Can one person change a life? In unimaginable ways, St. Jude advocate says

Marcelino Quiñonez overcame a lot of challenges with the help of community. Now he's leading the charge to help others.

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  •  6 min

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On Marcelino Quiñonez’s first day at Anthony Dorsa Elementary School in San Jose, California, his fourth-grade teacher Adam Bernstein told the class to take out their copies of “Ramona Quimby, Age 8.”

The students took turns reading passages aloud. Marcelino listened in awe. “These kids know how to read,” he thought. He squirmed in his seat, heart pounding. What if Mr. Bernstein called on him?

Marcelino couldn’t read.

Mr. Bernstein called his name. The boy gulped and stared at the page, his face burning. Mr. Bernstein stood next to Marcelino’s desk and pointed to the start of a paragraph. Marcelino read aloud the first word, one he recognized: “The.”

“Uncle,” Mr. Bernstein read next.

“Was,” Marcelino read and paused.

“Rich,” Mr. Bernstein read.

The teacher stayed next to him as Marcelino read the words he knew: “he,” “in,” “she,” “sat,” “that” and “the” again. Mr. Bernstein read the rest. He patted Marcelino’s shoulder.

Marcelino’s mom helped him at home, explaining how letters made sounds and sounds made words. She took Marcelino to the library.

Marcelino Quiñonez, age 9

Marcelino Quiñonez learned to read in the fourth-grade. 

A few months later, Mr. Bernstein asked his students to read a passage, reflect on a similar situation in their own lives, and write about it. He put Marcelino’s finished paper on the overhead projector.

It was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, but Mr. Bernstein praised Marcelino’s story. Marcelino could fix his spelling and grammar. Mr. Bernstein recognized Marcelino could do something else. He could think.

Mr. Bernstein believed in this determined boy who had come to the United States from Mexico when he was 5, whose parents hadn’t gone to school beyond sixth grade. He was the first in a long line of people who taught Marcelino that one person — a parent, a teacher, a mentor, even a stranger — can change a life.

Marcelino feels an obligation to give back because of what people like Mr. Bernstein did for him. It’s woven into the story of his life, one he has told again and again about how a fourth-grader who couldn’t read grew up to be a powerful voice in the Latino community and now is lending it to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

He’s part of a new council, raising awareness and fundraising in the Latino community, to help young patients at St. Jude. Just as others did for him.

It’s his story that got him there.

'Wonderful example of perseverance and leadership'

Marcelino was running for school board in 2012 when Imelda Ojeda, regional development director in Phoenix for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, first heard Marcelino’s story.

They’ve been friends since. Marcelino an educator, Ojeda a social worker, both immigrants, mentors and activists, their paths crossing at rallies, fundraisers and community events.

Ojeda was so inspired by Marcelino’s story that last year she asked him to speak to the St. Jude Leadership Society, a program for high school students to learn about leadership, service and how to make meaningful connections. She asked him to do it again this year.

"I have always thought he is a wonderful example of perseverance and leadership," Ojeda said. 

She wanted the teenagers to hear his story.

'Maybe I could go to college'

Marcelino was 5 when he moved with his family from Santiago Papasquiaro in the state of Durango, Mexico, to San Jose, Calif., where they lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a run-down building.

His dad, Gregorio Quiñonez, worked double shifts, waiting tables at two Mexican restaurants. His mother cleaned houses.

They didn’t have much, but when neighbors needed help, they came to Marcelino’s mother. “When we can be of service,” Ofelia Quiñonez told Marcelino, “we should do it without thinking about it.”

They had moved into a rental house in a nicer neighborhood, where Marcelino landed in Mr. Bernstein’s fourth-grade class.

His father had to leave school after fourth grade. His mother could only stay through sixth grade.

Marcelino Quiñonez

Marcelino's mother, Ofelia Quiñonez, with his daughter, Mia.

Marcelino was a sixth grader on his way to help his mother clean the Archuletta’s house when, at a red light, she asked, “Marce, where are you going to college?”

“If my mom is asking me this question,” Marcelino thought, “maybe I could go to college.”

He realized for the first time that what his parents had done, moving to the United States, working so hard, was to give their children chances they never had.

His family moved in 1997 to Phoenix, where in eighth grade, Marcelino was assigned a book report on President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” resonated with Marcelino. It was like what his mother had said.

His family didn’t own a printer, so Marcelino printed out Kennedy’s inaugural speech at a community center and carried it with him in a folder, as a reminder.

People believed in him

At South Mountain High School, Marcelino memorized passages from Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.” He read Mark Twain and William Shakespeare.

The boy who had stumbled through “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” had turned into a reader.

Marcelino Quiñonez

Marcelino with Paul Figueroa, his high school academic advisor, in 2017. 

Marcelino’s academic advisor, Paul Figueroa, looked like him, with the same brown skin and a familiar surname. But Mr. Figueroa had a college degree and his own office.

He and Marcelino talked about books and art. Mr. Figueroa had a print of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night” on his wall.

Mr. Figueroa nominated Marcelino for a “One at a Time” scholarship offered by The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit that helps those with financial struggles. On a Saturday, Marcelino waited his turn for an interview, straightening and re-straightening his tie.

His grades were good. He was in the drama program, French Club president and vice president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter. Would it be enough?

