As a dedicated educator, Table Rock Elementary Principal Jose deJesus Melendez always understood that trauma, toxic stress, or, as we now call it, adverse childhood experiences could disrupt a child’s development and ability to learn. What he didn’t realize was how deep and wide the research on this subject was or what a tremendous effort was being made by the Southern Oregon Regional Success Initiative to share this knowledge with so many community partners. “This is exactly the work we need to do here!”
When asked if he considers himself a trauma survivor, Principal Melendez agrees that he is. Having been born and raised in a very rural part of Mexico, Melendez endured an extreme form of generational poverty. He had little access to education and completely dropped out of any schooling by the 4th grade. His family and his extended family members were all subsistence farmers, many struggled with alcoholism and the related hurt and chaos it so often creates in the lives of families.
At age 17 Melendez migrated to the U.S. to find work and support the family finances. It is then he says he experienced trauma in another, even more painful way. “I felt so unwelcomed, the hits to my soul, my self-esteem, made me feel like an unwanted but necessary inconvenience to capitalism.” The inhumane conditions under which he and his fellow migrant workers labored added to the toxic stress of unrelenting prejudice. He saw many friends and fellow workers succumb to alcohol related death or wither away from drug abuse as they sought to cope.
A special program at the University of Oregon offering a General Education Diploma (GED) to migrant workers in the region, and a compassionate but firm woman named Donna Wong changed Melendez’s life trajectory. He was now headed away from a life weighted down by trauma towards a life grounded in resiliency and hope. He enrolled in the program at age 27 and Wong instantly took a liking to him. She believed in him. With her constant encouragement, his hard work, and even more encouragement from Wong, he earned a GED. She stretched his imagination and together they co-created a plan for college. Wong insisted Melendez write about his life story. In the process, he found his voice and an audience in the college recruiters. Soon he had scholarships in his pocket and a college degree on the way.
The journey wasn’t easy. Melendez was only one of two Latinos at his University where there was little concern for a concept like inclusivity. More than once Melendez had his bags packed, ready to drop out of college. Again, the passion and belief of two inspiring individuals kept him going. “I still remember her name, Mindy Morrison. She wouldn’t let me leave.” The other inspiration came from a chance encounter with the iconic Ceasar Chavez. Melendez fell spellbound hearing the former migrant worker turned activist speak at a rally in 1991. “I realized in that moment I had champions to speak for me; people using their gifts and their energy on my behalf.” Melendez pressed forward.
“This is what teachers do” says Melendez of his work as an educator and now principal of Table Rock Elementary School where he’s charged with leading other educators. “Resiliency comes with the aid, the help, the inspiration from others.”
When asked “if you could hang a motto or saying in the home of every person, what would it be?” Melendez became passionate. “I’m so frustrated when people say they can’t touch lives, or help someone else; people who, instead, blame and shame. I tell my teachers you DO have the power to create bright futures for our children. . . or to insure they don’t have one at all.”
But if he had to choose one saying to hang in every home, it would have to be a variation of the one that hangs both in English and in Spanish on the walls of his school office: “Every Child Matters” or “Cada Nino es un Tesoro.” Melendez really likes the Spanish word “Tesoro” because it means treasure. To him, all children are beautiful works of art, precious treasures.
After spending time with Principal Melendez, it’s easy to see he is also a priceless jewel in the crown of southern Oregon!