Alachua County high school teacher María Eugenia Zelaya believes there is something new to learn every day.
Zelaya divides her time between managing the nonprofit organization Children Beyond Our Borders as its executive director, teaching Spanish at Eastside High School and raising her two children. Through her experience with education, she’s made a name for herself in Gainesville’s Hispanic community.
Her passion for teaching and leading CBOB stems from her own immigration story. Zelaya moved to the U.S. from Venezuela with her mom’s family from Nicaragua in 1992, she said, when she was only 15 years old.
“I think being an immigrant and coming here at a time when there weren’t many Latinos has led me to give back to the community,” Zelaya said.
After finishing her studies at UF in 2006 with two master’s degrees in political science and Latin American studies, Zelaya stayed in Gainesville to teach.
Although she works at Eastside primarily as a Spanish teacher, she also works as a creative, activity and service coordinator for the International Baccalaureate program. Zelaya believes she needs to expand her lessons, she said.
During a TEDxUF talk in June 2019, Zelaya spoke about the importance of teaching young people how to spread cultural peace, or how to create change by doing small but significant things.
You don’t need to be a politician or diplomat to change the world, she said, creating a sense of peace can be a shared task.
“You can do something small for your community, and you’ll be giving peace,” she said.
Zelaya participated in multiple programs for growth and development, such as a program with the U.S. Peace Institute in Washington D.C. and a trip to Hungary with the Fulbright exchange program.
Eastide’s Assistant Principal for Curriculum Adele Turnage, 59, appreciates the efforts Zelaya has made to participate in training and education programs, she said.
“She sets an example by everything she does,” Turnage said.
The classes Zelaya teaches aren’t only about the language, Turnage said, but also about Latin American culture, current events and international impact.
Her efforts to keep learning, Zelaya said, are a reflection of her father’s motto: “If I don’t know how to do it, I’ll learn.” The opportunity to become CBOB’s executive director was a prime example of this mentality.
CBOB’s mission is to better the quality of life and opportunities for Latin American students and their families through optimizing their education and health.
Zelaya started working with CBOB in an effort to help kids in the Latin American community who attended her church with tutoring in English and other subjects.
In 2016, Zelaya joined a new initiative to provide health services for families in the Hispanic community, said CBOB board member Diana Montoya-Williams. This was the beginning of the health fair CBOB offers every three months, offering free diabetes, cancer and blood pressure tests, health check-ups and flu vaccines, among other services for members of the Hispanic community.
Montoya-Williams, a 37-year-old Gainesville resident, said the fairs wouldn’t exist without Zelaya because she’s the one creating and fostering relationships with local stakeholders who make this initiative possible.
“María Eugenia has really, as a teacher, embodie[d] that mission,” Montoya-Williams said. “The organization is thriving under her leadership.”
Twenty-year-old CBOB operations director Valentina Gómez said Zelaya dedicates her time as director to follow the organization’s mission.
During every meeting to discuss a new project, Zelaya highlights how it will contribute health and education benefits to the Hispanic community, Gómez said.
“If the parents are healthy, they won’t have to worry about money, so [the kids] will have better education opportunities and their future career,” Gómez said.
Zelaya became CBOB’s executive director in 2020, and she guided the organization on its yearly trip to Medellín, Colombia, in 2022.
The service trip helps kids in Medellín’s underprivileged communities with their education and health, but it is also a trip to learn and submerge in Colombian culture, Zelaya said.
During last year’s trip, the group of students, professors and volunteers visited the University of Antioquia, the Casa de la Memoria and the Comuna 13 community, all of which are educational organizations. Zelaya said her group helped these communities by collaborating with food cultivation and classes of health education.
“I’m against calling it a ‘service trip’,” Zelaya said. “The issues in our Latin American countries are gigantic, and a ‘service trip’ is like a Band-Aid in a huge wound.”
CBOB partnered with Casa Huellas and the health promoter in Granizales, in Comuna 1, to organize the trip’s activities.
Zelaya hopes to have more Colombian programs and to expand the organization’s trips and missions to other Latin American countries like Ecuador and Nicaragua, she said.
In her experience as an immigrant, Zelaya said she has learned a lot about unity and helping others. Her opinion is that we are all immigrants, no matter where we came from or who we were before. The most important thing is to work together and help our Latin American brothers and sisters, she said.
“[When you migrate] you leave everything behind,” she said. “You leave your house, you leave your car, you leave everything. But you’ll never forget what you learned.”
Contact Valentina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @valesrc.
Valentina Sandoval is a third-year journalism major and the Race and Equity/East Gainesville reporter for the Enterprise Desk. She has also worked writing and translating stories in Spanish for el Caimán. Whenever she's not writing, she's expanding her Animal Crossing island, making Spotify playlists or convincing someone to follow her dog on Instagram.