Humans Of Manchester

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Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Carolina Mancini, award-winning photographer

A sophomore at MHS, Carolina (pronounced Carol-eena) has a career path to becoming a forensic medical examiner staked out already. Her academic schedule includes 10 college credits planned through high school, and she will start looking at colleges later this year. And last month, with just a few quick lessons on her best friend’s camera, Carolina entered and won the HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) Health Career Photography contest with three pictures that took almost as much planning as they did to capture. She had to get permission from three different facilities (one of the contest’s criteria is that pictures must be of three different health professionals in three different fields) and signatures of anyone photographed, plus travel (including a trip to New York City) in just one week. She found out she had won during a live zoom conference (which was fitting since the contest was online this year due to COVID restrictions) while her extended family was in the house for their annual sausage making day, and the house erupted when they all found out that she was the winner. “I was very surprised that I won,” says Carolina, who will travel to Nashville with her prize-winning pictures for the International HOSA conference in June. A lifelong Manchester resident (Keeney, Bennet, Illing), she was also an all-conference tennis player on the MHS team last year as a freshman and is a big fan of Italian tennis star Matteo Berrettini. And oh yeah, when she is not concentrating on academics or tennis, Carolina plays the piano and sings and is writing an album in Italian for her Nonno and Nonna (Italian for grandparents) that she wants to finish before graduating high school. "Carolina did an amazing job with the photo contest on short notice," said HOSA Club advisor Jeannie Lambert. "She has a bright future ahead of her and I'm looking forward to working with her over the next two years."

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Nurun Nahar, MPS Race and Equity Facilitator

Nurun was an outstanding scholar and a widely respected leader while a student at Manchester High and after graduating as valedictorian in 2016 she went off to Boston College with lots of optimism and options. She double-majored -- studying both Communications (the honors program) and Applied Psychology and Human Development -- and if you’d asked her then where she thought she would be today, she wouldn’t have said Manchester. “But life happens,” she said, and here she is back in her hometown happily pursuing her twin passions, advocating for young people and working in support of social justice. “It’s merged perfectly for me.” A lifelong Manchester resident whose MHS resume also included having been a class officer, president of the Activities Planning Board and co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, Nurun was in her senior spring semester at BC when COVID shut things down. She says she struggled not just with emotional isolation and the lack of closure at college but with just finding a job after her virtual graduation. With not much hiring happening, she signed on as a substitute teacher in the fall, working first at Highland Park and then at Bowers, where she spent six months on a long-term assignment in a third-grade classroom. “That was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences I've ever had,” she said. “Those students changed my life.” After spending a year teaching at Bowers, Nurun moved into her new position early this year with the district's growing Department of Race and Equity. “Nurun is smart, passionate and she fiercely advocates for racial justice and social change,’ said Diane Clare-Kearney, who oversees the DRE. “Having her back in Manchester is a huge win for this community.” The daughter of Bengali immigrants and a devout Muslim, Nurun said she has experienced first-hand the deeply rooted inequalities that still exist in our town. But she also says she is proud of the equity work being done in Manchester and grateful to be able to play a significant role. “This community is my own so the work is especially meaningful,” said Nurun, who also works part-time at the Youth Service Bureau, where she advises the Manchester Youth Commission and co-facilitates summer/winter programs. “We’re doing a lot but there is so much more to do.” Take Ramadan, for example. The holy month begins Saturday and many schools are for the first time ensuring that accomodations are made for Muslim staff and students who desire to celebrate through prayers, fasting and reflection. “That didn’t exist when I was a student,” Nurun says. “One of my goals as an educator is to ensure that marginalized students feel celebrated, valued, and protected in this district. I want them to know that their identities are an asset, not a deficit.”


While at Bowers last year Nurun created and shared a video that explains the significance of Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. You can see it here:

