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Making a RECognizable Difference


Emily Orbanek and Dakota Sandras

When you ask students what their favorite thing about Riverside Educational Center is, they have many things they could tell you. They could express their excitement about the rocket launcher and CO2 car experiments they are working on, or tell you about the upcoming martial arts class. Instead, they almost all answer that the best part about Riverside is the homework. That isn’t a typical response coming from an average student, but it goes to show that Riverside Educational Center is not a typical place.

The seeds for REC were laid in 2005 when Mary Gonzales, then a 3rd-grade teacher at Wingate Elementary in Grand Junction, encouraged one of her students to sign up for baseball. When she asked the boy if he had registered, he responded to her surprise: “My mom can’t afford baseball.”

While Wingate is surrounded by affluent, well-educated families and is one of the top elementary schools in the Valley, within Wingate’s boundaries is the neighborhood of Riverside. Students from Riverside are often first-generation, low-income, English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. Quickly, Gonzales identified a gap, which she chose to see as an opportunity to create a place for students to thrive.

One short year later, Riverside Educational Center, which offers after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, opened its doors with twelve students, seven volunteers, and a $5,000 donation from a local business. By 2011, it had grown to 106 students, all of whom have two or more identified risk factors, making them more likely to fail academically. El Pomar Foundation has supported REC with $24,000 in funding, including $11,500 from the Northwest Regional Council.

“Riverside [gave me] a place to be and concentrate,” said Jose Morales, a 2008 Grand Junction High School graduate and one of the first kids to experience REC’s impact.

Besides a safe-place to stay, play, and study, REC students receive personalized lesson plans, learn with tutors that engage teachers and parents, and engage in a variety of enrichment programs that have become necessary to bolster college applications.

Although he enjoyed learning, especially math, Morales never had plans to attend college. He planned to find work after high school instead of continuing his education. It was not until he began attending REC that he began to consider college as an option. In addition to helping him with his study skills, Jose recounts that his tutors at REC knew what his interests were; they encouraged him to pursue an engineering degree at Colorado Mesa University (CMU). With help from the REC staff, Jose garnered a number of scholarships and is now in his third year studying mechanical engineering at CMU.

Even now, despite the workload of an engineering student, Morales mentors at REC every Wednesday.

“I like to be around the kids and I like to see their progress in school,” he said with obvious enthusiasm.

Gonzales described Morales as more than a mentor to REC students; he’s a role model – a living, breathing, tangible and most importantly, relatable person who is succeeding in life.

While Jose is not yet sure of where his next steps will take him, he knows that his path would be profoundly different had it not been for REC.

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