You could call it a fête for the future. On Thursday night community members filled the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center downtown to celebrate local nonprofit Meriden Children First being awarded a -- one which officials say could not only help local children achieve success, but also figure heavily into the town's redevelopment.
"We're celebrating the first step in what's going to be a really long and challenging journey," David Radcliffe, the organization's Executive Director, said. "The response tonight is really encouraging to have so many people come out from so many different corners."
The event brought out local and state officials, the city's school board, a host of supporters and the Meriden families who will be part of the grant to mingle and enjoy music and refreshments.
Meriden is one of 15 communities in the nation -- and the only one in New England -- to be awarded a $465,000 "Promise Neighborhood" planning grant in December 2011. The grant gives Meriden Children First the funds to do major planning to expand the non-profit's 2-year-old pilot Meriden Family Zone and strengthen it.
"We're engaging a bunch of consultants, universities, evaluators to do some deep thinking about how to really create the system that we need in Meriden to support kids from cradle on up to career," Radcliffe said of how the group will use the grant.
Inspired by the the Harlem Children's Zone, the is focused on in a specific geographic area. Right now it involves families who live in a low-income section of Meriden near the town's library and whose children attend . The idea is to provide long-term support both to kids and families in a neighborhood who might otherwise be at risk and to foster community among them.
There are currently about 25 families involved. They meet frequently at the library, and the chidren participate in special programs, .
Fourteen-year-old Ricky Vargas, his parents and two younger sisters are part of the zone and were in attendence Thursday night.
Vargas, a Freshman at Wilcox High School, said that since becoming a part of the zone two years ago, he and his family have gotten to know their neighbors better, and says he sees the change in his sisters.
"They're more talkative, they're doing more things," Vargas said. He says the families "are really helping each other out." Vargas and one of the other older boys in the zone are going to be doing some community volunteering through the group, and he said he looks forward to that.
The award and recognition that comes with it could pave the way for future grants and other resources. This summer the group will be applying for the second phase of the Promise Neighborhood grants - an implementation grant, which would help it put the plans it has made into motion.
A sister federal grant called "Choice Neighborhoods" could help fund the razing of the Mills Housing Project in downtown Meriden and the creation of "scatter-site" housing for its residents, Radcliffe said – a move most city officials consider key to redeveloping Meriden's Downtown.
"Meriden is a star," said David Nee, President of the Graustein Memorial Fund, a Connecticut education foundation that has provided grants to Children First and many other education-oriented programs statewide. Nee deals with organizations throughout the state and says Children First staff and board leadership are some of the top he's seen.
City Manager Lawrence Kendzior said he thought the zone could address root causes for issues the city's health department, housing department and other city arms deal with.
"We find particularly on the code walks, we'll find a lot of conditions that need to be addressed, and we address them, they get better, we come back next year, and there's a whole another crop of things that need to be addressed. So as I've said, we're just treating symptoms," Kendzior said. "The approach of the zone, to focus on a particular geographic area, I think has a chance to get at the causes of all of this. I have high hopes."