youth programs in hartford, connecticut

Elizabeth’s Story: Lessons in Leadership and Summoning her Personal Power

Elizabeth Giannetta-Ramos grew up in the south end of Hartford, Connecticut, during the nineties, an era when the state’s capital was riddled with crime, gang wars, and gunfire.

With her home in Hartford, Elizabeth attended private school in West Hartford. In hindsight, she considers her childhood the best of both worlds — she had her friends from the city and her friends from school spread out across several suburban towns.

“Growing up in the nineties in Hartford was both great and scary,” Elizabeth revealed.

“Coming back into Hartford from school one day, we were with one of the best bus drivers, Ms. Izzy. She was getting ready to turn onto Fairfield Ave. — it’s crazy how I remember it like it was yesterday — and two cars racing toward us started shooting at each other,” she shared.

“Before they even got close to us, Ms. Izzy had us all duck as close to the bus floor as possible, and she took off. When she got to the next corner, she stopped the bus and checked on every one of us.

“We were all shaken up, but Ms. Izzy dropped each of us off at our homes and spoke to every parent. And that’s just one story showing how violent the city was at 3:30 when kids were getting out of school.”

“We couldn’t walk to the corner store or the nearest Boys & Girls Club because we would be walking through gang territory,” Elizabeth added.

“It wasn’t safe — not only for kids but also our parents, grandparents, teachers, and police officers.

“Over the years, I realized that I was blessed to get out of the city to go to a great school, but many of my friends that I grew up with didn’t have that option. For the hours I was in that suburban town, I felt safe, and my friends in Hartford 100% deserved a place where they felt safe too.”

A life-altering assembly

Not wanting to be a bystander to the devastation happening beyond his front door, Elizabeth’s father was an active advocate for the betterment of his community.

In the spring of 1995, Mr. Giannetta planned to attend a Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) meeting in the basement of Saint Augustine Church.

“My dad walked into my room one night and asked me to go, and I didn’t want to go,” Elizabeth disclosed.

“I was 15 years old at the time, but he said, ‘Ellie, I need you to come with me,’ so I did.”

During the neighborhood meeting, fear was the tone of the room — fear for the residents, and fear for the children playing outside.

“I didn’t start paying attention until one woman started complaining about ‘young people destroying the neighborhood’ and ‘not having any respect,’” Elizabeth told.

As accusations continued to fill the room, Elizabeth stood up, asserting that there wasn’t anything in the area for the local kids to do. Next, an older woman challenged Elizabeth.

“Well then, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!” the woman blurted.

“I WILL!” Elizabeth responded with conviction.

“I was pretty sassy in my response to her,” Elizabeth recalled.

“But I was not going to let her talk about my friends like that, and I wouldn’t sit back and let her think all young people didn’t care about their community. I stood up for every young person in Hartford that evening.”

The creation of COMPASS

After the HART meeting, Elizabeth made good on her pledge to “do something about it.” And, at 15, her passion for organizing began by going door to door garnering support for a safe space for the kids in her neighborhood.

“I got together with six other teens in Hartford. We rallied, went to City Hall meetings, and surveyed 600 kids, asking them what they wanted after school,” Elizabeth detailed.

After being denied their initial request for a roller skating rink, Elizabeth and her friends received funding from the city for a community space — and in September of 1995, the Southend Knightriders Youth Center began.

“It was our space to be kids, it was our space to have fun, and it was our space to not have to worry about what was going on outside.

“We started very small in the basement and gym of Saint Augustine school, but now we’ve grown into COMPASS Youth Collaborative, an amazing non-profit violence prevention organization that’s been around for over 25 years,” Elizabeth beamed.

As the Director of Partnerships for COMPASS, Elizabeth is referred to affectionately by her COMPASS kids as “Ms. Liz.”

Now a three-million-dollar agency with more than 60 employees, COMPASS shares a vision for youth to feel secure in their community, live peacefully, and have the opportunities that help them reach their full potential.

“I can say I work with some of the most resilient and relentless individuals in the city of Hartford,” she radiated.

Former youth from the COMPASS program have gone on to become business owners, community activists, doctors, social workers, and teachers.

A family calling of community service

With strong leadership talents evident at an early age, Elizabeth credits her father for her work ethic and loyalty.

“My dad’s dedication to his employer became clear to me when he had his first stroke in 2015. His company and colleagues took up a collection to help cover his rehab and basic needs. When I walked into the office, everyone told me how much they loved my dad and how his commitment to the company was something that just doesn’t exist anymore.

“I’m also loyal,” Elizabeth noted.

“Twenty-six years at one organization is pretty unusual, especially when you started working there at 15.”

And like clockwork, just as Elizabeth saw her father lift his community, Elizabeth’s 14-year-old daughter, Madison, watches on as her mom carries the torch to strengthen her community.

“Madison grew up in the program as an ‘unofficial’ COMPASS kid,” Elizabeth expressed.

“When she was younger, she loved going to my office and hanging out with ‘my other kids.’ Now that she is older, my daughter is involved in her church youth group, where they do various service learning projects throughout the city. Just recently, she was awarded the Service Award at her eighth-grade promotion.”

Networking to new possibilities

One night, Liz attended an event hosted by her former COMPASS coworker, Iran Nazario, for his new non-profit, Peace Center of Connecticut. While networking around the room, Liz spoke to Dr. Matt Connell, Goodwin University’s Business Administration program director.

“I was blown away by Liz’s compassion and what she had created at 15,” Dr. Connell acknowledged.

“She’s just one of those people who can walk into a room and, in an authentic way, figure out how to come to peoples’ levels. So, Goodwin’s Master’s in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) program seemed like a natural fit for her.”

Dr. Connell told Elizabeth that he wanted to connect her with Dr. Sandi Coyne-Gilbert, Goodwin’s MSOL program director. After hearing snippets of Elizabeth’s story, Sandi contacted her that same night.

“Sandi is one of the most dynamic women I’ve ever met,” Elizabeth insisted.

“When she spoke to me, I felt like nothing else was on her mind except the conversation at hand. The moment I met her, I knew that Goodwin was the place for me.”

Interested in learning more about Elizabeth’s education in leadership?  Click here to read about Liz’s MSOL experience!