First Unitarian Schools

By Lex Hemphill


Salt Lake City Unitarians, who so espouse the principles of social justice, have had a bit of an East-meets-West dilemma in that regard. First Church is perched on the more prosperous east side of town, while those most in need of social justice reside on the less affluent west side.

But the Unitarians bridged that gap somewhat heroically for the better part of two decades, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s, through a pair of very successful partnerships, one after the other, with two west-side elementary schools, Edison and Mountain View.

The volunteer efforts by Unitarians in these two endeavors was perhaps presaged by a sermon delivered by Rev. Tom Goldsmith on Feb. 2, 1992, titled “Volunteerism and Social Policy.” Lamenting the effect of the Reagan-Bush years on less fortunate Americans, Goldsmith proclaimed the imperative that social action must become a “central purpose” of his congregation.

“The question is what part this church will play in the evolutionary changes in society’s attitudes towards dependent people,” preached Goldsmith, then only four and a half years into his ministry at First Church. “I have faith that we will become major contributors to the gradual revolution. I know this church congregation cares very deeply about what goes on beyond the confines of this building.”

The Unitarian call to action from the east side was soon met on the west side by an escalating need for assistance, created by an influx of international refugees to the United States. In the 1990s, many of these refugees were victims of violence in war-torn places like the former Yugoslavia and the African nations of Sudan, Somalia, and others. And a fair number of them were relocated to Salt Lake City, where an International Rescue Committee office was opened in 1994 due to the influx here.

Many of the refugee families resettled in the west-side neighborhoods of Poplar Grove and Glendale, and the children attended the local elementary schools like Edison and Mountain View. The two schools are only about two miles away from each other, both a short distance east of Redwood Road. And they have street addresses that bespoke their rung on the economic ladder: Edison is on Cheyenne Street and Mountain View on Navajo Street.

Suddenly, at both schools, there were more than 20 languages being spoken. The children came from families who were extremely poor. But the schools were fortunate to have principals who understood that their schools needed to be more than places of learning and that they needed outside help. Those principals were Julie Miller at Edison Elementary and, later, John Erlacher at Mountain View. And they found some of that outside help from the First Unitarian Church.


            Edison School

Julie Miller arrived at Edison School for the 1994-95 school year, and it didn’t take her long to see what “at-risk” meant. Most of the students were poor (98 percent were eligible for free or reduced-fee lunch), many of them couldn’t speak English (for 60 percent of them, English was a second language), and some of them had very little schooling. There were immigrant children from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere. “Each subsequent group that came brought their own issues and insecurities,” she said.

One night, Miller related, she got a late phone call informing her that a Serbian second-grader had not come home from school that day. Miller went down to the school in the middle of the night, and she and others desperately started calling parents. They finally found the boy, asleep in the home of an Hispanic child. It seems that the two had been playing together at school, and afterward, unsure of where to go or who to ask, the Serbian boy just followed his new friend home.

“The next day,” Miller said, “we (teachers and staff) got together and said, ‘This is not school as usual.’ . . . And the cruel master was poverty.” To address the problems at the overcrowded school (it was operating at 40 percent beyond capacity), Miller and her staff created the Edison Project, an effort to get community, business and church leaders involved. They put together a group of community partners, and one of them was the First Unitarian Church, which had been looking for a social justice project.

Early in Miller’s third year at Edison, Goldsmith and church member Andrea Globokar came to the school for a tour, and eventually Edison wrote a proposal for the Unitarians. Out of that came the church’s Refugee Resettlement Committee, spearheaded by the indefatigable Globokar, which collected and delivered furniture and household goods to the Edison immigrant families.

In January of 1997, Goldsmith used his column in The Torch to urge his congregants to get involved in the church’s new partnership with Edison. He described the school’s circumstances and needs, and he asked for volunteers to participate in student tutoring, parent education and assistance, computer training, and the work of the Resettlement Committee. “After extensive research into the whole realm of issues facing urban education,” Goldsmith wrote, “I am confident that Edison School is the right place for us to begin our outreach. As a church, we must begin dealing with the inequities staring at us from across town.”

