Advocate breeds success with Exito
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 17, 2006

Ofelia Madrid

Reese Welsh walks the neighborhood near his home in south Scottsdale.

A five-minute stroll and he's at the apartment of Cirilia Sanchez, a single mother raising three children. A knock on the door and two girls, ages 12 and 9 answer.

"Maestro Welsh, can you help me with my homework?" the younger one asks. Maestro means teacher in Spanish. She pulls Welsh in and instantly he's helping the 9-year-old with a spelling assignment

For the Hispanic families who live within the Yavapai Elementary School boundaries, Welsh is the person many go to when their children need homework help or when they need someone to interpret a letter or are having trouble paying rent and don't have anyone else to turn to.

Welsh's motivation for helping is simple. Too many Hispanic children are failing. Nearly one in three Hispanic teens in Arizona drops out.

Six years ago, Welsh started a non-profit organization to provide social services to the families within Yavapai's square-mile boundary.

It's called Project Exito, which means success in Spanish.

Welsh plays the one-man band to needs of this community. There is a Project Exito board of directors, but he's the only one navigating the social-service systems for families who don't know how.

"Socioeconomic issues have become excuses for kids failing," Welsh said. "Schools and teachers are under enough pressure to educate our children. They're not community agencies. I started my non-profit to take that burden away from the schools."

Yavapai Principal Wendy Cohen calls Welsh a strong community advocate. "He's very involved and committed," she said.

The Project Exito mission has two parts, Welsh said. The first is to provide the students with support throughout their school career, which for many begins before kindergarten.

He works with families of preschool children by showing families how to teach their children the basics before they get to school.

Early childhood is a critical part of child's education and a time when parents need a lot of support, Cohen said.

The second part of the mission is to improve the high school graduation rate of the students in the Yavapai boundaries.

The first set of students Welch began working with are now high school freshmen and sophomores.

On many days, but mostly weekends, Welch can be found visiting families, talking with parents and tutoring children.

"There's an advantage of living here and knowing the people," Welsh said.

He has developed personal relationships with about 60 families. All have his phone number and many drop by his house if they need something.

Take Cirilia Sanchez's daughter, Melissa Sanchez. Welsh started working with Melissa when she was 9.

"My daughter was flunking, and I knew she didn't know how to read," Sanchez said. "I didn't know how to help her."

Melissa repeated third grade on Sanchez's insistence, and Welsh started working with her. "He would help me read and he would come after school and on weekends," Melissa said.

Welsh wants to make Project Exito a community-based organization, in which the community takes responsibility of educating its children. His years working in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and Ecuador taught him that if people aren't coming to you for services, you go to them.

About six years ago, Welsh was volunteering at Yavapai. He was reading with two sixth-grade girls when one of them struggled to read a simple paragraph.

" 'Mr. Welsh, I'm not smart,' she said. That was the day I went home and told my wife that I wanted to start a non-profit," Welsh said. "There should never be a reason for a child to feel that way."

Welsh is honest about his work and sometimes wonders if he's making a difference. Some kids he started working with six years ago have dropped out of high school.

Then there's Oscar Cervantes, a sophomore at Coronado High School.

Welsh worked with the teen since he was in elementary school. Cervantes works two jobs after school as a busboy.

He doesn't think about dropping out but knows how easy it can be done. His older sister, 20, dropped out.

After high school, Cervantes wants to go to become an automotive technician.

Working toward his goals, Cervantes said, will make it easier not to drop out. He also knows it will take work.

This year, Welsh was hired as an academic technician at Coronado. He checks in on students during the day, seeing if they need help.

"What really keeps me growing through the frustrations is being with the kids. I love watching them grow," Welsh said.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-6879