'She's full of love'

J-M’s Vicky Tobar provides interpretation, support to Siler City’s Spanish-speaking families

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SILER CITY — Growing up, Virginia “Vicky” Tobar had always wanted to be a school nurse. She’d even started studying to be one in the early 2000s, too — at least until Jordan-Matthews High School got in the way.

“Of course, in a good way,” she added with a laugh.

In 2004, Tobar joined Jordan-Matthews as a Spanish interpreter after applying on a whim. Sixteen years later, she’s still there, faithfully serving J-M’s Spanish-speaking families — a service record that education associations have recently recognized in Chatham County and throughout North Carolina.

For her work and dedication, the Chatham County Association of Educators named Tobar their Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year in late last year; shortly after the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) Education Support Professionals Council also named her 2021’s Education Support Professional of the Year in mid-January.

“Virginia provides a vital service to her students and the families in her community,” said Tijuana Greene, president of the NCAE Education Support Professionals Council, in a January press release. “She cares deeply about the children with which she works and ensures their educational needs are met in the best possible way.”

Interpretation may not have been what younger Vicky dreamed about doing, it wouldn’t have surprised her either; after all, she’s been interpreting and translating all her life for her mother, who’s from Mexico.

“I grew up speaking Spanish because of my mom,” Tobar said. “My mom to this day doesn’t speak English, so I have to be her interpreter, and I’ve been her interpreter.”

Tobar, 43, grew up in Los Angeles. She called it a “fun place” to grow up, but she and her family faced many challenges. Tobar dropped out of high school to help her mother take care of her little brother while she worked to provide for her children. Since her mother couldn’t speak or read English, Tobar said she also “had to be there” for her to interpret.

“It’s something that I chose to do because it was just so easy to say, ‘Mom, I’ll help you. I don’t want to go to school,’” Tobar said. “But I look back on that and I’m thinking, ‘Well, that wasn’t the best choice.’”

She decided to revisit her education over a decade later on the other side of the country — and that decision unintentionally brought her to J-M.

Tobar met her now-husband, Mario, in 1993; in 1995, he moved with her and her family to Siler City, seeking better opportunities. Two children — the Tobars’ daughter, Michelle, and son, Robert, came after the move. Both are now young adults and have children of their own.

In the late 1990s, she started working in Glendale Hosiery Outlet Store in Siler City, but after working there five years, she knew it wasn’t where she wanted to be. So, with her husband’s support, she decided to go back to school. She earned her GED in 2003; soon after, she enrolled in classes to become a certified nursing assistant.

“Of course, we were struggling because the only one working was my husband at that time,” she said, adding that he’d been working a third shift and taking care of their two children.

He needed help, she said, so she decided to put her nursing education on hold and looked for a job. In 2004, her husband stumbled across several openings with Chatham County Schools, including one for an interpreter at J-M.

“And I said, ‘Awesome.’ I got my GED. I got some kind of college background, a little bit,” she said. “I didn’t have any office experience or anything like that, but I figured, ‘Well, you know, I speak English. I speak Spanish. Why not?’”

J-M’s principal at the time, David Moody, interviewed her, and after they bonded over high school sports games — which she and her family attended regularly — he offered her the job on the spot.

“After that, it was basically like, ‘Oh, my gosh, like, am I going to start working?’ He says, ‘When can you start?’ And I said, ‘Tomorrow!’” she said, laughing. “That’s how soon I needed a job. And there it is — 16 years later, I’m still there.”

Tobar is the only school interpreter at J-M, which serves about 870 students, most of whom are Hispanic. She’s not the only Spanish speaker, though; the school also employs Spanish teachers, ESL teachers and a bilingual secretary, who Tobar called her “partner-in-crime.”

As an interpreter, Tobar works with everyone — families, students, administration and teachers. She’s the messenger: she’ll call or email families on behalf of the school, often translating teacher or staff comments word by word, and then she’ll translate parents’ responses back to English. Parent-teacher conferences work similarly — just in real time.

