This is her life, gathered right here in this building, so Sonia Gutierrez gamely hobbles to the front of National Baptist Church with her knee wrapped in an elastic bandage, her weight supported by a cane, and settles into a chair. She should be home. Her doctors would prefer it. Four days ago, she had surgery to repair a torn ligament. Stay off the leg, she was told. Rest it. Relax.

She ignored them. How could she miss this?

It is a hot Friday morning in June, fans spinning ineffectively in the corners, an organist seated at an aging piano, tapping out "Pomp and Circumstance," accompanied by violin. It is "Recognition Day" for the students at the Carlos Rosario Public Charter School. Families fill the pews of the church, speaking Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Amharic. The students, all adults, are "graduating" from English as a Second Language classes, or GED preparatory programs, or citizenship training. About half of them are missing -- they are the night students, unable to get permission from their employers to miss a day of work -- but most of the pews are filled, nonetheless.

Gutierrez, the school's executive director, props her injured leg on a footstool. She is dressed in a bright-red suit, red heels on her feet, despite the injury. She is beaming. She addresses the crowd, talking, without notes, about hope and opportunity and the promise that is America. Then she throws out her arms.

"You really have no idea what you do for me!" she says to the gathering. "You fill my life with joy!"

The applause begins then, and it is repeated throughout the morning. Plaques are handed out. Certificates. Scholarships to the University of the District of Columbia or Montgomery College. Students parade to the altar, hugging Gutierrez, hugging teachers, hugging the school's board members, hugging each other. Families stand and cheer when they hear a familiar name called.

Near the end, Jane Garcia, a Carlos Rosario board member, presents Gutierrez with a bouquet of flowers from the altar. The arrangement is so large it dwarfs the small woman in the armchair. Garcia looks down at Gutierrez -- at the woman who saved this school, who sustains it, who considers it her lifeblood -- and says something softly, so softly that those in the back must strain to hear.

"We would be nothing without you," she says.

"Oh, my students, my students! It's been 30 years, can you imagine?"

Gutierrez, 62, is trying to sneak away from the celebration, from the well-wishers who keep coming up to hug her, as she settles into a small niche in the back of the church sanctuary. She is ready to tell her story. It is a long story, a complicated one, but there is no stopping her once she's started. It is as if she is writing her autobiography, right there on the spot.

The story of the Carlos Rosario school -- of Gutierrez's adult life -- begins 30 years ago, when she met Carlos Rosario himself at a party hosted by a friend. Rosario, who died in 1987, was a well-known Latino activist in Washington. Gutierrez (then Sonia Fairchild, as she was still married to her first husband, Stanley) was a stay-at-home mother with two preschool boys. Raised in a middle-class family in Puerto Rico, she had come to the United States with her husband in 1968 and moved to Washington in 1971.

This was the spring of 1972. Rosario approached her, introduced himself. Gutierrez remembers that, at the time, he was the only man in the room. He started talking about the local Latino community, about immigration, about education.

"I'm telling you," Gutierrez says, "that day changed my life."

That day, Rosario persuaded Gutierrez to volunteer for the Program for English Instruction to Latin Americans (PEILA), a small adult education program. She knew nothing about teaching, about the barriers faced by immigrants, about real life outside of her own. Rosario was persuasive, though. Too persuasive to resist.

"I was a middle-class girl from Puerto Rico who went to private schools all my life," she says. "I didn't have the faintest idea about immigrants in Washington. I lived in my own little world."

She learned. By the fall, she had become director of the program, which included approximately 100 students. She served as the receptionist, the secretary, the director. She went to UDC to obtain her master's degree in adult education. The school started adding programs -- GED classes, citizenship training. Originally funded by a three-year government grant, the school was added to the D.C. public schools budget in 1974 and got its own building on Wisconsin Avenue in upper Georgetown in 1978, when Gordon Junior High closed. None of that, though, came without a fight.

"Rosario told me that in this city, nothing gets accomplished if you're not political," Gutierrez says. "So I had to learn."

She made contacts among Latino activists, met school board members, attended ward meetings and planted herself in the front row. She became fast friends with Pedro Lujan, a small-business owner in Mount Pleasant who was one of the founders of PEILA and a leader in the city's Latino community. Soon, she was immersed in what is now considered the old guard of Latino leadership in Washington, the people who held sit-ins at city council meetings and disrupted ward meetings in the 1970s -- trying to get city government to respond to the needs of the Latino community.

