Paula didn’t know who she was. Oh, she knew she was Paula Gonzales, an American citizen who had spent much of her childhood in Mexico. But now, as a teenager, she was back in the United States, and what had worked well in Mexico wasn’t working at her new high school in the San Diego, California, area.
In April of 1989, Paula’s father was killed in a construction accident when a steel beam fell on him. Her mother, an American, had no means of supporting her six children in Mexico, so the family came to live near Paula’s grandmother in Leucadia, California. Paula suddenly found herself trying to juggle and balance conflicting social expectations.
It wasn’t that making friends was difficult for her. She spoke Spanish fluently and readily teamed up with some of the Hispanic students. Although her English language skills were limited, she also made close friends among the Anglo-American students. She liked them all, but this became the cause of her sense of displacement and pain.
“If I was with my Anglo friends, my Hispanic friends said I was betraying my culture and my people. If I stayed with my Hispanic friends, my Anglo friends said I was unfriendly,” Paula says.
In an effort to help her resolve her problem, Paula’s mother offered her the following advice: “It seems to me you are standing with one foot on each side of a wall. I think what you need to do is remove the wall stone by stone.”
And that’s just what Paula did. In the process she has not only been able to tear down barriers between people; she has been able to build up her capacity to be loving and charitable to everyone she meets.
Becoming fluent in English was Paula’s first step. If she could read, write, and speak in both languages, perhaps she could more effectively express her feelings to both groups. So she poured herself into study.
Next came a test of faith. Paula’s mother, who is a member of the Catholic faith, accepted an invitation to listen to the missionary discussions. Paula and her younger sister, Patricia, became enthusiastic investigators. They listened, read, and prayed. They attended meetings and developed a fervent conviction that the gospel was true. Peace came with their new beliefs. They told their mother they wanted to be baptized.
“It was hard for me to give my permission,” says Paula’s mother. “It meant they were leaving the ways of our family. I thought about it for a couple of months. Then I was filled with a warm feeling that this faith would bring them happiness, that I should let them follow their hearts.”
Now Paula had the skills and the knowledge to start helping others. She became a peer counselor at her school, helping her friends work through their problems. She helps others see the good in themselves and those around them.
“Looking for the good in others is the real basis of what I think Jesus meant when he taught about brotherly love,” says Paula.
Through peer counseling Paula found that drugs and alcohol are often at the root of people’s problems. Consequently, she immersed herself in her school’s Drug-Free Youth program. But she didn’t stop there. She found that awareness was only one part of the solution. She felt that removing people from dangerous situations could eliminate some of the most damaging problems. So she joined the Safe Ride program at her school. The organization gives rides home to teenagers who find themselves in compromising situations.
“We’re as close as the phone,” she says. “No one has to stay in situations involving dangerous activities, drugs, alcohol, or moral violations. We give them a way to escape.”
Many people would think Paula was doing all she could, but she decided that her peers needed to do more than escape bad situations; they needed chances to participate in good ones. Paula noticed that a large number of athletically talented Hispanic students were not involved in school sports. When she invited them to join her on the track team, she found that the problem was not lack of talent or desire, but a lack of money to provide physical exams, sports insurance, and track shoes.
Paula found a local health facility that was willing to do the examinations for free if each person was prompt for the appointments. She then petitioned service clubs and individuals to give financial aid for shoes and insurance. Donations finally covered costs. The track team got several new members.
Next, Paula’s focus shifted to people living just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. She heard about the desperate conditions many families were living in and she went to work. She collected clothing, food, and household items from everyone she knew. Soon the collected items were taken across the border and given to the families who so badly needed them. She is still collecting and sending on a continual basis.
Paula spends so much of her time sharing with others, that some people think she needs to take time to relax and enjoy.
“I do enjoy. I enjoy my family, my church, and my friends,” says Paula. “Our family has never had a lot of material things, but I’ve always been taught to share what we have. Anyone can reach inside and share what they have in heart and spirit.”
Paula intends to enter a profession of some type that involves helping others, a goal that she knows will require a college education. So with that goal in mind, she is moving forward, helping everyone she can along the way. She has taken her own personal pain and turned it into gain.
Paula Gonzales now knows who she is.