Pay it forward to help students and their families – World Refugee Day 2018

Pay it forward: Juan Torres photo by Ash Tree Studios
Juan Torres photo by Ash Tree Studios

Mobile, Alabama – for World Refugee Day 2018, a writer honors a man who pays it forward to help kids have a better future.

Juan Torres of Mobile remembers vividly the moment that changed his life and inspired him to pay it forward.

At age 14, he was in a street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he had just moved to live with his sister. He paused at a shop window. Never in his life had he seen a window like that – the plate-glass kind that showcases mannequins wearing the latest apparel. This window displayed a jacket with a price tag of $170 pesos. “I didn’t know if it was the serial number,” recalled Torres, referring to the price. “I was earning $35 to $38 every two weeks.”

While he stood there puzzling over the jacket, a passerby posed the question, “Hey, do you like that?” The man was Father Tony Clark, a missionary priest from Iowa, who was working with teens in Mexico. The two struck up a friendship and Father Clark mentored Juan, taking him along as a volunteer to various missions. Three years later, he offered Juan the opportunity of a lifetime: to study in the USA. Juan took advantage of the opportunity and moved to Arizona, where he learned English and graduated from high school.

Juan moved to Mobile, Alabama, to attend university. To pay his way through college, he worked various jobs: car washer, book salesman, waiter, airplane fuel technician, rock mason, and landscaper. In 2002, Juan gained his degree. Today, he is a senior manager at Alto Products, where he currently oversees Occupational Health and Safety.

But that is not all.

For many years, Juan has strived to pay it forward.  Juan has worked to help refugee, asylee and immigrant children and families in the United States. He and his wife, Yohana Carrillo, originally launched a tutoring program to offer young newcomers the kind of support he got from the priest three decades ago.

“What I see in them is what Father Tony saw in me: kids that – given the opportunity – can have a better future,” says Juan Torres.

The need for tutoring is great, he says, because parents ­– many of whom are working construction and plant nursery jobs – lack sufficient English to help their children with their homework. Some weeks, as many as 75 to 100 people have shown up weekly for tutoring or English and GED classes.

”We welcome the whole family,” says Torres.

The tutoring program has grown into BELONG, a program that supports immigrant families to become self-sufficient with access to education. The organization offers other resources too, such as healthcare through collaboration with the USA College of Medicine.

Torres says he has already realized his version of the American Dream. For him, it’s about remembering where he comes from and continuing to pay it forward.

Storycorps logoListen to Juan and his wife talk to their son about paying it forward on StoryCorps, originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio in May 2018.


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World Refugee Day 2018

This month, to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, US-born Americans across the United States honor newcomer Americans with a story from their state – a story of a refugee, asylee, or immigrant they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their stories to celebrate the goodness and courage of the newcomers who make the United States a better place.

Every day in the month of June, the Refugee Center Online will publish a new story from a different state. Check back for new stories each day:

Learn more about World Refugee Day. All across the country, there will be events celebrating World Refugee Day. Visit this map to find an event in your community.

About Carol McPhail
Carol McPhail is a writer and the assistant director of Marketing and Communications for the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Cancer Institute. She wrote a longer version of this piece about Juan and his work for the news website, which has kindly allowed us to update and retell his story here.