Mary Veres first learned about Roseanna Gonzalez in a letter sent to Sunnyside Unified School District.
The letter, from a customer at Burger King, praised a teacher for comforting a grieving student during a track-team car wash in the restaurant’s parking lot.
Earlier that week, an elementary school student in the district had been hit by a car and killed.
“She was consoling one of the students who knew the little boy …” says Veres, the district’s spokeswoman. “She was talking about how difficult life could be and how hard it was to lose someone.”
Veres contacted the principal at Gonzalez’s school.
“That was how I was introduced to Roseanna, because I immediately got ahold of the principal and said, “‘Who is this person?’” she asked.
One speed — Fast
Gonzalez, who turns 34 Aug. 1, is a single mom of five and a special-education teacher at Desert View High School. She is the school’s sometimes track coach and its faculty sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She is a board member for the Marshall Home for Men, Inc., and she mentors about a dozen students every week.
And that’s just part of it.
She is studying for her doctorate in organizational leadership in special education through Grand Canyon University and is working toward becoming certified to provide respite care for foster families. One of her children, Alicia, 5, has been diagnosed with sensory integration disorder and is being tested for autism.
Gonzalez struggles with her own health at times, plagued by autoimmune issues and other complications.
“She only has one speed, and that is fast,” says Richard Lopez, a mentor of Gonzalez’s and the University of Arizona campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
And yet she smiles. This is the good life. The beautiful life, actually.
“I don’t ever use my being a single mom as a reason not to be able to do something, not to go to college, not to advocate for someone, not to do stuff as a family with my kids ...” Gonzalez says. Her kids are ages 5, 9, 13, 14 and 16. “I could literally be like, ‘Oh, I just need to concentrate on my kids,’ and that’s it. It takes a community to be able to be strong as a family.”
A beautiful life
For the last 5½ years, Gonzalez has mentored teens through a ministry she calls, “It’s A Beautiful Life.”
The young people she works with aren’t all Desert View or Sunnyside students. She meets some through parental referrals or because they are friends of her students. She meets others through academic tutoring and homebound teaching for district students unable to come to school.
Many of the girls remind her of a younger version of herself.
In fact, the origins of It’s A Beautiful Life coincide with the crumbling of her own life — her divorce 5½ years ago.
In April 2011, her 13-year marriage to the father of her four boys ended. In August, she adopted Alicia.
“It was really a struggle going from having everything to pretty much having nothing,” she says.
She had married her sons’ father at the age of 15. He was 19.
“I was a runaway on and off for many years,” Gonzalez says, adding that she was mentored through a Youth On Their Own program. “I went through domestic violence and came from a broken home … Being sexually abused and not having stability and always wanting that, when I got married at 15 years old, that is what I wanted desperately.”
They had their first son about a year-and-a-half into the marriage. When Gonzalez graduated from high school, the couple already had two boys. They purchased a home at about the same time.
“I was so co-dependent on him,” Gonzalez says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t know how to pay the bills. I just concentrated on going to high school and taking care of the kids.”
Her husband, a member of the Army National Guard, was soon deployed to Kuwait and later Iraq.
She was a stay-at-home mom no more.
Next steps following her high school graduation included Pima Community College’s paralegal program, work with her church’s children’s ministry, a business as a bail agent and a bachelor’s degree in social and community service from Northern Arizona University.
Gonzalez, who hated sports, also learned everything she could about basketball so her sons could have a team at the YMCA despite their father’s deployment and the organization’s lack of coaches.
“When he was deployed, I had to shift everything around and learn how to be independent, and that’s probably what took a toll on our marriage, was me having to grow up and see things differently,” she says.
After her divorce, Gonzalez worked at Victoria’s Secret and as a substitute teacher.
She had reached the last semester in her online master’s program in special education through NAU, but she couldn’t student teach and keep her other jobs.
She put her education on hold and picked up a graveyard shift at Circle K. The manager almost didn’t hire her. Overqualified, she was told.
“You will have the cleanest toilets ever,” Gonzalez promised. “I have to provide for my family.”
She got the job.
During these rough years, the family spent a while in a one-bedroom apartment with a car lacking heating, cooling and a working gas gauge.
And then Desert View High School called her about a job as a parent involvement specialist.
Principal Armando Valenzuela called shortly after the interview. Overqualified again.
