Yes, there were diplomas. Yes, there were cheers and tears from graduates and family members. But the celebration held Wednesday night at the wasn’t your typical graduation ceremony. The 14 graduates of the class of 2012 weren’t high school or college seniors. They were parents who completed Meriden’s 20-week Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI).
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary in Meriden and its 20th anniversary statewide, PLTI trains parents to advocate for their children. Since its beginning, the program has graduated nearly 200 Meriden parents and about 2,500 parents statewide, according to PLTI Statewide Coordinator Dawn Homer-Bouthiette, one of an impressive array of state and city officials on hand to congratulate this year’s PLTI graduates.
Finding Their Voice
Leading off the graduation speakers was David Radcliffe, executive director of Meriden Children First, the organization that brought PLTI to Meriden.
“Strength is not in isolation, but in community and using your voice,” he said. “Through PLTI, you have begun to find your voice so you can be stronger in both your personal and public lives.”
State Representative Cathy Abercrombie of Meriden, herself a PLTI graduate, told the class of 2012, “We want our kids to be happy and confident and to grow up to do good things in this world. You have spent 18 weeks learning how to create a great world to raise those kids in.”
She then asked them to think about what’s next for them as PLTI graduates. Some, like her, will go on to government, she said. Some will be advocates. And some will share their advocacy skills with other parents. No matter what role they choose, Abercrombie told them, they will serve as a shining example to other parents and to their own children.
“Teach them that they can make a difference in this world,” she advised them.
City Councilor Hilda Santiago, another PLTI grad, spoke on behalf of Rep. Chris Murphy, who couldn't attend because he was in Washington, D.C. She urged the graduates to stay involved.
“Always remember, your children depend on you to advocate for them. You are their strongest voice, and they will always need you.”
She handed out special citations from the congressman. The graduates also received certificates from a representative for Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
City Councilor Cathy Battista congratulated the graduates on behalf of the mayor and city council, and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Benigni thanked them for the impact they have had in our school system. PLTI graduates have advocated for the school budget, to implement a school breakfast program, and to bring all-day kindergarten to the district, he pointed out.
“Don’t be strangers to our school system. We need you,” he told them.
In a moving speech, 2012 PLTI class speaker Robin Drago-Provencher described the strong bonds that formed between the members of this year’s class. More than friends, they became like a family, she said, “a family that will do whatever it takes for the children of Meriden.”
Stepping Out of Their Comfort Zone
Drago-Provencher also spoke of how the program makes you step out of your comfort zone—a theme mentioned by several of the graduation speakers and echoed by graduates themselves in conversations after the ceremony.
PLTI class of 2012 members Maria Belli and Carmen Solomon both describe themselves as quiet, shy people. When separately asked what they got out of PLTI, the shared that the program gave them the confidence to speak up.
Belli’s husband, Sergio, who spent much of the evening beaming and snapping photos of his wife, praised the program for helping her become comfortable opening up and talking about things.
Solomon expressed amazement at being able to speak in public now. She also related that she was able to intervene when her daughter was being bullied. She would never have known how to go about that without PLTI, she claimed.
“You learned how to have your voice heard,” she said of the training. It has also inspired her to volunteer in the community, she added.
No More ‘I’m Just a Parent’
According to Homer-Bouthiette, PLTI was established in 1992 by the Connecticut Commission on Children (CCOC), a legislative policy organization. CCOC staff noticed that whenever bills regarding children came before the legislature, parents weren’t at the table. When approached to come to the capitol and speak up, they always responded with, “I’m just a parent,” Homer-Bouthiette said. So the group developed PLTI to give parents a voice and teach them how to use it. Field tested in Hartford, PLTI now runs training in 15 to 20 communities a year.
According to Yvonne Jimenez, a 2010 PLTI graduate and coordinator of this year’s training in Meriden, the institute begins with a day-long retreat at the South Meriden YMCA, where the group bonds.
After the retreat, participants attend class every Wednesday night at Lincoln Middle School. Free dinner and childcare is provided. The training is free and run by CCOC-trained facilitators.
The first 10 classes are "the touchy feely part,” Jimenez explained. Classes focus on self and family, covering topics such as how personal history affects a person’s perceptions of leadership.
The second 10 classes focus on politics, policy and using the media, teaching parents how to maneuver through the political system on both a local and state level.
Participants also complete a community service project as part of the course. This year’s projects included a suicide prevention and awareness program for local middle and high schools, a resource and support guide to help teen parents continue their education, and an ESL project to assist Arabic-speaking children with English.
The 20-week training culminates in a special ceremony at the state capitol for all statewide PLTI graduates, as well as a local graduation ceremony.
At the conclusion of Meriden’s local ceremony, PLTI grad and mistress of ceremonies Geri Kogut told the graduates, “This is just the beginning. Now it’s time to take those diplomas, spread your wings and fly.”