“When the NBA offered me a spot, I had to make a decision,” teacher Gian-Paul Gonzalez said in an interview Wednesday afternoon at Union City’s Jose Martí Freshman Academy, surrounded by admiring students, family, and Gov. Christopher Christie’s wife Mary Pat.
The latter had come to honor him as New Jersey Hero of the Month.
“I chose to help kids,” he said. “It doesn’t make fiscal or business sense, but God blessed me to do more than make money.”
Gonzalez’s decision to teach in his native city and reject a glamorous life as a basketball player may have shocked those who hardly knew him, but seemed nothing but completely understandable to his students and his family.
“When we moved to the suburbs, all Gian-Paul wanted was to get back to the inner city,” mother Cathy Gonzalez said. “He could have been a professional basketball player, but he chose to use his gift to reach out to the children instead. We are so proud. His desire to have a positive influence makes his kids want to have the same influence, and it spreads all around.”
Christie handed Gonzalez a $7,500 check to bolster his before and after school program “Flight Club.”
“God blessed me to do more than make money.” – Gian-Paul Gonzalez
His top student is Jeffrey, a senior in high school who, after taking Gonzalez’s freshman class, made the decision to continue with the program even after he left ninth grade. Jeffrey led the group of around 30 students to push harder and hold their side-planks longer as if it was just another day.
“We should have more of this in the Christie home,” Christie laughed along with those gathered.
A Giant past
Beyond his job as freshman seminar teacher and student mentor, Gonzalez is also an ordained minister. And, as many believe, he is in part responsible for the Giants’ Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots this past year. On Christmas Eve, he led a chapel service before the game to help motivate the players. His motto “all-in” was taken by Giants great Justin Tuck all the way through the next few games to victory as the team’s motto. It went so well, the team even began to sell t-shirts with the motto on their website.
“His theme “all-in” was to commit fully to every move,” said Jay Gittleson, president of the motivational speaker group Gonzales belongs to called A Vision in Motion. “He was their secret weapon; just like he is for these kids.”
Above and beyond
In Freshman Seminar, Gonzalez teaches students life skills they’ll need to succeed in school and after they (hopefully) graduate. He helps with character development, conflict resolution, and leadership skills. He takes them to colleges on field trips because “They have to see it to believe it to achieve it,” he said.
“They call these kids ‘at-risk’ students, but I believe all kids are ‘at-risk,’ ” he said. “I can help them because I know the life. I was here. This in an elective course and it’s not easy, but because it’s the hardest, they will get the most out of it.”
Flight Club was a program that, initially, was expected to fail, Gonzalez’s mother said. He proposed to hold a before- and after-school program during which students would volunteer (as would he) to exercise for around 40 minutes, because he knew studies showed that it helped students perform better academically.
The after-school part was not the greatest challenge. The early part would require students to show up early who hardly showed up on time for their regularly scheduled classes.
“The kids showed up,” Gonzalez’s mother said. “At first, they had no equipment at all. So Gian-Paul would fill gallon jugs with sand to make weights, he had students use chairs and the weight of their bodies to exercise, and they started to improve in school.”
“At first I thought it was just a work out club,” Jeffrey said. “But it’s more than that. It’s a family. It’s where we come when we need somebody.”
Hero of the month
“Gian-Paul is really an inspiration to me,” Christie said. “In so many ways, Gian-Paul has been an inspiration to an atmosphere that I really admire. And how lucky you guys are to be able to participate in Flight Club because you’re getting incredible tools you’ll be using for the rest of your lives.”
Christie addressed 10 student leaders that stood in front of the gymnasium and asked them what they had gotten out of the program.
All of them echoed Jeffrey and agreed that while they enjoyed the working out aspect, they all saw each other as family, and as mentors for each other when times get tough.
“I’m so honored that you’ve come here,” Gonzalez told Christie. “Like I always tell the guys, you may be afraid to believe, but I believe. I have the aspiration that these young men will be the new leaders of Union City.”
For more information on the award, visit www.newjerseyheroes.org.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org