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Paraprofessional With 'Gentle Spirit' Dies at 27 From COVID-19
Courtesy of the Garcia family

Pedro Garcia III was a big guy in a small town.

Garcia-a homecoming king, state-medal-winning wrestler, and standout football defensive lineman in high school-was well-known and well-loved in Cozad, a central Nebraska town of 4,000.

Garcia returned to the Cozad schools last fall as a bilingual paraprofessional to help students like himself adjust to life in the Great Plains state. In less than seven months on the job, he earned a reputation among his colleagues as a go-to mentor and confidante for immigrant students and English-language learners.

"It didn't matter what language they spoke. He could connect with anybody," said Marcie Kostrunek, the district's middle school Spanish teacher and English-language-learner coordinator.

Garcia, who also served as a volunteer wrestling coach at his alma mater, died May 2 of complications from COVID-19. He was 27.

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In the weeks since his death, people have shared stories of how the 285-pound Garcia dominated his opponents at Cozad High, home of the Haymakers. But family, friends, and the coaches and teachers who eventually became his co-workers said his ferocity on the football field and wrestling mat belied his gentle, "aw-shucks" nature.

Kostrunek still remembers the first time Garcia walked into her 8th grade Spanish class at Cozad Middle School.

"You could just tell the second that you spoke to him that he had a gentle spirit," Kostrunek said.

Student Becomes Teacher

In the past two decades, thousands of immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, and southeast Asia have migrated to Nebraska for work in the meat-packing plants around the state. Many have settled in Cozad and other towns in Dawson County, one of just four counties in the 93-county state with more than 1,000 English-learner students.

Faced with this growing population of newcomer students, the Cozad schools did not have many staff who could communicate with them.

So, when district leaders realized last fall that they needed a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional, Kostrunek jumped at the chance to hire her former student-and ended up learning from him.

Within weeks, Garcia-a former English-learner himself and the child of Mexican immigrants-built rapport with Spanish-speaking students during conversations about music, food, and soccer and bonded with Karen-speaking students from Thailand over a shared interest in anime.

Garcia also understood their lives: He had come to Cozad as a child after his family relocated from Orange, N.J., and, before taking the school district job, he worked part-time at Tyson Fresh Meats Inc.-where some of his students' parents worked.

Garcia's skill at putting the students at ease helped Kostrunek connect with them and understand the fear that gripped some: When the students refused to talk in class, they were not being defiant; they were scared they would embarrass themselves in their new language.

"Pedro really understood coming in and not being able to speak the language," Kostrunek said. "He really taught me a lot about the kids and how they're processing things."

When the school day ended, Garcia spent hours after school as an unpaid assistant for wrestling coach, Derek Hammerlun, who had taught him the sport.

"For a lot of people in education, it's not necessarily about the money," Hammerlun said. "Pedro, he wanted to see our kids do well."

As an adult, Garcia could not be kept out of the gym, Hammerlun said, but things did not start out that way. Hammerlun joked that he had to drag Garcia-who grew up playing soccer-into a wrestling information meeting with him "kicking and fighting and screaming the whole way."

Early on, Garcia would show up to wrestling practice in jeans, snacking on pistachioes he stored in his pockets, Hammerlun said, and he struggled his first two years as a wrestler, losing far more matches than he won.

As he matured and warmed to the sport, Garcia twice qualified for the state tournament, including his senior year when he placed fifth in the state in the heavyweight division.

After high school, Garcia wrestled at Colby Community College in Kansas and Hastings College in Nebraska. Garcia at one point wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, but Hammerlun and Kostrunek thought he found his calling in the classroom.

Well before he took the bilingual paraprofessional job, Hammerlun tried to convince Garcia to consider teaching Spanish, but Garcia could be painfully shy. Working as a paraprofessional helped him use his language skills in one-on-one and smaller group settings.

"I just knew he would be really, really good at that job," Hammerlun.

'I'm Praying for You'

When Pierro Garcia thinks of his older brother, he recalls Pedro throwing candy to him and other children along the homecoming parade route and how people packed the Cozad High gymnasium for wrestling meets.

"Everyone in town knew him so they knew of our whole family. He was like a big star," Pierro Garcia said.

When Pierro Garcia followed in his brother's footsteps as a high school and college wrestler, Pedro Garcia III attended every match he could, telling jokes to lighten the mood and delivering scouting reports on his opponents.

Once the matches began, Pierro Garcia often saw his brother rooting him on, waving his hands and arms wildly on the side, but rarely ever heard him cheering or yelling.

"He was just a quiet guy," his brother said.

Pedro Garica carried that same quiet fervor to his work with youth, his brother said.

"He would always have high expectations for his kids," Pierro Garcia said.

Pedro Garcia III, who died earlier this month from complications of COVID-19, worked as a paraprofessional in the school district he once attended in Cozad, Neb.

Courtesy of Marcie Kostrunek

"A kid that's never touched the mat a day in his life, he'd say, 'I'm going to get them to win a state title,'" Pierro Garcia said. "With the kids he worked with in school, he really wanted to help them to be comfortable and understand they belong here."

After the Cozad schools transitioned to distance learning in mid-March, Garcia helped Kostrunek with student wellness checks via Zoom and phone calls, reassuring them that things would get better.

When he was hospitalized in late April, he sent a text, letting Kostrunek know that he would not be showing up for class and confirmed that he had contracted COVID-19.

Kostrunek tried contacting him a few days later.

"I sent a text that said, 'I'm praying for you. Is there anything I can do for you?'" Kostrunek said. "And then I never heard back."

Pedro Garcia III is survived by his parents and four siblings.