And at that urging, the Unitarian volunteers came to help Edison. They tutored the children, they delivered goods to the families, they transported people to doctor and dentist appointments, and in one school year (1998-99), they put in over 4,000 volunteer hours at Edison. Miller called them “a legion of unsung heroes.”

Then, in 1999, First Church hosted the Unitarian Universalist Association”s annual convention. By tradition, the Unitarians organize a locally oriented community project in the host city. The project this time, in Salt Lake City, was called “Empty Shelves,” in which local and visiting Unitarians purchased and donated $30,000 worth of books for the library at Edison School. Some of the donors inscribed the books with their name and home city, and some even wrote personal notes to the students. Miller said, “We were overwhelmed.”

After 10 years at Edison, Julie Miller was reassigned to Wasatch Elementary in 2004. But the Unitarians had one more contribution to make to Edison. Miller had wanted to create a lending library, since most of the students had no books at home. And so the Unitarians earmarked all of the proceeds from their annual auction in November of 2004 to the “Eagles Soar” program at Edison, enabling the school to open a take-home library for students in grades 1 through 4. The lending library contained over 4,000 volumes.

After Miller departed and with the change in administration at Edison School, the Unitarian involvement and connection with the school began to fade. The Unitarians stayed to oversee the Eagles Soar program through 2005, but that was to be the end of the Unitarian-Edison partnership.


Mountain View Elementary

In 2005, the church created a search team to find another school with which to form an Edison-like partnership. The members of this group were Rev. Goldsmith, Hugh and Jan Gillilan, and dedicated Edison volunteers Louise Ewing, Judy Smith and Chris Fonnesbeck. They looked at several schools before deciding to move just a couple of miles south to Mountain View Elementary, which, like Edison, had a large number of immigrant students and multiple languages spoken.

“We liked John Erlacher,” said Ewing of the Mountain View principal. “They said they could work with us. Anyone we could give them to volunteer, they could place us.”

In his Torch column on September 5, 2005, Goldsmith wrote excitedly about the new partnership: “The principal and volunteer coordinator have an entirely different approach to how our church may relate to the school. . . . I have never been more impressed by two professionals, John (Erlacher) and Anna (Lolohea), working in tandem to provide the best for their school while truly caring for their volunteers.”

When the Mountain View-Unitarian partnership began in the 2005-06 school year, the different approach referenced by Goldsmith was exemplified by some creative new outlets for the church’s volunteers. One was Erlacher’s innovative Star Store, where the students, many of whom had no concept of shopping, could learn the value of money and how to spend it. The students earned “Starbucks” through good behavior and then, once a month, could spend them in the Star Store, which was stocked with school supplies and other trinkets. Much of the store’s inventory was supplied through Unitarians’ donations, and Unitarian volunteers also staffed the store, along with Mountain View PTA members.

Another volunteering venture was sewing jumpers for the Muslim refugee girls. In the very first year, a crew of more than a dozen Unitarian women sewed a total of 52 jumpers. The young Muslim students liked wearing the ankle-length, loose-fitting jumpers, which also helped them comply with the school dress code. In succeeding years, volunteer Vickie Venne made many more jumpers for the students.

Of course, the greatest impact was made by the Unitarian tutors. Said Erlacher, “The biggest thing was the tutoring. They were some dedicated volunteers. The kids just loved them. . . . I wanted it to be a reinforcing thing for the volunteers too. I didn’t want the volunteers to be doing minutiae, like Xeroxing or something.”

In 2010, Erlacher left Mountain View; he moved across the yard to become the principal at Glendale Middle School. As was the case at Edison, the departure of the principal at Mountain View took some of the spirit out of the Unitarian partnership. Said Ewing, “We felt more constrained at Mountain View after John Erlacher left.”

The volunteering continued for a couple of more years before fading out. But in any of the 20 or more languages spoken at Edison and Mountain View, the west-side refugee kids were grateful for the attention they received from the east-side Unitarians.