JJ Ventura, age 41: "I think a lot of OPS teachers, we care a lot about our kids. We know a lot of them have hardships, and we try to help."

By Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer

Monday, November 23, 2015

The calls — for help, for attention, for praise — come from around the classroom, like the chirping of baby birds
“Mr. V, like this?”
"Mr. V, I need help.”
“Mr. V, look, I made an alligator.”
Wearing a black smock flecked with paint splatters and gray clay, Mr. V — aka JJ Ventura, an art teacher at Ashland Park-Robbins Elementary — pivots around the room as the calls come from his fifth-graders.
He helps two girls roll out blobs of stiff clay. He reminds students to etch their names into today’s project, castle towers fashioned out of clay, and to clean up their workspace. He hustles kids to their next class and jokes easily with them.
“What happens if you keep clay on you?” one student asks.
“It gets all stiff,” — Ventura flexes his fingers menacingly — “and then your hands fall off.”
Inside the classroom, Ventura is used to doling out help when asked.
But he has also become adept at meeting his students’ unspoken needs, of reading the clues that tell him they need an adult to talk to, someone to cheer them on at their soccer game or an extra snack to fill a rumbling stomach.

JJ Ventura, 41, helps third-grader Kylesse Walker with her sketch of a skyline. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Thankful Edition
All around you, in towns big and small, people are quietly performing selfless deeds to make our communities stronger. The good life? You bet. Today we’d like you to meet just a few of these everyday heroes.
The Mentor: Rachael Johnson
The Coach: Gannie Clark
The Builder: Steve Skidmore
The Volunteer: Win Finegan

Eighty-four percent of the more than 800 kids at Ashland Park-Robbins qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of family poverty. More than one-third are learning English for the first time. Some are being raised by single parents.
Plenty of teachers go above and beyond to help their students and families outside the classroom, acting as coaches, motivators, social workers and even surrogate parents.
JJ Ventura is one of them.
Ventura, 41, has taught in OPS schools for 15 years, the last seven at Ashland Park-Robbins, near 51st and O Streets.
He initially studied art in college but quickly realized he didn’t need a piece of paper to tell him he was an artist — and he was looking for a little job security. He switched his major to education and worked as a teacher’s aide at Joslyn Art Museum and teacher at Kopecky Montessori Elementary while he finished his degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Colleagues note he prefers to help students quietly, out of the spotlight. He’s not seeking accolades or recognition.
“He doesn’t talk about it,” Ashland Park-Robbins Principal Jan Martin said. “Maybe that’s the sense of a strong giver.”
He’ll email staff, asking if anyone can lend a stroller for a few weeks to a family in need. Once, when a family’s home caught fire, destroying most of their possessions, Ventura was one of the first teachers to supply toiletries, toys and clothing, according to Alicia Hernandez, a Spanish-language liaison at the school.
“He was one of the first people to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help out,’ ” Hernandez said.
Last year, he combed through thrift shops and asked friends and family to dig through their drawers for old ties, so his sixth-grade boys could dress up for their graduation ceremony. He taught them how to loop and pull for a smooth knot. He made charm bracelets for the graduating girls.
“I know a lot of my students in years past didn’t have ties, or didn’t have a dad,” he said. “I told them, ‘It’s a man thing, you should know how to tie a tie.’ Even though I never wear one.”
Last December, he and his church, Coram Deo, donated gift cards, presents and warm clothing for five needy families. This year, they hope to help six more.
After Maria Trejo’s husband was deported for a second time in April 2014, she received help during the holidays after reaching out to the school.
Trejo received gift cards to No Frills, Walmart and Target to buy food and items for her four daughters. She bought needed clothes and shoes for her girls — their only Christmas presents that year.

A drawing depicting “Super V. saving people from drawing bad art” hangs in the classroom of Ventura, at top, at Ashland Park-Robbins Elementary. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

“You can’t imagine the weight they took off of me,” she said in Spanish. “I lacked many things.”
Three of her daughters attend Ashland Park-Robbins, in sixth, fourth and second grades. She said she hears a lot about “Mr. V.”
“They love him a lot,” she said. “He gives them a lot of confidence and lots of love.”
Holidays are tough for some Ashland Park-Robbins families, said Martin, the school principal. Kids who typically behave in the classroom might start acting up, as they contemplate two weeks off from school in a house with little heat or food.
“In the hallways, (parents) act happy, but there are also those that are worried,” she said. “How are they going to provide for their kids and pay that heating bill?”
Sometimes kids talk to Ventura about the hardships their families are going through.
“I ask them how their week is going, and they do tell me about — kids just share everything with you — how their dad lost his job or dad’s not around and mom’s working too hard and they didn’t have food for that week,” he said.
Other times there are subtler signs that things are tough at home.
“I have a prize basket of stuff, and I throw regular food in there, too,” he said. “Sometimes kids pick that instead of the race car. To me, I think that’s the little clue.”
Some families and students don’t know that it was Mr. V who nominated their family for help at Christmas or whose church donated some extra food.
Ventura has some personal insight into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a little extra help, and he knows that discretion is often appreciated by kids who don’t want their family’s struggles broadcast to the whole school.
“When I grew up, we didn’t come from a family that had lots of money. And our teachers knew that, and every time we had a Halloween party or a Christmas party, anything that was left over they would give to me — which was great and helpful,” Ventura said.
“But it was like making an announcement, ‘Give it to him, he doesn’t have anything,’ ” he continued. “I didn’t want my students to feel like that. I try to keep it anonymous, so they don’t feel like, ‘Oh, Mr. V knows I don’t have money, or my shoes aren’t new.' "

Ventura rolls out clay for fifth grader Daniel Leon, right, while making a clay mask during art class. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

It’s not just about providing material things, either. Ventura encourages kids to use art as an outlet and tap into their creative side. Sometimes he’ll send students home with extra crayons and paper, so they can doodle and draw beyond the one period of art they get each week.
“I know the parents talk about how it keeps them busy and entertained,” he said. “Their imagination grows, they’re not looking to get into trouble, and they’re not playing in front of a video game all day.”
He struggles to articulate why he goes the extra mile, why he takes extra time to cheer on a student at an after-school soccer match or browse yard sales for warm winter coats. Part of it is his strong Christian faith, and part is his driving need to look out for his students.
“The kids are important to me,” he said. “They’re like my little family. I don’t have kids of my own. I know, a lot of times, they have someone missing in their family, and it’s kind of hard. Not that I’m trying to fill in that gap, but just supporting them through it.”
Besides, he said, that’s just what teachers do.
“I don’t think I do anything more than any other teacher,” he said. “I think a lot of OPS teachers, we care a lot about our kids. We know a lot of them have hardships, and we try to help in different ways, even if it’s just supporting them at games. Even a nice note home helps.”
World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1210,

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