George Ramirez-Madrigal has worked since age 12 to help his family. His jobs have included farm work, fast food and for the curriculum department at the school district, mostly doing book and classroom inventories.
“It’s just my mom, brother and I at home,” he said. “My father is present in my life, but not as much help as my parents aren’t together.”
George said he often paid for the family’s car insurance, and helped with prescriptions, clothes and groceries. And helped his mother, Maria, raise his younger brother, Eric, a seventh grader at Kenowa Hills Middle School.
“It’s hard to juggle work and school; everyone knows that,” said George, who said he woke at 6 a.m. on school days and continued sometimes as late as 1 a.m. finishing work and homework. “It sucks that we have to budget a little too much, but it can’t let me get distracted.
“Sometimes I wonder what life would’ve been, but it has helped me realize — of course there’s nothing wrong with fast food or farming — where I don’t want to be and what I want for my life.”
High school teacher Katie Andrusiak emphasized that George not only helps his family financially, but looks after his younger brother.
“He does view himself as a father figure, as he is the one who wakes Eric up and gets him to school on time, offers him advice and helps constantly with his ADHD and anxieties,” Andrusiak said. “I have never met someone who has had so much against him and had such a positive attitude and outlook on life.
“George has never once given up or allowed himself to feel sorry for his situation.”
George said he was shy in middle school through freshman year, but his demeanor changed sophomore year after he made the tennis team.
As junior class representative last year and senior class president this year, “This really helped me get out of my bubble a little bit more. Of course this wasn’t a senior year that any one of us expected, but I’ve enjoyed every moment and was able to build relationships and friendships that I feel I wouldn’t have had.”
As far as his class president duties during quarantine, he said there were a few tasks the officers handled, including recognizing classmates on their Instagram page, keeping them informed of any changes and organizing delivery of senior T-shirts.
George said he challenged himself more when he asked Principal Nate Robrahn if he could be the one to introduce teachers and staff on opening day last fall in front of the entire student body.
“I really went from shy kid wrapped in his own problems, to trying to be someone approachable for my friends and classmates without letting my home issues define who I am as a person,” said George, who also served as student representative at the district’s Board of Education meetings.
Robrahn said George is a very positive young man.
“He cares deeply about his younger brother, his mom and his classmates. I am looking forward to seeing what a difference George will make in this world.”
Besides Andrusiak and Robrahn, George said those at Kenowa Hills who influenced his success include Spanish teacher Mary Hurt, anatomy teacher Heather Pilarz and previous high school Principal Brett Zuver.
“I honestly don’t know where I would’ve been today” without them, he said.
Through assistance from Michigan State University’s Spartan Advantage Program, which helps cover tuition for eight semesters, and its College Assistance Migrant Program, he is on track to receive considerable financial aid.
The CAMP program would cover any expenses not covered by financial aid, such as housing, meal plans and textbooks.
“With that, I should expect two years fully paid. So of course, I am forever grateful for these opportunities,” said George, who finished high school with a 3.514 GPA. His favorite classes: English, human anatomy and math.
He’s still considering a major, but is leaning toward education with a minor in Spanish or double major that includes Spanish.
“I haven’t given much thought to that yet, but in reality my overall dream is to see my family succeed, and try to overcome our hardships one thing at a time. That can be purchasing a home for my mom, maybe building my own, too, watching my brother improve with his behavior and learning abilities … you know, going forward and not repeat what happened to me growing up.”
George said traveling to all 50 states is one of his dreams.
“I like traveling, and so far I’ve been to about 10 states. And just living life to the fullest, since I feel can be the biggest takeaway, especially during this quarantine.”