Their bellies full after a hearty lunch at the University of Hartford cafeteria, 20 youngsters from the Nelton Court housing project and the new Stowe Village complex were presented a scenario.
Teacher Terence Floyd told the kids to pretend a friend found a wallet that belonged to a drug dealer - with $500 in it. The friend took the money, Floyd said, donated it to a charity and returned the empty wallet to the principal.
Floyd's question: Good judgment or bad judgment?
"Even though he donated the money, he still stole it," insisted Chad Ranson, 12, an eighth-grader. "It didn't belong to him."
Liana Huff disagreed: "It's bad money so [the dealer] shouldn't get it back."
The other kids chimed in, point and counterpoint. Jonathan Cravedi, 13, had the last word. "How would you feel if it was your money and you wanted to get something for your moms - and you were out hustling?"
Floyd, the director of housing and community development for Co-Opportunity Inc., told his charges that there were no wrong answers, then reaffirmed the theme of the day - leadership.
"Leaders many times have to make decisions and explain why you made those decisions," Floyd said. "Sometimes things are not as easy as they seem. Sometimes, you're forced to make a very tough decision."
The students were taking part in the "Youth Investment Club," a pilot program run by the Hartford Housing Authority and designed by Executive Director Lance Gordon. Gordon grew up in the old Stowe Village in the 1960s and later earned a degree from Harvard in city planning.
He was able to leverage relationships with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and officers at Citizens Bank of Connecticut and Sovereign Bank of Connecticut, along with a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, to raise the $55,000 needed for the summerlong program that started last week. The kids attend workshops on leadership, character and money management twice a week at UHart. Tuesday, they visited the Legislative Office Building. Other trips planned include a golf outing, a day with animator Joe Young, bowling, ice skating, a trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Pequot Museum.
"With all the negativity going on in Hartford, we wanted to find a venue to take these kids that was positive and motivational - to create some new leaders and give them some alternatives," Gordon said.
Developing programs to keep city children off the street is becoming a cottage industry and well worth the investment. As the housing authority program shows, if you can provide recreation, while incorporating values, respect and personal responsibility, it might just register with these young impressionable minds. The whole idea is to make the children feel more self-assured in making good choices. The theme this summer is "challenges, choices and consequences."
"For kids our age, living in these parts of Hartford, people may look at us as people who are just causing trouble and that we're not going to make it in the world," said Tiffany Mitchell, 11, a sixth-grader who would like to attend Yale one day. She talked about her 12-year-old friend who stopped attending school and is running the streets, smoking and carrying on.
"She's hanging out with the wrong kind of crowd," Tiffany said. "It's kind of like she's growing up too fast."
And making bad choices.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at