Saturday, May 08, 2021

Person of the Week

Becky Cuevas: A Focus on Family

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Experience helping family led Becky Cuevas to where she is today, leading ACES Head Start in Middlesex County. Photo courtesy of Becky Cuevas

Experience helping family led Becky Cuevas to where she is today, leading ACES Head Start in Middlesex County. (Photo courtesy of Becky Cuevas )

Becky Cuevas’s concern for struggling families has deep roots. A native of New Haven, Becky was around 15 years old when she became an advocate for members of her own large and close-knit family, many of whom had come to Connecticut from Puerto Rico and weren’t fluent speakers of English.

Her aunts “started taking me in my teens to planning and placement team meetings and medical appointments,” she says. She helped translate what they didn’t understand, ask questions they needed answers to, and found herself growing familiar with the mazes they were tentatively navigating their way through.

Over time, “I built a small network of not just family, but close community members, where I was representing them, even at that age, and learning about a very intimidating process in schools and even with healthcare,” she explains.

In addition to providing help to those who needed it, these experiences opened doors for her. She began working in schools, which led her in the direction of working with children with special needs.

“I worked with the regional education service centers, which [are] part of the Connecticut Birth to Three program, and really became knowledgeable then about child development and family advocacy,” she says.

“But it started with family, being that person that my family trusted to share and represent them,” she recalls. “I learned about the systems that were in place that often had a lot of barriers for people that couldn’t speak...or understand the language.”

One of her cousins had significant developmental disabilities.

“It was...difficult for my aunt and uncle to accept what was happening,” she says. Making it even more difficult for them was “not knowing what were the services available for their child” and how to get those services.

“I walked through that entire process with them,” she continues. “Eventually [her cousin] entered an ACES school...And she ended up being in ACES for 14 years. My cousin is now a grown woman. She’s in her 30s and doing very well and thriving.”

A Leader for Early Childhood Education

Area Cooperative Educational Services—ACES—is the regional educational center for New Haven County. It operates magnet and special education schools and is part of the Open Choice program that allows urban children to attend schools in suburban districts and vice versa.

In Middlesex County, ACES has offered Head Start and Early Head Start programs for 10 years now. Becky was a member of the team that implemented those programs and earlier this year was appointed ACES Head Start director.

Working with the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) and other partner organizations, including Grace Episcopal Church in Old Saybrook, Becky oversees these early childhood education programs in Hartford and Middlesex Counties. The programs are the result of a $9.1 million federal grant awarded to CREC.

Clinton, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook are three of the six Middlesex County communities the program serves. The others are Middletown, Cromwell, and Portland.

“We do a community assessment every five years, where we identify where the greatest needs are,” Becky explains. “We look into housing, income, demographics all around, and that informs us as to where our families will be best served.”

Finding the families that really need these services is a lot of work.

“We found that in those communities, you have to spend a lot of time building trust there,” she says. “Because a lot of our families are not out there looking for services.

“We will go to the WIC [Women, Infants, Children] offices,” she says. “We will also go to the doctors’ offices, libraries, soup kitchens, because we also prioritize families who experience homelessness, are in foster care, or receive public assistance.”

ACES staff attends fairs and events, getting out into the community to let families know about their services.

“The schools have been great and [are] sharing our information, as well,” Becky says.

Early Head Start is a birth to three program that also offers services to expectant families. Staff members travel to clients’ homes, working closely with families and emphasizing parents’ roles as their children’s first and most important teachers.

“In our Early Head Start, we have a very large population that is homeless,” she explains. “And we also have a number of families that live in a residential facility,” some of whom are in recovery from substance addiction.

“In Middletown there is a particular [rehabilitation] facility that lets you stay there with your child,” she continues. “We are able to work with [parents] very early on, on understanding child development, and finding mechanisms in which they can continue to be successful.”

ACES helps these parents find “employment, housing, [and helps] to build a support system for those families...So our home visitors become a very strong link for that family in getting those resources,” Becky explains.

“Transportation has always been a huge barrier for a lot of families to be successful,” she says.

This is particularly acute in many towns in Middlesex County.

“So we’re always trying to strategize. How do we get services to them,” she says, “whether it’s libraries, whether it’s accessing health care or getting a dental exam...Visiting staff play a real role in making those connections with families.”

Grace Episcopal Church has offered space for family group activities, called “socializations, in which we extend what’s happening at the home through the curriculum and the learning,” Becky says. “We bring those families together on site.”

The church has “been phenomenal,” she continues. After their meeting, “our families can go up to the soup kitchen, and they get to eat after their socialization experience.”

Grace Episcopal has “supported us from for many years, supported our families and offered them resources, extra food, food from their community garden in the back, as well,” she says. “And we are grateful. We’re successful because of a lot of those relationships in the community.”

Head Start classes for children from three to five years old are held at the American Legion in Clinton. Opening day this year was delayed to Sept. 17 because of the pandemic.

“[W]e needed to ensure that all the proper protocols [were] in place—social distancing—and we hired all new staffing in late August,” she explains. We had “a very small window of time to hire staff and open classrooms and organize them in a way that look fun and inviting. We wanted it to be a welcoming experience.”

Services are free to families.

“What you would have to do is go through an eligibility and determination process,” she says. “We use the federal income guidelines to help us determine” who is eligible for services. “[T]hose are federal requirements that prioritize families in need, and also in those categorical areas of homelessness, foster care, and public assistance.”

A Focus on Family

Becky lives in East Haven, but will always regard New Haven as home.

“I grew up in New Haven, on pizza and Foxon Park soda—big family and a strong community,” she says.

And while she helped members of her family through difficult times, she credits them with doing the same for her.

“I know that there were a lot of people rooting for me when I was growing up,” she says. And the “events in my own life were very traumatic at times. But those people that extended support gave me a lot of motivation that helped me to understand many of the families” her organization serves.

She worked her way through an undergraduate program at Albertus Magnus College and later earned a master’s in social work from UConn.

“I got married young, I’ve been married for 30 years,” she says. “My husband and I have two wonderful children in their 20s.”

Her successes “I share with all the people that are here with me, because I certainly couldn’t have done this alone.”

Her abuela, or grandmother, “was a huge influence in my life,” she says.

“[S]he would keep an apartment [in New Haven] between four to six months a year...and then she would stay in Puerto Rico during the winter months,” Becky says. “We had the luxury of having our abuela half of the year, almost every year.

“I think that love and nurturing is what helps us to understand that caregivers, those very, very consistent relationships in your life and children’s lives, really help” turn things around when they’re not going so well, she continues.

“I’m very proud of [my abuela],” she says. “I’m proud of folks like my aunt and uncle, who...were instrumental in opening a lot of doors for me because of their own personal situation.”

One of the things that nurture her after a long work week is hiking.

“I love cooking and spending time with my family,” she says. It’s important to have “that peaceful disconnect on weekends of just enjoying my family.”

While her children are her pride and joy, she usually manages to sneak mention of her chihuahua, Zoe, into conversations, she says with a wry laugh.


Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at a.luria@shorepublishing.com.

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