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Immigrant Builds Way Out of Early Humiliation

Unable to speak English, he struggled in school, but other abilities lead to an 'emotional payoff.'

October 15, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Catarino Gomez came up from Tijuana to join his mother when he was 11 years old. In Mexico, he'd been a bookish A student, but he spoke no English and was beyond the age when children absorb language the way they absorb oxygen.

For him, life at 10th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles was all bafflement and discouragement. On his first day, he thought the lunch bell meant school was over, and went home. People had to go out looking for him, and for the first of many times, he ended up in the principal's office.

Intimidated and forlorn in the classroom, he failed miserably. The small library at 10th Street Elementary might have offered solace, and Catarino sometimes would look with longing at the books there, but they were all locked tight in the strange, new language and would not yield their comforts.

In junior high school, a shop teacher named Mr. Shapiro recognized the boy's manual adeptness and took the student under his wing. Catarino's future soon was settled. He would work with his hands, not his head. He didn't even bother going to high school.

Yet over time, and by a most circuitous route, the handy boy and his thwarted love of books would reconnect in a way to benefit tens of thousands of children following in his footsteps.

He went to work in the construction industry, learning carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. Over time, he acquired the American nickname "Chuck," a wife and four children and, after working long hours, his own construction company, Richwood Interiors, which built and remodeled homes for wealthy people in the entertainment industry.

He also acquired flawless English, although the humiliation of his youth left him with a tendency to view life "through a window of pain," as he would later say.

A decade ago, Gomez was struck by an insight when he approached his oldest son about taking over the business.

"No way I'm going to work six days a week, 12 and 14 hours a day like you do," his son told him.

Gomez realized that his work had left him too little time for his family. He determined that he would be no stranger to his youngest child, a girl then 3.

So he went to work from 8 to 5 as a construction manager for Pacific Theatres, whose chief executive, Christopher Forman, had been a client.

About that time, at a company retreat, Pacific employees decided on an ambitious campaign to expand, renovate and restock the long-neglected public elementary school libraries in L.A. A nonprofit organization called the Wonder of Reading was spun off, and soon Gomez was called upon to lend his construction expertise.

In 1995, the organization's first year, Gomez oversaw the reconstruction of libraries at Carthay Center Elementary and Canoga Park Elementary, with funds raised by Wonder of Reading and the individual schools, plus some money from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At first, Gomez recruited architects to design the new libraries for free. But as Wonder of Reading's efforts snowballed, and more and more schools lined up for refurbished libraries, the pro bono architects bowed out.

Gomez decided to do the design work himself, and devised a template that could be adapted to the peculiarities of any school.

In essence, the design involves a large control desk, an amphitheater for reading aloud, private reading stations where children can be tutored, a minimum of 120 linear feet of new wooden bookshelves, new oak tables and chairs, and wall-to-wall carpeting in two classrooms that have been joined by the removal of the wall between them.

To date, the erstwhile immigrant boy has transformed 106 cramped libraries into spacious, colorful places where the love of reading is stimulated and fed. He is currently rebuilding libraries, which cost about $100,000 each when all private and public sources of funding are taken into account, at the rate of 22 a year.

Although getting the necessary approvals and funding for a new library can take nine months, once construction begins, Gomez's passion for efficiency and economy kicks in. Working with a 10-member construction crew he trained himself, he typically completes a project in eight to 10 weeks. The crew has experienced little turnover in eight years.

"They can do the work blindfolded," Gomez said.

Last spring, Gomez was approaching completion of 100 school libraries on time and on budget.

"But the 100th one had to be rescheduled because the project manager for the school district side failed to read the assessment report, and there was asbestos that had to be dealt with, which added 10 more days to the job," he said. "I was brokenhearted. At first, I never dreamed we could make 100 on time and on budget, but as it grew nearer, I could almost taste it."

Wonder of Reading finessed the situation by giving the May 30, 2003, grand opening date of the delayed library at San Jose Elementary in Mission Hills to the library at 99th Street School in South L.A., which had been completed but wasn't scheduled to open until later.

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