South Salt Lake Promise program helps youths thrive in community centers

July 15, 2015
Author: Sandra Olney

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Politicians are renowned for making promises they don't keep. But South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood may be different than most. Mayor Wood is using the Promise Department she created to try and honor her commitments, especially to the city's youth.

Eleven-year-old Dikshya Kuikel has been coming to after-school and summer programs at the Historic Scott School Arts and Community Center for the past two years. "I've been having a lot of fun. We've been doing activities and we've been playing. It's just really fun here," says Kuikel.

Whether school is out for the day or for the summer, Kuikel is learning. On the day we visit the center, kids are participating in a lesson about Egyptian hieroglyphics using a rap song. Wood said, "We have a large population of refugees and we want them to feel a part of our community."

The Historic Scott School is one of 10 neighborhood centers in South Salt Lake's Promise program. Here, the city says it is keeping a promise to more than 2,400 children to make sure that every young person has the opportunity to attend and graduate from college.

Kari Cutler is director of the South Salt Lake Promise Department. She said, "Keeping them busy, keeping them happy, helping them to be purposeful and then really working toward that educational attainment" is all part of giving students a chance at success.

It is part of the city's pledge to inspire kids like Kuikel who tells us she wants to be "a doctor or even a computer specialist." And who better to help these students, many of whom are still learning English, than Education majors from Westminster College.

Lexa Westbrooks will be a senior in Westminster's Elementary Education program this fall. "So, by doing this we're helping improve their English but also promoting learning, and they're having a great time doing it," said Westbrooks.

It's a partnership between South Salt Lake Promise and Westminster that senior Aimee Nguyen has been both observing and participating in. "The most important thing is that everybody is benefitting from the collaboration. And so, we get to come in and practice and it's so important to be engaged in the community when you're actually learning," Nguyen said

The youngsters thrive on the interaction with the Westminster student mentors. Kuikel said, "(The mentorship) just means a lot to me because at home I don't get time to do my homework because I have chores and I have to watch my sisters."

The environment at the centers is designed to help South Salt Lake fulfill another promise to the community. Wood describes that promise by saying, "Everybody has the opportunity to live in a safe, clean home and neighborhood."

At the Hser Ner Moo Center, a safe place to learn is tucked right inside a housing complex. "You come here on any given day and you're going to see youth and families from all over the world interacting with each other and sharing their talents and their interests," says Mark Lowe, Hser Ner Moo Community Center manager.

The sharing of talents gave Domeniko Ardadi the boost he needed to graduate from high school. And now, he's paying his success forward. "I graduated but I still want to be here because I still want to help some people because they helped me before. So, I want to help other people to get good grades," said Ardadi.

Lowe points to the fact that "19 seniors have graduated from high school the past two years from the Hser Ner Moo Center, and that's over a 90 percent graduation rate."

And young people in the Promise program seem to be staying out of trouble. South Salt Lake police say juvenile crime in the city is down 62 percent in the critical 3 to 6 p.m. hours. "So that's a huge improvement. We're giving the kids a reason to come and connect, come be a part of our community," said Wood.

Combining these efforts also helps the community to keep its third and final promise to give every citizen the chance to be healthy and prosper. Cutler said, "We really understand that everyone has gifts to share and that we really can make each other whole but we have to have a safe place to do that."

Ardadi feels his life has been changed by the program. "I like to thank them (Promise program) a lot because they helped me and they be my friends and everything so I like to thank them."

More than 96 percent of the funds to run the Promise Department come from donations. Some are from philanthropic organizations and the city has also tapped into grants for funds.