Hard work pays off for Hilton Head Island Middle School student

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 11, 2012 

  • For information about Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry's adult literacy programs in Beaufort, Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, go to www.lowcountryliteracy.org or call 843-815-6616.

Thanks to Joe Distelheim of Hilton Head Island for sharing a story from his volunteer work on the island.

'Jorge Torres and Magina Villava'

By Joe Distelheim

Jorge Torres, a seventh-grader at Hilton Head Island Middle School, is going to Washington, D.C., this summer to participate in a weeklong leadership conference with other bright kids from around the country.

Good for him. He earned the honor by working hard for good grades and participating in worthwhile extracurricular activities. But he likely wouldn't have had such an opportunity if not for:

  • A father, Octavio Torres, who took the chance to bring his wife and baby son to the United States from Mexico 11 years ago, looking for a better future for his family. He works in construction and carpentry.

  • A mother, Magina Villava, new in a country where she didn't speak the language, who worked in a North Carolina tomato-packing plant for $5 a hour before moving nine years ago to Hilton Head, where Octavio's sister lived.

  • Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, which taught Jorge's mom English, while Jorge participated in a family literacy program while she was in class.

  • A fourth-grade teacher, Erin Duffey, whom Jorge credits for turning him from a poor student -- "I wasn't doing very well" -- to one who was graded "exemplary" in every subject by the end of theyear.

  • "I guess it's really just getting kids to believe in themselves," she said. She remembers Jorge as "a really nice boy, caring, helpful" -- and not a struggling student at all.

  • His seventh-grade social studies teacher, Sean Rochester, who submitted Jorge's name for the 2012 Junior National Young Leaders Conference. "He's awesome," the teacher said. "Very smart. He gets upset if he gets a 97 rather than 100. Everything needs to be perfect." He and Jorge compete to see which can catch the other in a mistake.

  • His mother's Literacy Volunteers classmates -- she speaks English well now, but still attends LVL classes at night at St. Francis Catholic School, after her day job in the kitchen at the Sea Grass Grille. Those students organized to help pay for Jorge's trip, holding a chicken-and-rice dinner, selling carry-outs and food baskets and rounding up items for a prize drawing.

  • "Her classmates can't even imagine such an honor," said Magina's volunteer tutor, Ruth Brenner. "They saw this as more than one family's struggle.

    "To me, this was a lesson in how a community gets behind and gets somebody help."

    And that might not be the best part of the story. It was the students who spend evenings learning English and improving their reading who decided to help their classmate and her son raise money. They went through the process of figuring out how, and got help from other LVL tutors and some donors.


    The conference Jorge will attend is one of several such private enterprises built around Washington trips for young people. It offers instruction in leadership issues, well-known speakers and opportunities to visit the capital's noted sights -- first on Jorge's wish list is the Lincoln Memorial. Seventh-grade teacher Rochester has had students attend in the past, and has gotten good reports.

    The $1,300 the students raised will cover a good chunk of Jorge's conference expenses, but not all. His parents, who won't be allowed to be with him while he stays in a dorm and attends the conference, plan to drive him to Washington D.C.

    "We're sort of scared," said Magina, "because we've never let him go anyplace without us. I hope he gets something good from it." Jorge's parents have never been to Washington, either. They're trying to find an affordable place to stay.


    Jorge, now 13, has two younger brothers, with whom he gets along well, though "they can be annoying sometimes." His favorite subject is social studies, but he likes, science, too. He won his school's science fair grand prize for a project on how temperatures affect butterflies. He's into robotics and plays soccer.

    And he's happy to show off a list of his grades -- none lower than 98 -- in a list of classes that don't sound like what those of an earlier generation remember of seventh grade: advanced science; advanced social studies; algebra; computer technology; "Gifted and Talented" English; and Spanish.

    Spanish? Doesn't he speak Spanish?

    "Yes, but I don't write it as well."

    He doesn't know what he wants to do as an adult. He does know that before then, he wants to go to "a good college." And he knows that in the immediate future, the last week of June, he'll be mixing with other smart, ambitious youngsters.

    With help from lots of people.

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