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Article Published August 28, 2019
Garcia-Perez: Breaking Barriers, Making a Difference with CIMP
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Gabriela Garcia-Perez grew up in East Haven 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.

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 the East Haven community 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.”

Gabi came away so affected by her 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 living with her family in Guilford.

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 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.

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.”