Bringing Families Together
It began more than two decades ago as little more than a concept: Parents and some community leaders in Woonsocket looking for a way to keep their children engaged in the summer and after school during the academic year. This year, Connecting for Children & Families will serve upwards of 3,500 children and family members with everything from preschool programs and summer camp to workforce development programs and a food pantry. Jim Hummel discovers how the organization has become embedded in the community.
The music may not have been familiar to the students, but it certainly was for the parents who gathered on a Thursday morning in June for a pre-kindergarten graduation ceremony and the significance that goes with it.
It included performances and individual recognition of each child at the headquarters of Connecting for Children & Families in Woonsocket, a nonprofit agency founded in 1995 to provide affordable and accessible services to children and their families.
From childcare, preschool and afterschool programs, to summer camps, a food pantry, workforce development and help with filing taxes, CCF is embedded in the community and has served as a launching pad for thousands of children entering the school system.
Curtin: “We believe that investing in children early on is the best investment that we can make. And the research is clear now: for every dollar invested in the early years, there’s a return on that investment of $10 down the road.”
Terese Curtin became CCF’s first executive director in March of 1997, after finishing up a five-year assignment doing youth development work in Central Falls and Pawtucket.
Curtin: “There was something about Woonsocket that I felt a connection with. And there was also such an opportunity because the organization was young. And there were so much to be here done in the city.”
The challenge is the same today as it was when she arrived nearly 22 years ago.
Curtin: “We tackle tough issues here, we have childhood poverty, child abuse and neglect and we have the lowest graduation rate in the state.”
For the first decade CCF was housed on the first floor of this tenement building. But in 2007 it moved to the old Hope Street Elementary, which underwent a transformation after sitting vacant for almost three decades.
The orgnization has gone from having a core of volunteers and a staff of three to more than 50 employees today, serving 1,600 students during the school year and upwards of 3,500 children and families over the course of a year - all on an annual budget of $3 million.
Curtin: “It’s just been a wonderful journey, and we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve received support from the community, from individuals, foundations, corporations to really help us to realize our mission for the community and for our work.”
On an afternoon the week before school ended for the year, Dennis Poirier presided over a controlled chaos at the community center CCF rents out for its after-school program, as it is already outgrowing the Hope Street building.
Poirier: “When I first came here I didn’t realize how big this organizations was.”
Poirier runs the after school programs during the academic year - and a summer camp program at a nearby elementary school that began this past week. Both programs offer a mix of fun and education.
Poirier: “Being able to be in this type of setting with the kids, it’s more individualized and I can really help focus the kids on their very own individual needs to help them get what they want out of it. “I want to be able to give those kids a place to come and they know it’s a place where they’re safe and it feels like family, where they have something to remember, take home every day, don’t want to leave or they want to come here. I want them to have that and that’s what we try to build with them here.”
This summer he is running a program for 3rd to 5th-graders called Chillin’ and Skillin’. It includes on-site workshops here at Coleman Elementary and field trips on Fridays.
Curtin: “Kids lose a lot of what they learn over the summer months if they’re not involved in enriching programs.”
CCF’s affordably-priced summer camp this year will accommodate 350 students over the course of six weeks.
Every Tuesday morning at the same community center that houses the after school program, a steady stream of people arrives to take advantage of a food pantry CCF established more than a decade ago, partnering with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Curtin: “Teachers were talking about children coming to school hungry, so we knew that there was a need, so that was really the reason behind us getting that off the ground.”
And during the summer it expands as students who would normally be getting breakfast and lunch at school might not be getting the same amount of food at home.
Back at Hope Street, Esther Almodovar works with toddlers. She was one of the first hired a decade ago when CCF began focusing on childcare and preschool aged children.
Almodovar: “Just being part of that beginning of - that’s like the start of their life - and giving them the tools to grow and goals for them. What are their goals, what are their milestones, are they reaching their milestones? If the parents don’t know where to go, who to see, we’re that advocate for them, that voice.”
Curtin: “It’s hard to imagine that kids entering kindergarten are already behind, but that’s what we see with kids from our community and we’re really trying to remove any obstacles or any barriers that are in place so that kids can do well in school and be excited about going to school every day, and do well and graduate.
But it’s not just children. Kylie Gill saw a flier at CCF for an adult workforce development program when she was signing her children up for summer camp a couple of years ago.
Gill: “Contact center, banking, customer service, a lot of it was customers service based, which is exactly what I like to do and what I do do.”
It helped her get a job with Citizens Bank.
Hummel: “And do you think that you wouldn’t have been able to land that had you not laid the groundwork?”
Gill: “I believe I wouldn’t have. I actually tried, I actually tried to get in before and it didn’t work out for me, but after I got all the extra skills and the little certificates that I received from CCF it opened the door wide for me.
Meka Hamilton joined the board of directors two years ago when CCF was looking for more parent representation.
Hamilton: “They have so many programs to offer, after school programs, there’s everything for any knd of child. Whether you’re into sports, they even have American girl doll classes and my daughter, she found her love for the arts.”
Hamilton said she was most impressed by the comprehensive services that CCF offers.
Hamilton: “Most programs only support the children when they’re little to a certain age. CCF is really going to help follow these kids throughout their whole lives growing up in school. And it helps the parents at home as well.”
Curtin said CCF has attracted support as it has grown because it is committed to honoring the contributions of those who support its mission.
Curtin: “We’ve worked very hard to provide quality programs and to be very accountable for our work back to the funders and I think that’s gone a long way in corporations, individuals, other foundations wanting to support us because they know that we’re going to accomplish what we say we’re going to.”
In Woonsocket, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.