Mary Howell, Special to the Catholic Virginian

Imagine you are young and have only recently arrived in this country. While many students at your new school are involved with sports and other extracurricular activities, you don’t understand English well enough to fit in.

That’s when a program such as the Sacred Heart Center’s ExcELL (for    English Language Learners) can make all the difference.

Drawing on her previous job as an English as a Second Language teacher at Chesterfield County’s Meadowbrook High School, Deirdre Gill, Sacred Heart Center’s youth programs coordinator, obtained funding and lined up        community partners to launch the  program for recent immigrants aged 14 to 18.

In September, ExcELL’s first class of 13 teens, most from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, began meeting each Monday after school.

“Our staff believe that creating a sense of community is a critical first step in helping new arrivals make a successful transition,” Gill said. “So, we spent the first few weeks on teambuilding and getting to know each other.”

The youngsters gained perspective on their new hometown by walking the Belle Island pedestrian bridge, visiting Tredegar Ironworks and going to see a bilingual exhibit at the Valentine Museum. With support from the Blue Sky Fund, they also went rock climbing at Peak Experience and canoeing on the James River.

In November, ExcELL students started an art module led by Alfonso Perez, an artist from Colombia. As a warm-up exercise, he had each student write his or her name with the opposite hand they normally use and draw    continuously for two minutes without lifting the pencil from the page. He then directed them to draw whatever they’d like using charcoal.

Several students created scenes from the countries they’d left behind. Smee, a 9th grader from the Dominican Republic, called his composition “Lonesome Tree,” while his younger brother, Chrismelfy, drew a large white flower. As each shared their creations, 16-year-old Osman declared Chrismelfy’s work looked like Monja Blanca, the national flower of his homeland, Guatemala.

“Our next module will include a visit to a music studio,” said Gill, explaining that her plan is for each    student to use the visual stories they create during the art module to write and produce a music video.

Tucked into a former school on Richmond’s Southside across from Sacred Heart Church, the Sacred Heart Center has provided innovative educational programs for children and adults for more than 25 years. In 2011, in response to the growing Spanish-speaking congregation of its parish, the center refocused its mission to serve the Latino community.

When asked how the current turmoil regarding immigrants in the U.S. has impacted their programs, the center’s executive director, Tanya Gonzalez, said growing support has    allowed the center to be responsive to community needs.

As an example, the Sacred Heart Center received a $100,000 grant this year from Impact 100 Richmond. It is using the grant to launch a legal assistance program that will help immigrant families experiencing detention and/or deportation remain together.

“We are grateful that new funding sources have almost doubled our annual budget, from about $500,000 to around $900,000,” she said. “We hope to maintain strong community support to be able to sustain our existing and new programs.”

Gill looks forward to expanding the ExcELL program and is confident that the process of making friends, gaining experiences and creating a visual autobiography will give its participants a stronger sense of community and foundation for their futures.

“Our hope is that these students will build relationships with our partner organizations, perhaps by participating in our summer programs that will continue to build their language skills and contacts, helping transform their dreams and ambitions into reality.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Sacred Heart Center, its mission and programs, please visit or call (804) 230-4399.