During her shifts as a dietary aide at St. Ann’s Home, 18-year-old Naomi Cuenca likes to chat with 97-year-old Isabel Butkiewicz.
“How are you?” Naomi asked her one recent afternoon. “I’m alive,” Isabel cheerfully replied, as she always does.
Then she told Naomi about being born at home in 1917, prematurely, and playing piano in polka bands. “You Are My Sunshine” was her favorite tune.
As she headed back to the kitchen to help serve supper, Naomi said she learns a lot from Isabel and other residents at the Grand Rapids retirement home.
“We are who we are for the generations who came before us,” said the Kenowa Hills High School senior. “It’s always good to give back to them.”
Naomi makes giving part of her life. She is president of The Opportunity Group, a student service and diversity club. They have performed projects such as taking water filters to the Dominican Republic, tutoring elementary pupils and donating holiday items to needy families. This spring they are organizing a Relay for Life.
Naomi leads the group despite challenges of her own. Born in Mexico, she’s had to wait for privileges other students enjoy until she’s old enough for citizenship. Due to personal problems at home, she is living for now with her boyfriend’s family.
Still, she makes time to help others, in addition to working 20 or more hours a week at St. Ann’s Home. (“I have bills,” she explained.)
“I love knowing that I can help and make a change,” Naomi said. She has done more than her part in four years with The Opportunity Group. Said Naomi, “We want to see change in the world.”
Realizing Differences Early On
Having immigrated to America with her family at age 6, Naomi experienced the challenges of growing up in a Spanish-speaking household in an English-speaking culture. When her grandmother went to the hospital for diabetes, Naomi translated for her. Sometimes she stayed to help other Spanish-speaking patients.
As a non-citizen, she couldn’t do certain things. Friends would invite her on vacation but she wasn’t allowed out of the country. Later, she couldn’t get a driver’s license when her friends did.
“Even as a kid I knew I was different,” Naomi said. “It was upsetting. But at the same time it gives you that drive to want to change and do something for yourself.”
She eventually gained limited immigration status through the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, entitling her to work, drive and leave the country with permission. She plans to apply for citizenship in another three years, and has no worries about passing the citizenship test. She has twice aced tests on the U.S. Constitution, in seventh grade and last year.
Naomi has helped other Latino immigrants, once translating for a lawyer who spoke at her church about how to gain legal status. For her, becoming a citizen is not so much an earned right as a fact of life.
“This is where I grew up,” she said. “I don’t know anything else but the U.S.”
A Place for Students of Color
Being of mixed heritage – she has a Filipino grandmother and African-American grandfather – has heightened her awareness of racial and ethnic issues at Kenowa.
“A lot of kids say there’s no racism here,” said Naomi, as poised as she is friendly. “Try to spend a day in a colored kid’s shoes and then tell me there’s no racism.”
The Opportunity Group provides a place for students of color, and anyone else who wants to serve others. Anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen students meet weekly to plan projects. Lately they’ve been putting together a clothing pantry for students in need.
Naomi’s leadership has helped keep the group together in “a tough year,” said adviser Laura Fair. “A lot of these kids need help themselves. They are pulling themselves out of the loop of poverty by being givers.”
Brian Stricklen, the group’s vice president, said Naomi encouraged him and several others to join. “She doesn’t care who you are, whether you’re a jock or a nerd,” Brian said. “If you care about the T.O.G., she wants to help you.”
Naomi looks at her role as being “a leader of leaders.” She attended a three-day, Rotary-sponsored leadership conference in Cadillac last summer.
“Sometimes being a leader is more listening to what the group has to say, seeing what they believe has to be changed, and helping them guide their own projects,” she said. “I like knowing people feel they can come to me for advice and help.”
A Heart for Children and the Elderly
Principal Katie Pennington said Naomi shows “servant leadership” through helping others.
“Naomi takes the initiative to tackle real-world problems,” Pennington said. “In her time at Kenowa Hills, she has worked to end road rage, bring drinking water to international villages, and clothe the poor in Grand Rapids.
“Naomi’s positive outlook on life is contagious,” she added. “She simply refuses to let life’s circumstances get the best of her.”
She also finds time for music, having won multiple vocal competitions in middle school and appearing in the recent high school musical “Curtains.” With an academic focus on business accounting, she plans to study Spanish in college toward a translating career in business and law.
Whether it’s at a Grand Rapids retirement home or an African orphanage, she wants to put her servant’s heart to use for children and the elderly.
“Their voices aren’t necessarily heard,” Naomi said. “Sometimes children are the ones that notice more things. They can realize more things than most people, and the elderly too. They see what is wrong.”
She would like to help right what is wrong.