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Lathrops young councilman gets degree while serving the city
Lathrop councilman Omar Ornelas, 23, was recently voted in to a second term. In his first four years on the council he managed to graduate from UC Davis and is now teaching at a school in South Stockton while working on his Masters degree. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Omar Ornelas at 19-years of age thought he already had the whole world figured out. 

Cocksure and full of the type of swagger you wouldn’t expect to find in anybody sitting on a city council anywhere, Ornelas quickly learned that things – especially in government – are almost never black-and-white and are almost always complicated. 

Trial by fire. Skin the knee and learn how to get back up.

But when it came to doing the job, Ornelas was a quick study. He paid attention to those who had been on the council longer than he did. He sought advice. And he stood up and traded punches when punches needed to be traded. 

Now, at 23, he’s a third grade teacher at an elementary school in Stockton and he’s just two weeks removed from taking the oath of office for another four-year term as a Lathrop City Councilman. 

He’s working on a Master’s degree too, now that he has graduated from the University of California, Davis. 

Because it’s not like he’s busy or anything like that. 

“I’m pretty open about my work and my commitment to the programs that I sign up for,” Ornelas said. “I hope that people never doubt that and look at what I do and say, ‘You’re doing too much – you have to choose what’s more important.’

“That might work on a temporary basis, but that’s not true in the long term. I’m committed to this and I have a passion for this and there’s something about knowing that you’re making a difference one way or another. This is a community that I owe something to, and that’s the way that I approach it.”

• • •

Humble beginnings

Ornelas might spend his evenings hobnobbing with the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s elite – builders and politicians and dilettantes. It might be at a fundraiser or a dedication, or even just at a public meeting. But as one of seven children, Ornelas starts every day at home helping his mother in any way he can to ready his younger brothers and sisters before he hits the door and goes out to try and make a difference. 

There’s no silver spoon for Omar Ornelas. And maybe that’s why he’s able to keep the outlook and disposition that fades away like sand from a beach town strip for so many others.

Maybe that’s why despite teaching in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Stockton – an area already known to be one of the most poverty-stricken in the State of California and, according to Forbes, one of the 10 most miserable places to live in the entire United States (it’s consistently ranked, and the number changes every year). 

His kids don’t come from the affluent parts of town, which are isolated in sections and corners. That’s not where the teaching program that he signed up for, which places teachers in areas with the greatest need, is trying to focus its resources. 

And for better or worse, it’s not where Ornelas has learned on the fly how to adapt to situations in the classroom that are constantly changing. 

Once again, trial by fire. 

“It’s very difficult because you learn as a first-year teacher that you don’t work a 9-to-5 schedule and you’re not on campus when school starts at 8 a.m. and you don’t leave when it gets out at 3 p.m. You’re constantly adjusting lesson plans and behavior management tactics and the goals you’re trying to hit. 

“When I first started I would get to school at 6 a.m. and I wouldn’t leave until 7 p.m. when the janitors were leaving because I needed that learning process and that amount of time to get everything down. I knew that I needed to get all of those things down first in order to be effective at what it was I was doing.”

• • •

An apology and some perspective

Not long after Ornelas started his teaching gig he picked up the phone and called up most of his high school teachers. 

Not for advice. But to apologize.

For the first time since he graduated from East Union High School, Ornelas realized how disruptive his own behavior had been in the classroom. Clowning around with other students. Playing the Devil’s advocate in every situation regardless of who it was with – staff or student. He was just being, at that time, a brash young man with a sharp tongue and even sharper wits. 

His focus, however, also sharpened with age, and he felt the need to reach out. 

“It was something that I had to do because I realized how I caused so much trouble for them when I was a student,” he said. “Just talking back and acting a certain way – I know I caused a lot of unnecessary grief for them and I wanted to tell them I was sorry for that. 

“Those things sometimes become clearer to you later on, and fortunately I still kept in touch with most of my teachers.”

That perspective wasn’t just limited to overcoming his rap as a troublemaker in the classroom either. 

He was only 19 when he started his career as a public servant, but since then – and even amidst his increasingly busy life – Ornelas has become somewhat of a policy wonk and still harbors the desire to maybe someday pursue a career beyond teaching where he can play a role in drafting the sorts of things that impact students not just in the classroom, but across the board. 

Will that mean working for a government agency? A non-governmental agency? A school district? Another elected position? He doesn’t quite know yet which way the wind will take him, and it’s rare that today he even gets the chance to feel the wind – most of life’s simple pleasures have been taken up by parent-teacher conferences or closed session council meetings or marathon study sessions.

Being a “normal” 23-year-old? He tries to get out one weekend a month to hang out with friends or go out to dinner or go grab a drink. There is no time for video games. There is no time for a hobby.

• • •

Swinging for the future

If you are lucky enough to catch Omar Ornelas out in the wild, it’ll more than likely be on the softball diamond at Big League Dreams. 

He loves it out there. The camaraderie of a team sport coupled with the unbridled freedom from the restraints of the rest of the world are an intoxicating mixture, and even now he’s preparing to start another season through the coldest and wettest season of all. 

In a way, softball is kind of a fitting analogy for Ornelas, his past as a council member and elected official, and the future that he hopes to build based on those building blocks. 

Take, for example, the time that he spends sitting in long, long meetings with city staffers talking about annexations or property line adjustments or development agreements – the things that would send a normal person straight to dreamland. 

Not Ornelas. 

He pays attention not only to the subject matter, soaking it all up like a sponge, but also who is delivering it. When Glenn Gebhardt, Lathrop’s city engineer, speaks openly about a project that is either ongoing or upcoming, Ornelas pays close attention to the information being presented as well as Gebhardt’s diction. 

It might be an odd quirk, but for a 23-year-old that’s constantly trying to better himself, trying to imitate a man that is a wealth of knowledge about development in that section of the South County – and delivers it so eloquently and without the condescending tone that can come at times when breaking down an idea so that people can easily digest it – is a great thing. 

“I think that my exposure through all of this has taught me about professionalism and how there are 100 people that come to work for this city every day and they have a job to do – they depend on us for providing that job and we depend on them for getting that job done. That’s how it works,” Ornelas said. “This has taught me about being an adult in the world and the responsibilities that go with it, and that has really put a lot of focus on education. 

“There are only so many things that you can say before you run out of ways to say it and when you look at somebody like Glenn, who is so committed to the city, speak about goals and the issues that are facing the city you can’t help but develop the motivation to want to be like that – to speak like that and be invested in a community the same way he is. Being around people like that gives you something to strive for, and I think that is important.”