Daisy Garcia Montoya

Spring break is a highly anticipated time for students to take a break from their studies and explore new places. This year, three organizations, Mattie Rhodes Center, the Police Athletic League (PAL) and Guadalupe Centers (GCI), teamed up to take eight students from Guadalupe Centers High School (GCHS) to Chicago during their spring break. 

Students loaded up in two minivans early on Friday, March 24, en route to Chicago for a weekend getaway that would include sightseeing, team-bonding time, and conversations on mental health and life experiences. 

Before the departure Mayor Quinton Lucas stopped by to share the importance of a collaboration of this magnitude that would be providing students with the opportunity to learn more about the world around them.

“These are the things that make the difference long term. Twenty years from now the city is going to be better because we invested in these young people, and that they were able to lead and I think they’ll be able to lead future generations and so on and so on,” Mayor Lucas said. “The other thing that I hope they are seeing is how many grownups care about them. You got police officers, community advocates, fellow young folks that are really helping them know that they are loved and they’re gonna be special.”

William Rodelo, Bilingual Community Resource Coordinator at Mattie Rhodes Center (MRC) says that the idea came to be in October when he, along with other representatives from MRC and PAL began to think of ways they could provide students involved in their high school support group at Guadalupe Centers High School the opportunity to be away from their everyday experience. The weekly support groups led by PAL and MRC offer students who have struggled with grades, behavior, or personal stressors, a curriculum that focuses on violence prevention by teaching students about wise decision making, healthy relationships, domestic abuse and drug abuse in a safe space.

“The idea was simple. Travel has changed my life, it has changed the trajectory of me, personally and professionally. So with that being said, why do kids have to wait until they’re in college to travel or five years in their profession to travel?” PAL Officer Brandon Walker said. “Us having the opportunity and blessing to get our heads together, to get them out of their impoverished infrastructure, to go somewhere else and adapt to other cultures and food and what the world is – a big melting pot. To have the opportunity to help kids see that there is a bigger world than what they are observing has always been a dream of mine.”

KCPD Chief Stacy Graves says that she encourages students as they get older, to seek the opportunity to travel as she believes it’s a good way to see new perspectives and ways of life. 

“I hope they continue to make travel an important part of just to see new people live, you know, exactly, I think it’s great,” Graves said. “I’m glad that we have the opportunity to partner with these kiddos and take them on a little trip.”

Initially the idea began small, with St. Louis, Mo., as the original destination but eventually grew into something more, leading them to choose Chicago. 

With MRC and the PAL on the lead, they began developing a proposal that detailed the estimated budget, itinerary, logistics, potential participants, and the benefits that could arise from the experience. The proposal was presented to Guadalupe Centers Principal Michael Meaney and Guadalupe Centers Assistant Superintendent Eduardo Mendez with the intent to have them approve the trip as a social and educational opportunity for students while supporting the cause by providing financial aid for the expenses of the trip. To their surprise, Guadalupe Centers moved forward, by not only being champions of the trip, but financing the entirety of the trip. 

Meaney said that the experience allows administrators to show their students that they believe in their abilities and provide students with an opportunity to be empowered to break cycles.

“We are putting our money where our mouth is and we’re going to say, ‘You know what, you experienced something awesome because you are worth it’,” Meaney said. “So for me, it’s about empowering our students who aren’t straight A’s and who aren’t perfect but supporting them to break the cycle so they can go on and live a great life.”

Once the financial plan was approved, Rodelo said that an application was made to ensure that all students interested in the high school group could have the opportunity to apply for the trip. The application looked at grades, attendance, behavior and included an essay question where students could share how this could impact them.

“Some of the things that the students wrote were generally so vulnerable and beautiful,” Rodelo said. “We had a student share that this trip would impact her because she would be able to mingle and get to know other girls in her grade. She shared that she hadn’t really connected with anybody since her friend passed away due to gun violence. It served as a reminder of just how much of an impact these support groups are making and what this trip has the potential to do for their lives as well.” 

In order to help alleviate some of the costs of the trip, the three organizations partnered with Crystal and Raul Nieves, owners of the Tamaleon KC food truck to host a two-day fundraiser during parent-night at the high school, donating all proceeds. During the fundraiser, students selected for the trip were actively helping prepare food orders and taking orders from patrons while getting to know each other better prior to traveling together.