“We do it consecutively,” she said. “The teachers will say something, and then I’ll translate it, and then we just keep going back and forth.”

But for her, especially during the pandemic, interpretation goes beyond answering phone calls, bridging communication gaps and explaining concepts in a language others will understand.

“As far as my job and what I do, it’s far beyond just being an interpreter or translator,” she said. “I feel like in my field, you have to have a lot of empathy, a lot of patience. You have to be able to give our families, our students, our parents, all the attention they require.”

Sometimes, she added, it’s tough and she may hear things she never wished to know, but she makes sure that she’s always there for families to offer support however she can.

“It’s just making sure that nobody falls behind,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, Tobar worked to advise and empower “her” families. She makes sure that parents and students know to check their emails constantly — and if parents didn’t have emails, she helped them set up accounts. Other times, she’d have parents come to the school, help them set up the right apps and show them what they needed to know.

“Let me tell you when it comes to assisting a parent in our community, it doesn’t mean I’m going to send you a link, so we can Zoom in and I can assist you that way,” she said. “People are more hands-on. They’re not going to read all that information, so it’s a lot easier to sit down with the family.”

COVID-19, after all, didn’t much change how she works; in fact, up until the week high school students returned under Plan B, she’d been going to her office every single day.

“How can I help my parents if I was at home?” she asked. “How can I help the office if I was at home? ... I couldn’t leave my families — just, you know, I felt like I was going to abandon them if I wasn’t at school.”

The work pace has always been “nonstop, nonstop, nonstop,” she said, but the pandemic has swelled the amount of work she now has to tackle.

“As of now, it’s just so overwhelming,” she said, adding, “With the pandemic going on, it seems like it would be easier, but it’s not. It’s just like a volume of calls, emails and communicating with our parents.”

It’s hard work, she said, and receiving recognition from education associations for 16 years’ worth of it meant the world to her. While parents and families had recognized her work before, Tobar said, but no education association ever had.

“Can you believe it?” she said, smiling. “I feel so good that all my hard work has paid off, and it’s made it even sweeter to get recognized for the state. I mean, I’m telling you, I was just so happy.”

Throughout November and December, the Hispanic Liaison and others congratulated Tobar on Facebook.

“We get the privilege of working with her through our youth program and know how much work and dedication she puts into our Siler City community,” the Liaison’s staff wrote in December. “Thank you, Ms. Tobar, for the love you put into your work! We appreciate you so much!”

Nearly 50 people also commented on Jordan-Matthews’ Facebook posts about Tobar’s awards in English and Spanish.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Vicky Tobar,” Vilma Sandoval posted in Spanish. “Thank you very much for all the support for our children and parents. You have done a great job. You deserve it.”

“My kids were better for knowing her,” wrote another parent, Raymond DeCristofaro, in a later post. “Thank you.”

Maria Soto, who leads Communities In Schools’ Family Advocacy Program, worked with Tobar for three years, when Tobar worked part-time as Soto’s assistant from 2012 to 2015.

“We worked very close together,” Soto said. “... Vicky is always willing to help and also learn and grow. She’s a great advocate for the families, for the community.”

Even after a full day’s work at J-M, Tobar would still enter CIS’ office with a “big smile” and lots of energy, Soto said.

“She’s full of love,” she added. “… I feel that sometimes she doesn’t even give herself the credit (for) all the things she does for others and how she has helped a lot of youth, a lot of them, go through a lot of hard times in their lives.”

Though she appreciates and feels humbled by others’ recognitions, Tobar said the best reward has been helping others and seeing the positive impact she’s made. She’s especially proud that many Hispanic families in Siler City now feel comfortable enough to reach out to her and trust her with what’s going on in their lives.

“It’s not just interpreting, you know what I mean?” she said. “Like, you have to have just that willingness to want to help people, the passion to say, ‘You know what — I love my job, and I love what I do. I just have to help the best way I can.’”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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