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New dreams for Powderhorn teens: Mentor program wins award

Students at Risen Christ School in South Minneapolis participate in "Imagine the Possibilities," a mentoring program designed by St. Kate's alumnae.
Students at Risen Christ School in South Minneapolis participate in "Imagine the Possibilities," a mentoring program designed by St. Kate's alumnae.
Photo by Christina Capecchi

It all begins with a proper handshake. No more slack hands, mumbled names or downcast eyes.

That’s the first lesson the mentors at Risen Christ School in South Minneapolis instilled in the eighth-graders they visited this year, when they launched a program called “Imagine the Possibilities.” Over the course of half a dozen meetings, 11 local executives shared insights on making a good first impression, the importance of good grades and the success that comes from solid business plans.

The program was designed and directed by three alumnae who credit their experience at St. Catherine University for cultivating a deep-seated appreciation for mentorship: Fran Rusciano Murnane ’65, director of advancement at Risen Christ; Helen Kluck Dahlman ’75, president of Risen Christ; and Liz Guernsey Ramsey ’78, the school’s principal.

The “Imagine the Possibilities” program was a sweeping success at Risen Christ. It will resume this fall, involving more mentors who will advise both seventh grade and eighth grade students.

Overcoming adversity

To have those students charting college and career plans is a welcome development for Risen Christ. The 18-year-old Catholic school exists in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Powderhorn Park, which has already endured three homicides this year. Nine out of 10 Risen Christ students live at or below the poverty line of a $24,000 annual income for a family of four, according to Murnane.

“They just don’t have the options that middle-class kids have because there aren’t the resources,” says Murnane. “It isn’t just the financial resources but the resource of space at home, the resource of experience. It’s the resource of having two parents who have the time to sit down with you and talk about your future and what you want to do.”

One group of eighth-graders at Risen Christ got to spend time with Prince Wallace, CEO of Independent Packaging Services in Crystal, Minn. He grew up in the Bahamas in a house that didn’t have electricity or running water.

“I used to be one of those students,” he said. “Once they understand where I came from and then see where I am they say, ‘Wow, it can happen.’”

Wallace reviewed his students’ grades during his visits to Risen Christ, talking to a bespectacled boy pulling a C+ in math.

“It sounds like you have the capability, right? So math, that’s where you really need to work. You can go very far with that. Nothing else matters. Getting good grades and getting into college — that’s the ticket.”

“I’m actually passing math for the first time,” a girl told Wallace.

Wallace urged her to seek out tutelage whenever she needed it. “That’s a responsibility on your shoulders, nobody else’s,” he said.

Preparing students to pursue their dreams

Before Mentor Juan Ramirez met his group of eighth-graders, none of the students had considered entrepreneurship.

Ramirez, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, who owns Marcelita’s Cookies in Minneapolis and ships gourmet goods across the country, shared his experience in business with the group at Risen Christ. The students were fascinated by the stories Ramirez shared, developing excitement for the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur or pursuing another career path.    

“Just learning about business kind of gets me into it,” said Arturo Diaz-Martinez, a tall, outgoing 13-year-old. “Maybe this is what I want to do. I like a challenge.”

During his final session for “Imagine the Possibilities,” Ramirez asked his students what their professional aspirations were.

“A lawyer and an FBI agent,” said Samantha Paredes Ariza, a petite 14-year-old with a quick laugh.

“Un arquitecto,” said Patricio Jara, a quiet 14-year-old.

 “A doctor who studies cancer,” said 13-year-old Anile Morales.

“A doctor that cures cancer because my mom had cancer,” said Elizabeth Guiracocha, 14, whose long hair covered her face.

“You need to have a dream,” Ramirez told the students. “And after the dream, what comes next?”

“Preparation,” Morales said.

“Exactly.”  

Outside the classroom, Ramirez described the joy of mentoring students at Risen Christ School. “We tell them this is the land of opportunity, and truly whatever they want to do, they can.” 

Award-winning program

For all the straight talk and tough love among the group, the eighth-graders often asked Murnane when their mentors would visit next. One group even requested an additional session with their mentor, which was arranged.

“Imagine the Possibilities” was recently honored with the 2011 program award from the Minnesota Independent School Forum. The award ceremony brought Murnane and her colleagues Helen Dahlman and Liz Ramsey back to St. Kate’s, a full-circle moment on a warm May evening when the cherry blossoms were open wide. It was a chance to recognize the fruits of seeds planted decades ago, back when these alumnae were St. Kate’s students. 

“The best thing about ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ is that it expands the world of our students,” said Dahlman, principal of Risen Christ. “By forming relationships with successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, they can see themselves in those positions too. What was once unknown or seemingly out of reach is now not only possible but probable.

“My experience at St. Kate’s was similar,” she continued. “By forming relationships with strong women leaders, teachers and mentors, I could see myself in those types of positions. I did not have to limit myself to certain careers.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were the brightest lights among those role models, adds Murnane, who is a CSJ consociate. “They inspired and demanded the best we had to give. And they were so encompassing in their outreach – to everybody and anybody in need. ‘Divide the city’ is what they used to say. Go where the needs are.”

(Pictured below are alumnae Liz Guernsey Ramsey ’78, Fran Rusciano Murnane ’65 and Helen Kluck Dahlman ’75.)

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July 27, 2011 by Christina Capecchi

See also: Alumnae/i, Business, Catholic Identity, Social Justice