But this time, there was more.
The school wanted to hire her as an intern teacher while she worked toward her certification, which she received this spring.
“As soon as I hung up the phone, I fell to my knees and was balling my head off,” Gonzalez said. “Thank you, God, for letting someone believe in me at this time of my life.”
She gets it
Pregnant in her senior year at Pueblo Magnet High School, Kenya Acosta needed someone to believe in her.
She met Gonzalez through Hands of Hope, a Christian organization that provides prenatal care. Gonzalez, a volunteer there, met Acosta for ice cream.
They began spending time together, volunteering and going to church. Acosta even stayed with Gonzalez several times.
And Gonzalez was there April 16, when Dahlia Rose Garcia was born.
She continues to mentor Acosta and her boyfriend and help with their baby. Acosta recently graduated from Teenage Parent High School and in the fall she’ll start at Pima Community College. Her mentor kept her on track.
That’s because Gonzalez gets it.
Her younger self’s inability to cope with the chaos around her drove her to anger, cutting and suicidal thoughts.
She’s not about to let the students she meets fall to that dark place.
That’s why she became a teacher. After the divorce, she worked briefly as a juvenile detention officer for the Pima County Attorney’s Office and saw “the discrepancy between committing crimes and education,” she says.
“I want her to take a nap sometimes,” says Elisa Medina, the program director for Hands of Hope. “If a kid doesn’t have enough food, she will go bring them food. If they need a ride to an appointment or it has to do with school or academics, she will put a kid in the car and give them a ride. She is a champion for students.”
Serving the community
Mary Veres with the district knows what to do if she needs student volunteers.
When the district sought student ambassadors for the Youth and Peace Conference this year, Veres went to Gonzalez.
When a board member wanted the district to host a Dance for Kindness, Veres knew whom to ask.
For Gonzalez, it’s not just about volunteering. She wants her own children and the teens she mentors to learn to serve their community.
Last fall, she worked on a fashion show fundraiser for Sold No More, a Christian nonprofit fighting against child sex trafficking in Tucson. But she didn’t run the show. A team of her students did.
The students “have learned they can make a difference, even if they’re just kids in high school or junior high…” says Katie Sloan, the office manager at Sold No More. “It develops them into leaders and develops them into world changers. She is empowering them to stand against injustice in our community.”
Gonzalez also brings teens along on her visits to the Marshall Home for Men, a retirement community where she has volunteered for six years. Before she reached out to them, the home didn’t get many volunteers.
Now Gonzalez and her students bring board games or cards for veterans or meals for holidays. Gonzalez, a board member, is also spearheading a $20,000 fundraiser for new mattresses.
“Most of our guys have no family interaction…” says Cheryl Graham, the home’s manager. “A lot of them really enjoy having the kids come to them.”
Gonzalez dubbed Wednesday — the first day of school for Sunnyside — Wonder Woman Wednesday on her Facebook page.
“Live out your superpower and make a difference in this world today and thereafter,” she wrote.
Comparing Gonzalez to the Justice League hero doesn’t seem like a stretch. But she gets tired. Anyone would.
If she wasn’t up late the night before doing homework, her days begin at 4 a.m. She drops off the kids at her ex-husband’s house at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and then heads to school.
The things her kids can’t participate in, Gonzalez tries to do while they sleep.
Her own mentors have convinced her she should not spread herself so thin, so Gonzalez is pulling back from sponsoring campus clubs and volunteering for so many organizations.
She skipped last year’s track season and stopped running her church’s children’s ministry. She would rather focus on strong relationships in a few places.
“It’s hard because you want to do more for people, but you also have to take care of your own family…” she says. “It does get wearisome because my babies all have their needs, school and activities they want to do, and my daughter, with her special needs, I have to take her to a lot of appointments.”
But her kids say they don’t mind helping others. They remember the years with the small apartment and broken car.
It’s also a matter of faith for the family.
“God is my first. He is my everything,” Gonzalez says. “When I felt like I had nothing, he is the one who inspired me, and whenever I feel like I have no one, I know I have someone.”
This year, Gonzalez is teaching English for the special education department. The previous three years, she taught integrative science. It’s year four of a new life.
“I’m going from tragedy to it’s a beautiful life,” she says. “That’s for sure.”