OTTUMWA — Filomena Del Carmen Castro Villatoro’s career path began, in part, with a family tragedy.

“When I was little, my grandpa was dying,” Villatoro said. “He started choking, and when the paramedic arrived, he wasn’t even prepared for anything. I don’t want that to happen to anybody. When we got to the hospital, my grandpa was dead already, because they didn’t have any of the oxygen or anything to save him. I really want to help people. That’s my biggest goal.”

Achieving her goal will be a huge landmark for Villatoro: It means she’ll be the first person in her family to graduate high school and college.

“I’m really excited to take it on. I really am,” Villatoro said. “I really want to help people, and I really want to show my family that I can do it.”

Villatoro and her family came to Ottumwa from El Salvador three years ago. Unable to fly, they had to make the trip overland through Guatemala, Mexico and the southern United States. They walked for some of it; at other times they hitched rides in trains or passing cars.

Life didn’t get much easier after they arrived. Villatoro couldn’t speak English and had to learn as she went to school. Making friends was difficult. Most of her family, including some of those Villatoro felt closest to, stayed in El Salvador. She hasn’t seen them since.

“It was horrible,” she said.

College was completely out of the question. Apart from the language barrier, Villatoro’s family simply couldn’t afford the cost of school. But she found opportunity through Job Corps.

“Typically, people think Job Corps is for kids who are troubled or have behavioral issues, which is not the case,” said Barb Hanson, GEAR UP coordinator at OHS. “What’s great about being in the high school part of the program is that, after you graduate, you get a full ride to the Indian Hills program of your choice, as long as it’s one of the career clusters they cover.”

Villatoro, who wants to study nursing, is one student who qualifies for these benefits. Her tuition, housing and books will be covered by the program.

“I really wanted to try it out,” Villatoro said. “And if I don’t, I’m going to be ashamed of myself. I just feel like it’s a good opportunity. Especially for those of us that come from other countries and don’t have a lot of support.”

Students at Job Corps are required to learn a skill apart from what they learn in class. For many, this is some type of trade, like carpentry. Villatoro will be able to become a certified nursing assistant to fulfill the requirement.

Hanson said many students who would otherwise benefit from Job Corps feel discouraged from joining the program because of the misconception it’s for “failures.”

“There’s definitely a stigma attached,” she said. “And it’s a really underutilized resource that’s in our backyard. For students like [Villatoro], it can be life changing.”

Another problem Hanson and Villatoro identified is that students too often don’t reach out to school administrators when they might need help.

“Even if you come from another country, you can still have better opportunities to go to college, to be successful in life,” Villatoro said. “No matter what people say, always try it out, because we never know what the world has in store for you.”

Villatoro moved to the center on Sunday. She said she’s already made friends and is adjusting well. As part of the arrangement, she will also be allowed to play soccer for OHS when the season begins in the spring.

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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