Written by Ed Osborn
For the sixth summer in a row, the Puentes al Futuro/Bridges to the Future program provided enrichment activities for Willimantic middle school students from July 5–27. The program is a collaboration between Windham Public Schools’ Office of Family and Community Partnerships and the Center for Community Engagement at Eastern Connecticut State University. The academic and cultural enrichment program was funded in part by a generous grant from Eversource, in addition to funding from Windham Public Schools.
Puentes al Futuro provides a safe space for summer fun and helps students improve their academics in advance of the next school year. The program is an extension of an after-school program in Windham schools during the academic year that has grown from only 20 students when it started six years ago to a level of more than 125 this year.
“The summer Puentes al Futuro program is a unique opportunity for Windham middle school students and Eastern Connecticut State University students to spend an intensive month together outside of the traditional school environment,” said Kimberly Armstrong Silcox, director of the Center for Community Engagement.
“The student-led program allows the college students to develop deeper relationships with the youth through leadership development, student engagement and enrichment opportunities. We see the children develop self-confidence, respect for themselves and others, and blooming creativity that is not easily established during the school year with the pressures that children face in school. The Center for Community Engagement is always proud to partner with Windham Public Schools. This program is a terrific reflection of the commitment that Windham Public Schools has to provide resources to support their students in unique and powerful ways.”
During the three-week program, 27 students from Windham who are entering sixth and seventh grade participated in an academic component in the mornings at the middle school and then spent the afternoons at Eastern learning cultural dance, theater and swimming.
This year’s focus was on the immigration experience and the experiences of undocumented individuals and families. The students wrote essays and turned them into monologues that were performed at a “Showcase” during the final day of the program, along with dances and original theatrical pieces the students had developed. The goal was to provide the students with accurate information and to give them a safe space to express their concerns as well as to ask questions. Members of the organization “Connecticut Students for a Dream” met with the participants to provide accurate information about pathways to college for undocumented students.
Each Monday, students also visited the CLiCK (Commercially Licensed, Cooperative Kitchen) in Windham to learn about nutrition, gardening and cooking.
“I enjoyed being at Eastern,” said Emiliano Gutierrez, who is entering Windham Middle School this fall. “I had a lot of fun with the other students. We played games — BINGO and “Helicopter” — and also swam in Eastern’s beautiful swimming pool. We learned about the lives of immigrants and wrote stories about them. I wrote about a young Mexican boy who had immigrated to the United States.”
Manuel Silva will be a student at the Charles H. Burrows STEM Academy this fall. “I learned how to express my creativity in the Puentes program. I wrote my story about four children whose parents had immigrated to the United States and how they are trying to come to America to find their parents.”
Silva was one of four participants who presented their stories in oral monologues during the program’s final showcase on July 27. After practicing dancing in Eastern’s Dance Studio, the children in the program formed two teams during the final ceremony to perform a “Warrior Dance” in colorful costumes.
The program was staffed by five Eastern students and coordinated by the Center for Community Engagement (CCE). Windham Middle School staff supported the program as well, and professional dancer from New York City taught the dance classes.
Carly Perron ’18 was the Eastern student program coordinator and was assisted by fellow Eastern students Sarah Tricarico, Mariana Vega, Adilsa Encarnacao and Luis Martinez, who served as counselors.
Perron served as a counselor in the program in 2016. A double major in political science and history who is also preparing for secondary education certification, she is a regular CCE volunteer leader, working in programs for the elderly in addition to the program for middle school students. “Middle school is hard,” she says. “I want to make the kids’ lives and experiences a bit easier.”
Given the multi-cultural nature of Willimantic, the Puentes program is “all about culture and remembering where you come from,” says Perron. Speaking to the focus on immigration in this year’s program, she said, “I want these students to know the positive side of immigration. They are learning about the rights and opportunities for undocumented children or their undocumented parents.”
The middle school students also got to spend time on a college campus, some for the first time, and realize that going to college and getting their degree is an achievable aspiration.
In addition to the summer program, the Puentes program also includes activities throughout the school year, including several that involve Eastern students. These range from a “Arts and Culture” program for elementary schoolchildren, which focuses on learning the culture of another country — Jamaica, Ireland and Russian have been explored in the past — to the “I Love Me” program designed to build self-confidence for middle school students.
Parents can learn more about the Puentes program and register their children when school begins by visiting www.windham.k12.ct.us or by calling (860) 465-2300. You can also watch a video interview about “Puentes al Futuro/Bridges to the Future” at www.easternct.edu/cce.
For more information about the Center for Community Engagement visit www.easternct.edu/cce or call (860) 465-0090.