SALT LAKE CITY — Decades before people used jargon like "wrap-around services," an idealistic Catholic priest who served a predominately Latino mission on the city's west side recognized a need for educational programs to give people in poverty a better shot in life.
The Rev. Jerald Merrill, who taught science at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and provided pastoral care to the people of the Salt Lake Diocese's Guadalupe Mission, was somehow able to secure the use of a shuttered LDS Church ward house to start the Guadalupe Center.
John Florez, a parishioner, community organizer and friend, recalls the first time he and Merrill entered the building near 700 W. North Temple.
"We walked in and there was dust in there. The appliances were broken. It was musty. I guess there was mold in there," he said.
But Father Merrill saw only possibilities, Florez said.
"He said 'We can start adult education in here, maybe some classes for the kids,' " Florez said. "That was his dream."
That was in 1966. Many volunteers supported the effort, among them a young woman named Suzanne Weiss, who partnered with Merrill to also create an early education program for children experiencing poverty.
Over the years, the Guadalupe Center became a gathering place for city's Latino community. It offered a food bank, help with low-income housing, programs for migrant farm workers, a place for teens to hang out, a credit union, a cafe and a bilingual preschool.
Weiss was a recent college graduate with a degree in elementary education, although her first role was running the center's cafe, which provided food, fellowship and job training.
As Weiss's obituary put it, "She fed the 'rich' Mexican food in a place called La Morena Cafe, so their money could feed the minds of the disadvantaged."
She eventually became executive director of Guadalupe School, which has retained its core mission of education.
It has become a nationally recognized public charter school but also helps address the broader needs of its community of learners whether they are adults who need English instruction or need help preparing for their naturalization exams or infants whose parents in the "In Home" program learn how to become their child's first teachers.
On Saturday, May 14, Guadalupe School will mark its 50th anniversary at a fundraising gala at Utah Cultural Celebration Center which will include food, drinks, music, dancing, opportunity drawings and a program that will recognize the contributions of Weiss, the late Merrill, who died in 2005, the Sisters of the Holy Cross as well as the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Recent accomplishments of Guadalupe School will also be feted, such as the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education recognizing the school as a “Bright Spot” in Hispanic education in October 2015.
Guadalupe School, in a partnership with Utah CNA Centers, created the state’s first certified nursing assistant curriculum for English language learners. Eight adult students completed the course, attending nursing classes on weekends and continuing to improve their English mastery in weeknight classes.
Richard Pater, the school's executive director, said the successful completion of the program will mean the difference between working three part-time, low-wage jobs to working one job with higher pay.
Guadalupe School became a public charter school in 2007, which means it receives public funding. However, its other programs for adults, preschoolers, toddlers and infants are privately funded.
"We're a weird mesh of a public charter school and a 501(c)3," nonprofit organization, said Danielle Lankford, Guadalupe's communication specialist.
As a charter school, it receives no money for student transportation so the purchase and operation of its school buses are also supported with private funds.
Pater said the buses are critical to the school's success because the school population, largely low-income children whose parents' primary languages is not English, tends to move frequently so the buses go to them.
"The way that works is a parent can actually call us in the morning, about a half-hour before school starts, and we'll actually change the bus route to go help and pick that child up," Pater said.
"Because of that, our attendance is actually in excess of 90 percent. If they're not here, I can't teach them. By having them here, we really have an ability to make a transition in their life."
After nearly a dozen years of assembling the financing for a new school, the school moved from an inadequate facility at 340 S. Goshen St. to a new campus at 1385 N. 1200 West in 2014.
The 50,000-square-foot facility serves students K-6 in the charter school and also houses its early learning center and adult education program all under one roof. The single location helps with continuity as children progress through the school and its programs, it is an inviting place for the entire school community, Pater said.
For Lilliana Cecena, the teachers and staff at Guadalupe School became her second family when her mother moved her and her four siblings to Salt Lake City from San Diego to escape domestic violence in 1994.
Her mother was a devout Catholic so she turned to the diocese for help with her young family. The diocese referred her to Guadalupe School, which was the start of Cecena's ongoing association with the school, where she learned to read, write and speak English and other skills that helped her to succeed as a student at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah.
What makes her accomplishments even more remarkable is that her mother was deported to Mexico when Cecena was 16, which meant she also had to work full time while attending high school.
Now 25, Cecena credits the Guadalupe School for being a springboard but also an anchor in her life. She still has friends from her years at Guadalupe School, which offered instruction through the third grade when she attended. Teachers and staff became trusted mentors. Weiss was her principal.
"A lot of community members, including teachers at Guadalupe, helped raise me, so I'm really connected to that school," she said.
Then, the school was linked to the Salt Lake Diocese, and a nun was assigned to help the family connect to other services in the community including food. Before there was a name for it, Merrill, Weiss and the diocese provided wrap-around services to her family to help them succeed.
"They loved people. They were invested in people they knew worked hard," Cecena said.
Over the years, Guadalupe School has refined its approach to helping families from birth to adulthood. The school also wants parents to be involved throughout the time their families are connected to the school.
"We create strong partnerships between the school and the family so that parents have an advocate. Let's say I'm a parent and I want to be involved in my child's math but I only have a third-grade education. They have the ability to come here and as a community, we can help them be a part of the their children's education. It's a holistic approach to creating a path to break that cycle," he said.
The upcoming gala will be a time to celebrate the school's accomplishments, history and plans for the future, Pater said.
"We know there is still so much to do and so much need out there," he said.
Florez said he believes Father Merrill would express a similar opinion.
"He'd think it was a nice tribute and then he'd say, "We've got to move on and do something else,' " Florez said.
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