On the track, and off, Durango teen Vicente Jimenez has jumped hurdles for as long as he can remember – and they just keep coming.
He accomplished a remarkable feat this year when he graduated from Durango High School. For most people his age, that’s a formality, but Jimenez has been, as he says, “on his own” for much of the last four years, which makes his graduation especially impressive.
Jimenez, however, is facing a new hurdle – this one so high that he can’t clear it on his own.
The tall, fast and athletic runner was a late signee to compete at Chabot College in Hayward, California, in his specialty: hurdles.
If he arrives in the San Francisco Bay area, he’ll be the first in his family to attend college, but coming up with the money to get there is the daunting task that remains.
That’s true for many recent high school graduates heading to college, but Jimenez’s story is quite different. That’s why Durango High School cross country and track and field coach David McMillan, the Durango Education Foundation and community members are rallying to provide the boost Jimenez needs to clear the hurdle that could change his life.
“Vicente’s evolution from the person he was, to the person he is now, has been remarkable to watch,” McMillan said. “He had this wonderful way of alienating himself, but he grew up a lot between his junior and senior year. It was never really a level playing field for him, but his leadership qualities and the constant work he put in proved that he had turned a corner.”
Unlevel playing fieldWhen his family of five arrived in Durango from Mexico Jimenez was 8 years old, and no one could speak English. His father soon left, and his mother, Maria, was left to provide for the family on her own.
As a child who came to the U.S. younger than 16, Jimenez earned legal status through the DREAM Act and is protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. The policy allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to receive a renewable, two-year work permit and remain in the country. However, federal student aid is not an option, and the deadline for state and school aid for someone in his position, this late in the game, is unavailable.
An anonymous donor has agreed to reimburse Jimenez for each semester he finishes. If he can get through his first semester – and not quit as he often has done – he’ll have the means to compete at the next level and pursue a dream studying architectural technology. All he needs is the money to get there, meet the academic benchmarks set by the donors, and prove that he won’t quit.
“I was a quitter,” Jimenez said. “I understand why people wouldn’t believe in me, but I worked hard and had a lot of people help me to change that.”
Athletically gifted, he found his way onto the field as a youngster with some of Durango’s top athletes – Lucas Baken, Lawrence Mayberry and Terrence Trujillo. While the others blossomed in various sports at DHS, Jimenez understandably took longer to develop.
“He was doing things that we definitely couldn’t do,” Baken said. “His athleticism was freaky, but he wasn’t showing people the true Vicente. We never saw his home and never met his parents, but we didn’t realize what he was going through.”
In high school, “home” was wherever Jimenez ended up at the end of the day. During his junior year, he hit a low point. When all was dark, he found his way to a place he knew well and slept in the track and field storage shed at the south end of the football field. He’d use the light from his phone to read and study until the battery died. At the crack of dawn, before anyone would notice, he would grab his stuff, leaving no trace, and make his way to the DHS weight room for a morning workout before class.
“It was just a bad home environment,” he said. “There was a lot of fighting and yelling, and I was part of the problem, so I thought it was better off for everyone if I stayed somewhere else.”
Jimenez worked full-time at north City Market and supported himself financially. Instead of staying in the old shed, he’d clock out and sleep in the backseat of his car until it was time to go to school.
“There were some nights he’d get really down on himself about his situation, and we knew he was about to give up,” Trujillo said. “We couldn’t let him quit. Before school, we’d go to City Market and knock on his window to make sure he got up and made it to class. He was our family. We always told him that he was welcome to stay with us, but he had too much pride.”
Jimenez decided to play football his senior year. He played in 11 of the team’s 12 games as a defensive back and, more importantly, finished the season.
After a tough playoff loss to Loveland ended the best football season Durango has had in decades, a devastated Baken was sitting in the locker room, head in his hands, trying to come to grips with the fact that he’d just played his final high school game. In a surprising role reversal, Jimenez provided support.
“That moment really struck me because there were a lot of times when we had to remind Vicente of how athletic he was, how much talent he has and to never give up,” Baken said. “This time, he was coaching me. He kneeled down in front of me, looked up, and said: ‘It’s gonna be OK. We can’t give up now,’ and that’s when I knew that we were dealing with a different V.”
One last chanceAfter watching Jimenez quit on them during the previous two seasons, a tight-knit and successful Demons track and field team was reluctant to accept him back.
“He wanted to contribute, but (the team) didn’t want to give him another chance at first,” McMillan said. “I was advised not to take him on the team. We had a big discussion and, in the end, it was a group decision, not mine, to give him another chance. Of course, we had some bumps in the road, and he tried to quit on us again. I just told him, ‘Nope, see you tomorrow,’ and he was back the next day after giving it some thought.”
His athleticism and ability to help a championship team was never a question. But they didn’t know why such a talent would simply walk away. That mystery was uncovered on a team trip, in the middle of the night, when Jimenez opened up.
“He just completely broke down, in a good way, and thanked all of us for believing in him,” McMillan said. “He was grateful that we got him out of that track shed when we found out that he was sleeping there. I think it dawned on him that if these kids hadn’t given him another chance, he was flat out of chances, and when he finally connected with the rest of the group, it was a beautiful thing.”
Now, Jimenez was able to focus solely on running. He stayed at the track until dark, not in the shed he once used as shelter, but on the track, running hurdles. After setting personal records nearly every time he raced, Jimenez finished his senior year as a top-25 hurdler in the state.
“I think a switch just clicked with Vicente, and it was his attitude that turned things around for him,” Durango High School assistant track coach Dante Baken said. “We had what we called ‘WOW’ which were words of the week. We used words like integrity and accountability and Vicente owned those words. All of a sudden, he was the one up in front of the kids telling stories about integrity. He was finally a leader, and that was a huge step for a kid who had so many strikes against him.”
Seeing the newfound maturity and the staggering improvements Jimenez made, McMillan felt that his top hurdler could run at the next level. The beloved coach sent letters to programs he thought would be a good fit, and Chabot College coach Kyle Robinson liked what he saw.
With the once impossible opportunity coming to fruition, a much-needed reconciliation at home took place. Maria joined her son on the recruiting trip that neither of them thought was possible, and Jimenez has been staying at home ever since.
“When I showed my mom my diploma, she cried, and it meant a lot for us to go see the school together,” he said. “We didn’t think I had much of a chance at going to college, but Coach Mac did. I love that man. He’s stood by me through a lot of ups and downs. He always had faith and never gave up on me.”
McMillan and the Durango Education Foundation tried to set up a scholarship fund for Jimenez, but a noncompetitive scholarship leaves donors without the ability to write off their donations. So, a fundraising page has been set up at www.GoFundMe.com/VicenteCollege, and donations are pouring in.
“The Durango Education Foundation doesn’t typically do something like this, so this is an unusual case for us,” said Elizabeth Testa, executive director of the foundation. “However, we feel that Vicente is really ready to take the next step. We have the capacity to step in and manage the donations so donors can be comfortable knowing that the money is going directly to the school and the landlord he agrees to rent from only if the benchmarks are met. We wouldn’t do this unless we felt that he has every reason in the world to need and get help from this wonderful community.”