City Slickers was founded in 1993 by retired Hartford phys-ed teacher Ruth Fried. She connected students from Burns School in Hartford with Waterbury Middle School students, teaching management and horseback riding at a local farm.
Now the program has expanded, and it’s helping Hartford’s Bulkeley High School students to learn skills and connect with other students at a farm in Terryville, Connecticut.
City Slickers coordinator Gretchen Levitz-Kimball has been running the program at the Hartford school for seven years.
“Initially, we had kids that were just not making it in school, having trouble getting motivated. We found their attendance improved because they had something to look forward to, which was City Slickers,” Levitz-Kimball said. Soon after, they included special needs students and as the school became more diverse, they incorporated immigrant and refugee students as well.
Today, there are 23 languages spoken at Bulkeley. “This year, and last year, we had tremendous influx of applications from new arrivals,” Levitz-Kimball said. Most of the students who are part of the program now have recently moved to the country. “They’re learning English, they’re learning American culture,” she said. “By being on the farm, it allows them a really unique opportunity to interact with their peers in a nonacademic setting which is something — I can’t stress how important it is. It helps build their person; it gives them confidence. It makes them feel like they belong somewhere.”
Students like Cray Moo Taw, 15 and from Thailand, love working on the farm. “It’s my favorite. I clean up the poo,” he said, referring to mucking the horse stalls. Olwich “DeDe” Parisse, a student from Haiti, appreciates the small stipend the students receive, which he uses to pay his phone bill and to buy food. Ninth grader Shafida Kamal said she feels like her friends at City Slickers are a “happy family.” “We don’t just work,” she said. “We help each other and talk. I feel so awkward with people, and scared. With City Slickers program, I feel like I’m going to have a new family.”
Coordinator Gretchen Levitz-Kimball said the school used to run the program three days a week. Now they have enough funding only to do a small spring and summer session. And there’s a waiting list. “I could do five days a week, with 15 students every single day, and I’d still have a waiting list,” she said.
She said the kids rarely miss a day. “Their work ethic is so strong,” she said. “It’s really lovely to see how helpful they are to one another, and there’s a gentler side that’s being brought out from all students, regardless of their culture.”