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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.
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Dodd, Officials Tour New Center


February 24, 2004

NEW BRITAIN -- City leaders and residents toured the long-awaited North Oak Community Center Monday as it opened in what used to be an ethnic club and meeting hall.

People familiar with the old Oak Street building marveled at the polished center that now houses offices, classrooms and meeting spaces for one of the city's eight Head Start programs.

"I remember when this was the Ukrainian Club," U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd said, recalling past visits for campaigns and political speeches.

The revamped building looks great, he said, "but more important is what's going to go on inside."

Dodd stopped here to talk with North-Oak residents and congratulate community leaders on their success in bringing Free To Grow, a Head Start-affiliated program, to the city three years ago.

Dodd is an advocate for Head Start, a federal program that helps prepare children for school.

New Britain is one of 15 communities across the country selected for Free To Grow, a national, privately funded initiative that involves civic groups, local organizations and government agencies in helping children.

The program is centered on the belief that children who grow up in supportive, positive environments are more likely to excel and less likely to be lured by drugs, alcohol or gang activity.

On Monday, parents and children in the program talked informally with Dodd - who switched easily between Spanish and English - about their experience with Free To Grow and its impact so far on the neighborhood.

The program and community center "is a dream come true for the community, who didn't have a lot of representation. We have a little voice now," said Sylvia Cruz, a community activist and new city alderwoman who led the effort to bring the initiative to New Britain. The program now has 17 children enrolled.

To Dodd, Cruz implored, "Keeping going. Please don't forget us. We need you. The children need you."

Dodd pledged his continued support and took a tour of the center.

Elena Trueworthy, community development coordinator for New Britain's Free to Grow Program, said the community center aims to empower parents and residents to build on the neighborhood's recent successes.

The city just razed a vacant apartment building nearby that had been a center of drug and gang activity. That land will be a park or some other type of community space.

North-Oak has an active Neighborhood Revitalization Zone and is set to have volunteers resume work in the area's new police substation, which replaced one that burned down in 2001.

(Written by Joanne Klimkiewicz, February 24, 2004 and reprinted with permission from the Hartford Courant,


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.