Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Sixth-graders enter the auditorium for their graduation ceremony at the Guadalupe Charter School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2015. The students comprise the first 6th grade class ever to attend Guadalupe School.

It’s amazing what dreams, over an enchilada lunch, can produce. Little did I realize that, 50 years later, Father Jerald Merrill’s dream about a school for poor Mexican families would become a reality, let alone get national recognition. But then I should have known, since we were eating at La Morena Café, just another dream of Father Merrill’s.

After lunch, Father Merrill took me over to see where he would launch his dream. It was an old, dusty, musty, vacant church, with creaky floors and no lights located on 700 West off North Temple in Salt Lake City. With a crinkle in his eye and his impish smile, he asked, “What do you think?” Well, it’s just another mountain to climb and we have climbed others to help our community. It was the first building for the Guadalupe School, now a charter school, whose mission is to “teach economically disadvantaged children and non-English speaking adults the vision and skills needed to live productive, rewarding lives.”

As the place was being cleaned up by a few parents and volunteers, English classes were being taught. Where Father Merrill got the building is still a mystery to me; besides, I figured he had some spiritual connection that made it possible.

With the work of parents and volunteers, the school became an oasis for families where they felt welcomed and also had something to give — themselves. It soon became a rallying point that allowed the good will of the community to flourish. It became an institution of our community. Last year, the school opened the doors of its new building on Salt Lake’s west side. As you walk in, it’s a school that smiles.

This month, Guadalupe School celebrated its 50-year anniversary, and as I walked in for the banquet, I was greeted by two children who escorted me to my seat. I thought, Father Merrill would be smiling upon us. To top it off, the White House Commission on Hispanic Education named the Guadalupe School as one of the Bright Spots in the nation to improve education for Latinos as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

The Guadalupe School started out as a dream and now has earned numerous awards in helping improve the lives of families and children through education. It was founded on the principles of the dignity and worth of every individual and the expectation of success. The school exemplifies the Spanish saying, “con ganas si se puede” (with desire it can be done).

The school has shown the capacity to respond to the educational needs of the changing and diverse, non-English speaking population. It starts by helping expectant mothers in their homes to learn how to establish the healthy development of their children, and on to the pre-K-6 grades. And it doesn’t stop there, it continues on to adulthood — lifelong learning.

The success and uniqueness of the school is that it is family and community centered where parents have a sense of ownership and can contribute to its success. Key is that children are bused, and with the focus on making the family an integral part of a child’s education. It all starts with an active board, a clear vision, hundreds of donors and volunteers, and a dedicated staff. It is indeed a school that smiles.

And to think it all started over a plate of enchiladas by a gentle priest who, with a smile, said it could be done.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: [email protected]