UConn PEP: Transforming and Connecting Communities

The UConn PEP program, operated through UConn Extension, helps a diverse range of community initiatives (contributed photo).

Rich Mutts ’06 (CLAS) graduated from UConn with a bachelor of arts as a major in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. The New Haven school system quickly hired him. As his career progressed, he knew he wanted to do more to make positive changes in the community. In 2016, Mutts had the opportunity to join the Meriden Children First Initiative (CFI) as a program director.

One of his early responsibilities at CFI was recruiting parents to participate in the UConn People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program. CFI regularly hosts a 12-week PEP program for parents and community members. There are 12 to 18 participants in each cohort, and the groups also complete a community project. Over 75 participants have graduated from the UConn PEP programs sponsored by CFI.

UConn PEP, an innovative personal and family development program with a strong community focus, is an Extension program in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. The PEP program builds on the unique strengths and life experiences of the participants, emphasizing connections between individuals and community action.

Empowering Parents

“I looked at the parents I was recruiting as unpolished diamonds,” Mutts says. “The 12-week course changes their lives. They’re back in school and have the opportunity to feel that self-growth again, and it increases their self-worth. I wanted to empower them to use their voices. Watching the parents grow is the most fulfilling part of the PEP program for me.”

Rich Mutts '07, a community leader who has used the UConn PEP program
Rich Mutts (Contributed photo)

Community projects are an important component of the UConn PEP program. They provide participants with an avenue to create a positive change in their community and work collaboratively with their UConn PEP cohort.

“Connectivity is the one word I would use to describe UConn PEP,” Mutts says. “The overall theme of the UConn PEP programming is taking people and letting them know they are already leaders. We are pulling a dormant fire and determination out of them. They often feel overlooked as just parents, but they are great leaders.”

An example of what this looks like in practice came in September 2017, when Meriden saw an influx of displaced families after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The PEP class at CFI quickly pivoted their project to create a directory of everything the displaced families would need.

Other projects have focused on augmenting existing community initiatives, like the book drive another PEP cohort sponsored. Meriden has a Summer Discovery Program that is free for youth, with 80 children were participating during this cohort’s year. The summer program lasts for three weeks, and the PEP parents’ goal was for each child to leave with a new book every day of the program. The group set up drop-off points around the city and collected over 2,700 books, which they then sorted and distributed.

“Our participants are so empowered when they finish their UConn PEP projects,” Mutts says. “We are there to make connections for them. We encourage our PEP graduates to sit on boards or on the CFI advisory council after they finish classes. CFI also provides an opportunity for them to receive training to become a PEP facilitator.”

Born Rich

In addition to his work as a community leader and facilitator, Mutts is also a musician and video producer. A few years ago, he made a documentary film, “Born Rich,” about the disconnect between police and the community, as well as writing and producing the songs featured in the documentary.

“I’m from Hamden,” he says. “I knew I could do more and make a bigger impact. I wanted to expand who I help.”

Mutts transitioned to a part-time director of programs role with CFI in January  when he created the Born Rich Foundation, which focuses on youth and connecting communities to their municipal leaders.

“Rich can mean many things, including our family and health,” he says. “True wealth is our happiness. The documentary and our foundation are all about healing.”

That healing can come in many forms, and one is through the personal empowerment that Mutts saw with UConn PEP. The Born Rich Foundation offered a 10-week virtual learning series in August and September. Experiences were offered every day from 8 AM until 5 PM. Participants could join whenever they were available to receive multiple levels of learning. These included a health and fitness series on Wednesdays, meditation hours, and seminars on substance abuse led by health clinicians.

The newest project for the Born Rich Foundation is a public service announcement video series on the importance of making connections between the community and police officers. Mutts is working with Hamden, New Haven, and East Haven on the project. It includes the mayors and municipal leaders from each city, and has the support of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. The series is being released in February 2021.

‘The Future is Bright’

PEP will evolve and grow in the future, and Mutts expects it will be a hybrid course blending in-person and online components in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He stresses that connecting over words and the internet can still be a transformative educational experience.

“Getting parents to understand that their voice matters and that it is needed is a challenge,” Mutts says. “UConn PEP can continue expanding and growing; there are so many people that need this program. As facilitators we get to see the smiles and tears; and hear the stories. We need to expand UConn PEP to children, city leaders, and teachers.

“The future is bright,” he says. “We’re in uncertain times right now, but it is bright. Everything the Born Rich Foundation is doing is grounded in what I learned in UConn PEP. It’s all based on equity and I’m incorporating that into all of our programming.”

 

For more information about the Born Rich Foundation you can watch part one of the documentary. Watch the music video “Home” and listen to his song “Alright”. Learn more about the UConn PEP program at https://pep.extension.uconn.edu/.