As a migrant student who moved often in search of work on farms, Melito Ramirez didn’t have many people looking out for him at school. 

So he spent the past 40 years of his life being that person for other kids. 

At 19, Ramirez put aside his goal of becoming a long distance truck driver and began working with migrant students at College Place Public Schools. In the ’90s, he helped found a night school for adults to pick up vital language and life skills. And today, Ramirez, 59, works with at-risk students at Walla Walla High School, doing everything he can to give them the support they need to graduate and find a career: visiting their homes, delivering living essentials, and scanning the crowd at lunchtime looking for students sitting alone. 

This month, he found himself on a surprise Zoom call with U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and learned he’d been honored with a federal prize for his career. His community work was suddenly attracting attention from all around the country.

“I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t a need,” said Ramirez. “There needs to be a lot more people doing the same thing … Every kid needs someone in their lives and adults that can guide them through their rough spots.” 

The Seattle Times recently caught up over the phone with Ramirez, who was sitting in his normally music-filled office at the high school. Next school year, he is headed back to College Place — adjacent to Walla Walla Public Schools — for a new role as a transportation director. He reflected on his career and what it means to serve students on the margins. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What did getting this recognition mean to you? 

It was just a flashback all the way back to my high school years. And I was hoping that somebody would notice that I wasn’t there, that I was not in school, that I had issues at home. There was nobody like that, except … my English teacher, who noticed I hadn’t been there in weeks, took it upon himself and decided to go and knock on my door and find out what’s going on. That’s the thing that made me kind of change my path and realize that there’s people out there that really care about kids and they notice when you’re not there.

We do this because we can make a difference in someone’s life, a student, a young student, that’s struggling with whatever issue they might be having. It could be social issues, issues at home, a drug issue, a drug addiction. High school is one of the hardest times for the kids ’cause there’s so many things going on besides the requirements from the state for graduation. 

Who are the students you work with? 

I worked with everyone who walks in my door. I have a group of homeless students that are couch surfing that have moved out of the house, and they’re living with friends or living out in the streets and stuff. So I keep track of them. They come in here and ask for any support when they need it, and I help provide food, whatever they need, anything for school, all kinds of school supplies. And then eventually, like right now, we’re getting ready for graduation. So I make sure they have the caps and gowns and stuff, so they don’t have to worry about that stuff. All I ask them is just keep going, finish your stuff, make sure you’re getting your things completed. And if you need anything, let me know. 

How do you build relationships with students? 

The administrator at Walla Walla High School, at the time I was hired, told me to focus my attention on those kids that you feel are invisible. The kids that are out there sitting in the common area, having lunch all by themselves … Those kids that are just leaning up against the wall, in the gym, during that time of passing. He told me, “I want you to get out there, start building the relationship, connect with them and start working.” And that’s how it all started. And the more that happened, I mean, I would get here at 7:30 in the morning, and I already had a line of kids waiting for me, to talk to me because they wanted to share something. 

We’re already starting to get information on new freshmen that are coming in next year and looking at those kids that are already coming to us that had attendance issues and stuff like that. So we start making those connections with those kids during the summer. They know who I am, what I do and how I can help them. Parents have made that contact with me as well. 

What have you learned about having hard conversations with the students you work with? 

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You have to look at them as young adults that need information. They’re not little kids. And when you start treating a high school student like a little kid, they shut that door. They’re sitting there looking at you, but you know, they’re not listening, and that’s one of the things I always talked to them about. I said, “I don’t want to treat you like a little kid. You’re not a little kid, you’re a young adult, but I want you to have all of the information in front of you.” 

…  I have worked with all kinds of kids throughout my 40 years, and I’ve never had anybody be disrespectful to me because I’ve always spoken to them with the same respect. 

If you had your younger self in your office, what would you tell him? 

I would tell myself to be patient and to listen to the people around you. I made a lot of mistakes along the way when I was a young kid, and I made some poor choices and I paid my consequences. It’s the same advice that I give all of my kids and all of my grandkids. There’s no perfect human being. We all make mistakes, but listen to the people around you that love you. Trust your heart and don’t keep making the same mistake over and over.