Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine
By Catherine McNiel
Two years ago, convinced of Puente del Pueblo’s success at the Timber Lake apartment complex, the City of West Chicago approached Puente’s leadership team with an invitation: Would you be willing to take over the reins of the city’s after-school program at the nearby Main Park Apartments?
Puente’s leaders accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, and Puente staff began the work of building trust with the residents at Main Park. After a carefully planned transition process, the Main Park community responded with their own enthusiasm—enrolling fifty children in the after-school program at its launch!
A New Partnership
That first year, Puente partnered with Faith Community Church—located just across the street from the Main Park complex—and that congregation hosted the program in their facility. The second year, the Puente team contacted Indian Knoll Elementary School (where children who live at Main Park attend) to see if the school would be willing to host the after-school program. Their hope was to see the same kind of partnership that Puente’s after-school program for residents of Timber Lake Apartments enjoys with Wegner Elementary School, where the after-school program has thrived.
The principal at Indian Knoll was immediately enthusiastic about the idea.
“I wanted Puente here even before they approached me,” remembers Principal Matthew Bohrer. “My philosophy is to offer students as many ways as possible to find success. So my answer was yes, even before Puente finished the sentence.
“You had me at ‘hello,’” he adds with a smile.
Looking back at the first year of partnership between Puente and Indian Knoll, both sides are confidant the relationship is a win-win.
Academic Growth and More
Giovanna Owens teaches second grade and her classroom included two students who were part of the Puente program last year. “Puente’s impact is huge,” she says. “One thing I noticed right off the bat is how the Puente kids develop a sense of ownership for the school. They care. They check the recycling bins and look around the classroom to see what needs cleaning.
“Because they’re here after school, they chat with ‘invisible’ staff—like the night custodian,” she adds. “The school becomes a safer place for them, and they form a deeper sense of community pride in their school through the connections with the staff of Puente and Indian Knoll.”
She’s also seen how this community-building has an impact on the children’s social maturity. “They interact with kids from other classrooms and grow socially,” Owens says. “I find them friendlier, more open-minded, and welcoming. Even when they get in trouble, the Puente kids surprise me with their social and emotional growth.
“One boy in my class was able to talk through a conflict with a classmate, growing in understanding—not just returning punch for punch. Most people think about the academic impact, but there is so much influence on their character and sense of responsibility,” she adds.
Annabelle Gonzalez, the school secretary at Indian Knoll, says she considers all the children who attend the school to be “her” kids, and she bubbles over with enthusiasm for Puente, the staff and volunteers, and the impact they are having on “her kids” and their school community.
“What can I say? I love Puente,” she said. “I love Miss Rosie [Rosie Delgado, Puente’s Main Park Site Coordinator], and the staff and volunteers. The kids love them too.
“At the beginning of the day, they come to the office and ask, ‘Is there Puente today?’ Once, we had to cancel, and they were so disappointed.”
Naming each Puente staff member, Gonzalez says she has grown to love and respect every one of them. “They really are the kindest people, and it is wonderful to work with them. They are a blessing to Indian Knoll. They do a wonderful job and communicate so well with us.”
Gonzalez has special praise for the middle-school program, which also meets at Indian Knoll. “The staff working with middle schoolers have my respect. It is not hard to like someone who is easy, but middle schoolers really need patience, and Puente gives them that. It’s clear the staff and volunteers are truly rooting for them.”
Principal Bohrer advocates for Puente and passionately invites the broader community to surround at-risk children.
“We serve students who need additional resources to thrive in our environment,” he said, “and Puente is filling the gap. Hardworking families at Indian Knoll sometimes hold two or three jobs. Puente allows us one more opportunity for connection, offering a safe haven, a place to speak their own language and connect with the American culture they live in. This creates peace and stability for the kids so they can adjust and learn.”
For the Puente staff, moving the program to Indian Knoll brought their services to the next level. Director Matthew McNiel and coordinator Rosie Delgado specifically noted the expanded and well-resourced learning spaces and the availability of the computer lab. But even more valuable than the facilities, they say, the Puente program benefits greatly from the layers of relationship-building the new site allows.
“Our connection to the teachers has dramatically increased,” Matthew said. “We’re able to work as teammates, collectively contributing to student well-being.”
Home and School Connections
Rosie, whose role also includes case management oversight within the Main Park apartment complex (she also has an office there), has seen how that proximity has led to trusting relationships with the Puente families. Because she is also at the school each day, interacting with children, teachers, and staff, Rosie brings her community knowledge and case-management perspective to the after-school program.
By developing a relationship with the school social worker, for example, Rosie can offer holistic, integrated, and coordinated services to the children and their families. This ranges from small situations—notes from the social worker about a child’s difficult day—to life-changing moments like coordinating an emergency call to DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) together, or organizing a mental health intervention with a family.
“Several times, the school social worker and I have worked together on a crisis impacting the children and their families,” Rosie said. “I know the families well because I’m integrated both in the community and the school—so we can bring a higher, more holistic level of assistance to the whole family.”
“Plus, the teachers are my friends now,” she says. “I’ve even had opportunities to pray with teachers who were going through personal struggles.”
A Successful Partnership
One year after exuberantly saying, “You had me at hello!” Principal Bohrer continues to passionately support Puente del Pueblo.
“You can’t overemphasize the intangibles that Puente provides,” he says. “We do so much data testing, but really the answer is found in relationships. Programs like Puente del Pueblo have a place within the public schools—in West Chicago or anywhere else.”
The Indian Knoll teachers agree.
“Do I recommend Puente del Pueblo? Absolutely!” says third-grade teacher Katelyn Lyman. “Puente creates such genuine community. I love it.”
School secretary Gonzalez chimes in, “Puente is a delight, and I am so happy they are here at Indian Knoll.”
Principal Bohrer adds, “Sometimes people want to point fingers at problems and assign blame, but Puente isn’t blaming. They are stepping forward and making a change.”