Marcelino got the scholarship, enough to pay for textbooks, gas to and from campus, and other essentials. It wasn’t the amount that mattered. Another scholarship covered his tuition.

It mattered that people believed in him.

'We need substance'

At Arizona State University, Marcelino took Professor Gitta Honegger’s Theater History class and then every other class she taught.

Professor Honegger was an acclaimed actor, author and director.

Like Marcelino, she was an immigrant, from Austria. She seemed to expect more of Marcelino because of that.

Professor Honegger returned one of his papers, marked with red ink. He was a fine actor with plenty of charisma, but he needed something more.

“We need substance, Marcelino,” she said.

If Marcelino wanted people to listen, he had to say something. Something of substance.

'Your accomplishments will be a reflection of the people who helped you'

As part of the “One at a Time” scholarship, Marcelino was assigned a mentor, Walt Gallegos, a retired engineer.

Mr. Gallegos called regularly to check on Marcelino. They met for lunch, Mr. Gallegos’ treat. Marcelino showed up with good grades and good news. A test he aced. A play he was writing.

Marcelino marveled that this man, a stranger, was so invested in his success. Mr. Gallegos spoke with decorum and dressed professionally. Marcelino imitated him.

“Your accomplishments will be a reflection of the people who helped you,” Mr. Gallegos told Marcelino.

When Marcelino graduated in 2007, he looked at the gilded certificate and imagined other names next to his. Gregorio and Ofelia Quiñonez. Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Figueroa. Professor Honegger. Mr. Gallegos.

'I believed they could do it'

His first job was teaching at a Phoenix charter school, where almost all the students were Hispanic, and more than 90 percent qualified for federal free- and reduced-price meal programs. Kids like Marcelino.

Marcelino asked them to read passages from “The House on Mango Street,” think about a similar situation in their own lives and write about it. Just as Mr. Bernstein had asked him to do.

Their stories mattered, Marcelino told them. His students had something to say. Something of substance.

“I believed they could do it,” Marcelino said.

Something else happened, too. On state standardized tests, 78 percent of Marcelino’s sophomores passed the reading portion. The school’s goal was 64 percent.

Mr. Quiñonez had made them think.

'Life has been very kind to me'

The boy who couldn’t read in fourth grade understood the power of that.

A reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night” like the one in Mr. Figueroa’s office hangs in his dining room.

Marcelino Quiñonez

Marcelino played the role of Marxist Ernesto “Che” Guevara in his play, "El Che," to sold-out audiences at the Phoenix Center for the Arts in 2016. (Courtesy of Lourdes Medina)

On a bookcase in the living room is a copy of his play, “El Che,” one he started in Professor Honegger’s class and published in 2015. Marcelino played the role of Marxist Ernesto “Che” Guevara to sold-out audiences at the Phoenix Center for the Arts in 2016.

He wears a shirt, tie and jacket, and speaks with the decorum of Mr. Gallegos.

At 37, Marcelino is the father of Mia, who’s 12, with two degrees and an office at Arizona State University, where he helps students who never thought they could go to college get there.

He served on the board of the Roosevelt Elementary School District, where he’d been a student, advocating for smaller classes and art programs. He’s on the board of St. Vincent de Paul and involved in other civic groups, politics and social justice movements.

“Life has been very kind to me,” Marcelino said. “Because life has been kind to me, I believe I have an obligation to give back to others.”

Marcelino Quiñonez

Marcelino speaks to students at Arizona State University's Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute.

'Amigos de St. Jude'

Marcelino arrived early for the St. Jude Arizona Latino Council meeting before its fundraiser that night in August, Noche de Loteria, at Frida’s Garden, a Phoenix gallery featuring Latino artists.

Proceeds from the event would go to St. Jude.

Marcelino Quiñonez

Marcelino Quiñonez

The council met for the first time in March and monthly since, planning fundraisers with a distinctively Latino flair. Noche de Lotería. Donation drives at stores, which carry traditional Mexican foods.

Council members promised to recruit 10 participants each for the St. Jude Walk/Run this month. They’ll wear T-shirts that say, “Amigos de St. Jude.”

Sandra Luna recruited coworkers at her bank to volunteer at the event. Luis Galindo offered dates for a fundraiser at his fitness center.

Ojeda had noticed people attending fundraisers in Phoenix weren’t as diverse as the patients St. Jude treats, almost half of whom are people of color.

“Our donors and supporters don’t truly reflect that diversity,” she said. Especially in Phoenix where the population is almost 43 percent Hispanic.

Imelda knew from her work as a community activist that Latinos could be counted on to rally around important causes. “They show up when there is a need,” she said, particularly the immigrant community.

They understand how important it is that patient families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food.

Marcelino Quiñonez

St. Jude Arizona Latino Council members Marcelino Quiñonez and Sandra Luna with her husband, Carlos, at Noche de Loteria 

Her partner, David Carrizosa, an activist and businessman who mentors other entrepreneurs, came up with the idea for the council. He recruited 12 members, all active in the Latino community. The gallery’s owner. Attorneys. Entrepreneurs. Someone in banking. Marcelino.

Marcelino has learned that big things come out of small gatherings like this. It’s how Danny Thomas raised the money to open St. Jude in 1962, connecting with one person at a time.

One person can do amazing things. Gregorio and Ofelia Quiñonez. Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Figueroa. Professor Honegger. Mr. Gallegos.

Mr. Quiñonez.

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