Students said that this provided them with the opportunity to get closer while also learning more about their culture through preparing Mexican food. Other organizations and Latino professionals in the community also contributed to the cause. In Kansas City, Kansas, a local bar named Sammy’s Tavern, decided to donate 10% of their revenue on a few Tuesdays before the travel departure after hearing that one of their resident DJs, DJ Munch, was donating all her tips to the cause. Through the different contributions, the three organizations were able to raise more than $2,190 for the trip, alleviating the total expenses from GCI. 

As the date for departure began to near, the three organizations met to go over last minute details and prepare the curriculum for their trip. Jasmine Herrera, a GCHS alum and now social worker, says that the purpose of the trip is not only for students to get the opportunity to visit a new place but to continue to build on the skills they are learning from the weekly support groups. During the trip, time will be reserved to talk about various topics such as coping skills, red flags in relationships and breaking generational cycles.

“There is so much we want them to take away from this trip but it starts with them making a small change and having that self awareness of, like, ‘Okay, I can do so much for myself, despite where I come from, my family and all these barriers, I can overcome this’,” Herrera said. “We will really focus on talking about breaking and overcoming those cycles.”

Apart from having support group conversations, the students enjoyed a two-night stay in Chicago and visited tourist attractions such as Millennium Park, SkyDeck Chicago, and the National Mexican Art Museum. 

To continue to support an initiative of this magnitude, the organizations decided that they will create an impact brief and post-assessment questionnaire to measure how the experience impacted students, the benefits, and ways to improve the experience for the future, given that this is the first of its kind. The post-assessment questionnaire will feature questions about how they felt the trip helped them socially, emotionally, and mentally and room to provide feedback. With the responses and impact brief, the organizations hope to capture how the investment can bring positive outcomes for students and allow them to expand to more students and other destinations for years to come. 

Assistant Superintendent Mendez says that this trip provides them with a unique opportunity to find innovative ways to serve student’s social and emotional needs and provide access to things they may not have in another way.

“As a district leader, it’s important because everything starts with something small. It’s only eight students but to see it flourish into something bigger where then we can go as a system. How do we create these opportunities for our kids, and provide them the same equitable access as kids in other systems like suburban areas have?” Mendez said. “An experience like this can be life changing for our students, even if just one, to know all the work these organizations have been doing, pouring in on a weekly basis and is now making a huge difference in just one kid’s life. That’s where it starts, and then you go from there.” 

Monique Arrellano shares how meaningful and easy it has been to work together to get this initiative fulfilled from start to finish. From having meetings to open discussions on how to accomplish the trip, she says the process has been a reminder that a little seed can grow into something more when you have a good community around you to make a difference. Officer Walker says that having people with the same passion to help at-risk youth has allowed the vision for this experience to keep moving forward and continue to grow.

“If my career ended today, I can say that I did my diligence and showed some kids something bigger and better in this world,” Walker said. “It’s due to the teamwork atmosphere, everybody being on the same page,the euthasim at Mattie Rhodes, the trust and opportunity that GCI, everyone is just aligned to allow this to happen. We all can come together on one accord to make this happen for these kids.”

As for the students, they say that apart from being allowed to travel outside Kansas City, some for the first time, that this experience gave them a renewed sense of hope for the future. Seniors Sofia Esquivel and Jose Bernal say that they both initially didn’t plan to apply due to doubts of being selected for the trip due to behavior and grades.

“I saw the application and I told myself that I wouldn’t be able to do that because my behavior has been messed up from the beginning so I’m not gonna have a chance but I was like there’s nothing wrong with just trying it out, I may have a chance and just try it,” Esquivel said.

Both she and Bernal ended up being selected, sharing that it will allow them to open their mindsets on new life perspectives, experience new things, gain confidence, and realize that there’s more out in the world than what they know. Bernal said he wants to encourage other students to join the support groups at GCI because of the impact it has had on its life.

“The kids should pay more attention, it’s life changing and we talk about real stuff. They are doing everything for you to help you be better,” Bernal said. 

Esquivel said that despite the struggles that she and other students may face at the beginning, she wants administrators to know that they also deserve opportunities to have a chance to grow and not to judge them on past decisions.

Her advice to other students with a similar story to hers is to, “Never give up on yourself, always push yourself to be better, and always work on yourself because at the end of the day life goes on no matter what you go through and what you’ve done in the past, you can also mature from that.”