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Flores dreams of teaching career; to give back for teachers who helped him

WORTHINGTON -- If it weren't for patient, compassionate and supportive teachers, Juan Flores likely wouldn't be helping students solve math problems or work through their social studies assignments. He also wouldn't be wearing the identification ...

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Juan Flores is a paraprofessional with District 518, working with ninth through 12th grade students at the Alternative Learning Center in Worthington. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - If it weren’t for patient, compassionate and supportive teachers, Juan Flores likely wouldn’t be helping students solve math problems or work through their social studies assignments. He also wouldn’t be wearing the identification badge of paraprofessional at the Alternative Learning Center in Worthington.

If it wasn’t for the teachers who inspired him, he may not have aspired to be a teacher.

A native of Aguascalientes, Mexico, Flores moved to Worthington with his family when he was 10. He left behind all that was familiar to him - home, friends and a country where everyone spoke Spanish.

But his parents had hoped for a better life for their family. In Aguascalientes, his mom, Maria, sold donuts and Jell-O to vendors and shoppers in a public market, while his dad, Jose, worked at a bakery.

Jose had a U.S. residence card, but Maria and their children needed to file the proper paperwork.

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“That took about four or five years,” Flores said. It included two trips to Juarez, near the U.S.-Mexico border - once to be fingerprinted and submit to blood tests, and a second, a month later, to again be fingerprinted and photographed.

In July 2003, with all of their documents in hand, they crossed the border and travelled by bus first to Denver, Colo., where Jose once worked in a restaurant, and then on to Minnesota.

A Jefferson Bus Lines motorcoach delivered them to the Cenex station in Worthington in July 2003, and their first home was a rented apartment on Okabena Street.

“We came to Worthington because my dad had a job here working construction for Fullerton,” Flores said.

He met a few kids his own age that summer, including the son of family friends who offered to help translate and guide him at Prairie Elementary. For Flores, who spoke no English, it was a lifeline.

School in Worthington was quite different from Aguascalientes. For starters, he didn’t have to wear a uniform. He also didn’t have to walk to school, but instead would ride a bus.

Other adjustments, however, proved difficult.

“At first when I got home from school I was crying - I disliked it,” Flores shared. “When you’re a 10-year-old boy and don’t understand anything, it’s hard.”

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At Prairie Elementary, he spent about four or five hours each day listening to Rosetta Stone, a language learning program, in an ESL classroom led by Julie Linder.  

“My classmates were going to history and science classes, but they said I had to learn the language first,” Flores said. “The only class I would go to with them was gym class.”

He said he wanted to return to Mexico and all that was familiar, but because that wasn’t going to happen, he made it his goal to learn English.

“It took me about six months to learn the language before I could communicate with my classmates - before I knew what was going on,” he said.

By summer, he joined a travelling soccer team in Worthington and began feeling more at home.

“That really helped open things up for me,” said Flores. “They had a couple Hispanic kids on the team - it was started by Dan and Robyn Reese. That’s how I started making friends - through a sport like that.”

When fall came back around, Flores moved with his classmates to Worthington Middle School and continued with ESL classes. When he reached the eighth grade, he was finally told he could join his fellow students in all of the regular classes.

Throughout middle school and high school, Flores played on the school soccer league and also helped with the YMCA soccer program.

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“CJ Nelson kind of took me under his wing and I was working the front desk and coaching travelling soccer in the summer,” said Flores, who works about 20 hours a week at the YMCA and also volunteers when it has special events.

After he graduated in 2011 from Worthington High School, Flores attended Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he played soccer all four years. In 2015, he returned to Worthington to earn more money to pay for college. He found a job at the YMCA, spent a year working for AmeriCorps, and last fall started his new job as a full-time paraprofessional with ISD 518. In addition to working in the classroom, he is also head coach of the WHS boys soccer team.

Meanwhile, he’s taking online classes through Southwest Minnesota State University in hopes of finishing up his coursework so he can begin student-teaching a year from now.

Serving as a para at the Area Learning Center has already given Flores a taste for teaching.

“I love it - helping the students with questions that they have,” he said. “I feel like I’m giving back that way. It’s rewarding just to be in a classroom, whether as a para or a teacher. It feels awesome.”

Flores works with ninth- through 12th-grade students, primarily in math. He also assists in an art class and an online study class this quarter. Much of his work includes translating for Spanish-speaking students.

About 75 percent of the students at the ALC are Hispanic, he noted.

“We have kids that are older and can’t be in the high school, and some are brand new to the country and we have to put them somewhere so they can get an education,” Flores shared. “The great thing about the ALC, I think, is you don’t know what they’ve been through. We have kids here that are working at night and coming to school during the day. I just have so much respect for those kids. I’m so proud of them.”

Flores is proud they are taking their education seriously - just as he did 15 years ago when he set a goal to learn English.

Once he earns his college degree, his ideal job is to become an ESL math teacher in District 518.

“I want to start with the kids that want to learn, that don’t know very much, and start bringing them into pace with what they’re going to see in algebra and geometry,” he said. “I want to become a teacher because of the teachers who spent all that time with me. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. They put all of their hard work into me. I want to give back to the community in any way I can - help other kids in any way I can to help them be successful.”

Flores’ siblings have taken their education seriously as well. His sister, Johanna, will graduate in May from Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington with a registered nursing degree. Brother Angel is also a student at Minnesota West, and brother Octavio is in high school. Their youngest brother, Adrian, is 9 and attends Prairie Elementary.

Their dad, who commutes to Pipestone every day to manage the overnight shift for Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), is hopeful that he and Maria, along with Adrian, can move back to Mexico in a couple of years.

Meanwhile, Flores and three of his siblings hope to stay at the family home in Worthington.

“If there’s an opening to get a job, this is where I want to be, this is where I want to stay,” Flores said. “I feel this is where I belong.”

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Juan Flores (left) is ready to assist Wilfrido Ramos Chavez during a math class at the Alternative Learning Center in Worthington. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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