‘Love Wins’ Conference Introduces The Ana Grace Project

The Center for Community and Connection at Klingberg Family Centers in New Britain is the centerpiece of the Ana Grace Project, explained Nelba Marquez-Greene on Monday this week. She is the mother of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, one of 20 first grade students who perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School 12/14.

Along with her husband, Jimmy Greene, and their son, Isaiah, she hopes that a desire to create a culture of increased quality of life, loving, empathic communities, and loving community and interpersonal connections to reduce violence will draw great numbers to the center’s inaugural initiative next month.

“Love Wins — A Conference Promoting Love, Community and Connection For Every Child and Family” takes place Monday, December 2, from 8 am to 5:30 pm, at the University of Hartford, the alma mater of both Mr Greene and Ms Marquez-Greene. The cost is $150, which includes lunch and reception. All proceeds benefit the Ana Grace Project. CEUs (continuing education units) are available.

“We are acutely aware that [Ana’s] death brought lot of attention to us and to our town,” said Ms Marquez-Greene. But there are children all over the United States, every day, who are victims of violence, she said.

“When I say ‘reduction of violence,’ I mean it’s all over, not just mass shootings. It’s about how trauma, loss, and grief are looked at in every community. Where are the support systems in communities across the nation — worldwide?” she asked.

 When trauma occurs in an urban center, she noted, it can manifest as truancy or delinquency, “which is really unprocessed trauma.” Ms Marquez-Greene is a licensed family and marriage therapist.

It is to this end that the family has partnered with Klingberg to develop a place where professionals, community members, and anyone who interacts with or has children can find the tools and knowledge to build connections “that will enable love to win,” Ms Marquez-Greene said.

At Klingberg Family Centers, where Ms Marquez-Greene was working at the time of the shootings, and at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where Mr Greene is a professor of music, the Marquez-Greene family received “quiet support.”

“We knew that people would want to honor the lives lost by financial giving,” said Ms Marquez-Greene, even in those first days following 12/14. “It was us, in the depth of our pain, thinking ‘How do we bring some good from this?’” that became the impetus for creating the Ana Grace Project.

“We want to do something here, and with the Klingberg resources and its reputation, it seemed like a good fit, the more we talked,” she said. “Her father and I have put this together in honor of Ana. She was a well-connected child, something we think more people could be,” said Ms Marquez-Greene.

Collecting And Distributing Knowledge

The Ana Grace Project is a division of Klingberg Family Centers, explained Klingberg CEO and President Steven A. Girelli, and is a means to collect knowledge and disperse it through existing programs at Klingberg and similar centers.

As an example, Mr Girelli said that the Ana Grace Project might be used to fund clinics that provide mental access to the poor, so that more outreach can be done; or expand resources to better meet the needs of the impoverished. The project might identify a need that is not currently met through clinical programs in the state, and work to develop such a program, he said.

The Center for Community and Connection is not a brick and mortar institution, said Mr Girelli, but is part of the Ana Grace Project. The center, he said, is made up of four components: research, public policy (such as providing information to legislators to assist them in making decisions related to mental health needs), professional development, and community building. It is a set of resources and an entity to bring resources together and make them available to all, Mr Girelli clarified. “It’s a set of skills and knowledge that we will be sharing,” he said.

The conference on December 2 is not designed solely for mental health professionals, he stressed, but welcomes all who are interested in changing culture and building connectivity on all levels. “We want [the conference] to be quite inclusive,” said Mr Girelli.

The goal of The Center for Community and Connection, said Mr Girelli, and one which is important to the Marquez-Greene family, is that through a variety of interventions, people in need may gain access to mental health care, build interpersonal connections, “and strengthen communities, on as small a level as a neighborhood to congregations to as large as a town or city.”

Keynote speaker at the December 2 conference will be Dr Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Reducing Isolation

Love, connection, and compassion are all vital means of creating a culture disinclined to violence, and are key components of the Ana Grace Project, said Ms Marquez-Greene, but not because she and her family believe that these are qualities utterly lacking locally or worldwide.

“I think that Dr Perry will address that there are a number of things in our society that can erode that buffer [of love, connection, and compassion],” she said. The number of hours children spend on electronics each day, the amount of planned activities in which so many children participate, are two examples she said, of ways in which families spend less time “really connecting.”

