A passion and commitment to improve the lives of those in the Latino immigrant community unites three President's Engagement Prize recipients.
Yaneli Arizmendi, Alexa Salas and Camilo Toro received a 2017 President's Engagement Prize for Lanzando Líderes (Launching Leaders), a bilingual, community-based, after-school program for Latino high school students, in South Philadelphia.
The three 2017 alumni are partnering with Puentes de Salud (Bridges to Health), a South Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the city's rapidly growing Latino immigrant population.
Puentes has a robust education and health program for students in elementary and middle school but does not yet have a program developed for high school students. A space just opened to expand the education program in the new Puentes health and wellness center at 1700 South Street.
In Philadelphia, Latinos have the lowest high school graduation rate and the highest dropout rate of all ethnic groups. The students who started at the genesis of the Puentes elementary education program seven years ago are now graduating from eighth grade and heading to high school. The new program is designed to bring them together into their own supportive neighborhood-based community.
“It’s great timing,” said Steven Larson, a Penn emergency-room physician and a co-founder of Puentes. “Our goal is to think about how to make that transition to high school a successful one for these teenagers.”
Each of the Lanzando team members knows firsthand what it is like to grow up in a Spanish-speaking household with parents born in another country and to find success in an American high school.
“Growing up bi-cultural, it’s a different way of growing up,” said Arizmendi, a Penn Nursing graduate, “when you feel you have one identity at home and one identity at school, and you try to navigate both and try to be a normal teenager. It is very difficult. It is something that each of us has an appreciation of, our own success and our own path.”
The Lanzando Lideres goal is to create a culturally inclusive curriculum based on the “three E’s” — enrichment, engagement and education — for high school students to support their academic success. The curriculum will include health and wellness workshops, sessions on job training and college options, fields trips and expert speakers. Another goal is to build the teens’ self-confidence, working as a partner with their parents and the community.
We want to create and carve a sustainable path for the future so that it doesn’t stop after this year, It's vital that we involve the community in our decision-making as we continue to shape the program."
“We realized that was a need that was there,” said Toro, “and we started to talk between ourselves about doing something, how the need at Puentes and the President’s Engagement Prize could fit together.”
A key component of the project, according to Toro, who majored in neuroscience and plans to become a physician, is evaluating it constantly.
"We want to create and carve a sustainable path for the future so that it doesn’t stop after this year," he said. "It's vital that we involve the community in our decision-making as we continue to shape the program."
Antonia Villarruel, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, is the project mentor and will advise them throughout the year. She has long experience working with Latino teens and parents, and her research validated the project’s goals.
"We have to work on creating possibilities for our adolescents and help them understand the steps they need to follow whatever path they choose,” she said. “And for parents, to help them understand that they are a vital part of their children’s lives,” she said. “Once you have the aspiration, then you know how to plan for it. If you don’t have any idea that ' yes, I can do this', it just doesn’t happen.”
For Salas, who plans to go to law school and eventually pursue a career in public service, the project is a very personal one.
"Through my volunteer work at Puentes, I became more and more invested in the organization," she said. "I fell in love with the community, and I'm honored to have the opportunity to give back in such a meaningful way."