WORTHINGTON - A self-described “short lady with wild red hair,” Jessica Velasco has made it her mission in life to help lead change and develop leaders.

She’s doing it through her social justice work as a community organizer for NAVIGATE Unidos Minnesota, as STEM Coordinator for Nobles County 4-H, as a Girl Scout troop leader and as a member of Seeds of Justice.

Velasco and her husband, Loddy, moved to Worthington in April 2002 - he grew up here, while she had lived in Worthington her freshman through junior year in high school. Now, they are raising their family in the community.

As a community organizer with NAVIGATE, Velasco helps youths find opportunities for higher education, and empowers people to lead and become involved. Since she was hired late last summer, she has listened to many stories from residents of Worthington, with the goal of creating change.

One of her focuses is the District 518 school referendum. The failed referendum resulted in organizers from NAVIGATE Unidos MN coming to Worthington after realizing large segments of the population weren’t weighing in on the issue.

“They saw a need for people of diversity to start speaking up - to prepare them so they can be part of the school board, the city council, different boards within the community,” Velasco said.

Relaying her own experience, Velasco attended one of the public meetings on the school bond referendum and said, “there was nobody else that looked like me at the table voicing their opinions, whether it was for or against.”

“I’ve had Hispanic business owners ask me what the referendum is about,” she said. “These are things we discuss within our own community, but we don’t go outside of that. I want that to change.”

Finding her identity

Velasco grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and attended school through the eighth grade in San Benito. At the start of her eighth grade year, Velasco’s dad left for Worthington, where he had a sister, to find work.

At the end of the school year, Velasco’s mom packed up their car and the four kids and headed for southwest Minnesota.

Arriving in Worthington at the start of summer was perhaps not the best timing for a teenage girl who left all of her friends behind in Texas.

“It was the worst summer of my life because I didn’t know anybody and stayed inside my home,” she said. “I racked up the long distance bills so high because I was calling my friends and my friends were calling me.”

When school started that fall, Velasco said she was in culture shock.

“That was in 1996-97. I could count on two hands the number of Hispanic kids in my grade,” she said.

It didn’t take long, though, to make friends.

“I think it took me longer to re-find myself and my identity in my new surroundings,” Velasco said. “In Texas I was in the band, I was in track, I played cheer, I was in dance. The sports were your gym class. Here … they didn’t have cheer in ninth grade, so I just did band and then I went home.”

She joined the cheerleading squad as a 10th-grader and cheered on the WHS wrestling team, even though she’d never seen wrestling before.

After finishing the 11th grade, Velasco and her family returned to Texas, and that might have been where she’d stayed if it wasn’t for meeting Loddy just months before the move.

“We met just once and that was it,” she said. “We continued to talk the whole year I was in Texas - he was the one that racked up the long-distance calls.”

Loddy visited her in Texas that spring and they were married shortly after she graduated.

“We were very young - we were 17 when we got married,” Velasco said.

She and Loddy lived in Texas as she attended Texas State Technical College for two years. After that, she became pregnant with their first child. Loddy wanted to move back to Worthington, so that’s what they did. They now have five children - Loddy “Red”, 16; Saleen, 15; Cristian Kai, 12; Kain, 10 and Jocelyn, 8. Loddy works for Fullerton Building Systems.

After Saleen was born, all of Velasco’s family moved back to Minnesota, and they now reside in St. James.

Connecting with kids

Velasco has a knack for connecting with youths and gaining their trust and respect, which is evident in the STEM curriculum she leads twice per week in Worthington Middle School’s EDGE after-school program.

“I love being able to give these opportunities to youth who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to create something,” she said.

Velasco likes to remind kids - hers included - to remember their childhood and teen years and not forget about their hopes and dreams.

“When you get older, you lose that creativity - that love for everything, for learning, for being, for creating,” she added. “When you get older, you get more scared, more careful, and want to see things more perfect.”

Velasco said she sees the youths she works with as her own children - something she wishes other adults would see as well.

“I couldn’t take all of my kids to all of their practices if it weren’t for other moms and dads to help pick them up … or tell me when they need to sharpen their (hockey) skates,” she said.

She wants adults to look at every child and ask themselves, “How do we help them grow and prosper?”

As for her own future, Velasco hopes to return to college some day - once she decides what she really wants to pursue for a major.

“If there was a perfect (career) between social worker, teacher and counselor - if someone could create a job or tell me what that job is titled - that’s what I would go for,” she said.

“I’ve been told I should be a teacher, but that wouldn’t fulfill my other two,” she added. “I can’t just pick one of the three.”

Regardless of where she directs her studies, she’s certain her future will involve working with youths.

“The youth piece of it is really what I love,” she said. “There’s just a connection I get with youth. I want to support them and they know that and, in return, they feel that connection, that respect and they feel that comfortness with me. They come here and they know they won’t be judged at all.”

Community advocate

Even with two jobs, Velasco is a dedicated volunteer, serving in a local cohort called The Seeds of Justice. The group’s goal is to get Blandin to bring a leadership program to Worthington to begin creating the next generation of leaders.

In addition, Velasco serves on the Emerging Leadership Cabinet of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, assists with Worthington’s annual International Festival and leads a Girl Scout troop at the Alternative Learning Center in Worthington. She is also a cheer coach at the high school.

“In Texas, school spirit is such a big thing and cheer is a big part of it,” she said. “That is the culture I hope to intertwine here.”

When she finds time for herself, Velasco said her stress reliever is working out.

“I teach a class at a small shop three days a week,” she said, noting they do cardio, resistance and dance. “If you want to change one person’s life, you need to be fully energized and ready to go because that person may need 80 percent of what you have and you need to be ready to give that to them.”

Velasco’s energy has even captured the attention of her kids.

“It’s for them - to show them that there’s possibilities in everything,” she said. “I push them. Their schedule is as crazy as mine.

“I have three hockey players - all the boys; one girl in gymnastics and in the summer I have four kids in soccer,” she added. “My spring is nice, I have one in track, and in the fall we will have three in soccer.”