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‘Rich in so many ways’

Giving back to Grand Rapids Public Schools is a family affair for the Cervanteses

GRPS — Javier Cervantes is a familiar face at Buchanan Elementary. 

Even though the Grand Rapids Public Schools communications coordinator works in the district offices, everyone seems to know his name, especially alongside his sister, Vanessa Cervantes, who also is Buchanan’s Kent School Services Network coordinator. 

“Buchanan is home,” he said. “This school is my home and will always be my home. This is where it all started for me.”

On their way to the library recently, Javier spotted his former fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Moe, on her way back to her classroom. 

“When I was her student, she used to tell us she was old as dirt when we asked about her age,” he recalled with a laugh. “Years later, she’s still here teaching fifth grade.”

Javier graduated in 2009 from Central High School, now called Innovation Central. His sister graduated there in 2008.

Now he works alongside teachers from schools in the district, including his sister, and their mother and Buchanan’s librarian, Maria Cervantes.

Javier said of his former GRPS teachers: “They tell me they’re so proud of me, but I’m so grateful for them for teaching me, pushing me and believing in me. It made me feel good to have someone say ‘You can do whatever you set your mind to,’ and now I can give back.”

From left, fifth-grade teacher Jeff Dejong, Maria Cervantes, Vanessa’s son, Vanessa Cervantes and Javier Cervantes at Buchanan Elementary

Creando un Legado Familiar 

A first generation family in Grand Rapids, Maria and Martín Cervantes raised three children: Vanessa, Javier and Daniel, who is now a senior at City Middle High School. 

Javier said his family’s collective contributions to GRPS and the greater community is a team effort.

On Oct. 18, the Cervantes family received the La Familia Legacy award from The Committee to Honor César E. Chávez. The award honors an exemplary Hispanic family that puts into action the values and legacy of Chávez, the late labor leader and civil rights activist.

The committee described the family as one “who has challenged us to dare to dream and hope without giving up their identity and culture.”

Sitting beside Javier and Vanessa in the library she’s worked in for more than 30 years, Maria reflected on their legacy.

“I am so proud of my family,” she said. “I was 19 when I started working at Burton Middle School, where sixth-grade girls were taller than me. It was hard.”

After three years at Burton, she transitioned to Buchanan to work as a literacy paraprofessional and never left. She also teaches summer school.

“I love what I do and I treat the kids like they’re my own,” Maria said. “They miss me when I’m gone and they make me feel good.” 

Vanessa chimed in: “When I go out to places in the community, people ask me, ‘Does your mom still work there?’ and I say ‘Yeah, she’s still there.’” 

Maria explained that when she started at Buchanan, there were few Hispanic students. Being bilingual, she spoke their language while teaching them English. She also taught them that their voices mattered. 

“I’m so happy to work with students who learn English and all the students who don’t know how to read,” she said. “I’m able to help them and it feels so good and makes me feel proud of myself.” 

As the matriarch of the Cervantes family in GRPS, second only to their 92-year-old abuela, Dora, Maria inspires her two children to give back to their schools and community. 

“My mom was the one who encouraged us to volunteer with the LOOP program when we were in high school,” Javier said. “She told us, ‘I guarantee the benefits from the experience will pay off one day.’ We agreed to try it, we enjoyed it and when Vanessa turned 18, she got offered a job as an activities leader.”

Welling up with emotion, he said he gained inspiration from watching his parents struggle to raise a family and still want to help others. 

“I would not be the person I am without my parents, my sister and my teachers,” he said. “It warms my heart and makes me feel like the work we do on a daily basis makes a difference in our community, being able to follow in (our mom’s) footsteps.”

The Cervantes family (courtesy)

A Second Family 

Long since their days attending Buchanan, Javier and Vanessa did not stray far from their childhood district when pursuing job opportunities.  

In her second year as Buchanan’s first KSSN coordinator, Vanessa said she always dreamed of working in a school.

“My two kids now attend this school and they absolutely love it,” she said. “I love being here with them. It’s created a very special bond to be at the same school as my mom and kids.”

Her dream job also allows her to pursue her passion of helping students and their families. 

“It’s just amazing to see all the wonderful donations brought to the school. We have so many families coming from different countries and they come with nothing,” she said. “We get to provide resources and build relationships.”

One recent school day, while Vanessa was giving clothing donations to a student, the second-grader made a new discovery.

“She told me, ‘I just found out Ms. Cervantes is your mom. She’s so nice, and now I know where you get your niceness from. I love you both because you make me feel welcome at the school.’”

She added: “Our parents always taught us to help those in need, and this place is where I’m meant to be.” 

The family has been around long enough to see some students grow from kindergarten to graduation and raise families of their own.

Their values of kindness, hard work and generosity are getting passed down to the next generation. 

“My kids look up to us, and one thing my daughter has told me is, ‘Mom, I want to help people; I want to be like you,’” Vanessa said, adding that her kids also enjoy seeing their tío — aka Uncle — Javier on GRPS’ social media, YouTube and hearing his voice on the district’s automated telephone message announcing snow days. 

“Working in education you’re never going to get rich, but you are rich in so many other ways, and our cups are so full,” Javier said.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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