Incarcerated six times as a teenager, Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center student will be featured speaker at inaugural Riverside County Top Scholar event and graduation.
Javier Valenzuela Sanchez recalls skipping out on class as early as elementary school. Without a solid family situation at home, he remembers playing with glue as a child because he had no toys and recalls throwing rocks at cars as his way of having fun.
“I used to hate going to school and waking up in the morning,” Javier admitted. “My grandma would come into my room with a pot full of water and threaten to pour it on me in order to get me to wake up.”
Once he reached middle school, the breadth of opportunities for negative influence expanded exponentially and Javier lost all interest in attending classes.
Trying to fit in with the crowds, Javier soon began dressing differently, got involved in gangs, and started smoking marijuana. That led to staying out later and later, inking his face with gang-related tattoos, and getting in fights that left him “always coming home with black eyes.” He was eventually expelled from school and landed in juvenile hall at the age of 13 for the first of what would be many return visits.
“During my fifth visit in juvenile hall, I was looking around in my cell and realized that I was away from family again, and that I just couldn’t be doing the stuff I was doing before,” Javier said. “I needed a change from making my grandma cry and decided that I was going to try and put out an effort, and that this would be my last time there.”
At the age of 16, Javier realized it was time to get serious about his life. He committed to making smarter choices—including a focus on his education. It may have taken one more unwelcome visit behind bars to settle a final arrest warrant, but his sixth incarceration would be his last.
“I was tired of everything that was going on with me and I had to step up. I knew that nobody else was going to do it for me,” Javier said. “It’s the best decision I ever made in my life.”
THE BELIEF OF A TEACHER
Shawna Guerriero, a teacher at Riverside County Office of Education’s Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center in San Jacinto, first met Javier when he was in the 8th grade when he hadn’t yet decided to get serious about changing the trajectory of his life.
“When he first arrived, Javier wasn’t disrespectful, but it was clear that he just didn’t care about anything other than gang life,” Guerriero said. “It seemed like he wanted to try in school, but the people he hung out with fed into the belief that school wasn’t necessary. I always saw a light in him and would tell him that I’d love to see him succeed and that I didn’t want him to regret not coming to school.”
Javier soon distanced himself from his old friends so that he could focus on making new decisions and Ms. Guerriero followed through on her commitment to help him succeed.
“When I started to come to school, she took me seriously from day one—even when I was a little maniac,” Javier admitted. “She helped me gain a vision to be successful and now I don’t want to stop. She genuinely cares for me not just as a student, but as a person—no matter what the circumstances.”
To reflect the changes he was making on the inside, Javier was also eager to change his outward appearance by removing the tattoos that were part of his old life on the streets. He began the painful and pricey process, but did not have the cash to continue the procedures. Staff members at the Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center collected funds to pay for a follow-up round of removal appointments. To keep the momentum going for Javier, a donation from employees at Riverside County Probation helped fund the next round of treatments and now there is no visible remnant of Javier’s former visage.
BUCKLING DOWN TO GRADUATE
After years of neglecting his education, Javier had amassed only 20 units and faced a steep, stressful climb to reach the goal of 200+ units needed to graduate.
“Ms. G always told me not to worry—that I was going to do it. My head would be pounding, and I wanted to give up at times,” Javier said.
Even during the summer, Javier showed up to school every day, on time, and with a curiosity that became a trademark of his approach to learning.
“He would ask questions, but to us as educators, it was cute. We chuckled because we knew he was going to be okay,” Ms. Guerriero said. “There’s something about him—he has this fire in him. He was taking ownership of his education while building the self-confidence that wasn’t quite there yet. He’s a completely different person now.”
“He is persistent, ambitious, meticulous, and direct. I have no doubt that he’s going to be somebody’s boss in the future,” said Sandra Peñaloza, principal at the Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center. “He has earned a certain level of respect simply because of how he carries himself and models behavior, work ethic, and silent leadership to others.”
SHARING A TURNAROUND STORY
As Javier prepares to graduate, he will be speaking at the inaugural Riverside County Top Scholars event at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 17, at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center. The event, which is expected to attract more than 200 attendees, will honor graduates from 27 alternative education sites including district continuation schools, community day schools, and other Riverside County Office of Education programs. Javier will also share his inspiring story as the featured graduation speaker at The Grove Church in Riverside on May 26.
“This will be my first major award for anything, and it really makes me feel accomplished,” Javier said. “I am nervous about giving the speech, but I’ve been preparing and I’ve got to face my fears. I’ll be going up there with confidence.”
After graduation, Javier will continue his educational journey at Mt. San Jacinto College. He has already completed a college-level student success class and applied for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to fund his future.
As he prepares to leave the Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center and the teachers like Ms. Guerriero who were so influential in his success, Javier recognizes the uniqueness of his story and how it can positively impact others.
“Now, when I see kids here at our school sometimes, I remember being in their shoes, and I tell them they have to want it, and to not let anybody stop you—even if it seems far away,” Javier said. “I try to talk to them and remind them that their homies don’t really care about them. That once they’re locked up, none of them will write to you.”
“I had no good stories about school until I came here. If you would have told me three years ago that I’d be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Javier said. “We need more teachers like Ms. G who live for their job and care for us kids. I am an example of what she has produced, because I don’t know what I would have done without her showing me I was capable of an education.”