When Joel Pelayo came to Hood River from Mexico almost 13 years ago, he barely spoke English and worked as a machine operator in a packing house.
Last month, Pelayo received the 2002 Staff of the Year Award for Parent Involvement Professional from the Region X Head Start Association for his work with the Early Head Start Program in the Mid-Columbia. The award is the highest honor given to any non-teaching staff member in the region, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
“I was very excited,” Pelayo said. “I think it’s something to feel proud of.” Not only has Pelayo worked his way to a respected position with the Mid-Columbia Children’s Council Early Head Start program, he has gained a reputation during his six years with MCCC as a selfless, compassionate person dedicated to helping at-risk families.
“He’s wonderful. He’s gentle,” said Kat Fredrickson, family services team leader for MCCC and Pelayo’s supervisor. “I kind of choke up talking about him and so do a lot of people.”
Pelayo is the sole Early Head Start Family Services Coordinator for the agency, working with families who have newborns to kids age 3. He serves as staff development support for the home-visiting Early Head Start teachers, and does home-visits himself to make sure families are receiving the support and access to community services that they need. He is also called upon frequently to be a translator — in home visits as well as parent and council meetings.
Pelayo also works to promote male involvement within families, spearheading “Fathers’ Nights” in which he leads father-child interactive activities, arts and crafts, music and literacy.
Pelayo serves Early Head Start families in Hood River, The Dalles, White Salmon and Goldendale.
“I travel a lot,” Pelayo said. In the midst of his rigorous schedule — which includes copious amounts of paperwork and documentation — he finds time to visit Head Start classrooms to play the guitar and sing songs with the children.
“We try to combine education with music and happiness,” Pelayo said. “We’re trying to create confidence.”
Pelayo threw his hat in the ring for the award only when urged to do so by his supervisor and co-workers.
“Joel is an incredibly humble person,” said Lorena Sprager, co-manager of Nuestra Communidad Sana (NCS), a Hispanic outreach organization under the auspices of The Next Door, Inc. Sprager, who formerly worked with La Clinica del Carino, had the opportunity to work with Pelayo long before he joined MCCC, when he did health outreach with migrant farm worker families. She’s continued to collaborate with him at NCS, where Pelayo teaches a class for domestic violence perpetrators.
“Joel just works and works and works, quietly and incredibly effectively, and gets the work done,” Sprager said. “He’s wholeheartedly dedicated to serving the community.”
Suzanne VanOrman, MCCC executive director, agreed, calling Pelayo a “compassionate, caring person every agency that serves children and families would love to have.”
But true to what others say of him, Pelayo is humble about receiving the award.
“It’s a happiness I share with my co-workers,” he said. “The Head Start team is very special — and it can’t happen without the support of the community.”
Pelayo’s biggest rewards come not from receiving awards or kudos from others but from his work.
“When a family accomplishes their goals, it’s one of my strongest satisfactions,” he said. “To see and realize a family is more self-sufficient and can fly farther, that’s great.
“It’s a huge job,” he added, “but a wonderful job.”