This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published August 21, 2019
Gabriela Garcia-Perez grew up speaking Spanish and English. That’s why she knew she could help when, in 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, sending many Spanish-speaking families seeking refuge to New Haven.
She found a refugee support event sponsored by non-profit Arte, Inc., of New Haven and volunteered to help out, sharing activities and friendship with little kids suddenly immersed in a new culture and surrounded by a language they didn’t know.
“It intensified the problem that I saw, that these students who were completely new to the community and new to the American culture were going to be thrown into a school system that they were unfamiliar with, without really having an adequate amount of help. That really surprised me,” says Gabi, who was 15 at the time.
In fact, Gabi came away so impacted by the volunteer experience that she didn’t hesitate to found her own volunteer effort, Community Integration Mentoring Program (CIMP), to help more kids in New Haven like those she’d met that day.
“I made it a Capstone project my sophomore year,” says Gabi, now 17 and an incoming Guilford High School (GHS) senior. “Doing it as a Capstone, making it part of school, was great, because it really did push me to get it going and push it along.”
Now entering its third school year, CIMP links Guilford kids with New Haven English language learner (ELL) elementary students at New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) extra-curricular Saturday Academy in Fair Haven. To date, Gabi has connected 25 mentors—all students from GHS and Adams Middle School—with 37 ELL kids in grades 3 to 6.
One of Gabi’s first steps in the process of setting up CIMP was reaching out to NHPS Coordinator of Parent Engagement Daniel Diaz to offer her idea to assist young ELL students in the system. Diaz embraced the idea and accepted Gabi’s request to come to the district office to engage in research and development of her program.
“I still volunteer there on a weekly basis. I take the public bus to New Haven,” says Gabi. “It’s helped me because I learn a lot about what these children are facing, like immigration, homelessness, and bullying. It also allows me to be a resource to mentors when they have questions.”
As she prepares to go back to school, Gabi’s also prepping for this year’s CIMP winter session. She has names of interested volunteer mentors (more are welcome), and will need to coordinate, among all of their schedules, a rotation that will deliver 8 to 10 mentors weekly to spend a few hours helping ELL kids in Fair Haven on Saturdays.
“I do have a list of all the people who have been interested in program, so I’ll reach out to make sure they know we’re starting up again, and I’ll also be reaching out to the middle school kids. But most of the recruiting happens on a weekly basis, where I have to gather people to sign up. Although that’s draining, that is a big part of it,” Gabi says.
Keep in mind, while Gabi’s coordinating all of this, as well as developing lesson plans and tracking results logged by mentors, she’s also a very involved GHS student and athlete. This year, she’s co-captaining the GHS girls’ soccer team. She’s also a state-certified (G-level) youth soccer coach who’s very involved with the Soccer Club of Guilford, including serving as an assistant coach.
“Soccer is a huge part of my life,” says Gabi, who started playing soccer as a tyke with her dad, Dennis Garcia, a well-known Guilford soccer club and travel team coach.
Gabi’s younger brother, Sergio, plays as well (he’s also one of CIMP’s first middle school liaisons, and will continue as an 8th-grader this year), while her mom, Andrea Perez, “doesn’t miss a game,” says Gabi.
But that’s not the only sport the family shares.
“My family’s also very athletic, and we do something called capoeira,” she says.
The family practices the Afro-Brazilian martial art with legendary capoeira expert Efraim Silva at his New Haven studio.
“Capoeira has been a huge part of my family’s dynamic. My mom actually started when she was pregnant with me! It’s a great sport, and it’s a big part of my culture as well,” says Gabi.
She notes that her parents came to this country from Colombia and Ecuador and, while both spoke English, they intentionally raised her to learn Spanish as her first language, knowing that integrating her into her shoreline community (East Haven, as a child) would support her ability to speak and learn in English.
“For the kids in New Haven, it’s the complete opposite,” says Gabi. “You have these kids facing inevitable factors, so that they’re not going to be able grasp English language well enough, because they are surrounded by people who speak Spanish at their home and at their school, so they don’t necessarily have a need to learn English quickly enough. Eventually, that will get them, and affect their academic work. And it’s something that they can’t control. So I took that on when I started this program.”
Even though she’s extremely busy between school and sports, Gabi says the results CIMP yields are so satisfying—for both mentors and mentees—that it’s well worth any extra effort needed on her part.
Breaking Down Barriers
The Guilford mentors come from “all different types,” says Gabi.
“We do have some students taking different languages in school, some kids who are Hispanic, some kids from [A Better Chance] House, and then we also have some students who have never taken a language and aren’t taking Spanish,” says Gabi.
All of the different types of mentors are welcome because, as Gabi notes, “we are trying to integrate these [ELL] students into their own society, but in a way we are also mixing in our own community, as well.”
On a typical Saturday, the mentors will gather at the Exit 57 commuter lot at 8:30 a.m. and carpool to New Haven, with Gabi’s parents doing the driving (she’s also grateful to her grandmother, Rosa Salazar, for her support).
“We all carpool up, and in the car ride, I explain what the assignment is, what they should be prepared for, the different students they’ll be working with,” says Gabi.
For Guilford kids, it’s been a way to help break down barriers and bring diversity and other cultural experiences into their lives.
“We work with students for 45 to 50 minutes, then join them in their gym class. Arte helps a lot within the Saturday Academy in Fair Haven and Arte provides all different activities, like salsa and Zumba classes—some very non-traditional gym activities,” Gabi says. “And it’s great, because you see the Guilford students being exposed to different types of cultures, and you see the younger students now teaching the older students how to dance. They’re learning more about each other in a different environment.”
Seeing CIMP develop into a program that’s making a difference in the lives of not only those who are being helped, but those who are helping, was one of the outcomes Gabi was hoping for when she started the effort.
“For the mentors, they get to interact with all these different kids, and, for a lot of the Guilford students, to also interact with people who are of a different background than they see in their own community, and being exposed to different issues that you might not hear about in your own community,” says Gabi.
“But then it’s also having the satisfaction of being able to help a student who’s very intelligent, but may not be able to express it in the language of English. And its really interesting to see these students grow and see how the relationships develop,” she continues. “We are trying to close diversity gaps between New Haven and Guilford, but we also have been able to expand the perspective of students in Guilford just by the process of doing that.”
While she’s excited about being a senior, Gabi’s also mindful that, even though she’s going to be in college next year, CIMP will need a way to continue. This summer, she met with Guilford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman to discuss possibilities to assist Gabi with continuing CIMP once she graduates.
“I would still like to be a part of it, and I have my brother, who is a huge help and a rising leader in this, but I do want to have some more help, some formal establishment in the school, so they can help if we don’t have the possibility of reaching out. Dr. Freeman’s putting me in contact with different people to see how we can make this something that many more generations can experience,” says Gabi, who also received an $800 grant from the Guilford Foundation to assist CIMP.
Even though she plans to go to college next year, Gabi already knows she’s going to choose a school that’s in this state. She not only wants to be available for CIMP, but also wants to continue connections she’s made through volunteering with Diaz at NHPS as well as those supported by collaborating with David Greco of Artes, and through her internship with New Haven business assistance non-profit Collab.
“Originally, my dream was to become a politician and a lawyer, but working a lot in the community in the past couple of years has definitely changed that idea,” says Gabi. “I am planning on going to college within Connecticut because I do want to continue this program, but also because this program has turned me towards wanting to work more in a non-profit realm, and people in the community that have helped me with this process have definitely influenced my decision.”