You certainly don't need to be a mountain man to be a "tracker." Volunteers at the Guadalupe Center are expert modern-day trackers but instead of stalking elusive fur-bearing animals, they seek to help the children they tutor develop good vocabularies and smooth reading skills. Rather than being rewarded with an expensive pelt, the volunteers at the center find their reward in the beaming faces and increased self-esteem they see in the children who are struggling to overcome poverty and illiteracy.
The Guadalupe Center was originally begun by Father Jerald Merrill and the Catholic Church in the early 1970s. While the majority of patrons have been Hispanic, Southeast Asian refugees as well as people from China, Poland and the Soviet Union have been helped. The Voluntary Improvement Program has helped the adult refugees develop their English and working skills.The Guadalupe Early Learning Center takes at-risk children who often cannot understand the alphabet or recognize their name in print. About 65 children are currently enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade classes that feature small class size and personal instruction.
The center now receives more than half of its funding from community donations along with assistance from the United Way, Salt Lake School District and the Salt Lake District Nutrition Program. Some of the community's churches also support this effort for Guadalupe's children.
These children face the same cultural and social barriers that create high school dropouts. Many of their parents are school dropouts themselves and school was not a good experience for them. Often there is but a single parent in the home struggling with sheer survival.
But at the Guadalupe Center the children are given the foundation they will need to help them make a smooth transition into public schools. These children will have the self-confidence and academic background necessary to achieve their high school diplomas and become productive citizens.
Because there are so many children who could benefit from this program, the rules are tough. If attendance falls below 96 percent, a parent conference is called.
The old LDS 16th Ward meetinghouse that now houses the Guadalupe Center has become a warm and inviting environment. Hispanic art and stained-glass windows greet the children as they enter the brick building. The ceramic-tile artwork that presides over an upstairs hallway is by artist William Granizo. A proud Hispanic heritage is seen in the Eye of God (Ojo de Dios), which is made from brightly colored yarn, as well as the Mexican pottery and Incan woodcuts.
But it's love that makes the program work. Volunteer Helen Kelly has been working with Guadalupe's children for at least 11 years. "I wanted to do something civic and I really do enjoy children. This has become my top priority and it's been wonderful to see the improvements in the program through the years and to see the advancement of the children," she said.
Irma Pace, who spent many years as an elementary school teacher, is a natural in working with the children. "You do have to have a lot of patience and you need to understand children," she said.
Darlene Barber worked in a school office, where she saw all the troubled children going to see the assistant principal. "This is a joy time," she said of her tutoring. "You can't help but hug the kids when they've done a good job, and one child said to me, `Oh, you like to hug just like my grandma!' I told the child, `Grandma loves you, too,' " she said.
Inga Chapman, teacher's aide and volunteer coordinator, is very grateful for the volunteers who come each day. "Our reading program wouldn't work without volunteers. The one-on-one time makes up for what many of the children would lack at home," she said. Other volunteers working with the children are: Jacque Otteson, Ruth Pruitt, Lucille Krek, Judy Hansen, Chris Allim, Eileen Tomlinson, Thelma Rigby, Joan Erbin, Nora Wood, Bonnie Weiss, Jerry Gray and Thomas Kass.
Kathy Parry has joined her mother and sister Judy Hansen in committing time to work with the children. "These kids are under a lot of pressure and the one-on-one time gives them confidence. They know they're going to get it! They get so excited when they know they can do it," she recalled.
Barber noted, "The children give me more than I give them. I go home so uplifted. With just a little love and patience, these kids learn that you care about them. And for some of them, they've never known what it is to be cared for."