Three years ago Elvira Martinez and Jose Contreras experienced the greatest pain parents can endure with the loss of their two-day old son Jose. Elvira could have curled up and let the world pass by unnoticed. Instead she found the inner resolve to try to replace her grief with something constructive, something that would honor a changed future.
“He is not here for a reason, so I have to do something that would serve our family,” says Elvira. “I’m going to be the best for him.” Baby J, as they called him, was her inspiration to go back to school. She enrolled in the Bakersfield campus Clinical and Administrative Medical Assisting program.
Maybe she pushed herself too soon, maybe at 32 she had been away from a classroom too long, or the leap from commercial bus driver to student just too confusing. Elvira crashed at the end of the first week.
“I was overwhelmed and had a breakdown,” says Elvira. “It was Mrs. Kimber (instructor) that helped me work through it. She told me she understood, that she had been where I was sitting and knew how I felt.”
Elvira not only recommitted herself to her CAMA program, she later volunteered to talk with students at orientation and would-be students during career workshops. She conducted tours of the campus and explained to future students what they should expect as a student at SJVC. She found her own confidence…and her voice.
“I was always the person people came to – even ones who were in school before me,” says Elvira. When our teachers asked who was going to be our spokesperson for something, they would say ‘Elvira will.’”
Elvira thrived in her role as a student, mentor and leader. She was president of CAMA Code Blue, ASB member and volunteered at a tattoo removal clinic. She managed to earn a 4.0 GPA and a Perfect Attendance certificate. But, this kind of determination to meet her ideal of “being the best of the best”, came at a price.
She and Jose struggled to get by financially, while trying to provide for five children at home. Jose’s night job was the only income they had while Elvira was in school, and the kids had the constant needs all kids have.
“We’re team players,” says Elvira. “Jose was ‘mom and dad’ for 14-months and when he worked my mom, Alicia, stepped in and she was ‘mom and dad’. “They did everything for me.”
The hardest moment she had was just before Christmas. Elvira’s throat catches as she remembers sitting the kids down and telling them they couldn’t afford to get them anything for Christmas.
When Mrs. Votaw in the Student Center heard about it, she and others encouraged Elvira to participate in the ‘Angel Tree’ gift-giving program for children of students in need. Elvira pinned a star on the tree for each of her children, listing their age, sex and clothing size, and campus ‘angels’ each selected a name or two to surprise all the children with something special to put under their trees.
“The only gifts my kids got that year were from the school,” says Elvira, who was so touched by their generosity. “They didn’t just care about me as a student, they cared about me as a mother.”
That spirit of generosity infused Elvira’s commitment to finish her program. “When I was tired and didn’t want to go to class, or didn’t want to study, I’d tell myself that I had to keep going. That Christmas is what I’d reflect on; that Angel Tree.”
Elvira made it her business to work closely with Career Services. “Career Services was going to find me the job,” she says, “and Mrs. Baine (in Career Services) sent me lots of leads.”
One was for a Medical Assisting position at Aegis, a drug addiction treatment facility. “Because it’s substance abuse – and the worst of the worst – it’s an environment that’s not for everybody,” says Elvira.
They saw her leadership ability and tremendous strength. “I’m pretty stern – I have five children – and they saw that I fit right in,” says Elvira. After an hour-long interview, they hired her on the spot.
Since starting her new position Elvira has taken and passed her Registered Medical Assisting certification and is now considered a permanent and full-time employee. Her 5:00 AM to 1:30 PM work schedule allows her to have lots of time with the kids, and the additional income her family enjoys makes all the sacrifices they made worth it.
“I’m where I want to be right now,” says Elvira. But, her great SJVC experience and her innate love for school linger in her mind, and she tells herself that she “could learn a little more, get paid a little more.” “You always strive to be bigger and better!”