After-school champions
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 23, 2004
Salvation Army program molds youths

Kevin Blocker

Modesto De La Cruz and his wife, Jeanette De La Cruz, believe they're in the right place, doing the right kind of work.

That place: The Salvation Army just south of downtown Chandler, where the couple are working to provide a positive future for dozens of disadvantaged kids.

Since they started working for the Salvation Army in September, the number of students registered in the after-school program has jumped to 69 from nine.

The couple from New York City have brought structure to a program that has never really had much in its four years of existence, people associated with the program say.

"It has been a revolving door," said Chandler Salvation Army Maj. Luis Martinez. "It's hard to find people willing to make the commitment to make a difference for youth."

The Salvation Army's free after-school program runs from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Two classrooms of students are separated by gender. Jeanette teaches the girls, Modesto has the boys.

Students work on academics from 3 to 4 p.m. Though 69 kids are registered, attendance tends to be sporadic.

A hot meal is served from 4 to 4:30 p.m., and until they are picked up at 6, the children are given homework help and the opportunity to socialize and play games.

"These children are so far behind in school," Modesto said. "There are so many broken homes."

He also describes the neighborhood surrounding Chandler's Salvation Army, 85 E. Saragosa St., as the "poorest I've ever seen." Strong words from someone who grew up in some of New York City's toughest neighborhoods.

De La Cruz recalls telling a lethargic student he needed to get more sleep. The boy told him he lives in a home with eight people and there is only one bed.

Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the De La Cruzes say they see hope.

"Their parents are quite eager to see that they have a better way of life," Jeanette said. "Many of the parents can't even read or write in their native Spanish, but they want to make sure their kids know how to speak and write in Spanish and English."

Neither Rosendo Soto nor Maria Castillo speak English. But they want to make sure their son, Christian Soto, develops the skills necessary to have a good life in America.

With Modesto De La Cruz translating, Castillo said she has seen a difference in her son's attitude about school since he started the after-school program.

"I like it a lot because the children are learning," Castillo said.

Jose Lopez, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, said he enjoys the three hours he spends at the Salvation Army.

"They help me with my homework; it's fun," Lopez said. "I'd probably be at home watching TV."

Nine-year-old Ivan Sandoval said he wants to be a doctor.

"I want to help people," he said.

But De La Cruz knows these kids have a long way to go.

"You pull out a map and tell them to point to Mexico - they point to Africa," he said.

One recent day, 45 minutes into the program, 15-year-old Steven Perez, a Chandler High School freshman, entered the building.

De La Cruz said Perez is the oldest student registered.

"I'm here to stay out of trouble," Perez said.

Later, he admits he hasn't thought much about life after high school.

That's when Modesto put his arm around Perez for some encouragement.

"Well, we're just going to have to have a talk about that," he said.