Then I would go on to explain how to hold the bow, nock an arrow, and pull back the string. What surprised me was adults’ willingness to learn. Although towering over me, they politely listened while I taught them what to do, letting me know that my voice mattered. I shared their excitement as their skill progressed having heard “Look what I just shot!” and taking part in high fives more than a few times. My shyness was clearly on the way out.

As I matured and gained more experience over the years, I was able to fulfill assorted jobs on the fair ranges. Older club members, who used to help people put on their arm guards or teach them how to shoot, aged out, leaving me with more responsibility. I felt comfortable walking adults and teenagers through the process, but my hardest challenge was helping young children, who struggle to listen to instructions and even to pull back the bow string. I still remember the first girl who I knelt next to. I helped her straighten her arm and adjust her feet before I helped her tug back the bowstring. I urged her “Keep pulling, you’re almost there” as I had heard my club leader say so many times before. We both smiled when her arrows hit the target. Each year I have helped at the archery range I have become more dependable. Now I even run the range, not only teaching but announcing “Begin shooting” or “Go get your arrows” whenever my leader is busy.

I am very grateful that teaching archery helped me come out of my shell. Addressing the groups of people coming through our archery range gave me new found courage that has carried over into my other parts of my life. I now take on leadership roles in class, finding myself leading groups through trigonometry projects, and at cross country meets I feel more comfortable conversing with other runners. I feel ready to bring this same confidence over to my upcoming college years.