The Human Resources Agency of New Britain, Inc. is part of the Free to Grow national demonstration program that brings together broad-based community partners to support locally tailored, integrated approaches to strengthening families and communities. Free to Grow is implemented through Head Start and works to enhance protective factors and decrease risk factors in both the family and the community to serve as a buffer against substance abuse and child abuse.
Human Resources Agency of New Britain, Inc. (HRA) is one of fifteen Head Start organizations participating in the Free to Grow (FTG) national substance abuse and child abuse prevention demonstration program. Free to Grow works through Head Start to increase its capacity to strengthen the family and neighborhood environment of preschool children to reduce the child’s vulnerability to substance abuse and related problems, as they grow older. Free to Grow focuses on the family as a whole and the communities where they live.
The Free to Grow initiative cannot be accomplished alone. Developing partnerships is vital to the work. The Police Department and the school system are two required partners, however, Free to Grow in New Britain has 15 partners that meet monthly to guide the initiative. The key to Free to Grow is creating community partnerships that will develop strategies to strengthen and engage families, while at the same time creating stronger neighborhoods. The HRA Free to Grow Program targets one specific neighborhood, the North-Oak neighborhood, where approximately 25% of the agency’s Head Start children reside. This neighborhood has also been designated as a Neighborhood Revitalization Zone (NRZ) which involves working to improve the areas of housing, human services, safety, and economic development. Other initiatives include community policing, and a new Community Center that houses two Head Start classrooms, a computer center, a Drug Free Communities Support program along with other partner programs and activities.
Other partners agencies represent sectors in mental health, substance abuse prevention and treatment, domestic violence, social service, Weed and Seed, religious institutions, Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, residents, and parents.
National funding support for FTG is provided through the Robert Wood Johnson and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Local program sponsors establish additional funding partners for the match. For example, HRA receives additional financial support from the American Savings Foundation, Northeast Utilities, and the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain.
The Free to Grow national web site has a wealth of information and materials that offer guidance and useful tools for both family development and community building programs. These are divided into Research and Policy information and the three aspects of Free to Grow:
An e-newsletter is published by the national Free to Grow office. Each issue focuses on a topic that supports the overall Free to Grow approach. Policing strategies (December 2003) and school partnerships (April 2004) were the first two areas featured. Additional resources are identified in each edition of the newsletter. Contact Free to Grow to be placed on the mailing list.
The New Britain Free to Grow site has been very successful. Due to Free to Grow, Head Start has improved the way it works with families. All Head Start families now benefit from the change in assessment, referral, and case management systems used and the intensive training for staff on substance abuse and related issues. Since the inception of Free to Grow, New Britain’s Head Start program has tripled its mental health referrals, has positively identified families with substance abuse issues, and the families now receive services quicker due to our partnerships with local agencies.
The community work has also made a significant impact on the Free to Grow target neighborhood. Free to Grow has created a community action group in the neighborhood that involves Head Start parents, other families, youth, residents, and partners. This group identifies issues and moves them to action. They learn these skills through the leadership training curriculum. The accomplishments of the community group with the help of partners include the opening of the new community center and advocating the City Council and Mayor to have the building transferred to HRA for $1, having a Free to Grow member elected to the City Council as the first Hispanic woman to serve, getting an abandoned lot located near the Community Center conveyed to HRA from the State for renovations, cleaning up an abandoned park, and working closely with the police to increase safety in the neighborhood. These accomplishments couldn’t have been possible without the dedication of the residents and the help of our partners.
Free to Grow is unique in its approach because it concentrates on strengthening both the families of young children and the communities in which they live. Community and family must be intertwined when working on prevention because both influence a child. For example, a parent’s substance abuse affects the child (family risk factor) as does the drug dealing and violence experienced on the streets on his or her walk home from school (community risk factor). This multi-preventative, innovative approach is why Free to Grow has been so successful and effective.
An archive of newspaper articles describing Free to Grow initiatives is maintained by the national Free to Grow office. These include several that provide coverage of HRA’s Free to Grow program related to neighborhood involvement and involvement of the local Board of Education.
Elena Trueworthy, Community Development Coordinator - Free to Grow
Elizabeth Donnellan, Head Start Director
Rocco Tricarico, Executive Director