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Hartford Kids Get 'Real World Job Skills'

City Slickers Program Offers Country Air And Teaches Value And Reward Of Hard Work

Steven Goode

November 07, 2010

Twice a week since the beginning of school, Marie Perez, a sophomore at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, has looked forward to her hourlong bus ride out to the Lazy D Ranch.

Perez is among a group of 20 or so students from Bulkeley who participate in City Slickers, a program that introduces them to the fresh country air, horses and, most of all, to the hard work associated with the animals' care.

"I love horses and I love animals," Perez said as she mucked out stalls at the ranch in the Terryville section of Plymouth she has been visiting since last year. "This prepares me to be independent. If a job is dirty, I don't mind doing it."

Perez, 18, serves as a mentor in the work-study program that brings special-needs students together with other students for a morning of physical labor that includes cleaning and re-bedding stalls, repairing fences, building paddocks and other chores.

She's proud that some of the younger students look up to her and ask her questions.

"I make sure they see me do the right thing," said Perez, who cleaned out about six stalls during the 21/2-hour work period that pays her $8 an hour.

Perez, who says she wants to become a veterinarian, said that someday she hopes to summon the courage to actually ride one of the horses before the program ends in June.

The City Slickers program started about 15 years ago at Burns Elementary School, where Ruth Fried was a physical education teacher. Fried saw that many of her students had no after-school activities and a lot of idle time, so she came up with some alternatives, including bowling, baton-twirling and disco dancing.

Then she discovered a small farm in Bloomfield and decided to bring some students there, including Luis Reyes.

"He was a locked-up kid," Fried said referring to his uncommunicative and uncooperative nature, "but then his skills started to develop."

Reyes went on to become an accomplished competitive equestrian. When his riding days were over, he apprenticed for several years, learning to shoe horses. Today he is a master farrier, making a good living with clients around New England and New York.

Reyes oversees the Bulkeley students. He said the program "really clicked when we started doing the work, the physical labor."

"It's about getting the job done," he said. "I never got to do anything hands-on."

Reyes said he still works with the program because he got so much out of it and wants to give something back.

"I get pleasure from seeing the kids improve," he said.

Aside from the physical work, Perez said it also helps her in school, where she says she has learned to become better at working in team settings. The job has also helped her develop the confidence to go to school officials and ask for a more challenging course schedule.

Students in the program are required to make up missed schoolwork, maintain good grades and attendance, and stay out of trouble.

"I could easily fill this program with honor roll kids with no attendance problems," said Gretchen Levitz-Kimball, program development specialist for Bulkeley's upper and lower schools. "But this is for kids who need something to keep them coming to school and applying themselves."

Fried, now retired, is quick to point out to the students and to visitors that the City Slickers program is not an opportunity for kids to spend a day in the country cloud-gazing.

"We're very strict here," she said. "The kids learn real world job skills."

Levitz-Kimble credited Bulkeley Principal Oscar Padua for instituting the program three years ago when he moved from his job as principal at Burns school. She said she has a long waiting list and would like to add another day and an academic component.

"We hit on gold," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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