A Success Story: From Cleaner to Leader

24 December, 2019

Reyes Guana, a son of Mexican immigrants, proves the saying: "Where there's a will, there's a way." In other words, if you want something badly enough, and work hard enough, you can make it happen.

In Guana's case, he went from cleaning classrooms to leading a California school system – that is, from being a custodian to superintendent. In the middle, he earned a high-level university education and achieved a doctorate.

Now he is in his first year leading the Byron Union School District in rural northern California.

Dr. Reyes Gauna with dolphin character at a school in Byron Union School District in California.
Dr. Reyes Gauna with dolphin character at a school in Byron Union School District in California.

How did Guana do it?

"Divine intervention at every level. I always remember when I wanted to give up, someone would put their hand on my shoulder and say, ‘Look kid, you have potential. Don't give up.'"

"Divine intervention" means that Guana believes that God – or someone God directed – helped him stay focused on his goals. One was the custodian at his school when he was a boy. He called her "Nike" because she wore Nike shoes. Guana wanted those kinds of shoes, too, but his parents could not afford them.

Young Gauna liked how Nike made everything so clean. He told her he wanted to be a custodian, too.

"She goes, well it's good if you want to be a custodian, but make sure that you go to college and make this as one of your steps there."

Guana also looked up to the principal, the leader at his school. He was a tall, friendly and good-looking man who wore nice clothes. He told Guana about his job helping students and teachers.

"I said, ‘Wow, when I grow up I want to do what you're doing.'

And he says, ‘Well if you don't give up you'll get there.'"

Guana did get there, and two men remain friends. His former principal is now almost 90 years old.

A long road

But before Guana became a school principal, he followed in Nike's footsteps and become a custodian. He worked for three schools in Lodi, California. His work cleaning the schools earned the money he needed to pay for the first two years of college.

Then he worked as a campus safety officer, teacher, counselor, administrator, and now superintendent.

It was a long distance to travel for a boy who grew up without much money and seven brothers and sisters. Guana says he was a "very shy" child who was "very quiet" in school. He did not like wearing used clothes and inexpensive shoes. But his parents struggled to pay for basic expenses. They always had two jobs to make ends meet. On the weekends, the whole family went to the fields to work. When the children were young they stayed in the car. As they got bigger, they worked too.

Guana says his parents wanted their children, who were born in the U.S., to give back to their country. They also wanted their children to stay in school. His mother ended her education when she was around eight and his father thirteen.

Now, Guana tells his own three children how important an education is for their lives.

He never forgets where he came from, or how he felt

The superintendent says that even though he has had a successful career, he never forgets where he came from, or how he felt. He uses his life experiences to guide him as a leader.

For example, Guana's younger sister needs a wheelchair to get around. To this day, her disability helps him as a school administrator. "You know I learned about advocacy for special ed. children as a sibling because my sister was born after me. And I remember crying all the time because people would make fun of her."

From a young age, Guana was a translator for his parents, whose native language was Spanish. Helping them made Guana understand the need for adults to learn English. And so, for many years Gauna taught English classes for adults in the community.

In addition, as a child he suffered from bullying—other students were unkind to him. This experience makes him watch out for the quiet children.

And being a cleaner at a school made him think about how to show respect for everyone in an organization.

"When I was a custodian you were like a ghost. No one really saw you. Yeah, the principals talked to you, and they said hi to you, but nobody else cared about you."
In Guana's school system today, everyone is invited to parties and events. Everyone is important -- from the people who clean the floors, drive the buses, teach the students, lead the schools, and direct the entire operation.

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story, with information from Reuters and the Associated Press.

What do you think of this story? Write to us in the comments section below.


Words in This Story

custodian – n. a person who cleans and takes care of a building

superintendent – n. a person who directs or manages a place, department, organization, etc.

doctorate – n. the highest degree that is given by a university

potential – adj. capable of becoming real

counselor – n. a person who provides advice as a job : a person who counsels people

advocacy – n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal : the act or process of advocating something

translator – n. a person who changes words written in one language into a different language

ghost – n. the soul of a dead person thought of as living in an unseen world or as appearing to living people