December 15, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
English comes more easily now to Jacob Quijada, a 20-year-old landscaper from El Salvador.
"I understand a lot of English," Quijada said, as he sat with other students at the Aetna Center for Families this week. He credits his three years of twice-weekly English as a Second Language classes at the center for his progress.
Now, though, the center is to close.
The center has run out of money, and will probably shut its doors at the end of the year, though a community effort is in the works to salvage the program's services.
"We're going to try to figure out how to keep the services - maybe not the Center for Families, but there will be some kind of services," said Mayor Eddie A. Perez. "It's important because the folks in the neighborhood needed those services... I think we can easily buy six months to try to figure that out, and that's what I'm going to do."
In addition to ESL classes, the center offers GED classes, exercise programs and youth initiatives. One of its most valuable roles, though, is as a drop-in center for non-native English speakers in need of help with everything from dealing with government agencies to filling out applications.
Edie Lacey, former head of the Frog Hollow South Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, says that the center became a community focal point that attracted residents.
"We started reaching people that we couldn't reach before," Lacey said. "GED, ESL, you name it, they came out to it. These are people that we couldn't get to before."
Jackie Maldonado, the current head of the NRZ, said it's an invaluable neighborhood resource. "It's in the neighborhood, it's walking distance to many of the residents, and you just don't get that kind of stuff anymore," she said. "It's one-stop shopping."
The center, established in the late 1990s, was a program of the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, and was operated by alliance member Connecticut Children's Medical Center. Its other two major partners are Trinity College and Hartford Hospital.
"It's sad for all of us," said Luis Caban, director of the alliance. "You couldn't find a better fit in terms of programs for this community... It's going to leave a huge, huge vacuum in this community."
The alliance recently announced that it could not find the grant funding to keep the center open, officials said.
"These things aren't done arbitrarily or capriciously," said Kevin Kinsella, president of the board of Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance and vice president of government affairs at Hartford Hospital. "We've tried every which way we can to get it funded adequately."
"At some point in time we had to decide that we could no longer continue to put our money into it, and that decision wasn't made lightly," Kinsella said, adding that the alliance chipped in around $300,000 in operating funds over the past two-and-a-half years.
"If we were to continue to fund this, it would be at the risk of the other programs we operate," he said.
The program began with $1 million in seed money from the Aetna Foundation - hence the name - in part to fund the construction of a new facility, Caban said. Eventually, the center decided not to build the new facility and in 2003 moved into retail space on Washington Street, where it is today.
Marilda L. Gandara, president of the foundation, said she was "very disappointed" that the center was closing, both because Aetna leveraged its money and its name toward a project that is still succeeding.
"To see our part of it closed when everything else is now successful" is disappointing, she said.
Kinsella said that although the alliance is planning to close the program at the end of the month, it is willing to restart it should funding be found. The family center has an annual operating budget of about $250,000, he said.
Gandara noted that the foundation contributed $14,000 in emergency money to keep the center open in November, and has committed an additional $25,000 for 2006 as a challenge grant.
Perez said that what the center really needs is a long-term sponsor. Until one turns up, the mayor will work with state elected officials and funders to try to find money to maintain the services, he said.
"My hope is that [the alliance and the medical center] would still leave some resources on the table," Perez said. "I'm going to at least give it a try to keep it and I would ask the institutions to make a smaller commitment, but to still participate."
Meanwhile, students like Carmen Molina say they don't know how they will replace the services if they disappear. Molina, a full-time security guard, can't pay the hundreds of dollars it would cost for one course at a public or private institution, she said.
"I'm trying to move forward and, over here, they're helping us to improve," Molina said. "That way, we can get a better job and we're able to speak with someone else and express ourselves in a good way. It's helping out a lot."