Wednesday, March 16, 2022: Hailey Ngo

Hailey Ngo, UCONN junior, MHS '19, freelance artist

An artistic storyteller whose own story starts in California where she was born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants, Hailey landed in Manchester and became interested in art as a four-year old before making a name for herself at MHS, and now UCONN. Hailey was a recipient of the Rising Star Award from the Manchester Arts Commission's Hall of Fame in 2019 and her work was displayed at The William Benton Museum of Art in the “Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art” exhibition last year, as well as The UConn Grief Project, a juried zine sponsored by The William Benton Museum of Art and published by Counterproof Press. While college has been great for developing her portfolio and networking, Hailey looks back fondly at her mentors from Manchester High (Mr. Tierinni, Mr. Lopez, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Atkins) for giving her a “wonderful foundation and inspiring lessons,” and for encouraging her to pursue a career in the arts. MHS art teacher Matt Atkins calls Hailey, “a remarkable student who had no fear of experimenting and trying multiple solutions to realize her visions” and looks forward to seeing how she “develops and matures as an artist.” Hailey spent the majority of 2020 at home (specifically the kitchen, bathroom and her bedroom) and produced a seven-piece maquette titled ‘Building a Room’ out of cardboard and everyday objects that captured her mood while in quarantine, but is back to taking the bus from Manchester to Storrs four days a week with her art and supplies and is on target to graduate next spring with a BFA. Hailey is proud of her Asian-American heritage and has visited Vietnam twice, traveled throughout New England (she loves its museums and shops) and made several trips to California and Texas. But as much as she likes the sunny weather in Orange County, she considers Manchester “home and comfort” and loves its food scene, noting the “wonderful variety of great restaurants owned by endearing families and crews” and believes that good food is good fuel for creativity. As for influences, it ranges from the animations she grew up with to Byzantine manuscripts, to Vogue runways - “it's hard to pick just one or a few,” adding that she enjoys art history and finds herself “wanting to remix traditional works I come across,” but also finds inspiration in contemporary art and pop culture. Hailey co-painted a mural at PhoLy (Vietnamese restaurant) in Vernon, does commission work (gifted paintings/illustrations, tattoo designs, etc) and hopes she can leave more of her work “around Manchester and beyond.” More than anything, Hailey enjoys telling stories through art, adding, “I have always been attracted to a compelling story, and find myself pining for the emotional evocation that comes with it.”

Find Hailey at or on instagram at @demonkinghailey.

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022: Linda Harris

Linda Harris, Community Advocate

As far back as she can remember, Linda has been advocating to help others. As the oldest of five raised in Virginia -- predominantly "in the country" with short and impactful periods in Richmond -- she grew up keenly aware of the difference in how people are treated based on race. She recalls her mother saying "Three things you cannot change, being Black, having to pay taxes and dying -- the rest is up to you.” Linda’s father was an abusive alcoholic and she wished there was a place where he (and men like him) could go to live rather than play the "you walked into a door again" game with the Sheriff’s department. She also dreamed of a bus to take people to Richmond to shop, thus preventing price gouging and unfair treatment of Black people. But dreams require resources and power to affect change. "Everyone is entitled to respect,” Linda said, “and opportunities must be created and nurtured so that everyone can succeed -- and I was going to college.” That brings us to Upward Bound, a federally funded program designed in the 1960s for high school students with the potential and desire to be first generation family members to attend college. Linda eagerly agreed to participate in both the every-other Saturday classes and a summer program on the University of Virginia campus and says “it was life-changing” with the experiences giving her the confidence and tools she needed to succeed at Western New England College (now a university). Linda earned a degree in Psychology and learned so much more: Like how to navigate new environments and how to interact with people from different countries and cultures, some of whom spoke different languages “and some who looked like me." She also was assigned a white roommate, which led to the first real discussions about race and racism, and she met Peter, her now-husband of 41 years. Shortly after marrying, Linda began her lengthy career of state service, and says the master's degree in social work she earned from UConn “opened doors to sit at the decision table and not just be told what is.” Linda retired four years ago as program director for the Office of Early Childhood and her skills and experiences now serve her well as she works with the African American and Black Affairs Council, which promotes education, empowerment, and advocacy. AABAC coordinates voter registration drives, does legislative and resource advocacy, participates on town boards and commissions, supports educational programs and more. She is also a core member with Uniting for a Safe Inclusive Community and an organizer of Connecticut Mutual Aid East of River, two complimentary organizations that advocate for all, especially marginalized and undocumented community members. Linda and Peter, (who retired from Manchester Community College as the Dean of Students) have lived in Manchester for 25ish years. Linda said that over the years people have questioned her about living in Manchester, with its infamous Klanchester reputation, but she says that she has not suffered from blatant racism. But she says there is systemic racism here, just as it permeates the country. Linda says she is pleased that Manchester declared racism a public health crisis and is encouraged by our murals and the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday but adds, “We have a long way to go.”

