When Yolanda Guzman’s son Edgar was in kindergarten, his teacher taught the Spanish-speaking mother how to count to 100 in English. That was the beginning of a very special bond between Guzman and the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center.
“Then I could teach the children to count to 100,” Guzman said through a translator.
Since then, Guzman has spent nearly the entire school day, every day, for the past four years helping students and teachers at the ECC, which includes preschool through second grade. From the moment she wakes at 5 a.m. to cook speciality dishes like cactus gorditas, and homemade tortillas stuffed with meat, cilantro, onions and cheese for teachers, she’s focused on helping out at her son’s school.
“I like everything here because I like being with the children and seeing what I can help them with,” she said, on a typical day spent cleaning up in the lunchroom and helping kindergartners with math.
Guzman’s dedication led to her to being hired to a paid position for three hours a day, but she puts in far more time that that.
“She does really anything that is needed,” said Principal Peter Geerling. “She’s kind of instilling in her kids to get involved and stay involved in school.”
Committed to Helping
Guzman walks the three blocks from home to school, arriving at 7:30 a.m. She helps get the students settled after they arrive and then works in the kindergarten classrooms.
“Rain, snow, shine, I’m here,” she joked. “Like the post office,” quipped Geerling.
Guzman immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, eight years ago, with her husband, Jose Guzman. Their children include Edgar, now a second-grader, and Juan Daniel, a Lee High School sophomore.
She’s setting an example that’s having a ripple effect in the community, Geerling said. The district’s racial demographic is 75 percent Hispanic. Guzman has played a key role in informing other Hispanic parents, like her friend Jeidi Guzman-Celaya, of opportunities to get involved.
“I didn’t even know I could help at school before Yolanda recruited me,” said Guzman-Celaya, in translation. “People from Mexico are accustomed to having the teachers do everything without having to help out.”
“In Mexico, you take your child to school and pick them up and that’s it,” Yolanda Guzman explained. So she often tells Hispanic parents, “It’s not like that here.”
Serving Teachers with her Talents
Before lunch, Guzman, a skilled cook, heads home to pack the meals she cooked that morning, and returns to pass them out to the teachers. “I make tortillas every day, different foods, but always homemade tortillas,” she said. “I want the teachers to get to know my food and for them to enjoy it.”
After lunch, Guzman helps in the school’s library, working with students or completing tasks for teachers. She then passes out sack lunches provided by Kids’ Food Basket, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that provides meals for students in need. To end the school day, she helps with dismissal.
Guzman said being involved has given her skills to help her children at home with schoolwork.
“That way, I know everything the teachers teach, and at home I can go more into depth,” she said. “What I tell moms is, ‘Get involved with your children because the children here need a lot of love from their moms.’
“The kids here, they like it that their moms come to see them do their school work. It makes them very happy to see their moms involved in the class.”
Geerling said Guzman connects with the Godfrey-Lee community in a much-needed way.
“She really has good contact with lots of parents in the community and is very passionate about how necessary it is to be involved,” Geerling said. “It’s one thing having the schools say we need involvement, but it’s a lot more powerful to have a parent doing it. She sees the need and the benefit and wants others to be involved.”
English-language learner teacher Amy Gregory said Guzman always takes the extra step. She contacts parents she knows have the best cheesecake or pastry recipes to ask them to pitch in for class parties. She listens to recordings of English words so she can help Edgar study for spelling tests.
“She constantly advocates for her kiddos,” Gregory said.
Guzman said her husband works long hours packing eggs at a farm, and she wants her children to do well in school so they can pursue the jobs that they want.
“I want them to have a career,” she said, “even if it’s a small career.”