"I used to be a little lady with her legs crossed," she says. "In a year, I could fight like a lioness."

Her fiercest fights, though, were for the school, which morphed from PEILA into a broader program encompassing all immigrant groups when it moved into the Gordon building and became the Gordon Adult Education Center. (In 1992, the school was renamed for Rosario.) She fought for funding, for the building, for new programs. Job training was added. Culinary arts classes. Typing lessons. As the District's immigrant population grew, so did the student body. There were thousands on the waiting list. The U.S. Department of Education honored the school as a model for literacy programs. Visitors came to study the programs -- some from as far away as Korea, where Gutierrez later was invited to visit as an adviser.

Individually, Gutierrez was given countless honors and awards -- so many that it takes more than two pages on her re{acute}sume{acute} to list them. She had become, essentially, a life raft for the D.C. immigrant community, a welcoming face for frightened newcomers. On the street, everyone knew where to send the new, confused faces. To Rosario. To Sonia.

"She's Mother Teresa to these people," says Lujan, who immigrated to the United States from Peru decades ago and now serves as president of the Carlos Rosario school's board of directors. "One important thing is trust. Anyone can come from the outside, have no place to go, and they know they can go there, to Sonia at Carlos Rosario, and they will get help. Advice. She will fight for them. They cannot communicate, and that makes life here very hard, but she is there for them.

"The point is, everybody in this community knows her. Thousands and thousands of people pass through that school, and they see her there every day. That is why I say Mother Teresa."

It is not a life, though, without its sacrifices. Things were bad at home for Gutierrez almost from the beginning. She was never around -- for her husband or, she admits now, for her boys. At least not as much as she wanted to be. She and her husband divorced in 1975.

"My husband used to call and say, 'When are you coming home?' " she says. "And I'd say, 'When I get there.' The school was overwhelming."

In late 1976, she married Jose Gutierrez, a local political activist she met during a battle to create a Latino Affairs office under the umbrella of the D.C. mayor's office. They had a daughter, Michelle, who is now 25. For a long while, their common interests cemented the marriage. They were both passionate about Latino issues, both deeply invested in the community. Asked about the marriage now, though, Gutierrez says: "We're on the way out. The school again."

She sounds resigned. Almost.

"The only thing I'm sorry about the last 30 years is that I lost a lot of time with my kids," she says. "Now, I'd like to go back, and I can't. I realize it now. I've realized it for a while.

She sighs, looks down at her hands.

"But this was a job that had to be done," she says, shrugging. "The school -- it is a passion, it consumes you."

And it consumed her most when they took it all away.

Now she has reached the part of the story that is hard for her to tell, the part that makes her angry, the part that makes her cold, the part that makes her reach across to her listeners and touch them, as if willing them to understand.

It was April 1996. Gutierrez received a phone call in her office at Carlos Rosario. It was a vice superintendent in the D.C. public school system, requesting a meeting. She didn't worry, at least not much. Yes, the D.C. school system was in total disarray then, schools closing left and right. Yes, the D.C. government was in a fiscal crisis, slashing all kinds of funding.

But her school was a model program. Her school had a waiting list. Her school was a success.

"Honestly, I thought that nobody could touch me because my school was so good, so well-known," she says.

She was wrong. Carlos Rosario was being closed, along with two other adult education centers, because of the budget cuts. In her heart, Gutierrez felt it was a political move, but ultimately there was nothing she could do. For the next two months, students, teachers and community leaders all fought to reverse the decision, to no avail. The doors were scheduled to shut June 30.

"It was like mourning in that school, it was like the death of a family," Gutierrez says. "I remember sitting in my office thinking that nothing worse could happen to me. I wanted to die."

Four days before the school was to close, Gutierrez got another phone call. Her younger son, Robert "Bobby" Fairchild, had been in a severe accident. A passenger in a convertible BMW, he had been dragged 100 feet after the car turned over three times. Half his face had been scraped away. His back, his mother says, "looked like grated cheese." There were severe head injuries.

"I just think about it, even now," Gutierrez says, her voice dropping to a whisper, "and I get cold."

