MERIDEN — Using Meriden’s Family Zone as a backdrop, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal pitched legislation Tuesday that would secure the Promise Neighborhood program on a long-term basis, as opposed to its current year-to-year funding status.
The Democratic senators spoke at the Meriden Public Library, and were also joined by city officials Tuesday.
“The purpose is simple: Promise zones, which are neighborhood-centric efforts to change kids’ lives, are working. They’re working in San Antonio, New York, and right here in Meriden,” Murphy said. “This piece of legislation would guarantee that the entire country can see the benefit that Promise Zones have brought to Meriden, Conn.”
Meriden won Promise Neighborhood funding in 2011 for its Meriden Family Zone. The zone, established by Meriden Children First Initiative, connects families in impoverished neighborhoods with the existing city services, Children First Director Paul Vivian said.
The Promise Neighborhoods Authorization Act of 2015 doesn’t include any funding for the program currently, but is rather the first half of a two-step process to secure that funding in years to come.
Murphy explained, “Our legislation would make the Promise Zone program a permanent part of law. Right now it isn’t. It’s funded on an annual basis, and if there’s no money in the budget, then there’s no Promise Zone program that year. Our legislation would put the Promise Zone program in law permanently, guaranteeing that year after year we’re... putting money in Promise Zones. You need both the authorizing legislation and the money in the budget to make this program work, but the good news is that at the same time... the President has put forward a budget which puts $90 million into the Promise Zone initiative. If we can, this year, pass a bill that authorizes Promise Zones and support the President’s budget that puts $90 million into Promise Zones then this program has real legs for the first time in its history.”
Blumenthal said, “This program offers a way out of poverty. It offers a way out, not a handout.”
He pushed for bipartisan support for the bill, introduced by the two Democratic senators, saying that Republicans “ought to be” supportive of the program because it requires “a relatively small amount of federal funding,” which then leverages private donations.
Mirella Antongiorgi, a Family Zone resident, spoke Tuesday to the benefits she sees personally from the program. Because she spoke mainly in Spanish, Children First Board of Directors Chairwoman Marisol Estrada-Soto translated for Antongiorgi.
“The family zone helps her with finding a pleasant home to live in for her and her children,” Estrada-Soto said on behalf of Antongiorgi, who was there with twin two-year-old daughters.
Vivian later advocated for the additional outreach Children First would be able to achieve, should Meriden be selected to receive part of the next round of Promise Neighborhood Implementation grants.
“All of our families... are connected to area services: they all have library cards, they all have insurance... when there are issues in the schools, we intervene, but that’s on a very small basis. What this funding would enable us to do is to expand and grow that, not just throughout this small neighborhood, but even outside the neighborhood, the Family Zone is...what we think this is all about. It’s about growing and supporting families,” he said.
In 2012, then-director of Children First, David Radcliffe, missed the deadline to apply for additional Promise Neighborhood funding, prompting his resignation as director.
The organization has applied again, and although Murphy and Blumenthal’s proposed legislation would only authorize the program for continued funding in the future, Murphy said Tuesday, “Meriden is a pioneer. This small city was the first in the state to get a planning grant, they will likely be first in line for an implementation grant if we’re successful in passing the funding.”