by Steven Kissinger
Johnnie Gonzales became involved with The Immokalee Foundation when he was junior at Immokalee High School. As a participant in Future Builders of America – a workforce development and student leadership program now known as TIF’s Career Development and Readiness program – Gonzales took part in numerous educational, construction and community activities. The program not only enhanced his leadership and teamwork skills, but also taught him the value of giving back. His senior year, Gonzales was voted president of FBA.
“It was a really amazing experience,” Gonzales said. “As a group, we had over 1,600 volunteer hours. We built ramps for the disabled, helped build the foundation for a veteran’s memorial, and teamed with Habitat for Humanity to construct homes in Immokalee.”
Through TIF’s scholarship program, Gonzales was offered a four year, tuition free scholarship to any school in Florida after he graduated from IHS. Although he was uncertain of what he wanted to do, he decided to take advantage of his scholarship and began taking classes at Florida SouthWestern State College, while also working as a pizza delivery driver. In need of a higher income, he also worked at a farm in Immokalee owned by his aunt. By his second year of college – since he was not making school a priority and his grades suffered – he decided to drop out of school and focus on work.
Gonzales began his days at 6:30 a.m., sometimes working until as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Although his aunt owned the farm, he wasn’t given special privileges; he started out picking and worked his way up. He gained experience and was able to put his leadership skills to work. He could see himself becoming content to stay at the farm. Fortunately though, he had continued his relationship with The Immokalee Foundation.
“I still spoke with Miss Elda [TIF Career Development Program Manager Elda Hernandez] regularly and volunteered for years at the Charity Classic Celebration,” said Gonzales. “She would call and find out how I was doing and encourage me.”
During one of those calls, Hernandez told him about a new partner, Arthrex. She wanted him to apply for their apprenticeship program. “It offered great benefits and a great pay scale, and I had the ability to move up,” Gonzales said. “I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ ”
TIF staff helped with his application and resume and prepared him for the interview process. Though Gonzales didn’t get the job, he wasn’t deterred. “It became something I really wanted,” he said. “I started thinking about the rest of my life, and I knew working on the farm wasn’t going to provide me with what I needed. After that, I applied for any job I could: janitor, machine operator and others. I never received any calls, but after a year, the apprenticeship application came up again. I had decided that if I didn’t get it, I was going to join the Army. I ended up getting the job, and I’ve been working at Arthrex ever since.”
Now two years into a four-year machinist program at Arthrex, Gonzales is grateful for every moment. “I have come to love and enjoy the field I’m in. The possibilities are endless,” he said. Gonzales credits his success to TIF. “If it weren’t for TIF, I’d probably still be working in the fields,” he said. “I look back on the random spur of events that led me to FBA and TIF and I feel completely blessed. They want you to succeed. The program managers stick with you and don’t let you go. I’m so thankful for that.”
He also praises his unofficial mentor, TIF board member Dick Stonesifer, for inspiring him to never give up. Stonesifer was an early advocate of the FBA program, and it was there the two met. “Mr. Stonesifer shared his story of early struggles with our FBA leadership,” Gonzales said. “He started on the production line cleaning parts at General Electric and eventually rose to the position of president and CEO of GE Appliances. He had nothing, but through his hard work and desire to succeed, he made it. We were inspired.”
Stonesifer has continued inspiring him. The two stay in touch and Gonzales speaks fondly of his mentor: “His advice drives me. He once told me that I always need to be the one who says, ‘I can do that,’ if someone needs something done. This stuck with me. He is genuinely concerned about my well-being, as well as other kids. When I first met him, I didn’t know at the time people could be like that.”
The Immokalee Foundation provides a range of education programs that focus on building pathways to success through college and post-secondary preparation and support, mentoring and tutoring, opportunities for broadening experiences and life skills development leading to economic independence. To learn more about TIF, volunteering as a mentor or for additional information, call 239.430.9122 or visit www.immokaleefoundation.org.
Steven Kissinger, executive director of The Immokalee Foundation, can be reached at email@example.com.