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Reaching out to students

Taylor Eisenman, of the Record staff

Go to St. Mary’s Parish every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 3:30 p.m., and you’ll hear the soft crunching of snacks and children melodic speaking Spanish.

These are the sounds of Holy Cross Ministries’ after school program, which works with at-risk Latino students, in grades kindergarten to fifth, helping with homework, as well as providing a host of other activities like folkloric dance, arts and crafts, sports, and even swimming on Monday nights.

Fourth-grader Jorge Martinez said his favorite part of the program is when they get to go swimming. "I’m also learning a lot and get help with my homework, and sometimes we even get to dance," he said.

The idea began six years ago when Sister Mary Ann Pajakowski, an education administrator for Sisters of the Holy Cross, volunteered to do an assessment of after-school programs at Treasure Mountain and Ecker Hill international middle schools.

She found that while white students were studying, Hispanic students were in the cafeteria having a dance party.

Pajakowski decided to help these students form a dance club. People volunteered music, costumes and instruction, and the students got to perform their routine in the Olympics.

As we got to know the families, she said, we saw a need to coordinate an after-school program especially for the Latino community.

Now, with the help of a donated bus, Jackson, and Alma Armendariz, a Holy Cross Promotora, make two trips to St. Mary’s, one with students from Jeremy Ranch Elementary School, and the other with students from Parley’s Park Elementary schools.

"It started out as just a safe environment for the kids. There are not a lot of places that provide transportation," Jackson said. "But now we are more and more aware of their academic needs."

"We want to give them homework support to help them do well in school, and give them opportunities for art and recreation as a way for them to blow off steam," Pajakowski said.

"Many of these kids were born in the U.S., but were still not exposed to English until school," Tim Jackson, the program’s coordinator, said. "It’s important to be integrated, but also nearly as important for them to be able to have a safe, comfortable environment where they feel a sense of community."

Part of the reason Martinez likes the program is that so many of his friends also participate.

It is a place for students to develop interests, as well as learn new physical and social skills that will help them make good choices later on, Pajakowski said.

"This is a setting where they can feel accepted and see that people care about how they do in school," she said. "We have high hopes for them, and we expect them to do well."

As you get to know these kids, Jackson said, you realize their great desire to learn. When asked why she likes the program, Heidy Dejesus, reinforced Jackson’s point by saying, "I like that we do homework. It’s fun."

Jackson said in the beginning, the program was short on volunteers, and sometimes kids would wait for an hour and a half until someone could help them with their homework.

"A lot of homework kids have is meant for parents to help with," Jackson said. "But this is extremely difficult for parents who don’t speak any English."

After snack, the children work for at least 45 minutes on homework. Volunteers help children with math problems, language arts worksheets, and read with them from donated books.

Mary Freer, a retired nurse who has been volunteering since the beginning of October, said she comes because she thinks it is a world-class program that is helping to fill a hole.

Jackson said they have almost as many volunteers as staff now. "Park City is a great place to find help," he said. Holy Cross has a similar after-school program in Wendover, Utah, where they are not as lucky with volunteers.

This year, there are more than 60 children participating in the after-school program. However, the program is not just during school. About three years ago, Holy Cross Ministries formed a partnership with the school district to create a summer program.

This past summer, about 110 kids participated; unfortunately, Holy Cross had to run it without help from the school district. "They didn’t have the funding," Pajakowski explained. "So Holy Cross took the entire thing over, and had to learn how to teach reading."

The community came through with volunteers and donations to help Holy Cross keep the program going. The district was able to provide lunches and reading materials, and is planning on picking up the program again next summer.

Second-grader Vanessa Ortegn said she was in the summer program and is also in the after-school program. "I like it because I get to read and do homework, and I’m getting better at reading," she said.

Jackson works closely with teachers to check on students’ progress and maintain a good rapport with the schools. Pajakowski said she would like to continue some form of partnership with the school district as the program progresses.

After finishing their homework, the students gather in the gym for some group exercise before splitting up for activities. Magali Ochoa teaches folkloric dance. Armendariz does arts and crafts. And when it’s warm enough, Jackson will take the kids on hikes.

The students tug at Jackson’s sleeves wondering when it’s time to go outside. "Once you get to know the kids," he said, "it’s hard not to want to come back and help."


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