Liz Bullard’s mother Beverly wanted the 26-year old to get involved in the community, but what stood between her daughter and an all-expense paid trip to a national community leadership conference in Kentucky was a terrifying plane ride.

Says Liz, “I really hate to fly.”

She went with trepidation, and came back brimming with ideas for community organizing in her hometown of Waterbury.

Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury (NHS) had made the trip possible, and Eden Brown, community building and engagement specialist at NHS, helped Liz and other eager organizers MaLisa Blasini, Erika Cooper, Sophia Torres, KimKelly Meyers, Tristan White, and Amy Petruzzi craft an action plan around their common ideas and concerns. Each lives or works in Waterbury (Bullard is a case manager at the Salvation Army).

Bullard’s group, who call themselves the “Waterbury Community Leaders,” felt that parents in the city often lacked knowledge about local resources to solve common problems (such as housing disputes), navigate systems of government or schools, and effectively engage in electoral and political processes (such as analyzing candidates or lobbying elected officials on issues of concern).

They endeavored to train interested parents in concrete strategies so they could be better advocates for themselves and their children. The group created a 6-session series of workshops (titled “The Parent Project”) on topics including budgeting, home ownership and rental housing, healthy nutrition, and civic engagement.

Bullard then turned to Connecticut Community Foundation to fund the project through its grassroots grant program. Through this program, the Foundation makes small grants available to Waterbury residents who have ideas and a plan for making positive changes in their neighborhoods. Residents do not need to organize as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to apply.

Grant in hand, the Parent Project launched this fall as a pilot program with six parents participating. Community leaders with expertise in the various topic areas were the trainers. In many ways, the participants are people who have wanted to make changes— to crosswalks, the schools, etc.— but didn’t know the tangible steps to achieving results.

“From reaching out to the mayor’s office to voting to attending board of education meetings,” said Bullard, “the class is learning those basic things and becoming more comfortable in how to make the changes that they want to see.”

Bullard, NHS, and the other Waterbury community leaders are already looking ahead to build on the Parent Project, perhaps by conducting the workshops for parents of children with special needs.

Any advice for other Waterbury residents?

Said Bullard, “If you want to see something happen, you have to go out there and get it. You have to be willing to fail, willing to try, and you have to get out there with other people…When you open up to different cultures, people, and experiences — your doors open. If I would have stayed closed in, I would have missed out on everything.”

“Tell people not to let fears stop you,” she added.

Learn more about Connecticut Community Foundation’s grant programs.

[Photos by Neighborhood Housing Services]