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022: Randy Watson

Randy Watson, Community Advocate and Activist

Randy created a Veterans for Black Lives Matter Facebook page to share stories of heroes who never received the recognition they so rightfully deserved. People like Roman Duckworth, an African-American military police officer who 60 years ago was shot and killed in a hate crime in Mississippi. And the late James Blakely, thought to be the last Black survivor from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Army Maj. Charles L. Thomas, one of the first Black men who fought in WWII to receive the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest medal for valor. “Until the tale of the hunt is told by the lion, the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” Randy often notes, explaining his commitment to telling the stories of Black veterans, so many of them under-appreciated or even largely unknown. Born and raised in Hartford and a graduate of Weaver High, Randy spent four years in the Navy, serving in the Persian Gulf but also visiting 36 countries. “That experience had a big impact on my life,” he said. Randy lived for a bit in Manchester (and earned an associates degree in criminal justice at MCC), then moved to Washington D.C. for about 10 years but has been back in Manchester since. He has seen our town become more diverse racially and has welcomed the changes but is always looking for ways to make a difference and make things better. One relatively recent example was his involvement a few months ago following an ugly situation when cheerleaders from Montville High say they were subjected to racist comments by fans from East Catholic after a football game. Randy was part of a group (which also included Mayor Jay Moran, Rhonda Philbert of the school district’s Race and Equity Department and Bridgitte Prince, a member of the Veterans for BLM Chapter 1956) that met with ECHS President Sean Brennan to discuss the school’s response. Randy said they promised to do racial awareness training for the ECHS community and “whatever it takes to eliminate racism at their school.” More recently, Randy has been involved in an effort to convert a vacant Hartford building that was once McCook Hospital into subsidized housing for low-income veterans (credit Bridgitte for taking that lead on that) It would also be the site of a museum honoring Connecticut's first Black Civil War regiment, the 29th, which won many important battles and became one of the first Union regiments to march through the Confederate capital of Richmond. “We’re trying to uphold the honor of Black veterans,’ Randy said, adding that in whatever role he tries to be “a solution-maker.”

To learn more about Veterans for Black Lives Matter Chapter 1956 (Randy is the president and founder) and you can visit:

Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021: Waishana Freeman

Waishana Freeman, MPS Human Resources generalist

It’s being called ‘The Great Resignation’, a phenomenon that has seen millions of Americans quit their jobs this year, with psychologists and labor experts alike saying upheaval from the pandemic prompted workers to re-evaluate what they were doing professionally. So many resignations led, naturally, to promotions and other turnover and there have been help wanted signs everywhere including, for a spell, in the district's Human Resources office. Which brings us to Waishana, who recently joined a department that has been busier than ever before. “We are thrilled to have Waishana with us,” said Sinthia Sone-Moyano, Assistant Superintendent of Human Capital & Talent Development. “It’s always great to hire someone as talented and experienced as her and it’s especially important for us given all the movement we have had and continue to have in the district.” Waishana was born and raised in Hartford, CT. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs, as for more than 20 years her family ran the River's Soul Food restaurant. At an early age her parents instilled in her and her 5 siblings a strong work ethic and a sense of community. Her parents sold the restaurant and moved to Georgia, taking their then 14-year-old daughter with them, but Waishana after finishing school and then attending Savannah State University (she earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration) came back to the area and has been here ever since, working at Trinity College for 11 years in IT roles and at both Pratt & Whitney and Post University in HR positions. Along the way she also earned master’s degrees in Education (from Saint Joseph) and Organizational Psychology (from UHart) and was an adjunct at Capital Community College teaching Intro to Computer. “I love the field of Human Resources,” she says. “It gives me an opportunity to connect with all employees, problem solve, and help drive equity and diversity within the organization.” Married with two children, Waishana loves cooking, dancing, traveling and learning new things -- and it’s that latter affinity that is serving her well these days, because even though she has HR experience it’s always a challenge to start a new venture when things are as busy as they have been in the district these days. "It's been my pleasure to join the team at MPS,” she said. “Everyone I met has been very welcoming. I am excited to be working in a school system that is invested in diversity, student improvement, and family support.”

Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021: Shakir Leacock

Shakir Leacock, YSB Project Program Coordinator

He was heading off to college and not sure what major to choose and while ruminating about the possibilities spent some time binge watching TV shows. That’s when Shakir had an epiphany. “I decided I wanted to be a detective,” he said, citing as inspiration a marathon session watching COPS, the long-running documentary reality legal programming series showing on Spike TV. So began a journey that has led him to Manchester, where a month ago he started working at the YSB, although along the way Shakir found that he enjoys doing work that helps youngsters make good choices and avoid trouble, and isn’t so interested in swooping in after trouble has occurred. Raised in Brooklyn and a standout high school football player, Shakir went to Becker College in Leicester, Mass., where he majored in criminal justice but had a juvenile justice concentration, a tweak he made when he realized that to be a detective he’d likely have to spend years as a police officer first. One of six kids, Shakir’s siblings all still live in the New York metro area but he enjoyed the open spaces near Worcester and has worked hard to establish a foothold. He worked two jobs -- walking to a second-shift job at a Cumberland Farms and then an oversight shift at a Walmarts -- until he had enough money to buy a car. He then worked at a residential school for troubled students and enjoyed it, and after that spent a short time selling insurance -- the latter experience making him realize even more how fulfilling working with youngsters could be. All that led to a move to Connecticut, a stint with the Village of Families and Children and now his job with the YSB. Among his responsibilities, Shakir is chairing the CHANGE Collaborative of Manchester, which works to bring awareness to and address substance abuse issues among young people. He also will be involved in a wide range of other activities and programs. A resident of New Britain, Shakir is still learning his way around Manchester but from what he has seen and heard (and, yes, read on-line) he’s aware that some people complain that the sense of community in town isn’t what it once was. “My personal mission is to try to bring that back,” he says. Heather Włochowski, director of the YSB, said she is thrilled to have Shakir on board. “He’s been with us for just a short period of time but is already making a big difference,” she said. “Shakir’s skills and experience combined with his passion for helping young people make him a great addition to our team.”

Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021: Dennis Quigley

Dennis Quigley, crossing guard

He loves kids and being outdoors and always thought working as a crossing guard would be a terrific way to contribute to his community in a meaningful way after retiring, and so that’s led to this: Dennis spending two hours every morning and 90 minutes each afternoon at the corner of Broad and Windemere streets, hard by Waddell Elementary. “I love the job and it’s everything I’d hoped it would be,” says Dennis, who was raised in South Windsor and attended East Catholic (‘67) then Providence College before working for years in men’s clothing (OK, to clarify: in jobs that included being manager of Stackpole Moore Tryon in Hartford). He and wife Barbara, who spent 30 years as a community health nurse, live in Manchester and have two grown daughters, Brooke and Megan, who also live in town and have kids in the school system. For his first job after retiring, Dennis drove a customer shuttle for a car dealership but then applied for his current position, which he hopes to hold until he’s 80, which is eight years away. His morning shift starts at 7:15 a.m., so he can stop traffic for walkers headed to MHS, where classes start at 7:30. Next come Bennet and Illing students, who catch the bus on his corner (classes at those schools start at 8:15), and then the walkers to Waddell, where the day begins at 9. His afternoon shift runs from 2-3:30 with the same sequence but temperatures typically 10 degrees or so higher. He said the work could be boring at times if you allowed it to be, but he waves at cars and talks to kids and stays outside even on cold days, although guards can retreat to the warmth of their vehicles when possible if they want. “Kids can be shy at first but some become very friendly. I ask a lot of questions, about how their weekend was or how was school or about their favorite sports teams.” He said that it’s also neat to see how much students grow over the summer and in just a few years time. “You almost don't recognize them,” he said, and of some fifth- and sixth-graders “now you’re eye to eye.” Renee Ferron is the district’s crossing guard supervisor, having retired as a detective from the Manchester Police Department after also working patrol, being part of a domestic violence outreach team and teaching DARE. She said the crossing guards are dedicated to the safety and well being of the students (and sometimes taken for granted) and noted that some have been on the job for 20 or more years. Of Dennis, she said he is like so many of the other guards: "Conscientious and personable and a great ambassador for our group."

Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021: Bob Moran

Bob Moran, Manchester Road Race starter

He was nearly trampled seconds after firing the .32 caliber Smith & Wesson starter’s pistol at his first Manchester Road Race start back in the ‘90s, but a police officer grabbed him and threw him over a snowbank to safety. “The cop said he had never seen anyone so scared in all of his years on the force,” says Bob, who learned how to get out of the way quickly, and now angles his way to the sidewalk, deftly avoiding the field of 10,000-plus (most years) runners steamrolling south down Main Street each Thanksgiving morning. Bob has been around track and field for almost six decades, beginning at East Hartford High School (a 1970 grad, he was class president and has organized 12 reunions) where he was part of a relay team that broke the state record in the mile. Bob and his teammates were considered by many the fastest kids in the state while competing in the old Capital District Conference (“the greatest conference ever”), and he continued his running career at Central Connecticut State College. where he graduated with a degree in English. Bob returned to EHHS to coach sprinters for 27 years, then spent several years coaching at Manchester High, where his sons Andy and Will excelled at football and baseball. A Manchester resident since 1984 who has never used a computer (“never even turned one on”) and a life-long Green Bay Packers fan (he and recently retired MHS cross-country coach Mike Bendinski make their way to Lambeau Field every season for a game), Bob has used the same pistol since his first high school meet start back in 1975. “It’s a five-shooter, which they don’t make anymore,” says Bob, adding that “it worked from day one and I stuck with it.” The only time it failed was at the 2018 MRR because of bitter cold, but he blames himself for not keeping the gun warm. It worked fine for the wheelchair race, but didn’t fire at first when he tried at 10 a.m. with runners poised to start. Bob panicked and ran to the side of the street where he removed the pin, rolled the chamber and then stepped back and quickly tried again. The familiar bang started the race “otherwise I would have had to yell, ‘On your mark, get set, go.’” Bob has been a fixture at many state events over the years (including the JI Invitation) cracking jokes with runners, officials and anyone within earshot, but most importantly, keeping the races on schedule. He will turn 70 in January and says he will continue his role as MRR starter as long as the race committee continues to ask him back. “I think they are waiting for me to get run over,” says Bob with his easily recognizable boyish grin. “They are all good people,” adding, “I haven’t met a person on staff I didn’t like and I think we have 600 volunteers -- they are all good eggs.”

Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021: Shelley-Ann Matthews

Shelley-Ann Matthews, Family Resource Center Coordinator at Waddell

Every challenge, every problem, every situation is different for Shelley-Ann and the other FRC coordinators in town (there is one in each of our seven elementary schools) but as she and her colleagues know, the path to progress is usually built on a foundation of good relationships. “That’s the key,” she says, citing as one example the time she reached out to a family that moved to town mid-way through the ‘20-21 school year. “I just called to introduce myself and explain my role and it turns out they had so many questions,” she recalls. “They didn't know what to do, where to go.” Shelley-Ann provided answers and empathy, and that began a healthy connection that continues to pay dividends. The FRC program has the same approach at each of its sites with components that include family engagement; outreach; positive youth development; resources and referrals; and playgroups, with funding coming mostly from sources that include the district’s Alliance Grant. The Waddell position is actually the only state funded FRC with ECHN the fiduciary (a holdover from when it was created at Washington Elementary School more than 20 years ago). As for Shelley-Ann she’s originally from Jamaica, has a BA from Goodwin and a masters from UHart (both in early childhood education) and worked for CRT in Hartford before taking over as the FRC coordinator at Washington in 2018. Washington closed a year later, and her tenure at Waddell has been dominated by dealing with the pandemic, so Shelley-Ann has had an up-close view of how stress impacts families with school children. “I just try to connect and help however I can,” she said. Latasha Easterling-Turnquest, who as the district’s Chief of Family Partnership & Student Engagement oversees the FRC program, says Shelley-Ann “is a tremendous asset to the Waddell community, adding: “She is patient, caring and resourceful. She is a creative and committed problem-solver. Shelley-Ann makes a positive difference every day for so many people.”

Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021: Nate Agostinelli

Nate Agostinelli, veteran, executive, public servant

He was a bank president for 25 years, a distinguished public servant whose resume includes four years as mayor of Manchester and so widely respected and well-connected that he’s met three presidents and a king, but Nate never forgot where he came from -- the West Side of “one of the best towns you are ever going to find.” About those early years: longtime friend and legendary Manchester Herald writer Earl Yost called Nate a “low-scoring guard on the basketball court at the Westside Rec,” which may have been somewhat of a compliment. “I scored practically nothing,” says Nate, whose long career in the military and public service at the local and state level overshadowed his athletic career. His contributions to Manchester and a life dedicated to helping others have been recognized with the renaming of the park at the intersection of Porter and Center streets in his honor. “This is beyond my thinking and was a complete surprise,” says Nate, who aside from military assignments, has lived all of his 91 years in town. Nate attended Washington and St. James schools before graduating from MHS in 1949 and was drafted into the Army in 1951 during the Korean Conflict. He spent two years on active duty, four more in the reserves and retired from the Army National Guard in 1985 as a Brigadier General. In between, he was elected mayor in his first run for office, was the state comptroller under Gov. Thomas Meskill (and is still the only Manchester resident elected to a statewide office), was the president of Manchester Savings Bank for 25 years and was Robert H. Steele’s (son of WTIC radio icon Bob Steele) running mate in the Connecticut gubernatorial race in 1974, losing to his friend (“We spoke Italian together”) Ella Grasso. He has met Nixon, Reagan, Ford and Edward VIII and was often asked to moderate debates because of his reputation for being fair. “People respect me on both sides of the aisle,” said Nate, adding, “When you are bipartisan, you can’t lose.” Nate credits his mother and father, who were Italian immigrants, for bringing him up with values and a work ethic. “My folks didn’t have much because they came in during the Depression and people have said to me that you grew up poor and I said, ‘I was never poor - I had three meals a day and a great place to sleep and got love like I never had.” He noted that his parents, who never swore (a family tradition Nate has retained), were not big on hugging and “throwing kisses like they do nowadays,” but his father always had his back. At the park dedication, close friend and State Senator Steve Cassano said that Nate “has always been a doer” and former Mayor Lou Spaddacini noted “Nate has served so many different roles over the years and always stands out as a leader” while Mayor Jay Moran read a proclamation citing Nate’s determination, hard work and generosity “as a source of inspiration locally and beyond.” So what’s next for Nate? He is looking forward to Manchester’s 200th birthday in 2023 and would like to see his hometown’s past celebrated with an eye on the future.

Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2021: Michael Broome

Michael Broome, Student Engagement Specialist

Chronic absenteeism takes a toll on students and in the 20 months since what we then called ‘the Coronavirus’ arrived, this attendance epidemic that affects schools coast to coast has only gotten worse. Manchester hasn’t been spared but now has a team in place that is focused exclusively on working with families to ensure students are in schools regularly, and Michael says he is thrilled to be among those positioned to make a positive difference in such a critical area. “I enjoy helping people in need,” he said. Raised in town and the oldest of Carl and Sandra’s three children, Michael attended Washington, Illing and MHS (class of ‘08), where he was a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, and track) and played in the orchestra. He then went to Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, N.C. He majored in psychology and minored in criminology thinking he might work as a forensic psychologist but after returning to Connecticut took a job at St. Francis Hospital, holding different positions connected to cardiology, before deciding to make a move so he could work in a mentoring capacity with young people. That led him to Bennet Academy, where he worked for a year as a behavior tech before moving into his current job at the start of this school year. “It’s all about trying to bridge the gap,” he said, referring to the importance of connecting families and students with schools. Michael is assigned to Waddell Elementary and the issues affecting attendance there are pretty much the same as those at schools everywhere else. Health issues (both physical and mental, of both students and parents) can be an impediment. Transportation is another common obstacle, especially for youngsters who live a long walk away but not far enough to be on a bus route. But every situation is different and the work is labor intensive, requiring skills and attributes that include patience and problem-solving. “Michael is doing great,” said Latasha Easterling-Turnquest, who oversees the SES team as part of her responsibilities as the district’s Chief of Family Partnership & Student Engagement. “He is very passionate and is committed to working and building relationships with our students, families and teachers.” Michael has a fun and artistic side (he plays Pedal Steel Guitar) but also a competitiveness that he brings to his job, as he knows how much is at stake for children who are in the early stages of their educational journey. “I am thankful and blessed for those who helped me along the way,” he said, “and I appreciate the opportunity to give back.”

Wednesday. Oct. 20, 2021: Jaime Vega

Jaime Vega, MHS ‘15

Jaime works as a special education paraprofessional but when his day ends at Martin Elementary School he heads back to his alma mater to coach the freshman football team. “Coaching makes me so happy and brings me so much joy,” he said. “I would have no issues running freshmen every year, preparing them for the future. I love it.” Like most coaches, Jaime is a former player and he was a very good one in high school -- a versatile and exciting stand out despite (or maybe because of) his size. There’s a highlight site archived on YouTube ( that captures his speed and fearlessness and also includes his size -- listing Jaime at 5-foot-6 and 147 pounds. “I just love everything about football, the relationships with my peers and coaches, the effort you put in during practice, everything,” says Jaime, who caught 53 catches for 684 yards with 7 TD’s junior year and was on pace to do even better senior year but suffered a season-ending leg injury in the fourth game. Since leaving MHS, Jaime has taken classes at Capital Community College with the goal of becoming a teacher. He has an affinity for special ed students that he traces to his relationship with a cousin who has Down syndrome. “I’ve always just wanted to help make his life as well as everyone else’s easier,” he says. Jaime started working for MELC after graduating from high school and is in his second year as a para and says Martin is like a home. “ I love that place -- the building, everyone in the community, the staff, the students. I love it all.” He lives in Tolland (having purchased a home there with his sister) and travels every few years to Puerto Rico to visit family and says he would someday like to own a daycare center. He also, not surprisingly, turns to football figures when seeking inspiration. Jaime shares the view of Vince Lombardi, who preaches, “There is only one way to succeed in anything and that is to give it everything” and he also admires Roy Roberts, the coach at MHS. “It means the world to me that I’m able to coach at the same school I attended with the same coach who coached me,” Jaime says, adding that Roberts is an outstanding coach and an even better person. The respect goes both ways as Roberts says he is thrilled to still have as part of his team “a hometown student-athlete who comes back to work in our schools to educate, mentor and coach students who walked the same schools and hallways that he did.” Roberts added: "Jamie has been a tremendous role model for our students.”

Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021: Crystal Mata

Crystal Mata, Illing eighth-grader

Illing eighth-grader Crystal is the oldest of Miguel and Maria’s three children, with 7-year-old Kimberly at Verplanck in second grade along with 4-year-old kindergartener Michael. The kids were all born in the United States but mom and dad are from Mexico, both having grown up in San Luis Potosí, a little ranch town about an hour outside of Mexico City. “We try to visit once a year,” said Crystal, noting that the last trip was this summer when they returned for a baptism that was followed by a party. Speaking of which, when it comes to Mexican festivities a lot of people immediately think of Cinco de Mayo, which marks the anniversary of a military triumph over Napoleon on May 5, 1862 and has become a big margarita-fueled deal in the U.S. Much more extravagant in Mexico, though, are Independence Day observations on Sept. 16, which was the day in 1810 when a Catholic priest rang a bell and gave a speech that was the impetus for an 11-year war that ended three centuries of Spanish rule. But back to Crystal: She said the baptism party last summer was enjoyable in part because of the food, which includes lots of chicken mole -- mole being the signature sauce of Mexico, a concoction of chiles, tomatoes, dried fruit, spices and more. “We have it a lot,” said Crystal. “Back here too.” Susan Parra, who is the district’s ESOL coordinator, said she has been impressed by the progress the children have made as English Language learners. Parra said mom and dad try to go to all school events “and I remember when we had parent nights and they were trying to understand how to help their students at home.” Parra’s advice was what she gives to other non-English speaking parents: just do your best helping your children understand material and learn skills in their native language. “That’s most important.” Maritza Lopez, who has TESOL responsibilities at Verplanck (that stands for Teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages), said that during online learning, Crystal was very supportive (helping with technology and more) of her then- first-grade sister. “It is definitely inspiring to see that type of support from siblings.” Mom Maria says the family enjoys living in Manchester because it’s quiet and she feels that people follow the rules for the most part. As for Crystal, she likes it too -- but says she is proud of her Mexican heritage and always will be aware of and connected to her roots.

Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021: Rich Calderone

Rich Calderone, instructional tutor, Verplanck Elementary School

Literally hundreds of thousands of people know what he did -- his account of grabbing a despondent teenager ready to jump from a bridge went viral on TikTok and was followed up a TV interview and newspaper coverage -- but not nearly so many know who he is: a former cop, a gay man, an avid outdoorsman, born in Texas and of Mexican ancestry. Let’s start his story back in Brownsville, a city on the Gulf Coast and right on the Mexican border, so close that as some tell it the hospital straddled both countries but had its maternity ward in the U.S. The youngest boy and sixth of seven children, Rich was 7 when the family moved to Boston, and he lived in Massachusetts (graduating from Boston Public High School in 1979 and earning a degree in sociology and political theory from Westfield State) until moving to CT to take a job with the Hartford Police Dept. After 21 years on the force and retiring as a sergeant, Rich embarked on his second career as an educator. “I was going to be a teacher, but shifted gears in college,'' he says, adding that it was his dad who suggested he go into civil service, then teach as a second career. Education and law enforcement actually merged a bit as Rich spent four years as a commander of the Hartford Police Academy teaching reading and writing skills to adults, followed by four years working internal affairs. “The jobs are similar,” he says of his two vocations. “Teachers don’t believe it, but a lot of police work is what we do here [in school]. Trying to redirect, trying to educate. I was always negotiating, as a police officer, with people to prevent myself or them from getting hurt. How do we do this? That was the key. It’s the same thing here. You have to evaluate the student, what their needs are so the two professions, when they are done right, are so similar.” Rich is candid about his sexuality but that wasn't always so. He’s 60 now but didn’t come out until age 40. “I waited a long time,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s it was a much different time. There were a lot of brave people out there -- I wasn’t one of them.” As for hobbies, Rich enjoys going to the gym, the beach, cycling, hiking ... anything outdoors, which ties into his other retirement job as a Ambassador to the Park for Riverfront Recapture. That’s where he was working when he spotted the teen poised to jump and then held him (as they both cried) until more help arrived. It was traumatic and draining and “I was feeling sick about what happened because I wasn’t ready for it,” said Rich, who took a couple of days off after, but knew that getting back to Verplanck would help him heal. And it has, as he says his students’ “innocence and humor made me feel better.” Staff members roundly praised him for his courage and caring with Principal Omaris Journet adding, “Many will be forever grateful because you saved a loved one's life.”

Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021: Helen Delacruz

Helen Delacruz, ELL-Bilingual Tutor

She was born in the capital city of Lima and loved living in Peru -- during her 18 years there her family lived in each of its three distinct regions, the coast, the highlands and the Amazon jungle -- but after graduating high school Helen reluctantly moved to Connecticut. “I was not interested in coming to the United States.,” she recalls. Her parents were divorced and she had not seen her father in six-or-so years and while he was promising a better life with more opportunity in Connecticut, Helen only knew how much she would miss her friends and family. The first years were rough, as Helen spoke only Spanish and the class she joined for English language learners met just once a week, but she heard that by joining the Navy she could actually be paid as she learned English -- and so she enlisted. After an extended boot camp and time on a base in Norfolk, Virginia, and then the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Helen had the new language down and a GI Bill ticket to college. She ended up at CCSU with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and Psychology and with designs on becoming a Spanish teacher but, by now a mom, took a job as a bilingual tutor at East Hartford Middle School. “I loved it and found my passion,” Helen said of her work with students who, like her younger self, struggled as they navigated a new language. ‘Making connections with families. Helping the kids. It was like I had been in their place. I loved the challenge of reading their minds, helping them assimilate. That had been me.” Helen has been working in Manchester since 2013, first at Martin and then Buckley before moving to Bennet three years ago. She and husband Todd have four children (ages 22, 16, 14 and 7) and for a while also had in their home Helen’s older sister and her son, Diego. They came from Peru in 2013 and soon thereafter Diego, just 13 and always healthy, suffered what appeared to be a leg injury but it led to X-rays and a bone cancer diagnosis. Helen’s nephew died early Christmas morning in 2014. The loss was devastating but the family is deeply faithful and they have started a ministry called Hearts Devoted to Hope ( that is based at their home and property in Hebron. The mission: Support families with children battling cancer or severe muscular disorders. Susan Parra, who is the district’s ESOL coordinator, said Helen is a kind and caring person whose selflessness is apparent whether she is cheering up a child facing a terminal illness or breaking down lessons for a student struggling with English. Said Parra, “She always goes above and beyond.”

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021: Omaris Journet

Omaris Journet, Principal, Verplanck Elementary School

She was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and lived in the nearby mountain village of Maricao but was just 2 years old when her family moved to New York. Still, Omaris is immensely proud of and remains spiritually connected to her native ‘Isla del Encanto.’ That’s Spanish for Island of Enchantment and the phrase captures well the feelings Omaris has for Puerto Rico. “My mom and dad made sure that every day we would embrace our culture,” she says, recalling being raised as a Nuyorican. Spanish spoken at home was one part and there was music and food and traditions of all sorts. Her father was a musician and Omaris grew up happily dancing --- salsa, merengue, bachata, bomba and more -- “because of the influence he had and who he was.” Another favorite memory were parrandas, which is the Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling. Omaris would gather with friends and family for visits marked by song accompanied by guitars and maracas and clapping and dance and food and fellowship and fun. College led her to Connecticut (she has bachelor’s, master’s and 6th-year degrees all from CCSU) and her career has kept her here (after 11 years as a PE teacher she worked as dean of students at Middletown High School and then spent three years as principal of Parkville School in Hartford). She’s been in Manchester just a month now, the new principal at Verplanck, and says she is grateful to have been very much embraced by the community. “I’ve made a lot of connections with families already,” she said, “and the staff have been great.” Yet even as she settles into her new role and routine in Manchester she says she will never forget her roots. She returns to Puerto Rico when she can and in the meantime is enjoying introducing Catalina, her 1-year-old, to her culture. Omaris is raising her to learn Spanish (dad sticks with English) and the house is filled with the music Omaris was raised on while Catalina’s diet includes rice, beans and bacalao and viandas (codfish and boiled roots). “My Puerto Rican heritage is such an important part of who I am,” adds Omaris. “And I could not be more in love with who I am and where I come from.”