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EastConn grant brings elementary students to Eastern’s campus

Published on February 09, 2023

EastConn grant brings elementary students to Eastern’s campus

An interdistrict grant from EastConn, a public, nonprofit regional educational service agency, brought fifth-grade students from several nearby communities to Eastern Connecticut State University’s campus on Feb. 2 to meet other students and forge connections.

The students came from Annie Fisher STEM School, Windham Center School, Colchester Elementary and Voluntown Elementary. As part of the program, students had been communicating across districts as pen pals. On Eastern’s campus, they finally met in person for the first time.

The children and teachers were welcomed by Esther Soffer, grant facilitator for EastConn. Soffer kept the children excited and attentive by describing the day’s festivities, including meeting pen pals, a martial arts lesson and mindfulness exercises.

One of the day’s events, “Mindfulness and Martial Arts,” educated children about the strength of their minds. They were taught by Ken Caputo, also known as Master Ken, who has been teaching martial arts professionally for more than 30 years. Caputo is a seventh-degree black belt.

The children were also instructed by John Tanaka, a fourth-degree black belt and longtime mentee of Caputo. Tanaka enjoyed helping the children realize that their minds can be stronger than their bodies. “My favorite part about doing these events is watching the light of their beliefs spark within them,” said Tanaka.

Students also got to make “transformation bottles.” They were given bottles nearly full of water and filled the remainder with glue, colored glitter and jewels. When they experience strong, distressing emotions, explained Soffer, they can shake the bottles, breathe and watch the glitter settle in 60 to 90 seconds, roughly the time it takes the emotion to also settle.

Students show off their colorful array of transformation bottles.

Students are given a martial arts lesson by professional instructor Ken Caputo, known as Master Ken.

Children making "transformation bottles."

This field trip was part of a series of trips for this group of children, forging their connections with each trip. Students who start as pen pals end up as friends. “They really know these people by the end of the year,” said Soffer.

Soffer finds her work very rewarding. “My whole life, I’ve done work to make people feel good about themselves,” she said. Soffer comes from a very difficult background – she moved to the United States as a Russian immigrant at age 5. She was bullied for her appearance, ethnicity and for growing up without a father.

In the past, Soffer has lived in housing projects and relied on welfare. She has overcome this adversity, advancing in her personal life and relating to those also experiencing difficult times. “I can just be a person,” she said.

Soffer’s compassion was on full display at a recent event, when students from Ashford Elementary School visited EastConn’s facility in Hampton. One young girl had recently moved from Russia and spoke no English. A native Russian speaker, Soffer gently approached the girl and spoke fluently to her in her native language.

“I think it was the first time someone spoke Russian to her that wasn’t in her family,” said Soffer. She said that not only did the girl smile and become comfortable; other students who witnessed the interaction were welcoming and helpful with her for the rest of the day.

Soffer also expressed gratitude for other members of the EastConn staff. She mentioned Monica Rivera, a clerk whom she referred to as a “pillar of the community.” Rivera has made major strides since signing up for a work program with EastConn as an intern, now holding a full-time position.

Soffer also praised Kevin Segar, a member of EastConn’s staff for 25 years. Segar facilitates EastConn’s Community Arts Connection (CAC) after-school program. He also “knows everything about nature” and conducts outdoor events with children in the community, said Soffer.

Written by Noel Teter