Cristina Cuellar sees it time and again. “Something beautiful happens
from freshman to sophomore year as they blossom into responsible young
men,” she says of the students of Verbum Dei High School.
Cuellar is the vice president of programming at Verbum Dei, a Catholic
Jesuit high school located in the Watts community of Los Angeles.
The school provides its all-male student body, made up of inner-city students,
a rigorous college prep curriculum complemented by a corporate work
Beginning their freshman year, students ages 14 and older are required
to work one day a week for one of the school’s corporate partners.
The list of partners includes a who’s who of Los Angeles businesses,
nonprofit entities and colleges, including KPMG, Loyola Law School, City
National Bank and Herbalife International, among many others. The
students fill entry-level employment needs at the job sites, and in exchange
companies pay a flat fee that mitigates the student’s tuition burden.
Last fall Cuellar and her colleague Joe Anlauf, vice president of
recruitment for Verbum Dei’s corporate work study program, coordinated
with Claire Coignard, director of health education at Torrance Memorial,
and Laura Schenasi, executive vice president of the Torrance Memorial
Foundation, to enlist Torrance Memorial as a new corporate partner. Four
students—freshman Anthony Rosales, sophomore Juanito Taylor,
junior Jason Guardado and senior Taliek Hill—were selected as the
first student recruits.
At 8 a.m. on their assigned work day, each teen meets at the Verbum Dei
auditorium, boards a school bus and commutes to Torrance Memorial, where
he is dropped off and picked up eight hours later. Each student spends
one day a week working in the health education department.
Their core routines support the daily operations of the HealthLinks store
located on the first floor of the West Tower. This includes assisting
customers with store purchases; packaging employee uniforms; cleaning
and entering payments for breast pumps being rented by new parents
and receiving, tagging and processing invoices for new retail merchandise.
Torrance Memorial is Hill’s third job through the program. The 6-foot-plus
teen plays on the Verbum Dei basketball team and serves as senior class
president. Hill spent his freshman year working at the California Science
Center and his sophomore and junior years at law firm Kirkland & Ellis,
where he learned organization and computer skills. He believes his position
at Torrance Memorial is providing key insights into a possible future
career as a psychiatrist.
“It’s really inclusive here [at Torrance Memorial], and they
make you feel good as a person,” Hill says. “I have learned
responsibility and also people skills. It has really opened my eyes. Because
of the health care aspects, it suits who I am as a person.”
Just beginning his work study, freshman Anthony Rosales is pondering
a career as a physician. He describes Torrance Memorial as a “second
“When I first got here, I was really nervous. They made me feel less
nervous,” he says. “I made a lot of mistakes, but they
taught me it’s OK and we all make mistakes.”
Facilitating those lessons is what is most rewarding for Coignard and her
team. She says reminders about putting away cell phones and making eye
contact with the customer have been on-the-job lessons that are “all
part of the learning process” for teens new to the workforce.
“The most beneficial thing that happens here is interacting
with people,” she says. “Anthony was so shy and timid. To
see the way he has allowed himself to be coached and challenged and to
see him connecting with people has been fantastic. They are the most polite,
humble, eager teenagers I’ve met. They are all so receptive to any
piece of feedback we give them.”
Anlauf says it’s such feedback that helps the students acquire less
tangible “soft skills” not learned in the classroom.
“It’s the guidance and mentorship that are critically important.
When we see former students at alumni events, we are always struck by
how poised they were beyond what we see in kids their age.”
As part of the experience, Coignard and her colleagues also work to ensure
the students are honing skills to meet their career goals. Hill recently
took initiative by asking if there was anyone at Torrance Memorial
he could speak with about his future field of study. Coignard and Cathy
Hargrove, manager of health education, facilitated an introduction to
Donald Watson, PhD, program director for Torrance Memorial’s Thelma
McMillen Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center.
Grateful someone was there to fill such a role early in his own career,
Dr. Watson accepted the challenge to “pay it forward.” He
meets weekly with Hill to exchange ideas to help Hill meet his goals.
Louise Cernansky and Anita Chun, assistants in health education, also
recently facilitated a request by Rosales to observe the inner workings
of the IT department.
According to Coignard it’s not just the students who benefit from
the partnership. The program also helps the medical center fulfill its
nonprofit mission to provide “community-building activities,”
which aren’t always readily available. Last year through its annual
board-approved community benefits plan, Torrance Memorial provided more
than $50 million in various types of community benefits, including programs
to prevent chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes,
obesity and lung cancer.
Due in part to rigorous academic curriculum and the high level of maturity
cultivated through Verbum Dei’s ambitious program, students at the
school have a 100% college acceptance rate. Hill is currently weighing
his options after receiving acceptance letters to a dozen colleges,
including Dillard University, Texas A&M and the University of
Plymouth. Coignard hopes additional hospital departments will offer positions
to Verbum Dei students in the future.
Anyone with an interest in learning more about the program may contact
Claire at: Claire.Coignard@tmmc.com.
Businesses interested in becoming a corporate partner should contact Joe
Anlauf at: email@example.com.