Jessica Lopez

Age: 28
Resides: Conover
Family: Husband Carlos

Where are you from?
I am from Catawba County. I was born in Catawba Valley Medical Center. In sixth grade, I moved to Iredell County and that’s where I finished high school. After that, I went on a stint of missions in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I lived in Puerto Rico for four years, and then I moved back here.

What prompted you to go on mission trips after high school?
I have a very strong faith, and I've grown up in church. My dad was a pastor. My uncle's a pastor. I started wondering, "What am I going to do after high school?" I just had such a strong passion to give back, to go and do something.

We had a connection with a church in Puerto Rico. I went out on a whim and decided, “All right, I'm this 17-almost-18-year-old girl. I'm going to go live there." I was only going to stay for two months, and then I was going to do something else. It ended up being four years. It honestly would have been longer had the pastor not said, "I'm going to plant a church in North Carolina." Because then I said, "Well, that's where I'm from, so I'm coming with you. Let's go do that."

It was really just a God-pushing-me-toward-my-purpose kind of thing. It was a great experience, and I got so much culture. That's where I learned Spanish, which is a big part of what I do now in my job. I didn’t want do anything else. I could have gone to study in college, but it wasn't my thing quite yet. I did later go on and study, but I wanted to give back first while I was young, while I could get out there.

What did you do in Puerto Rico?
The schools in Puerto Rico are struggling, for lack of a better word. For example, if the teacher's sick, there's no such thing as a substitute; there's just no class. That's from kinder on up. There's a lot of violence that you wouldn't see in our schools. A lot of the parents at that church didn't feel comfortable with their kids in the schools, and they wanted their kids to get an English education. Puerto Rico is our commonwealth, so they wanted them to learn English.

We ran what was basically an academy. We taught from a homeschooling curriculum, and we would teach them English. We taught from kinder to all the way through, and at its highest peak we had close to 50 students.

What was life like in Puerto Rico?
Oh, it's beautiful. Culture shock, for sure. Very, very different, in a good way. It was definitely a very big learning curve for me.

One thing happened that was so impactful to me. I taught history, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day rolled around. I'm trying to teach these children about what racism is and what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is. They did not get it. They just did not understand. They looked at me like it was the dumbest thing they'd ever heard. Because Puerto Ricans, they're a big mixture of colors. I would have a darker child sitting here, a lighter child sitting here, and a medium child sitting here, and they're all Puerto Rican. I would explain, "This is how some people see the world." And they'd say, "Well, I just don't get that. Why would you hate someone for that?" It was amazing, because they didn't see any difference between any of them. Because to them, they're all Puerto Rican. Seeing that and seeing that different culture, seeing that diversity, I loved it. I feel like that's how the world should be. I feel like we should all, no matter what ethnicity you are or how you were raised, we should all help each other out. I loved it.

You mentioned you were only planning to be in Puerto Rico for a few months. What made you decide to stay for four years?
It was just that pull. I knew I wasn't going to find anything greater at that moment in my life. It was one of those things, like, "You have to continue to do this. This is going to fulfill you. This is going to be something greater than you. You have to stay. You have to keep going."

I can't say I loved it at first, because not knowing the language was really hard. Everything was in Spanish, and I just felt so on the outs. I'd go to a get together, and I didn't understand it. I felt very alone at first. I finally realized, "This is where you're supposed to be right now, get over it." When I did that, I fell in love with it. I just submerged myself and took it all in, let myself open up and see what the world had to offer.

My decision to come back was the same as when I was in high school. I felt God was pushing me to do something with a new community. It was my old community, but now it was time. What I had seen and experienced, Catawba County needed to know and experience. I needed to let the people I know, my family and my friends, the people around me, have a taste of what I got to experience in a different culture, the different things I learned. That was the pastor's point as well, that's what he wanted to do. That’s when I said, "I'm with your vision. I see it. Let's go."

I ended up coming back to probably the hardest two years of my life, work-wise. I went to college at CVCC, I helped plant the church full time, I worked full time, and I lived on my own. I would wake up at 7:00 a.m. and not come home until 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. to do homework and eat for the first time. I don't recommend that to anyone. It was culture shock coming back. I had to figure out, "How do I mix the two things that I've known and loved? How do I blend it together to make this life?"

How did you bring back what you learned in Puerto Rico?
The thing that I loved most was the culture, the diversity, how people loved each other's differences. That's what I learned in Puerto Rico. We wanted to open up a multicultural, multigenerational church. I had grown up in church, but it was never like this.

I loved it so much because it's not about how old you are, it's not about where you come from, it's about God. It's about learning to love. It was about being able to help build this church where you could do that. You could come in, and even at my age, you're respected. You're seen as an equal. You're seen as someone who can serve God and learn new things. There are so many people who can teach you if you allow them to use the gifts and talents they’ve been given, the things they've studied, the things they've just stumbled upon.

What were you studying at CVCC?
I was working toward a psychology degree, and seminary possibly in the future, but funds did not support that. I did finish my associate's in general education, which actually helped me to get the job at Centro Latino. I'm just submerged in Hispanic culture.

