Graduation day brings smiles, joy for GED recipients through Catholic Charities' Hispanic outreach

A graduate receives a hug and her graduation certificate from Maria Etienne, left, assistant director of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's Hispanic Outreach Services program in Pontiac, during a graduation ceremony June 12 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac. Thirty students received their elementary, middle school or GED certificates with help from the Catholic nonprofit agency. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic) 

Pontiac center offers 'little ray of hope' for underserved community through ESL classes, parenting support, job training and more

PONTIAC — It was a rickety old stage in the community hall of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac. But for Paola Ramirez Serrano, it was a threshold to a new life.

Serrano walked across the stage, shaking hands with Alicia Chang, education coordinator for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's Hispanic Outreach Services, and Fernando Gonzalez Saiffe, the consul of Mexico in Detroit, before receiving her General Educational Development certificate from Maria Etienne, CCSEM's assistant director of Hispanic Outreach Services.

The brief walk across the stage represented a journey of a lifetime, a life with a brighter future now for her and her three children.

“This is an exciting day, graduation day,” Serrano told Detroit Catholic. “I graduated with my GED, and I’m so happy.”

Serrano was one of 30 graduates at the June 12 ceremony earning certificates on the elementary, middle and GED level. The graduates completed their basic education requirements in Spanish through Catholic Charities' Hispanic Outreach Services program in partnership with the Consulate of Mexico.

Paola Ramirez Serrano, center (red hair), smiles as she and her classmates prepare to receive their certificates.

Serrano came to the United States when she was 14. She had to get a job immediately and never had the chance to finish school. With three children and limited English skills, returning to school seemed like an impossibility, until Serrano came across a Facebook ad for Catholic Charities’ Hispanic Outreach Center in Pontiac.

“They had a babysitter and day care, which was really incredible to complete my classes here,” Serrano said. “My goal is my kids: to get a better job, to go to college, to get the best education I can. I finished middle school in Mexico, but never had the chance to finish because no school had day care. But here, they help you with everything.”

See more photos from the graduation ceremony

“Helping with everything,” is the responsibility of Etienne, who manages the day-to-day operations of the Pontiac center.

Along with GED certification, the Hispanic Outreach Center also offers adult education and English as a second language classes, help signing up for social services, immigration and documentation assistance, health clinics and child care for the area’s underprivileged Hispanic population.

“Our services go back to the 1970s, when the Pontiac Urban League created the Hispanic Outreach Center,” Etienne said. “Back then we were on Huron Street in a little yellow house, we were then known as the ‘Friendly yellow house,’ in the Hispanic community.”

Graduation day was a family celebration for many of the graduates in attendance, who were able to complete their education in Spanish thanks to Catholic Charities' Hispanic Outreach Services.

Services at the “Friendly Yellow House” eventually moved to the Hispanic Outreach Center’s new location on the corner of West Pike and Williams streets in Pontiac, under the care of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.

“We do a lot of good in the community, and the staff is extremely welcoming,” Etienne said. 

One of the programs offered at the center is Project Hope, a pro-life ministry offered through Pennsylvania-based Real Alternatives that helps pregnant women find the support and services they need. 

“We have a person working with moms from conception until the child is a year old,” Etienne said. “We offer formulas, diapers and wipes, teaching soon-to-be mothers the skills they need, as well as help with clothing, food, and referrals to other services.

“We also have hygiene and health clinics, teaching people how to brush their teeth, care for themselves,” Etienne added. “We have volunteer adult mentors to teach people how to create a household budget, skills for finding employment, how to navigate legal paperwork. Really whatever someone new to this country needs.”

A graduate enters the reception hall at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac.

The Hispanic Outreach Center also receives assistance from Catholic Charities USA to hire staff to help clients with Medicaid enrollment, and a United Way grant provides life coaches to teach clients what it means to be self-sufficient.

“Anyone who walks through our doors can become self-sufficient,” Etienne said. “We know that someone who makes $30,000 a year won’t be able to support a family of six on their own, so we tell them where to get food stamps, where to look for a better job and help them get the skills to get that better job.”

'Everything is possible when you hit the books'

During graduation day at All Saints, Serrano was the class speaker for the cohort of 30 students, with five graduating from the elementary program, 15 from the middle school program and 10 earning their GEDs.

“Everything is possible when you hit the books,” Serrano said. “We need the GED to get to college, for anything else after high school. When I was in school, I was thinking of my sons, Anco and Axel, and my daughter, Romina; everything I do, I do for them.”

Paola Ramirez Serrano smiles with her children Anco, Axel and Romina after graduating with her GED on June 12.

The day of caps and gowns, balloons and cake was a happy one for the 30 graduates, and the culmination of years of work, said Chang, who personally taught many of the students.

“Some of them have been taking classes for three, four or five years, some started five months ago; it depends on their individual situation,” Chang said. “Most of our students come from Mexico, but we do have students from other Hispanic countries.”

Hispanic Outreach Services helped 354 individuals in the past year, including: 

  • 204 clients taking English classes in the ESL program;
  • 107 mothers participating in safety workshops, financial literacy classes, nutrition, parenting and life skills courses;
  • 78 who have obtained full-time jobs with the help of a job skills coach; and 
  • more than 40 youth attending summer camp programs to provide recreational and learning opportunities.

Four years ago, Michigan began allowing students to take GED exams in Spanish, which led to an increase in the number of students enrolled in Hispanic Outreach Services' educational program, Chang said.

A graduate poses for a picture with his daughter during a reception at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac.

“For a newcomer to come to a new country, learn a new language, and to pass the exam in that language is almost impossible,” Chang said. “They migrated to this country, worked hard to support their families. Many didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. For them to come here to the center to pick up English, learn a new skill and try to better their lives, it's really inspiring.”

After more than 40 years working with the Hispanic population in the area, Etienne has seen firsthand just how vital Catholic Charities' presence in Pontiac is. 

“If it wasn’t for these services, these folks would be totally neglected,” Etienne said. “We’re offering classes for kids, so they don’t run with street gangs or get involved with drugs. We provide tutoring for parents so they can better relate to their kids. 

The graduates toss their caps in celebration June 12. 

“We wouldn't have people graduating from high school and going to college if it wasn’t for our volunteers, people who dedicate their time,” Etienne added. “We are a little ray of hope, a small resource, to help these people better their lives. And their bravery and strength is truly inspiring.”

For Serrano and her three kids, enjoying graduation cake is not the end, but a new beginning to their lives.

“I tell my kids, they can do anything if they work hard enough, and today, I got to show them where hard work can get you,” Serrano said. “I never thought this could be possible, but when you see it, when you get it, and you have that support, you can do it. And if I can do it, anyone can. And for this, I’m so happy and grateful.” 

Catholic Charities' Hispanic Outreach Services

To learn more about how Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's Hispanic Outreach Services helps the community, visit