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‘So many doors have opened’

Grad with Grit: Marco Guzman

When you meet Marco Guzman, you know he’s a proud dad right away because he immediately wants to talk about his 1 ½-year-old daughter, Leilani.

“I always used to care what people thought of me and was doing stuff that I shouldn’t be doing,” Marco explained. “She changed my whole perspective on how I look at things. I don’t care that I am wearing my freshman clothes or don’t have new shoes or pants, as long as she is getting the stuff she needs.”

And Marco easily admits that it was the birth of his daughter that was the catalyst for changing his life.

Marco Guzman with his daughter, Leilani, which he said means heavenly flower in Hawaiian (courtesy)

“The moment I saw her, I knew I had to kick it in gear,” Marco said. “I had messed up my school and I wanted to change. I had to change, because I wanted her to know that she could succeed.”

Something to Prove

The son of Juan and Veronica Guzman, Marco is the youngest of six children. He has spent most of his life in Kentwood, attending Kelloggsville Public Schools. At age 4, Marco was introduced to boxing and quickly developed a passion for it. Fast-forward a few years, and he has competed in several local boxing competitions such as the Michigan Golden Gloves tournament, where in 2018 he received a youth novice award in his weight division. He also participated on the Kelloggsville football team and, he said, was doing well at school until about his sophomore year.

“I am a person who is shorter than everyone else, so I always felt like I had to prove something,” Marco said. “I would just stand up to everyone. I just didn’t care. I was wild, and I was just going deeper into a hole.”

He transferred to Kelloggsville’s 54th Street Academy and met four people, he credits as having helped steer him to make better life choices. There was the English teacher, Alyssha Ginzel — who now teaches at Caledonia Public Schools — who “got me to sit up and pay attention,” he said with a laugh, adding that she also motivated and encouraged him to complete his assignments. There also was math teacher Brody Conway, who supported Marco by listening and helping with his school work.

“He would stay after class and meet me whenever it was possible,” Marco said of Conway. 

But the change in environment was not yet enough to motivate Marco, who admits he was still coming to class late and not paying attention. That was until the 54th Street Academy Principal Jeremy Palmitier — who has since become the principal at Kelloggsville East Elementary — called Marco and a friend to his office.

“I had gotten in trouble — again,” recalled Marco, who said Palmitier had been a champion for him. “This was my last chance, and he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got a child on the way and what are you going to do? Are you going to make a change?’”

The next introduction was to Brandon Kimble at Project NorthStar.

Marco Guzman walked across the Kelloggsville High School stage on May 11 to celebrate graduation

Two-fold Goal

Project NorthStar has had many names. It started as WEA, named for the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, and was later renamed WOIA, for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act in 2014.

“We decided that the program needed a name other than WIOA, and started calling it Project NorthStar,” said Karen Wolhuis, Project NorthStar/JMB program coordinator for Kent ISD. 

Over the past 15 years the program’s mission has remained the same: to help youth ages 16 to 24 who face a number of challenges such as low income, are pregnant or already parents, have contact with foster programs or the justice system, or just need assistance to succeed as adults. The Project NorthStar team works with students on academics, workplace and life skills so students can graduate, attend post-secondary education and training, or find gainful employment. 

“The goal of the program is two-fold,” Wolhuis said. “We want the students to get their diploma or GED, and then (to) help them find a sustainable career path.”

Wolhuis said the program is funded by a grant from West Michigan Works! and is one of the only programs in Kent County that works with students who are in-school and those who have dropped out or have graduated but still need help. Case managers and career coaches offer services such as tutoring, paid and unpaid work experiences, occupational skills training, leadership development, adult mentoring, financial literacy education, counseling and entrepreneurial skills training.

Referrals come from a number of programs including the county’s court system, area school districts, and from other Kent ISD programs such as the Office of Truancy and School Attendance and the online school MySchool@Kent. 

“We come across the kids who you can truly help change their lives,” Wolhuis said of the Project NorthStar program, adding that Marco’s story is an example of just that.

Marco Guzman, center, with plaque, celebrates with family and friends after receiving an award at the 2018 Michigan Golden Gloves boxing tournament (courtesy)

Meeting the Challenges

Kimble, a Project NorthStar case manager, said he met Marco soon after the sophomore learned he would be a father. “He was extremely nervous, but yet very determined to find a job to provide for his child,” Kimble recalled.

Marco had never worked in a formal job setting, so Kimble set him up in a work experience. The six-to-eight-week program is designed to help students learn about the hiring process while working for an organization or company. Marco worked for the Wedgwood Christian Services Employment Training Program.

“I didn’t have a car, so I would ride my bike the hour-and-a-half to get there and home,” Marco said. Completing the job training program meant he qualified for help to get a driver’s license. He now has one, and his own car.

The next challenge: Marco’s grades, which he admitted were not the best.

“When I got to 54th Street, I had maybe one credit,” Marco said. “I always got low grades, like Ds and Es, but now I had the drive to do the work and my grades were B, C, A.”

Marco switched to attending school online, which Kimble said gave him more flexibility with work. Marco was hired first at Wing Doozy, and later worked at Metro Health – University of Michigan Health. He currently works for a company that makes masks.

Marco Guzman receives a youth novice award in his weight division at the 2018 Michigan Golden Gloves boxing tournament (courtesy)

Future Looks Bright

And in February, Marco accomplished his goal: he graduated, something he said he would never have achieved if not for the support from Kimble and the love he has for his daughter.

“She means the world to me,” he said. “I graduated because she was my motivation. She showed me that I still had to hope. I still had to believe, and now so many doors have opened.”

Marco said he would like to go into police enforcement, focusing on either sex trafficking or a unit that works with gangs. He admits that career choice is partly because he wants to protect his daughter. Wherever his career path takes him, he said he hopes it involves mentoring others.

“I want people to know there is hope,” he said. “That if someone gives somebody the right chance and shows them the right way, it might just make the difference.”

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio or email Joanne.

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