FRANKLIN — The ultraviolet light did not lie; Kevin Ramirez, student at Prince of Peace Elementary School, was surprised to see that despite his best hand washing efforts, there were a few spots he missed.
“They were still a little dirty,” he said, looking down at his fingertips, “I washed them for three to four minutes, too.”
Ramirez was one of approximately 100 eighth grade students from Prince of Peace, St. Adalbert, and the two campuses of St. Rafael Catholic schools participating in a hand washing exercise Tuesday, March 29, at Wheaton Franciscan Hospital in Franklin, as part of a presentation by members of the health care field.
The purpose for inviting students to the hospital from predominantly Spanish speaking households was to provide them with ideas about and goals for future careers, explained Judy Paz, volunteer with the Wheaton Franciscan outreach program.
“We wanted to give them examples of health care professions from people with immigrant backgrounds and demonstrate to them that they can achieve their goals just like anyone else,” said Paz. “They are just as smart as anyone else, but they have to study and work maybe a little harder because they might not have parents who speak English or parents who finished eighth grade, so they don’t know what to expect. We want to get the message to the kids and parents that no one turns 40 and ever said they were glad they quit high school.”
The message offered to the students by health care professionals of Latino descent was to study hard and get good grades, finish high school, plan and finish career studies, stay out of trouble and ask for help when they need it.
For Marc Cohen, executive director of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, presenting the program feels good and is an opportunity to do something positive for the community.
“I write a lot of grants to provide health care programs such as nutrition help, suicide prevention, depression screening and other outreach,” he said. “I want the students to know that they are all important, and to encourage them to look for support systems in their high schools and any other support systems they may have. I also want them to know that God gives them many blessings and to use them wisely.”
When Dan Mattes was in high school, he never imagined that one day he would be the president of the Franklin and St. Francis hospitals because he didn’t do well in the beginning of high school. But he worked hard, attended college and eventually succeeded.
“God puts things in front of people to see what kind of a person you are,” he said. “Sometimes you are going to make the wrong decision, but if students think and use their gifts, they will learn that they have the talents to make it. I was raised by a single mother, but I had a good support system through my grandparents. If students build their foundation through their education, there is nothing they can’t do.”
The panel of Wheaton Health Care speakers varied in professions and included a doctor, nurse, translator, security and plant manager, but all had a Latino background in common.
Marissa Sarson of St. Rafael School was interested in hearing the stories by each of the speakers, but was most touched by Martha Hernandez’s story.
“It was interesting hearing all of the stories and the perspectives of each of the speakers,” she said, “But I liked Martha the best. She came from Pulaski High School like my dad and it was a tough education, but worth it.”
Martha Hernandez, a surgical nurse, explained the difficulty of living with a mother diagnosed with cancer. Yet, the most devastating aspect of her childhood was the catapult for her future career.
“I was touched by the way Mom was cared for by the nurses,” she said. “And I noticed that those in most service-oriented jobs seemed pretty crabby. So I figured, why not take care of someone who has a reason to be cranky and so I decided to become a nurse.”
Without a backup plan in place, Martha Hernandez, whose parents were immigrants from Mexico, focused on nursing while plunging through studies in college, and graduated from Cardinal Stritch University.
“I began working at St. Luke’s in the cardio vascular department and then moved here. The profession has its tough days, but I am very happy with my job,” she said. “It is very achievable; if you keep in mind your goals and focus, the sky is the limit.”
Infectious diseases physician Dr. Francisco Aguilar described to students that education is information and information is power, and by studying hard and not taking shortcuts, they can achieve whatever they want. Most of all, he encouraged students to remember that despite their Hispanic heritage, they are Americans.
“You are the future, for your community, your family, city, state and country,” he said. “Maybe one of you will be the future president of the United States – an American president with a Latino background. Don’t ever consider yourselves a Latino first, because you are Americans and you compete with Americans. You are all so lucky because you have had so many people help you. Think a bit, about what your parents had to do to come here, to give you a better life, and one day you will be parents, too. Be a good son and a good daughter, and learn from your parents.”
St. Rafael student Alejandro Hernandez was encouraged by Jose Acevedo’s journey of moving up from changing filters in an assistant mechanic position, to floor mechanic, to plant manager of Wheaton Franciscan.
“I liked how he worked his way up from the bottom, went to school and got where he is today,” said Alejandro Hernandez. “This program was very good because it encourages us to go to high school and college. My parents were immigrants to the United States and they want things to be easier for me than it was for them. I am not sure what I want to do when I get older, but I know I want to do something good.”
According to Luz Ortiz, director of translators at Wheaton Franciscan, Hispanic students have an advantage in the work place due to their bilingual abilities which offer the opportunity to translate Spanish and English. As the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ortiz learned early on that the only inheritance her father desired to give his children was an education, as he regarded it as key to a better life.
“I am the youngest of four children and the first one to graduate from college,” she said. “At first when I went to UWM, I was the only person of color and felt that everyone was smarter than me. We had no computer at home so many nights I would study at the library until midnight and if I had to do more work, I would go to a 24-hour Kinko’s and study there. It was not easy, but I knew if I wanted to make my parents proud and succeed, I had to work hard at it. I just can’t describe the look on my parents’ faces when I walked across that stage.”