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  Free To Grow
  Mailman School
  of Public Health
  Columbia University
  722 West 168th Street,
  8th Floor
  New York, NY 10032

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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.
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Free To Grow maximizes benefits of Head Start

As legislation to reauthorize the Head Start program winds its way through Congress, a special initiative called Free To Grow is helping transform the way Human Resources Agency of New Britain's Head Start program does business in the North Oak community. Through a unique prevention approach, Free To Grow is positioning Head Start and a wide range of community partners to help transform New Britain's North Oak community into a healthy, vibrant neighborhood for the children who live there.


This community transformation was celebrated last Friday with the grand opening of the North Oak Community Center. But it wasn't just the renovation of the former Ukrainian Hall in this community that inspired U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson and Wade Horn, an influential member of the Bush Administration, to attend the festivities. Along with dozens of local officials, they were there to recognize the impact of Free To Grow, a national, privately funded initiative that is delivered through Head Start programs.


Across the United States, many children are growing up in low-income communities where crime, family violence and substance abuse are common and prevalent. These negative conditions limit children's' ability to achieve in school and develop into productive citizens. In contrast, children who grow up in positive environments demonstrate far greater early literacy development and are also less likely to abuse drugs or resort to violence to solve problems. As a result, they are ready for that first day of school and on a better track to become productive adults.


Free To Grow is unique among prevention programs because it focuses not on individuals, but the environments both families and communities where children grow up. And the initiative also offers participants a unique approach to improving these environments.


This is what took place in New Britain, where Nancy Johnson encouraged our local Head Start program to apply to be part of the Free To Grow program. We were lucky enough to be selected as one of just 15 nationwide Free To Grow participants in 2001. The collaborative approach of the program allowed us to create strong partnerships with federal, state and local community leaders transforming the former Ukrainian Hall from a worn-down, beaten up old building into a revitalized community center.


But the positive changes taking place in the North Oak neighborhood, as a result of Free To Grow go way beyond the construction of the new community center and a future public park nearby.  Given the partnership that the program has created between our agency and the police department, relations between neighborhood residents and the uniformed police have improved dramatically. In fact, Free To Grow participants are working directly with the police to create a safety corridor around the new community center.


Still, the biggest change that we have witnessed in the community is the empowerment of its residents. The Free To Grow program has given residents the confidence to take action on issues that they have never acted on before and has created a sense of hope in a neighborhood that has been historically plagued by crime and substance abuse. This wave of empowerment reached its peak this past fall, when one of our Free To Grow program participants, Sylvia Cruz, was elected to the New Britain Common Council.


The innovative and effective approach of the Free To Grow program was never clearer than it was on Friday when Congresswoman Nancy Johnson joined Wade Horn in opening and touring the new North Oak facility. Horn, who is the assistant secretary overseeing the administration of children, youth and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, met with the program's partners at Smalley Academy and saw firsthand how Free To Grow has helped transform our community.


Participation in the Free To Grow program enabled us to enhance the proven effectiveness of Head Start and make a difference in the lives of neighborhood children who will now be fully prepared to succeed in school. My pride in the achievements of New Britain Head Start is tempered by the knowledge that there are many, many children in communities throughout the Untied States who do not have opportunities to experience the benefits of Free To Grow.


This important program should be made available to every Head Start program in the country, and by extension, to the neighborhoods and families who need it most.

(Written by Elizabeth Donnellan, Head Start Director for the Human Resources Agency of New Britain, December 14, 2003, and used with the permission of the New Britain Herald,



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.