Our Piece of the Pie program expands to Norwich

Jinelle Hooker, center, supervisor of Pathways in Eastern Connecticut, says a few words Tuesday during the grand opening of the new Our Piece of the Pie facility in Norwich.

Norwich - A 16-year-old girl in state foster care arrived at the new program, Our Piece of the Pie, shy and hesitant on whether this career training, college preparatory program could work for her.

"Once she came out and saw the art things, that's when I saw the smile," program art teacher Anna Savage said of the girl.

That was in June. On Tuesday, that girl - who can't be identified because she is in foster care - helped welcome about 30 visitors to the new center at the grand opening of Our Piece of the Pie's new eastern Connecticut facility. She showed off the ceramic bird feeder in the shape of an apple core that she had designed and made and talked about how she wants to study art and become a sign language interpreter for the deaf.

The Hartford-based agency was awarded a three-year state contract through the Department of Children and Families to provide a wide range of services to 35 eastern Connecticut youths between the ages of 14 and 19 to prepare them for jobs or college. The agency has leased the former River Run Nursery building and greenhouse for its eastern Connecticut office, classrooms, a computer lab and a large youth center that now occupies the greenhouse on Otrobando Avenue.

Since June, 12 youths have enrolled in the program, referred by their social workers or other sources. They were prepared to host Tuesday's grand opening with an array of artwork, thank-you cards they had made, and by serving cupcakes arranged in the shape of giant pie pieces. One teenager played guitar and another sang a song his father had composed.

"When I call you for internships and job placement, I want you to remember us," said Jinelle Hooker, supervisor of the agency's Pathways program in eastern Connecticut, to the audience of local business representatives and city leaders.

Victor Harley, the employment and youth development specialist at the center, will be making those calls. Harley recently attended a local job fair to promote the program. He said he plans to form partnerships with entities such as the local chambers of commerce, the Eastern Workforce Investment Board, local colleges and businesses.

Harley also hopes to set up workshops for businesses representatives to explain how their companies and their professions work.

Bob Rath, president and chief executive officer of Our Piece of the Pie Inc., said this is the agency's first expansion beyond the Hartford area, where the Pathways program serves 150 youths. DCF sought bids to serve the expansive eastern Connecticut region.

The initial contract calls for serving 35 youths, but Rath hopes the agency can show good success and expand to serve more state foster care youths and other youths enrolled in local programs, including Norwich Youth and Family Services and United Way-funded programs.

"We want to build the network of people and find ways to reach out to more young people," Rath said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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