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Former student ‘pays it forward’ at Sierra High

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Former student ‘pays it forward’ at Sierra High

Sierra High School special education teacher Mary Del Pino is all smiles as her former student, Miguel Barajas, surprises her with a gift of school supplies for her classroom. “stopped by” on the s...


POSTED September 17, 2013 3:20 a.m.

Manuel Barajas attended three years of high school at Sierra High. During his senior year, his family moved to Ripon and finished his senior year at Ripon High where he graduated.

That was seven years ago. The story of his secondary schooling would have ended there and then.

But Barajas never forgot his special ed English teacher at Sierra, Mary Del Pino. On the second day of school in August, Barajas just happened to be “passing through” Manteca, as he later explained it, and simply decided to stop at his old alma mater and say a quick hello to his former teacher.

“He came to see me and to tell me how well he was doing,” Del Pino said of Barajas who is now living in the Bay Area with his wife and baby daughter. He is part of the construction crew that is building the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the San Francisco 49ers football team.

During their conversation in the school office, inspiration suddenly hit Del Pino.

“I asked him if he would speak to my students,” she recalled, and Barajas was more than glad to grant her request.

“He came to the classroom with me and he explained (to the class) how he had really given me a hard time and that he didn’t believe me and what I said” during all the three years he was in her class, said Del Pino.

Barajas told the class how “a lot of times he’d get discouraged” but that Del Pino would just encourage him saying what he was doing was “really good.”

“It was really so inspiring. He really talked to the class,” said Del Pino who took up teaching as a second career after losing her job as marketing supervisor for 17 years at the now-defunct Continental Cable Vision in Manteca.

“He really values education, and that’s what he told my students. ‘Don’t give up. Do the best you can.’ He was really a great speaker for my students. I have seniors right now (in my class) so it was just perfect.”

Paying it forward

As teacher and former student reminisced about old times, the discussion touched on school budget challenges and the difficulties that educators are having with school supplies, problems that Barajas was well aware of having seen it first-hand while in Del Pino’s class.

At the beginning of the school year, teachers like Del Pino at Sierra were told that due to the budget squeeze, the usual “teachers’ allowance” for school supplies in the amount of $350 for the whole year may not be forthcoming. Later, the teachers were given a silver lining and were told that the allowance may, after all, be still be available in three to four weeks but that it would be cut down to $250.

At that point, Barajas asked his former teacher if she had a “wish list” for the things she needs in her class.

Not knowing what her former students’ plans were, she was therefore surprised when, “within the same afternoon” Barajas returned to Sierra with $200 plus worth of school supplies that he purchased at Walmart for Del Pino.

In the boxes were reams of computer paper, markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, binder paper, among many other things needed in the classroom.

“I was shocked. I was just in tears,” she said of Barajas’ generous surprise gift. “He was just paying it forward. He just wanted to give back to the kids.”

Barajas’ gift to his former teacher came to the attention of the Manteca Unified Board of Trustees and administration officials when Timberwolves’ student representative Aaron Mackey mentioned it in his report to the board.

What made Barajas’ gesture even more meaningful was that, in the three years he was at Sierra, he was having “some significant problems as far as behavior issues,” so much so that he was quite known to the staff in the front office, Del Pino recalled.

“Sometimes you’re not sure if you’re getting through to these kids. And I tell you what, him coming back that day made it for me for the rest of the year. It just takes one student like that to make you realize that education is so worthwhile, that teaching is so worthwhile,” said Del Pino who always remembered Barajas as “a good artist.”

In fact, she still has some of his old art work. Pulling out one of them to show him, Del Pino noted that his middle name is Angel, prompting her to say, “Miguel, you were my guardian angel.”

Contact Rose Albano Risso at or at (209) 249-3536.

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