At Casa de Amistad, tutors find a second calling

It’s not always the whiz-kids blazing a path toward college that hit John Gunther the hardest. Sometimes, it’s the kids he didn’t think wanted his help to begin with.

Like Jose, for example. Gunther didn’t have the highest of hopes when he started tutoring the high school junior two years ago through Casa de Amistad, an afterschool program for underserved youth in Solana Beach.

Nearly 250 kids of all ages from across coastal North County clamor each year for a coveted spot in the academic oasis Casa has cultivated in the 16 years since it grew out of the church’s Hispanic ministry.

But Jose, he couldn’t be bothered.

“I didn’t know why he was in the program, quite honestly,” Gunther said. “I thought, ‘He’s not going to last, he doesn’t care about school, he has no goals.’”

Gunther — a retired math teacher and baseball coach — stuck with the disinterested teen, coaxing him as best he could to study or take up anything school-related. No matter what it took, he had to keep Jose talking. As the weeks turned into months, their conversation touched more often on their favorite music than it did on math, and the most Jose would say about his future was a tepid acknowledgment that junior college was a possibility.

And then, midway through Jose’s senior year, something clicked. His outlook turned around. He took ownership of his academics. He would even talk at length about the four-year universities he had started looking at.

By the end of the school year, Jose had charted a course to Cal State Dominguez Hills — to become a teacher, like his tutor.

For 30 years, Gunther taught middle school and high school at a handful of San Diego schools. After retiring, the Solana Beach resident poured his attention full-time into coaching the UC San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene baseball teams. But before long, he couldn’t fend off his yearning to do something more.

“As a Christian, I want to help people,” he said. “The question is how I can contribute not only to society in general but to people in need here.”

For the past four years, that’s meant carving out a couple hours one night a week to join the 200 other tutors. Their charges are mostly low-income or at-risk students who face an array of obstacles to academic success, said Nicole Mione-Green, Casa de Amistad’s program director. For many, she said, their parents want to help but lack English skills, let alone the experience needed to make sense of Common Core curriculum. A lot of the students’ homes lack essential technologies. Even a proper desk or decent lighting aren’t a given.

What is a given is that as another school year gets underway this month, the rush for Casa’s coveted spots will invariably end in a waiting list more than 50 kids long.

“Everything is very much based on our volunteers,” she said. “We could take more students, but we want to keep it intimate because a lot of it is relationship building. For many of these kids, this is their only time to have a mentor.”

A push in STEM subjects the last few years has helped Casa tap into the area’s abundance of retired engineers and scientists. Casa also draws a good number of college students — especially from MiraCosta College and Cal State San Marcos — as well as high schoolers from Torrey Pines High School, Canyon Crest Academy and San Dieguito Academy.

But the technically disinclined needn’t be scared off from volunteering, Mione-Green said: Casa trains its tutors to use a range of skills that reach far beyond a night’s homework.

“Everybody’s here because we believe in these kids, and everybody believes in the power of education. We always say the tutoring is the hook that gets the kids in, but it’s really about having a positive person in their life,” she said. “That ripple effect, it’s affecting generations. It’s one kid at a time breaking that cycle to go to college, and you know it’s going to change that family and their whole community forever.”

That’s exactly what happened when Casa hosted its 2nd annual Future Leaders Award banquet this June. Jose was among several grads who had won a Casa scholarship to help defray the costs of college.

He thought he might get a few hundred dollars. Inside the envelope he found a check for $6,000 and note for a new laptop.

When Jose took to the podium, he searched the crowd for the man sitting next to his mother, the one who had refused to give up on him.

“He stands up there and he thanks me,” Gunther recalled, choking back his emotions. “Then he says, ‘You’re my role model.’ That sort of thing hits you with what a privilege it is to meet these kids and go through this experience. These are powerful, powerful kids.”

That’s why Gunther will be right back in the mix as Casa’s new school year starts up again — eager to reunite with his returning students and to take on one or two new ones. Because who knows who they might become someday. All he has to do is keep talking.

“I’ve had some amazing experiences getting to know these kids,” he said. “We’re finding out who these young people are and how amazing they are. When you spend time and talk to them, there’s some incredible stories.”

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