Everyone has a story to tell. As principal of Whitehead Elementary School, I feel humbled that Juanita Ornelas, kindergarten teacher at Whitehead, shared memories of her life with me and gave me her blessing to share some of it publicly before she retires at the end of this school year. I want to share her story as a reminder that even during this uneasy time, opportunities and possibilities lie within and around all of us.
As a young girl, traveling out of town for a wedding, Juanita's father pointed to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and said, "I want my three children to attend this school someday."
This moment is forever etched in Juanita's mind. Getting an education was always her goal, thanks to encouragement from her mother and father.
Juanita's story begins in 1963 when, at the age of 4, she immigrated to the United States. Her family settled in Oregon, Illinois, where her father landed a job with Burlington Northern Railroad as an experienced railroad worker. This opportunity defined Juanita's fate and future, and made an impact on her personality, work ethic and education.
Her family found housing in a train car without utilities that would be their home for the next six years. Situated immediately across from the train station, every passenger or freight train that traveled through Oregon passed within 10 steps of their home. Juanita's mom lived in fear that the children would be in the wrong place when a speeding train would zoom past.
Amenities were inadequate. During the cold winter months, they used a wood burning stove. For water, they had two choices: fill up buckets at the train station bathroom sink, or walk to a nearby well. For electricity, they had an extension cord that ran from the train station to the boxcar, but the office controlled the flow. The working bathroom was in the station, but the family could only use it when the station was open. Juanita remembers her makeshift kitchen and filthy cots with stained mattresses for her and her siblings to sleep. She remembers a comment her mother made, through tears: "This is why you need to go to school and do well, study hard, and learn something so that you can provide well, so you and your families will never live to experience these circumstances."
Living in Oregon was torture. Juanita's family was the only Mexican family and the only family that was not white. She had no one to interact with or talk to during the week. She remembers going to a local park to play and being teased by other children. Juanita believes her extremely introverted personality developed in Oregon, being isolated and constantly bullied.
Eyes on the Prize
Despite the physical and emotional hardships, school remained a priority. Her mom would walk with her the 11 blocks to school every day, rain or shine, in extreme cold or heat. Weather was never an excuse to stay home and miss out on her education.
Juanita's mother eventually convinced her father to buy a home in Rockford – which was more diverse than Oregon – and commute to Oregon for work. They found a small but affordable house in a poor neighborhood. But it was a house, not a train car. And they all loved it.
Years later, Juanita fulfilled her father's wish. She and her siblings each graduated from Northern Illinois University – and so did Juanita's niece in 2008 and Juanita's daughter in 2018.
'I Have Loved My Job'
After a long career working with children and encouraging education – just like her parents had – Juanita is retiring. From the time she was 4, her drive has always been to get an education. Sharing her story is important, not only for those who know Juanita, but also for those who do not. Her goal of getting an education was her reason to do her best in school each day and take advantage of the opportunity to get away from poverty and destitution. In Juanita's words, "I am thankful for all of these years in the Rockford School District. I have loved my job teaching beautiful little kindergarteners."
Juanita, we at Whitehead are grateful for you. Your calm demeanor, expectations of excellence from your kindergarteners, patience during trying times, and quiet strength is a symbol of all that is good in this world. Thank you for your years of service, your love for our children, and the beauty you bring to each day. We wish you moments of peace and joy in your retirement. Best wishes always.
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