MILWAUKEE –– ABC News reporter John Quiñones stopped at St. Rafael the Archangel School on Thursday, Oct. 1, to share his story of how hard work can make dreams come true.
When development director April MacDowell of Near South Side Catholic Schools received a press release from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce saying Quiñones was coming to town, she immediately tried to set up a visit to St. Rafael the Archangel for the students of St. Rafael, St. Adalbert and Prince of Peace.
With 95 percent of the schools’ populations being Hispanic, MacDowell knew that the news reporter, who does the TV show “What Would You Do?” and who is co-anchor of ABC News “Primetime,” would be able to relate to the children.
“I thought it would be so nice for them to hear from a Hispanic person who has been able to do what he wanted to do and fulfill his dreams,” MacDowell said. “And for them knowing that he had come from a fairly humble background, for them to be able to hear that story and be inspired that they can also do whatever they decide that they want to do.”
Quiñones, who was invited to Milwaukee to talk to a group of lawyers about diversity and its importance in their field, came straight to the school from the airport and spent part of the hour talking about his life growing up, overcoming obstacles and becoming famous. He then opened the floor to the nearly 200 children to ask questions.
He explained that as a child living in San Antonio, Texas, he loved writing stories and poetry and telling stories, but that he noticed that American television – ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN – had few, if any, people who looked like him.
“So, I was determined to go to college someday and to become a reporter and to become a television reporter so I could go back to my neighborhoods and tell good stories about our people,” Quiñones said from his seat on stage, explaining that the stories about African-Americans, Mexicans and Latinos usually shine a negative light.
“We need more positive stories about us and people like you and people like me can tell those stories better because we understand our neighborhoods,” said Quiñones, who earned his bachelor of arts degree in speech communications from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and his master’s from the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York. “And now I’m a famous TV reporter on ‘20/20.’”
Quiñones told the children about how, when he was their age, he fought the discouragement of people around him who said he would never be a TV reporter because he had dark skin, an accent and spoke poor English.
“I want you to know today that each and every one of you should chase your dreams and never give up. That’s my message to you today,” he said. “…And guess what? I proved them wrong. I proved them wrong because I believed in myself and because I heard from people like my mother who said, ‘Never take that as an answer; you are just as good as anyone else.’”
As a grade school student in San Antonio, Quiñones’ grades were B’s, C’s and some D’s, but he told the kids that didn’t give them permission to get those grades.
“The only message there is even if you’re not doing so well, keep trying to do better because in high school, when I started writing, you know what happened when the teacher finally looked at me and said, ‘John, you have some talent,’? Then I started doing better,” Quiñones said. “It’s funny; you will do as good as you’re expected to do.”
He encouraged the children to listen to the people who love them and whom they can trust, but he also reminded them that even peers can have a negative influence on their lives. In response to one boy’s question about whom Quiñones believed more, his mom or his peers, Quiñones answered, “What happens sometimes is we pay too much attention to what our friends say, right? Too often we ignore what our parents say,” but added that now he can look back and see that his mother was right most of the time.
Quiñones also said he had one friend who was a positive influence on his life, and pushed him to do more saying, “John, we could go to college. We could make it,” Quiñones said. “… So, I think it was both my parents and it was (my friend) who told me that we could make it together like a team.”
He told them how he worked for his high school newspaper and got involved in drama classes to combat his shyness and work on pronunciation. And how he went to college through “Upward Bound,” a program that funded the education Quiñones and his family couldn’t afford.
“There are programs out there that will help you get in college, so don’t think that just because your family’s poor, you’re not going to make it; you can,” he said.
The story that seemed to grasp the attention of all of the children, though, and quiet the whispers coming from their seats in front of the stage, was Quiñones’ recollection of the best story he’s covered: “To Save the Children,” the 1990 report he did about the 300 homeless children living in the South American sewers of Bogota, Colombia.
“When I heard that they lived in the sewers, I said, ‘I want to go there. I want to tell the story about them. I want to go into the sewers,’” Quiñones said of the 300, 4-9 year-old children he described as runaways and castaways. “So, we went into the sewers.”
In the sewers, Quiñones learned of a rich man who helped the children by bringing them food because he couldn’t sleep at night knowing there were poor children living in the sewers. Quiñones explained that the rich man was the only person the children trusted because the police officers there tried to get rid of them by opening the manhole covers, pouring gasoline into the sewer and throwing a match down to “burn them out.”
“Some of the children we met had their faces like candlewax,” Quiñones said of the way they were burned by the police officers. “…So, when I told their story on ABC, viewers who watched our story across the country sent in money donations and they sent in $1 million in donations to this man who’s helping them,” which, he explained, resulted in all 300 children getting the help they needed to get out of the sewers, an education and into an orphanage.
“So, you see how important reporting can be when you shine your light and expose something like this, then something very good can happen and, in this case, I think we saved the lives of hundreds of children,” Quiñones said.
St. Rafael eight grader Andrea Vargas was touched by the story.
“It’s sad that (we) have everything that children don’t have and we could, the people that have a lot, could give more than we have to support the children,” she said.
Vargas also said that Quiñones’ talk made her feel like she understands more clearly that she should never give up on high school, and that she should always continue to push forward in her education.
“The most important thing that I got out of his talk is that don’t give up on something that you really want, never say ‘no’ to something that you really want, like how he said about a reporter; don’t get out of school, do good in school (and) have a career.”
While Vargas knew of Quiñones before he came, because she’s seen him a few times on TV, the experience made an impression on her.
“This was amazing,” Vargas said, smiling. “I love how he came and talked to us; it was nice.”
Juan Francisco Gomez, a fifth grade student at St. Rafael, who said he wants to become a filmmaker, said the talk taught him about helping others.
“I learned about the stories that are really important and that’s why we need people to help our country,” he said.
Quiñones also made the 10-year-old feel as though he can reach his goals.
“Everybody told him he can’t do it and then he kept trying and then he did it,” Francisco Gomez said.
Carolyn Ettlie, St. Rafael Parish School principal for 14 years, said the spur-of-the-moment visit from Quiñones, a role model for the children, was valuable because they need to see people of their heritage and background who have succeeded.
“Because of his Latino heritage, because he has been a success, but he can also relate to them,” Ettlie said. “They know where he’s come from and he’s able to articulate that. They relate to that and they can see themselves in his face.”
Ettlie said children need to be encouraged to succeed, which is why Quiñones’ visit fit in with the schools’ lesson plans.
“In everything we do, we are always talking to kids about encouraging succeeding,” she said. “We’re always talking to our eighth graders about high school and going on from there and being successes … that’s why their parents want them in school – their parents desperately want them to get ahead; that’s their dream.”
The talk was valuable no matter who was in the crowd, though, according to MacDowell, because Quiñones’ message reached across ages and backgrounds.
“He was just talking about whoever you are, where you’ve come from, whatever your income or ethnic background, you just need to set your sights and not let anybody discourage you and just shoot for whatever it is your dreams are,” she said.