PAYSON – What began with a phone call has not only changed lives for Latino students at Payson High School, but has earned a local teacher an award for volunteerism and service. Ivan Cardenas, who works as a liaison in Nebo School District for ESL students and their families and as the Latinos in Action Advisor at PHS, recently received the Community Champions Award from Molina Healthcare.
It all started three years ago when Cardenas received a phone call from Jose Enriquez, the founder of Latinos in Action. He invited Cardenas and others at the school to attend the annual LIA conference.
“We didn’t have enough time to organize to send a lot of people, so I attended the event alone,” Cardenas said. “I loved the conference and I saw the power that LIA could bring to our school.”
Cardenas started pushing for LIA at Payson High.
“Students in LIA take a leadership course and are then trained as paraprofessionals,” Cardenas said. “They basically work as teachers’ aids in the elementary schools helping any bilingual students increase their math and reading skills. They also get to perform community service, which gives them a chance to give back to their community.”
Cardenas shared all of the data and information and the positive aspects of having the program at the school.
“The principal agreed that this was important and we were able to start the program in the 2010-2011 school year,” Cardenas said. “We started the class with 35 students who had a lot of enthusiasm.”
Cardenas set a GPA of 2.0 to remain in the class and watched as students increased their GPAs to remain in the program.
Nebo School District has the highest Latino community in the state and students were benefiting from the program, not only in their schoolwork, but also in the high school environment.
“LIA gives the students an opportunity to feel a part of the high school,” Cardenas said. “Before, if there was a language barrier, they didn’t feel like they belonged, so they would quit coming to school. LIA has changed the high school environment. They feel involved and are able to give back. It has been so satisfying to watch these students grow. To see them walk across the stage and receive their diploma and have a drive for success has given me a lot of personal and professional satisfaction. For many of these students they are the first high school graduates in their family.”
Cardenas also used the program to invite any bilingual student, Latino or not, to participate.
“If we have a bilingual Polynesian student in high school, then odds are we have a Polynesian student on the elementary level who might be struggling with math or reading,” Cardenas said. “I encouraged any bilingual student to join and to be able to contribute to the community.”
The community service hours given by LIA members have not only benefited students on college applications, but each year Cardenas reports the service hours for the students and they each receive the Presidential Service Award from the President of the United States.
“This is huge for the students,” Cardenas said. “At our school award night they receive the certificate, a letter and a pin.”
Many students have benefited from Cardenas’ efforts as well.
James Lopez was involved in LIA before he graduated and went to Utah Valley University. He recently served as the president of LIA at UVU.
“In high school I really liked the opportunity of being in LIA to help the kids by tutoring them and making a difference,” Lopez said. “When we attended the LIA conferences we were able to meet other kids and find out about colleges and scholarships. It helped me to get involved on the college level. At UVU, I was motivated to make a bigger difference. As students we planned the service projects ourselves and it gave us a lot more responsibility. We had to take charge and show initiative.”
Ana Lopez has participated in LIA for three years, two in high school and one year in junior high.
“I love the class atmosphere,” Ana Lopez said. “Everyone is so friendly and we learn a lot about what colleges we can attend and how we can give service in the community.”
It wasn’t a surprise for students to find out that Cardenas received an award for his service and volunteerism.
“Ivan is such a great person,” Ana Lopez said. “Inside the classroom he is nice and teaches us about giving back. Outside the classroom he shows us to do extra for others. He does everything he can to help people out.”
Cardenas received a plaque and a $1,000 grant for the nonprofit organization of his choice at the Community Champions Awards Event held at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Six other champions from Utah received the award. Cardenas presented the $1,000 grant to LIA to use for supplies and fundraisers.
“Ivan’s drive to give back to his community is what makes him an important role model not only to his students but community members as well,” Chad Westover, president of Molina Healthcare Utah, said in a news release. “He takes his job to the next level by teaching all those around him the importance of contribution and extending a helping hand.”
“I met a lot of amazing people who received the award and felt very small compared to them,” Cardenas said. “But we all give back in our own way. I feel very lucky to have been nominated and to receive the award. It was very emotional for me and I am very grateful.”