As important as building on these values is paying attention to reducing isolation, which is not to be confused with those seeking privacy, Ms Marquez-Greene stressed.

“A lot of people are doing research [about these same needs] and writing about it. I am hoping that Dr Perry will address this at the conference, such as what kinds of things are appropriate for kids. I think there is a swell now, of people wanting to get back together, for an attachment to community and family,” she said.

Referring to information shared by Dr Perry, Ms Marquez-Greene pointed out that 50 years ago, every child could find four additional, caring adults — outside of their parents — to mentor and watch over him or her. “Now, many families are lucky if there is one adult for four kids. Children don’t have the same support networks [today],” she said.

“The focus of his talk, I believe, will be love, loss, and healing, and how to grow healthy kids; how to be there for kids when no one else is,” Ms Marquez-Greene said.

Underscoring the approach favored by the Marquez-Greene family and that of the center — building on love, compassion, and connection — said Mr Girelli, is that many acts of desperation develop out of unmet mental health needs, “and isolation and disconnection from those around us.” While the vast majority of those suffering from mental illness never become violent, he said, “In most cases [of acts of desperation], there was something to be noticed that was overlooked. My vision is that people will not find themselves in desperation due to isolation. The natural state of ours is to live in connection.”

Measuring Success

The success of the Center for Community and Connection will be difficult to measure, said Mr Girelli, but one means might be if down the line, the number of people seeking services feel meaningfully connected to family and community, which is often now not the case. A reduction in the kinds of desperate acts such as generated by Adam Lanza, he said, and which reflects an isolation from community, may be another means of tracking success.

Ms Marquez-Greene sees the future of the Center for Community and Connection as being one of “taking, learning, and sharing in your environment, wherever that is, a gathering place,” where people will commit to love and share ideas and experiences. Her family will be involved “hands on,” she said. “This was born out of what we do, the many things we do in honor of Ana.”

The conference on December 2 will be a means of disseminating information about mental health and related issues, as broadly as possible, said Mr Girelli.

Conference participants will choose from one of six breakout sessions in the afternoon: Teaching and Learning With Compassion; Community Connections: A Public Health Approach to Treating Adversity; What’s Zip Code Got To Do with It? The Human Cost of Unmet Mental Health Needs in Our Cities; Creating Compassionate Communities; Mental Health First Aid: Mobilizing the Public to Respond Effectively to Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness; or Circle of Security: Parenting to Transform Families and Communities, each led by experts in their fields. What’s Zip Code Got To Do With It? includes a performance piece on gun violence.

Ana’s father, jazz musician Jimmy Greene, has gathered noted musicians Latanya Farrell, Jennifer Allen, Nat Reeves, Jonathan Barber, and Steve Davis, as well as the Prelude Choir, Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and the Artists Collective Dance Ensemble to add harmony to the day’s celebration of his daughter’s life. Ana found joy in music, food, and dance, and all will be part of the day’s programming.

“At the end of the conference day, we want to solicit from every attendee a commitment to one concrete activity to further the Ana Grace Project,” Mr Girelli said.

The Greatest Challenge

The greatest challenge Ms Marquez-Greene anticipates in furthering the Ana Grace Project is that of staying funded. “That’s always an issue. Great ideas take finances to put together,” she noted.

At the service for Ana Grace last winter, Ms Marquez-Greene said, there was a wealth of diversity and unity that was wonderful.

“I’m really excited to see the diversity this gathering is attracting, and am hoping for that same kind of unity at the conference,” Ms Marquez-Greene said. “It reflects Ana’s life quite beautifully.”

The “Love Wins” conference unites the resources of the Klingberg Family Centers, the University of Hartford, Central Connecticut State University, Western Connecticut State University, and Dr Bruce D. Perry. Early in the planning, Stanley Black & Decker stepped forward as the major business sponsor of the conference and supported the establishment of the Ana Grace Project. Siracusa Moving and Storage became involved as a Scholarship Sponsor, enabling Klingberg Family Centers’ program staff and families from Sandy Hook the opportunity to participate, according to information provided by Andrea Obston Marketing Communications.

Registration for the conference is on a first come, first served basis. To register, or to donate, visit www.AnaGraceProject.org. Deadline for registration is Friday, November 22.

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