Program bridges gap for Hispanic youth

Never mind the George Washington and the Brooklyn bridges in New York City or the Golden Gate in San Francisco, no span was busier Thursday morning than El Puente (“the bridge” in Spanish), a unique tutoring program for young Latino students that is held on the third floor of the aging St. Mary Center at Xenia and Steele avenues in East Dayton.

Michael Cerdas, an 11-year-old fifth grader at Eastmont Elementary, was finishing up a brown-faced self-portrait that he had surrounded by words like soccer, basketball, karate, chess and brothers.

Reyna Flores, a 5-year-old with long dark hair and a pink Hannah Montana t-shirt, was practicing how to print her name, while at the next table, Dianna Canaca — a 7-year-old from Honduras with an independent steak but minus two front teeth — read to her tutor.

In the next room, Erick Villanueva also had been reading aloud — Iron Man 3 — and now the Our Lady of the Rosary fourth-grader was making his way through a series of flash cards being handled by tutor Mark Ball, a Wright State grad student from Spencerville.

The lesson was on the prefix “mis,” which had been attached to a series of words that Villanueva rattled off:

“Mistrust…mislead…misdeed.”

Ball nodded: “First he works on reading all the words. Then he figures out what they mean and finally he’ll use them in sentences.”

As for how they all fit together in one compelling narrative that could best be told by Tony Ortiz, who was standing in the hallway outside. But that would involve a painful story Ortiz almost never reveals.

The longtime athletic trainer at Wright State and now the administrative head of the school’s athletic training program, Ortiz is also WSU’s Latino Community Liaison. He recruits Hispanic students and also helps make sure the school has the infrastructure in place to help them once they get on campus.

But the venture that’s closest to his heart is the El Puente Learning Center — with its El Puente tutoring program for young kids and the Camino de Vida dropout prevention program for older students — that he founded with the help of people like Rosa Caskey, Teresa Troyer and Sister Maria Francine Stacy, SND.

Ortiz knows firsthand the worth of a program like this.

He also knows plenty about mistrust, mislead, misdeed.

As he sat in his office, Ortiz talked about growing up one of 13 kids in a poor but hard-working Puerto Rican family that lived on E. 31st Street in Lorain, just four blocks from the steel mill where his father worked.

Asked if that’s where he’d lived his entire childhood, he suddenly got quiet. When he started to speak again, his voice broke and his eyes glistened with tears.

“We lived …,” he said through the welling emotion, “we lived, at first, on the other end of town. But we moved when my brother got drugged.”

His head bowed with the weight of the old memory: “I’ve never talked much about this before.

“I was just in the fourth grade and Jose was in the sixth. We were at the corner store and these guys handed us a 16-ounce Pepsi. I drank just a little, but I didn’t think it tasted right.

“They gave it to my brother and said ‘chug it’ and he did. He drank it all and it affected him badly. I had some affects — hallucinations — but it was real serious with him. He went to the hospital and after that he was institutionalized most of his life. It was terrible. He’s never been the same after that.

“That could have been me just as easily. And what happened to me and my brother could happen to any of these kids if they are out there, too. That’s been part of my motivation for this project. We don’t want kids hanging on the street. We want to keep them out of bad areas. We want them in a positive environment, a family environment, a safe environment.”

And there is no safer, more nurturing place for Latino kids in Dayton than El Puente.

Alyssa Wagner, a 26-year-old University of Dayton grad who has lived in the Dominican Republic, is the coordinator of the El Puente youth program. She is assisted by Emma Lorenzo, the program’s caring family coordinator, who retired after working 31 years with the Social Security Administration in Puerto Rico, is a mother and grandmother herself and is recognized as El Puente’s resident “abuelita” (grandmother), Ortiz said.

“El Puente — I just love the name,” Wagner said. “That’s our mission. We try to be a bridge between the families and the schools. Between the Latin and the American cultures.

“We try to create a place where the kids, and the parents, don’t feel like outsiders. And with us I think they feel like they’re in a place where their culture isn’t just respected … it is cherished.”

Afraid to speak up

While places like Arizona and Georgia have enacted harsh anti-immigrant laws, there are cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., Princeton, N.J., and Dayton with arms — and minds — that far more open when it comes to immigrants.

The Welcome Dayton Initiative is a city resolution that recognizes immigrants as vibrant partners in economic development and stresses that the town will be friendly to them. One place where that’s especially the practice is at the El Puente Learning Center, which not only runs programs with WSU, UD and some community tutors during the school year but has a six-week summer program for 30 students that’s in session now.

“If it wasn’t for a program like this, I wouldn’t be here,” the 58-year-old Ortiz admitted. “When I was growing up my parents didn’t speak English or have any formal education (beyond third grade), so I couldn’t go home from school and get help with my homework.

“There was an after-school program at Sacred Heart Church where I went and people there took an interest in me. A guy from the church, Saul Torres, who worked at the community college came and he pushed me about furthering my education and he came and talked to my parents about it.”

