A day in the life of the custodians and crews who are vital to Harlingen schools

Mar. 4—We see the lawns are green, the gyms shine, the halls are cleared, and the cafeterias are spotless. We see Boggus Stadium set up for graduation, and the sidewalks clean.

What we don't see are the people who make it happen.

While it's commonly known that the custodians and maintenance workers operate a well-oiled machine 24/7 to keep the Harlingen school district running, they are often unseen and are the unsung heroes in the community.

The machine they operate has many parts — mops and the mowers and the power washers and the tractors and the weed eaters and the blowers serve as the district's gears and pulleys, the spark plugs, the pistons and the carburetors. And one doesn't work, the whole machine falters.

The custodians are the most important component, as are the mechanics, welders, carpenters and electricians.

On Friday morning, Ivan Barajas and Rudy Duran joined others in taking the Valley Morning Star on a day in the life of their job, and among their first tasks was working on a tractor and shredder so the signal lights would work properly.

Oscar Fragoso just finished directing traffic so the children at Austin Elementary could cross safely, and Robert Quintanilla at Vernon Middle School moved up and down a hallway with a broom, leaving a shine in his wake while students passed. Outside on the neatly manicured lawns Adan Martinez rode a mower with a precision only a veteran could muster.

"I am the one in charge of the custodians at Vernon," the 1992 graduate of Harlingen High School conceded.

"I open up the school every morning at 5 a.m.," he said. "I open up the schools, I unlock the doors, turn on the lights, set up the orange cones on the street."

Opening the schools early brings an extra measure of responsibility.

"I have some parents who go to work early," he said. "There's nowhere else to drop the kids off."

Parents have the peace and satisfaction of knowing Quintanilla is there to receive their children and keep them safe until classes begin.

"I have five kids and they've all come through here," he said. "I have a 14-year-old that's here."

He expressed a love and a passion for his crucial job of keeping the school clean and safe for the kids.

"I love to see if something is mossy or muddy. I love to power wash," he said. "I love to bring it back to perfection. I love polishing the floors."

The Harlingen Public Schools Service Center at 1901 N. 77 Sunshine Strip seems to be the hub from which the many spokes of school district maintenance revolve. Those spokes — the carpenters and welders but also the painters, locksmiths, roofers and plumbers — are like the conduits through which the district's electrical pulses fire out to the different parts of the machine.

"We maintain all the fences at our campuses, tree trimming that needs to be done," he said. "I'm also in charge of pesticide fumigation in case we get bees or ants."

His job with the school district began in 2000 while he was maintaining the White Wing Baseball Field for the city.

Harlingen school administrators approached him for advice on how to deal with grub worms killing the grass at Boggus Stadium, as well as weeds crowding out the grass. He immediately knew the proper solution, and they asked him to work for the district.

He gladly accepted. "I love what I do," he said. "I love working with our crew. It's good to serve the community. We do all this for the students."

Barajas and Duran expressed the same sentiment. They both do small engine repairs on weed eaters, blowers, riding mowers, push mowers and back hoes — whatever needs repair.

They stepped outside now to the tractor and the shredder, checking wires and voltage and switching on the signal lights. Their presence and demeanor, as did that of Quintanilla and Fragoso, conveyed an unassuming dedication to a solid work ethic without a desire for accolades.

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