In search of folks to feature in this People Issue, we came across a surprising little treasure recently … in a storefront facility just off Old 41 in North Naples. It’s the Gargiulo Education Center, and the action picks up on weekdays just after school when the buses from Naples Park Elementary School, North Naples Middle School and Gulf Coast High School drop off some 62 kids for follow-up enrichment.
These are the children of the migrant workers for Gargiulo Farm who live in trailers right next door and either work in the factory there or in fields a bus ride away. Many of the parents don’t speak English and many can’t read. There to greet the youngsters is the smiling, energetic Katie Stack, 26, the center’s executive director, and her staff of seven teachers and a rotating group of 40 volunteers.
The kids call the place La Escuelita (Little School), and that’s where they go about getting help finishing their homework, moving on with some extra math and writing exercises, digging into healthful snacks, and enjoying some free time drawing or playing with puzzles. Here are some of the youngsters you might meet on a given day there.
There’s Brianneth, a very shy fourth-grader who doesn’t speak or make eye contact. Yet the Wednesday read-to-rabbit program finally got through to her. The kids get 10 minutes to read to a rabbit brought to the facility, and they keep one hand on the rabbit while they do so. Brianneth, ever so quietly, came out of her shell to participate.
There’s Larry, a tiny 7-year-old with no siblings, and Aaron, a 10-year-old who looks for him after the session to make sure he has his books and then walks him home.
There’s Jessica, one of two students graduating from high school this year, who won a Take Stock in Children scholarship of $22,000 for college. She wants to be a nurse practitioner, hoping to go to Florida SouthWestern State College for two years and then transfer. She’ll be the first in her family to go to college.
Brothers and Hugs
There’s Juan, a second-grader who hated coming to the program last year but now arrives with a smile, hugs Katie and asks if he can go hug his big brother Carlos. Carlos, a junior at Gulf Coast High School, is a member of the school’s marching band, which was invited to New York City to play in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. “I’m hoping to see snow for the first time when we go up there,” he says.
Katie is in her second year as executive director. She graduated from Boston University in 2011, has three years of nonprofit management experience and speaks fluent Spanish. She says the program goes back 10 years, when there were 20 youngsters coming every weekday. “The kids don’t get much help at home, and that’s where we’re trying to fill in. We’ve got really good teachers and we make sure we’ve got one volunteer per class to give kids one-on-one assistance when they need it.”
Beyond the purely academic issues, the program teaches good manners and cleaning up and even trying new foods. “The kids weren’t very good at eating different things,” Katie says. “But we put up a snack chart, giving stars to those who ate new things and now we have almost 100 percent participation. They like those stars next to their names.”
The challenge, Katie says, is working without a lot of parent support. “They work long hours,” she says, “and are hard to reach because there aren’t many computers around and there often aren’t consistently good phone numbers for reaching them. Where we can, we try to guide those who go to their children’s schools in how to approach the teachers there.”
After the program each weekday, half the children walk home to their trailer camp; the other half live a block or so away, and a few of the parents carpool to get them home. Katie says it’s so endearing to see how much the children look after each other during and after the sessions. They all have Mexican roots, she says, and it reflects the culture of family values. She’s grateful for the funding of the center’s work from places like NCEF (the dispensing arm of the Naples Winter Wine Festival). And as she welcomes the children to the program each day, there’s this: The most recent report cards are showing considerable improvement for each of the center’s kids. Well done, Katie, teachers and volunteers. It’s great to see minds growing along with the Gargiulo tomatoes.