What do you do at Centro Latino?
I run the afterschool program with kids from kindergarten up to eighth grade. That same struggle I felt in Puerto Rico when I didn't know the language is the struggle they're facing, because our education system is not geared toward ESL speakers. They do a great job at trying to infiltrate it as much as they can, but when you have a classroom of almost 30 kids, you have to keep moving.

We want to be that support system. We want to try to help fill that gap, so if the kids are struggling in a language, the teachers can continue moving the class forward. They already have so much on their plates. We want to be able to come on the back side and say, "Keep going, and we'll try to catch them up to you the best way we know how."

The main thing these students struggle with is reading comprehension. That starts to leak over in those upper grades, because how do you do a math problem that's a word problem if you don't comprehend what you're reading? We really try to get them in those earlier grades, because we've seen that if we can grab them then, by the time they get to the EOG, they’re fine and they get it. At home, up until they were five, they spoke Spanish and then it's full-on English.

A lot of their parents do speak some English and they'll understand it, but they don't feel confident. One of the biggest things I see is parents not being able to communicate with the teacher. They want to communicate, but there are not enough translators to go to every parent-teacher conference. I'll go with the parents who are part of our program and help them talk to the teacher. Any questions the parent has, they'll be able to ask the teacher and get a full explanation.

How is the program structured at Centro?
We have tutors from Lenoir-Rhyne University, work-study students. They'll come in and get their work-study hours. Some of them are education majors, so this really helps them get experience working with kids one-on-one, seeing their struggles and helping them overcome them.

We also have volunteers. The more volunteers, the merrier, because what we would like to achieve is having a one-to-one ratio, one tutor to one child or one volunteer to one child. That doesn't typically happen every day. Sometimes I'll have two kids to a tutor, hopefully no more than that. The more volunteers we get, the more children we can allow into the program.

We speak English, so you don't have to know Spanish to be a volunteer. All the kids speak English. Only rarely, when new kindergartners come in, do we have a little confusion at first.

Can you recall moments at Centro where you felt, "Wow, we really made a difference for that child?”
I've seen a child diagnosed with ADD. At one point he was on medication, and the parents just didn't want to continue it. One volunteer fell in love with this child and took him on as a project. Now, without medication, you see this child reading and developing. His ESL teacher tells me he has made leaps and bounds. He was at a kindergarten level up until third grade. He's in fourth grade right now, reading those upper-level books, starting to really get it, working independently. He couldn't count without something in his hand, and now he's doing multiplication without any of that.

If you really take a special interest in a child, and you see the need and you help develop it, you can really be a huge part of this child's life. This child had nothing to do with this person, and she just really cared about him and crossed into his world. He's going to remember her all of his life.

We see stories like that all the time, with children making jumps, huge jumps in their comprehension. I know the future impact of what's happening now is going to be even greater than what I see with my own eyes. I'm hoping to help them be good citizens, to be good people of this town. It’s about helping them look for that future that maybe otherwise they would not have had the possibility to have because of the language barriers.

How did you first get into creative dance?
I grew up in a church where I didn't feel the freedom to worship in the way that I felt I could. It was stand up, sit down, sing the hymn. When I went to Puerto Rico and saw this freedom to be able to love God with your whole body, it was healing for me, honestly. It was something that truly healed me.

I'm very artistic. I love painting. I love theater. I was a huge theater geek throughout high school and middle school. I truly believe that people learn in many different ways. I am one of those kinesthetic people that if I do it, if I move, then I'll learn it. I believe the same thing happens with the word of God. I wanted to express that in a different way so someone could understand. In our church now, I run an arts academy. We actually teach all ages how to dance.

They say that if you hold in the negative, you also hold in the positive. There’s no way to filter those emotions. If you're constantly holding in all the bad you feel, you're also robbing the world of all the good you have inside you. Being able to express freely through something, whatever it may be, whatever helps you to express, is important. In my case it was dance. I also teach pantomime, which is like a mixture of theater and dance, and I also teach flags, twirling flags, streamers. I've had all ages get interested because it's a safe space for you to be able to come in and let some of those emotions out that are robbing you of your joy.

Some people think it's very strange. I totally respect anybody's opinion on that. To each their own in that sense. This is how I worship God. And I understand if that's different for other people. But I truly believe it, and I think it's something that's very healing, very moving. If I can get these youth to not choose drugs as their way out of their emotions and get them to choose pantomime, theater, that’s so much better.

What do you hope to see in the future?
My ultimate goal as a person, and I know some people don't agree, but my ultimate goal as a person is to help lead people to Christ. That's a calling on my life. Everybody has a calling, or so they feel. But that's me.

I guess I truly believe in the idea that a drop in the ocean makes a wave. And if not, then why are we here? What are we doing? We're just floating around, just existing? No, we have to make a difference. Obviously we're human, so we have to work at bettering ourselves every day and learning.

I've been to other parts of the world. And what makes a difference is not how many restaurants there are. It's what you do. It's the people around you. There's great people here. There's people doing huge things. Way bigger than me, way bigger than what I'm doing. Huge things and making a huge difference. I think it's a great spot to do something great.

 

Interviewed March 18, 2019