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  Mailman School
  of Public Health
  Columbia University
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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.
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Cleaning Up New Britain's streets

NEW BRITAIN -- Riddled with drug-dealing, addicts and theft, Oak Street residents are aiding police in a front-line approach to reclaim their neighborhood and improve the city, as they commemorate National Night Out Tuesday.

Revel Ramos, 14, lives in the Oak Street neighborhood. More than three months ago, his mother Vicki expressed her frustration at an area meeting for Free to Grow, an organization for families to combat substance abuse, child abuse and crime, after her son's three-wheeled bike was stolen.

Unlike most children in the neighborhood, Ramos is a child with alternative abilities whose bike is designed to meet his special needs.

"National Night Out is a day to recognize Block Watch and residents who want to improve their neighborhoods," said Police Chief William Sencio. "During the meeting, police listen to crime-related issues of residents, and Vicki had told us then what had happened."

According to MaryAnn Drury, coordinator of the crime prevention-based city group Weed and Seed, the National Night Out is a 20-year tradition where members of more than 90,000 cities nationwide march in their neighborhoods to recognize community self-improvement efforts.

Using a grant from New Britain Head Start's Free to Grow program, the city's various crime prevention agencies work with local residents to improve their neighborhoods' relationships with police.

Students of Bike Enthusiast, a community cycling club, along with financial and instructional support from the city's police department, located and repaired a three-wheel bike, Sencio said.

Sencio, along with Mayor Lucian Pawlak, presented Ramos with the surprise donated bike.

Ramos, in disbelief that members of the city and community had given this sparking red three-wheeled bike, showed an emotional sign of appreciation. Ramos' joy was too much for his mother to hold back her tears. Although a unique circumstance, it is one of the many examples of relationships police and city offices are building with residents in poverty-stricken and crime-ridden areas.

Sencio, who stood with his crisp, decorative, navy blue police uniform, engaged in casual conversation with local residents -- as if they were old friends -- as neighborhood children circled around.

"There was a time when children in these areas would not go near a person in uniform. They were afraid of them; let alone ..(making) them a hot-dog and (talking) to them," Pawlak said.

"That has changed a lot. Because of these collaborative efforts with the residents, Weed and Seed, the police, Free to Grow ..we're able to make a personal connection to the people in these neighborhoods and people are willing to be more open."

Pawlak too, hung out with residents before making 10 stops to other area neighborhood organizations committed to improve conditions in New Britain's crime hot spots as part of National Night Out.

"Free to Grow is a very open, community-based organization where especially the Hispanic population can express our community concerns and have support to make change," said resident Lucy Velazquez. "We are here to tell the drug dealers and the drug users they need to get some help because we want better for our children. We take pride in our neighborhood and we're not going to let it be ruled by crime."

Krystal Rosario, 9, raced her grandfather, aunts and some friends to the police substation in anticipation of the event.

Through the summer, she has attended the many events through the Free to Grow program, which provides recreation and crime prevention skills.

"I like the program because we get to watch movies, eat food and visit with people," Rosario said as she ate potato chips and juice.

"If I didn't come here, I would be all bored at home with nothing to do."

"We come here to have fun and learn to stay drug-free," said Natalie Jusino, 7.

Both Sencio and Pawlak said in recent years, crime has decreased in these high-risk areas.

Lisette Velasquez can be reached at or by calling (860) 225-4601, ext. 320.

(Written by Lisette Velasquez,, August 6, 2003 and reprinted with permission from


copyright 2008 Free To Grow
Free To Grow is a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.