“The Hope Business” Gets A $1 Million Boost

 Carlton Highsmith, with Margot Copeland, Erik Clemons and members of the KeyBank team. Jeff Hubbard is standing in the suit and purple tie. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Carlton Highsmith, with Margot Copeland, Erik Clemons and members of the KeyBank team. Jeff Hubbard is standing in the suit and purple tie. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

A new partnership in Newhallville is carrying with it not only a “full one million dollar check,” but a promise to stick around, embed in the community, and help address unemployment and underemployment head on. 

It comes from the KeyBank Foundation, a relatively new name in the neighborhood. Wednesday afternoon, the foundation announced a three-year, $1 million grant to the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) to support its core programs in phlebotomy, medical billing and coding, and the culinary arts. Close to 100 of the city’s nonprofit leaders and elected officials attended the event. (Check out State Rep. Robyn Porter’s Facebook video below.) 

ConnCAT was founded in 2012, as a job and workforce training center for New Haveners who found themselves out of work, or in dead-end, minimum wage positions. After anchoring the center with a medical focus, President and CEO Erik Clemons introduced the culinary arts, with a large test kitchen that fits a cohort of around 20 students each year, in 2015. Together, the programs serve 300 students on a 15,000 square foot campus on Winchester Avenue. The center’s annual operating budget is $1.9 million.

 Copeland: “We have to count on our partners in the community, and we are looking for partners like this.”

Copeland: “We have to count on our partners in the community, and we are looking for partners like this.”

That solid focus in “the hope business,” as ConnCAT Board Chair Carlton Highsmith calls it, is what drew KeyBank to find out more about the program, and ultimately award ConnCAT its first grant in the area. Last year, Foundation CEO and Chair Margot Copeland met with Clemons to hear about the program in New Haven. 

Then he visited her in Cleveland, where she is based, and continued the conversation. Copeland found herself thinking that the center was “a testimony to all that is important to us.” The grant seemed like the only logical next step. 

“We have to count on our partners in the community, and we are looking for partners like this,” she said. “This [grant] is the first announcement we are making—but let me assure you, this won’t be the last.”

The grant comes as the Cleveland-based foundation deepens its $16.5 billion National Community Benefits Plan, an outgrowth of KeyBank’s purchase of First Niagara Bank in 2015. Over five years, the plan is designed to reach out into communities “where there is need,” said KeyBank Spokesperson Karen Crane.    

 Clemons: The future is the most joyful and scary [thing] at the same time. 

Clemons: The future is the most joyful and scary [thing] at the same time. 

Throughout the afternoon, invited speakers toured ConnCAT’s upstairs phlebotomy labs and computer stations, lauding the organization for its work as KeyBank Market President Jeff Hubbard presented Clemons with a large pasteboard check for “a full million dollars.”

“Let’s talk about giving young women and men the ability to succeed,” said State Labor Commissioner Scott Jackson. “That’s what ConnCAT is about.” 

He recalled riding his bike up and down Winchester Avenue as a teenager, when he was working retail in New Haven and still used two wheels to get to and from work. “It was a touch stretch,” he said. “But these are lives that families live every day, that children live every day … this is a program that our children deserve.” 

As students from ConnCAT’s culinary program handed out tiny spring rolls, herb-flecked puffs of bread, vegetable salads and tartines, Clemons stood to take the mic, inviting the ConnCAT team to join him at the front of the room. 

“They believe that transformation can happen,” he said of the team, arcing in a wide sort of semicircle around him. “They believe people can achieve things greater than the possibilities of their life.”   

“Because of the success of this organization, the future is the most joyful and scary [thing] at the same time,” he said after the event, thinking on how the grant might affect next steps. “Scary in the sense that a lot of people depend on us, because we keep our promise. There is a monetary help, but even more important, there is a relationship that’s transformative.”