Jumoke Academy in Hartford traded school bells for barks Wednesday as several four-legged guests took part in a very special and very big reveal.
Jumoke 7th grader Omarion Heaven and "Blitz," a 3-year-old search and rescue dog
For five years, Jumoke has partnered with the Tails of Hope Foundation, Inc. and their Young Ambassadors K9 Career Program, or “YAP,” which aims to educate young people about the various careers of working dogs. The program includes a STEM-focused curriculum, as scholars learn not only about the dogs themselves, but about the engineering behind the agility equipment required to train them.
Throughout the year, members of the Hartford Police Department’s K9 unit visited regularly with the team of Jumoke 7th graders. Linda Blick, CEO of Tails of Hope Foundation, Inc., says one major goal of the YAP program is to help bridge the gap between police and the communities they serve, something that is extremely important in a community like Hartford.
Linda Blick and "Casey" along with Jumoke scholars
“When we first started, the students were actually afraid of the police or of their presence,” she says. “Then after they got to know the police, they were like, ‘Yay, the police are here!’ Some of the students who weren’t even in our class would come in after class to meet the K9’s and their presenters. We thought that was really wonderful.”
Jumoke scholar Aidan Marquis gets a hug from "Zuma"
Detective Steve Citta and K9 “Cabot,” as well as Officer Greg Dzierzgowski and K9 “Cyrus” of the Hartford Police Department were at Wednesday’s event, and also noted the growth they’ve seen in the scholars since earlier in the year. Both stressed the importance of community building through the YAP program, and how it helps young people to become more comfortable both with dogs and with the police.
“It shows we are just people. We are not these big, scary guys. We can have a conversation,” Ofc. Dzierzgowski said, adding, “It’s cool to see the kids caring about the dogs.”
Puppy love! K9 "Cabot" gets cuddles from Jumoke scholars as Det. Citta looks on
Denieke Campbell, a Jumoke scholar and participant in the YAP program, said that while she wasn’t afraid of dogs, many of her classmates initially were. She says together, they’ve all grown to love the dogs which she described as “adorable and so, so cute.”
“What I like about this program is that it lets you express yourself and how you feel about dogs,” Denieke says. “It helped me get to know dogs, and I learned that dogs that don’t know you – you can get to know them.”
“I admit, I was scared of dogs and still am a little bit,” added fellow participant Christian Wolliston. “But through the YAP program, I was able to get over it.”
Det. Citta (l) and Ofc. Dzierzgowski (r) chat with Jumoke scholars
Blick says that while many YAP alumni have gone on to pursue education and careers in the animal sciences, the overall goal of the program is to inspire compassion, as well as provide a new kind of experience for the students.
“We don’t expect every student who comes to the program to pick K9’s, but we do interlace animal welfare and responsible ownership,” she says. “We hope at minimum, they will learn compassion and at a maximum, perhaps select a career or do volunteer work.”
Jumoke scholar Kennedy Walker and "Casey"
Typically, the equipment used to train these dogs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But thanks to a host of generous community partnerships, as well as some STEM know-how on the part of Jumoke students, YAP participants not only constructed a brand new set of agility equipment from the ground up -- they can now donate that equipment to the Hartford Police Department to help train new K9’s.
“We’re looking forward to using this equipment as another way to help keep you safe in the city of Hartford,” Det. Citta said at the unveiling.
"Zephyr" takes a running leap through the agility equipment under handler Trudy Paquin's guidance
The YAP program is one of several innovative programs in place at public charter schools throughout Connecticut. In exchange for increased accountability to the state, public charter schools are granted increased flexibility in curriculum and program offerings -- paving the way for something like a YAP program to exist and serve some of our state’s most marginalized communities.
“We’re very committed to Jumoke,” Blick said. “The school is very flexible about trying new programs. I think it’s very visionary and forward thinking of the school."
Jumoke scholars Matthew Davis and Kennedy Walker
State Sen. Doug McCrory of Hartford also had great things to say about the program and about the scholars at Jumoke.
“It’s always great to give back, but also to learn in the process. What you’re doing will not go unnoticed,” Sen. McCrory said addressing the scholars. He encouraged them to continue to help and give back to their community, and said that as they do, he will “make sure great things shine down on you.”
Sen. McCrory plans to welcome Jumoke scholars to the State Capitol in Hartford later this month to recognize them for their hard work on the YAP program.
Sen. McCrory (top/left) with Jumoke scholars, YAP participants and sponsors
The YAP program was made possible through nearly two dozen community partnerships, including The Home Depot in Wallingford, as well as Antigua Home Services, LLC which provided free contracting services to help construct the agility equipment.
The program also was made possible through the generosity of the Joan Angela D'Alessandro Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that supports programs which promote child safety and protection. Founder Rosemarie L. D'Alessandro started the nonprofit after the tragic death of her 7-year-old daughter Joan more than 40 years ago.
Rosemarie L. D'Alessandro (c) speaks with Jumoke scholars Abigail Williams (l) and Natalee Steele (r)
“I think (Joan) is looking around and looking down at all of you and saying, ‘God bless everybody,’” she said, adding, “each of you can be inspired to make the world better, even if it’s in one small area.”
"Zuma" and "Zephyr" strike a pose after showcasing their agility skills
Click here for more photos from Wednesday's event!
WATCH: Learn more about the Tails of Hope Foundation's YAP program (via Jumoke Academy on YouTube)