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Garces Foundation builds bridges for Southwark

A celebrity chef stopped by an East Passyunk Crossing school Monday to spread a message geared toward struggling immigrant learners.

By Bill Chenevert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 14, 2014

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Dr. Beatriz Garces, back row, from left, and Iron Chef Jose Garces, who have gifted grants to Puentes Hacia el Futuro and Puentes de Salud, stand with Southwark pupils who benefit from the Garces Foundation’s philanthropy.

Photo by Rob Torney

As different age groups were pulled from their tutoring classrooms to be awarded inside the library at Southwark School, 1835 S. Ninth St., Monday, where Dr. Beatriz Garces and her husband Iron Chef Jose Garces were in attendance, it became clear the youngest pupils had the most pride, poise and confidence. That is a testament, perhaps, to the growing scope of Southwark’s partnering with the Puentes Hacia el Futuro (“Bridges Toward the Future”) program, one the Garces Foundation has wholeheartedly endorsed, which supports students who sometimes begin kindergarten with very little English mastery.

When Southwark principal Andrew Lukov began his tenure last summer, he met with Puentes staff to lay out plans for making the program more instrumental.

“When I arrived at Southwark, I met with [Puentes leaders] and realized that they are very dedicated to our students, families and school community and brainstormed with them ways to expand services and become a formal ‘Community Partner,’” the Roxborough resident said. “The ‘expansion’ also included giving them office space within our school building.”

The program, which began with Dr. Steven Larson’s drive to bolster the health care options for many Latino immigrants who, too often, live under the poverty level and without health care, began with Puentes de Salud (“Bridges to Health”). Larson and Beatriz Garces have teamed up to extend discounted or free services to Philadelphia’s immigrant community, and Jose Garces has extended two-pronged support to both Puentes programs through grants.

“The work that Puentes does is so specific and needed for this vulnerable population and directly matches our overall goal for the foundation,” Beatriz Garces said, the goal being “to provide Philadelphia’s vibrant and growing immigrant community with access to the care and education they need.”

Clearly, meeting those needs need not be exclusive to medical care. Puentes and the foundation seek not just to fix problems, but prepare a young generation for success and mobility. They were able to see the success of the program through smiles and sheer numbers this week. Posing with certificates, the participants in the Southwark after-school mentor and tutor program look as able as their peers who hold a command of only one language.

A key player in the success of the tutoring arm of Puentes has been Daphne Owen, a University of Pennsylvania medical student who was drawn to Larson’s commitment to progress.

“My first visit to the Puentes clinic, I met Dr. Larson, who spoke about Puentes’ commitment to the social determinants of health: addressing all of the social issues that influence people’s health outcomes,” Owen said.

Wellness and education aren’t so disconnected as she pointed out.

“There is plenty of research and data out there to suggest that education level, literacy, and employment have a positive impact on health,” Owen said. “Essentially, being able to read, graduating from high school, getting a good job, these things lead to socioeconomic mobility and better access to health care, medicines, food, shelter, and ultimately leads to better health.”

It has been a slow build over the past four and a half years. And what started as only a dozen or so students with twice as many tutors, has nearly quadrupled in size, not wholly unlike the Latino population in Philadelphia County. According to the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s analyses of the 2010 U.S. Census, while Philadelphia County grew from 2000 to ’10 by 1 percent, the Hispanic community grew 46 percent

The unfortunate truth is that for many students whose primary language is not English, and whose households do not include the use of the English language, keeping up with their peers is an often overwhelming challenge.

Jemma Benson, one of the after-school program’s educational coordinators, sees firsthand the struggles of immigrant children to stay at grade level.

“Most of our students are several grade levels behind, particularly in literacy,” she said. “For this reason, last summer we launched a summer literacy enrichment program for twenty of our students who were farthest behind. While math is easier for many of them, often times they still struggle a great deal because they cannot decipher the instructions on a homework assignment or test.”

The program’s needs grow as the population grows and the success of the program becomes more evident to administrators, families, students as well as tutors and volunteers. The tutors are sourced from partnerships through a robust collection of Philadelphia-based universities. The tutors often forge tight bonds with their charges, sometimes returning annually and even in some cases coming in on school breaks.

“When we don’t have Puentes for a few weeks because the tutors are on college vacation, I have students running up to me in the halls begging to come back to Puentes,” Benson said. “When we informed one sixth-grade boy that Puentes would be starting the following afternoon, he pumped his fist in the air and exclaimed, ‘Yes!’”

Beatriz Garces really enjoyed watching the young learners receive a certificate of accomplishment because it lets her and her husband see the way their foundation improves lives.

“It is so gratifying to see that the work our foundation does allows for immediate and meaningful improvement in the lives of the population that we serve,” she said. “The ceremony reinforced that our strategy of funding succinct programs that solve important issues in the everyday lives of our city’s immigrants is working.”

One of those students is Bryant, age 10, whose writing sample, titled “If I were a Mayor,” illuminates the potential for extraordinary growth.

“If I were a mayor I would build more schools because I want students to get good education so that they can get good jobs. I would also create more after-school programs, like sports such as soccer, baseball basketball, and ballet. The reason I would make more after-school programs is so that kids won’t get into gangs and be involved in mischievous behavior. I would help immigrants in the city of Philadelphia. I would help them by hiring translators to help them communicate with doctors. Also create more English classes for free so that immigrants can learn English faster. These are a few things I would do as a mayor.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.

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