On the day Carlos Rosario closed, Gutierrez was at Suburban Hospital, with doctors still telling her that her son's condition was "touch and go." Bobby remained in a coma, on life support, for three weeks before regaining consciousness. He has had multiple plastic surgeries -- and there are more in his future -- but he survived.

Back at her home in Vienna, between visits to her son, Gutierrez was inconsolable that summer. Friends had to get her out of bed, talk her into the shower, make her eat breakfast.

"I was wiped out," she says. "Devastated."

People told her to let the school go for now, to take a year off, but she wouldn't hear of it. In her basement that August, she started to make calls, reconnect with old contacts, raise money. She contacted Allison Rohrer, who had been a teacher at Carlos Rosario, and asked her to help with the proposals. The work gave her new life.

"It saved me," she says.

By April 1997, Gutierrez had raised enough money to open a small, private nonprofit program in Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown. There were two daytime and four evening classes. Gutierrez and Rohrer worked out of the building's basement, where the ventilation was horrible.

Over the next five years, the school expanded, and expanded, and expanded again. It received charter approval, switching from a private, nonprofit program to a public charter school, which continued the Rosario name. It now holds classes in six locations -- mostly in local churches -- and has approximately 1,000 students, with 57 full- and part-time teachers and teacher's aides. Six different levels of ESL are taught. There is even a class in computer applications.

Gutierrez has legions of devoted followers, though none as obsessed as she is with the school. Ana-Maria Nuevo, the school's assistant director, is one of the most dedicated -- and, in all likelihood, will be the one who runs the school when Gutierrez decides to retire.

"Sonia's personality just sucks you in," says Nuevo, who started at the school nine years ago, as a volunteer during her undergraduate days at Georgetown. "You find yourself giving everything to the school, because she really inspires you to do so."

The night before the recognition ceremony, Mario Martinez, an ESL student, approached Nuevo.

"We need to build a monument to Sonia," Martinez told her.

Nuevo laughed.

"I'm not kidding!" Martinez said.

And Nuevo nodded. She knew exactly what he meant.

The monument is being built on Harvard Street NW, in an old, run-down building that once housed a whites-only teachers college and was last used as an adjunct building for UDC.

On a bright June Saturday, two days before Gutierrez's knee surgery, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site for the $13 million Carlos Rosario International Career Center and Public Charter School, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2003. Mayor Anthony A. Williams was in attendance, along with D.C. Council members Kevin P. Chavous and Jim Graham, who were instrumental in helping obtain the rights to the building.

"It's about learning English. It's about developing skills, clearing up immigration problems," Graham says. "In effect, it's about becoming a part of America. I think Sonia represents all of that, and represents it exceedingly well. Where would we be without Sonia Gutierrez and the Carlos Rosario school? I mean, this is a city of immigrants."

When she talks about the new center, Gutierrez is enchanted. There are plans, she says, for a bilingual day-care center, for a state-of-the-art language lab, a technology center, even a return to the culinary arts classes the program offered decades ago. The funding is coming from a capital campaign and two major sponsors, Bank of America and the National Council of La Raza. People are talking about her retirement, about finally giving Gutierrez a chance to have a life of her own.

"Thirty years is too long," Lujan says. "Sonia doesn't have a life, to be honest with you. Sonia needs to get out."

She's thinking about it. But she's not ready. Not yet.

"I'm just very happy," Gutierrez says. "Now all I have to do is raise three million more dollars!"

She pauses, considers this task for a moment.

"Oh. My. God," she says, slumping downward slightly in the heat.

From downstairs in the church building, the sounds of music can be heard. The students are holding a post-graduation party. Some brought food, others brought drinks, someone else, a boombox. They are eating, dancing, laughing. The sounds carry up the stairwell.

"I am tired, very tired," Gutierrez says. It has been a long day. Her knee is throbbing.

"But you know what keeps me on?" she asks. She points to the students, disappearing into the party.

"Them. They are my life."

Sonia Gutierrez, executive director of the Carlos Rosario Public Charter School, in her element: Surrounded by adult graduates and their families.Gutierrez greets a student at the ceremony last month at National Baptist Church: She has been their lifeline; they have been her lifeblood.Joy and anger: Gutierrez applauds the graduates at last month's ceremonies in National Baptist Church, six years after protesters, below, were unable to stop the financially strapped District from shutting down the Carlos Rosario center.The late Carlos Rosario, who started Gutierrez on her 30-year journey helping immigrants.