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Central Catholic celebrates 50 years with new fitness center

First and foremost, it's for the students but the brand-new Mark Gallo Health and Fitness Center in Modesto also will significantly benefit the community when it's up and running this month.
The 29,000-square-foot complex on the 30-acre Central Catholic High School Campus on Carpenter Road will feature a gymnasium that seats 1,100 people, a dining area for 500 people, a fitness center, a nutrition lab and kitchen, two classrooms, locker rooms, coaches' offices, a full-size lobby, a quad, tennis courts and a softball field.

Costing $7.5 million, the fitness center has been under construction since last May 26 and is expected to open at the end of April. Fundraising for the complex began about six years ago, according to Jim Pecchenino, Central Catholic president.

"Close to 250 donors have enabled us to complete the project," Pecchenino said. "They have allowed us to do this. We want to grow this campus and make for an exciting future."

Pecchenino pointed out the new facility is all locally funded. No government money went into the project and private schools have to create partnerships to make things happen.

Central Catholic is celebrating its 50th year this year. The school has 370 students from ninth through 12th grades coming from 28 different cities in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Forty different feeder schools in public, private and Catholic education systems send students to Central Catholic.

Paint is going on the walls, tile is being put on the floors, restroom fixtures are being installed and the gym floor is being laid, Pecchenino said. With all this going on, he is confident they will meet their target late-April opening date.

"We are in the home stretch," Pecchenino said. "The primary purpose was to build this for Central Catholic students to expand and enrich their education, but once programs are up and running then we will invite the community."

Robert Fantazia of Modesto is chairman of the Central Catholic Foundation board. He said Pecchenino has been the driving force behind getting the fitness center built.

"It's been a long time coming and it's very needed, very much so," Fantazia said. "With the support of Central Catholic families, it took all of us to do this. It's nice to see it come to fruition and I am extremely excited."

Fantazia is the chief financial officer for the Newman-based Cerutti Brothers' farming operation. He has been foundation board chairman for about three years and involved with the school for eight years.

A key feature of the new center is the nutrition lab. Doubling as a kitchen, the fitness center's ultimate goal is have students work alongside the culinary staff and learn food service preparation techniques.

Pecchenino hopes to expand the partnership with Modesto Junior College to offer a college-level nutrition course for Central Catholic students. He said the health class curriculum is being rewritten to focus more on nutrition.

Ultimately Pecchenino hopes a "farm-to-fork" program will be created which will involve its Future Farmers of America students. Central Catholic is the third private school in California to have an FFA chapter.

Students today have a tough time getting jobs while they are in school due to laws and regulations which make it difficult for them to get work experience, Pecchenino said.

"We want to provide opportunities for students to learn a skill or trade. There are not a lot of jobs available for them until they get out of college. This is an opportunity to learn about taking care of themselves and get some work experience along the way," Pecchenino said.

As a college-preparatory school, Central Catholic's goal is to get 97 percent of its students going to college. In the last five years 99 percent of its graduates have been college-bound.

Pecchenino said Central Catholic has seen some expansion and remodeling over its half century of existence but nothing like the magnitude of the new fitness center project.

The second phase of the expansion project on part of the remaining 17 acres will include a new softball practice field and an FFA classroom, with eight acres devoted to animal science programs.

Four years ago Central Catholic hired Marco Cannella to run its food service programs. Not a typical school cafeteria, Central Catholic offers two bistros to tempt students' finicky taste buds. Cannella and other chefs will work alongside students as they learn how to prepare food for the campus as well as large community events.

Pecchenino sees Central Catholic running area tennis clinics, cooking competitions and perhaps hosting regional sports tournaments. He also would like to see the school periodically host events to teach participants proper fitness techniques for community members.

"There is so much we could be doing as a community member. There aren't a lot of event centers in Modesto," Pecchenino said.

The center is named for Mark Stephen Gallo, a 16-year-old Central Catholic junior who died Nov. 1, 1978 from a rare disease. Coaches and family members remember Mark Gallo as an easygoing, happy person who loved helping other people.

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired former newspaper reporter and editor.