Ortiz ended up at Lorain Community College and eventually went on to Bowling Green State University. After graduation he came home, started his own tutoring program and then got an internship working with the Philadelphia Eagles, who were then led by Wilbert Montgomery, Ron Jaworski and Bill Bergey.

In the early ’80s, Jim Place convinced Ortiz to come to Beavercreek High School as an athletic trainer, a job that four years later led to Wright State.

Attending to the Raiders athletes — and teaching in the classroom — was an around-the-clock job and with a family of his own, as well, Ortiz had little time to expand his role in the Latino community. When he finally retired from the sidelines in 2007, he teamed with Troyer, the English as Second Language coordinator with Dayton Public Schools, Sister Maria, the much respected fixture of the Catholic Hispanic Ministry in Dayton and Caskey to launch El Puente.

Caskey — then Rosa Torres — grew up in a Mexican-American family in Waco, Texas. A college student by 16, she married the late David Caskey, a Fort Hood soldier with East Dayton roots and they soon moved back here.

After facing prejudices when she first got to Dayton in the late 1960s, she became a social activist for Latino issues, eventually got her degree from Central State and has been an early childhood development teacher in Piqua and Xenia.

Drawing on their myriad experiences, the founders of El Puente had some definite ideas on how they wanted to bolster the educational chances of area Latino kids. “They are often afraid to speak up in class or ask a question because they don’t want others to laugh at them,” Caskey said.

“But when they get home with their homework assignments a lot of times their parents can’t help them because they might not have the education or don’t speak the language and can’t tell them if they are reading correctly or enunciating properly.”

While most of the families are citizens, there can be other — and much greater — worries for some youngsters, too.

“We had one little boy in the next room the other day who was near tears because his dad had just been deported and he was afraid he would lose his mom, too,” said Stephanie Leonhardt, a teacher at River’s Edge Montessori School and a Wright State adjunct professor who monitors many of the tutors who work at El Puente. “This little boy said he was afraid every night. These kids have a lot to deal with, so you want this program to be as helpful and welcoming as possible.”

It is, which is why many area Latino families embrace it, as they do this city.

“They see the good hear,” said Caskey. “That’s why families come here, why they want to work here, be educated here and build a community.”

During the school year, both El Puente and Camino de Vida have undergrad students, mostly from Wright State and UD, as tutors, but during the summer session El Puente is guided by WSU grad students — under the direction of intervention program specialist Jim Dunne — many of whom are full-time teachers in the area.

“Just imagine the quality of education these kids are getting,” said Leonhardt. “A little girl here gets 90 minutes a day, three days a week for six weeks with veteran teachers with double degrees. It’s unbelievable really.

“I wish there was something like it for other ESL kids, too. At River’s Edge, for instance, we have students from a lot of different countries — Iraq, Turkey, Nepal, you name it. To get this kind of attention would be fabulous.”

Allowing for dreams

Perla Garcia is an engaging 9-year-old fourth-grader at East Dayton Christian. Taking a break from reading “The Haunted Beach House” to her tutor, Xenia teacher Vivian Hurst, she talked about loving swimming, Animal Planet and how one day she wants to do “water exploring on the seas.”

Her parents are from Mexico. Her dad works at a pair of local restaurants and her mom doesn’t speak English, so she said the El Puente program gives her help she needs:

“I like the tutoring, the games, the computers … everything here.”

That kind of attitude in the program fosters successes big and small.

After a few volunteering Bellbrook High students taught some of the kids chess, Michael Cerdas entered a tournament at Belmont High. And, as he proudly told Anne Watts, the Centerville teacher who serves as his tutor: “I finished fifth … of everybody.”

Ortiz brings up two other students who were part of the Camino de Vida program: “One had come from Mexico and didn’t know a lick of English when he came. He ended up the valedictorian at Belmont. Another was the salutatorian at Ponitz.”

The successes have brought some financial backing, too. Since it opened five years ago, El Puente has received annual grants from the Mathile Family Foundation.

Camino de Vida — which is directed by Max Tokarsky, an Oakwood High and Ohio State grad and former Stivers High Spanish teacher — just had some of its funding renewed when it again landed one of the two national Ford Driving Dreams Through Education grants.

Even so, the budgets are still thin and the programs rely on local donations and money out of Ortiz’s pocket.

“Tony is amazing,” said Leonhardt. “He gets us food, snacks, computers, donations. I don’t know how he does it.”

Ortiz, like almost everyone involved in the program, said what he gives is dwarfed by what he gets in return: “The dividends are immeasurable. To see the kids close the gap with other students in their classrooms, to see them do well and get confidence in themselves, is great to see. We’re preparing these kids for the future. We’re allowing them to really dream.

“Dayton is welcoming. There are some good people out there. And they are helping our kids show how good they can be, too.”

No prefixes this time.

It’s just trust, lead … and deed.

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