If you love a happy ending, we give you Montville's Jose Zuniga

Montville — This is a story about a mother's love, a teacher's resolve, soccer, drugs in public school bathrooms and the vagaries of learning a new language on the other side of the world.

This is the story of Jose Zuniga, a senior at Montville High, a young man who escaped danger and loneliness in Colombia to be with his mom, who came here to work at McDonald's despite her degree in psychology from back home, all to ensure a better life for her son.

This is why Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," is affixed to Lady Liberty. Jose Zuniga was the metaphorical tired, poor huddled mass yearning to breathe free.

Now he's reading Lord of the Flies and playing soccer here with his new friends.

His story, a medley of struggle, faith and inspiration, began in Cali, Colombia, where he sat alone two years ago in an apartment. His mother had left for the states to work, eventually hoping to bring her son to Montville.

Zuniga couldn't attend school. An injury sustained while playing soccer forced him to miss two months at the private school he'd been attending. The private school didn't invite him back, saying he'd missed too much time. Public school, where drug deals and gun violence would routinely happen in bathrooms, wasn't an option.

"After my injury I stayed by myself and was very lonely. It was very stressful and my mother was very hurt," Zuniga said recently. Yet to whom he said it is far more significant.

Zuniga stood before the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference's eligibility committee, whose members heard a case to grant Zuniga the extra year he'd need to play soccer at Montville.

Technically, Zuniga's "eight semesters," or the time the CIAC allows student-athletes to participate, had expired in Colombia. That's until they heard his story.

"I love my mother dearly and I have a tattoo on my arm that expresses how much I love and admire her for what she has done for me," he told the CIAC. "I left behind one part of my family to come to America to be with my mother and to have an opportunity to have a life free of the drugs and violence in Cali."

The CIAC granted the request. Zuniga is a goalkeeper for the Indians now, reunited with his mom in a safe environment.

"The CIAC did a very, very nice thing," Montville athletic director Phil Orbe said.

Indeed. The CIAC's compassion also extended recently to Killingly senior football player Vasileos Politis, who was given an extra year after beating cancer.

Zuniga, whose improvement learning English is noteworthy, still struggles to comprehend it. Enter Vicky Clifford, who heads Montville's World Language Department. Zuniga probably never knew he had a guardian angel until he met her.

Vicky Clifford was already teaching five classes when she met Zuniga, an ever polite, respectful and understated kid who was the allegorical stranger in a strange land.

"He knew no English when he got here," Clifford said. "He was basically in my room all the time. From where he came, not knowing a word to where he is now, is 100 percent improvement. He goes to class now by himself. Before, I'd get all his work and translate it all. Now I don't do as much.

"The teachers here were very helpful. They'd use Google to translate his work for him. We'd go over it. But if you ever use Google, it's not always right. So basically, I'd take all of his work and put it in Spanish and he would do it. I would either take it to the teachers and translate it for them or some teachers wanted me just to grade it for him. English teachers found books for him in Spanish like Lord of the Flies. He would listen to discussions about it in English, but read the book in Spanish."

Clifford became an unwitting student again, too, especially when Zuniga was taking math and physics.

"I guess you could say we both took it together," Clifford said. "I'm learning quite a bit myself. The math classes, he knows some of the concepts. Some new things I had a hard time explaining to him because I wasn't sure of the concepts either."

Once again for emphasis: Clifford was under no obligation to help. But she did.

"She helped because she's a good person. She's one of those 'it takes a village to raise a child' type people," Orbe said.

Quite the story. Zuniga is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen and wants to play soccer in college one day, even if taking standardized college application tests is a reach at the moment.

"I don't think a school would let me go to college with him," Clifford cracked.

All in time.

He's already come a long way, baby.

"This is what his mom wanted," Orbe said. "A chance at a better life."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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