Growing up in Waterbury, Warren Leach experienced the city’s neighborhoods as “full of music and joy.” Block parties, summer basketball leagues, a theater group where young people built the risers and sound system for the productions. Best of all, his summer job as a teenager took him all over Waterbury accompanying kids on field trips to parks and attractions.

Said Leach, “As the oldest of five, I had a tremendous sense of pride in earning money, helping my family pay for school clothes, and looking after other kids in the neighborhood on field trips. We had a sense of responsibility for taking care of ourselves and younger kids and being an example.”

Decades later, over a revelatory meal, he and his friends decided “there’s nobody stopping the people at this table from having the block parties and all the things we remembered growing up.”

The UnGroup Society was born.

Said Leach, “The Ungroup Society was put together as a very loosely knit group that is not stuck in or pinned into any particular cause or purpose. So, anybody with an idea can get together with like-minded people with a diverse set of skills…identify community issues, and act positively to change them.”

UnGroup member Rhonda Hunter Gatling proposed a clothing drive for homeless people; three years later, UnGroup collected 35-40 boxes of clothes that were given to hundreds of people.

Rhonda and UnGroup grew the idea and began collecting gently used prom dresses for girls who might not attend their prom due to financial hardships. Two clothing drives later, they collected over 500 gowns that were given away to Waterbury girls.

UnGroup has also organized community policing forums, youth field trips, and Black History Month celebrations.

Two grants from Connecticut Community Foundation’s grassroots grant programjumpstarted UnGroup Society’s efforts. Intended for emerging community leaders in Waterbury, the grants fund small projects that help Waterbury residents make their ideas a reality for creating positive changes in their neighborhoods. Unlike other Foundation grants, grassroots funding is not contingent on a group being organized as a 501(c)(3) under the IRS code.

In late August 2016, led by the indomitable Leach, UnGroup hosted a “Spirit of Unity” concert for youth empowerment at the Silas Bronson Library Park. Funded in part by the Foundation, the event was timed to shine a light on the importance of literacy and engage parents in reading to their kids. Over 20 local youth, health, and human services groups were on hand, as well as musicians and a few thousand attendees.

“It was awesome,” said Leach.

What does the future hold?

Leach is planning a website so UnGroup is more visible to the community and so it is easier for people to find the group and get involved. There is also a health and wellness initiative underway focused on nutrition, exercise, and disease prevention.

Said Leach, “We need to take our skills—whether it’s resume writing or building a porch for someone—and support each other rather than turning a blind eye to each other’s needs.”

Learn more about Connecticut Community Foundation’s grant programs.

[Photos courtesy of Warren Leach]