ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sonya Romero was brought up to believe that what you have, you share.
In her 20 years as an educator, the Lew Wallace Elementary teacher has shared plenty – providing clothes, food, even a home, to students in need.
Earlier this week, she was the one who received a gift – national recognition on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and a $10,000 check from Target stores.
She was back in her classroom Friday, still in shock, and her students were still giddy. They had known about the surprise for a week, but had not let on.
“I couldn’t believe the entire school kept it a secret,” Romero said. “I was crying (on the show) because it was just this beautiful, humbling moment.”
The 40-year-old kindergarten teacher was featured on the show Thursday afternoon because she is known for going above and beyond in the classroom, and in the children’s personal lives.
In a school that provides free or reduced-price lunches to 75 percent of its students, Romero often gives breakfast to students who haven’t eaten and clean clothes to those who have none and slips a $20 bill to struggling families.
“I was brought up that what you have, you share and, if you have a gift, you give it back,” said Romero,.
Last year around Thanksgiving, two of Romero’s former students were in a dire family situation. Child protective services told the school the two sisters would be placed in a foster family and transferred to a different school, uprooting their lives.
Romero, a single parent with a teenage son, said she would take them in. They’ve been part of her and her son’s home ever since.
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” learned of Romero’s story after she was interviewed in a Washington Post article about students living in poverty and on a local news segment.
Last week, the show’s producers contacted Romero and told her they liked her story, and said they would fly her to Los Angeles to be part of the audience during a show.
On the day of the show, the producers informed Romero that first lady Michelle Obama was a guest and, with security tight, Romero wouldn’t be able to attend the show. They offered, however, to fly her back out the following week.
Little did she know that, during her time in California, the producers sent a camera crew to Lew Wallace Elementary to interview Romero’s students and fellow teachers.
Romero traveled to Los Angeles again with her 14-year-old son earlier this week. Seated under the stage’s bright lights, Romero watched DeGeneres interview guests and even danced with her in the aisles. It wasn’t until she was called on stage that she realized something else was going on.
The show played a video of Romero’s students, who said Romero makes them feel safe and inspired to learn. Teachers also attested to Romero’s big heart.
Romero became emotional but was floored when DeGeneres told her Target wanted to give her $10,000 and donate another $10,000 to the school.
Romero was grateful the show honored her as a teacher but said that, while she was able to share her own story, she’s not an exception.
“Our whole staff rallies around families in crisis, whether it’s taking them meals or caring for a child while a parent is in the hospital,” Romero said.
Anne Marie Strangio, principal of Lew Wallace, said she and the school were thrilled they were able to surprise Romero and proud she received the much-deserved attention.
“She represents the best of humanity in elementary school teachers,” Strangio said.
Since the show aired, Strangio said, the response has been overwhelming. They’ve received thank-you emails from teachers and other people around the world, as well as donations from companies that want to help.
Strangio said the experience boosted teacher morale and reaffirms the school’s mission – to put the children and their needs first.
The school will meet over the coming weeks to decide what to do with Target’s $10,000 donation. While ideas have poured in – from iPads to pizza parties – Strangio wants the school to use the money toward something that will have a long-term impact on the students.
Romero doesn’t know what she’ll do with her money, but she first plans to treat her colleagues to a fancy luncheon Wednesday to celebrate and thank them for supporting her.
“With so many pressures, we as educators get bogged down and think, ‘Does what I’m doing matter?'” Romero said. “It’s nice to know the public has our back and they know we’re in this profession because we really do care about the children.”