Viviana Ortiz

Photo of Viviana Ortiz.

As a child of immigrant parents from Guatemala, Viviana Ortiz understands the struggles of newcomers to Chicago. Her family grew up poor, with her father working three jobs to provide for her and her two sisters. 

Now, as the coordinator for Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS) at Cameron Elementary, Ortiz derives joy from helping students and families facing the same struggles her family faced.

“I love being able to greet the new families,” she said. “I love sharing a smile, sharing hope and just words of encouragement letting them know that they are not alone and that they have an advocate who will do everything she can to help them succeed.”

Hope in short supply

When newcomer families arrive at Cameron, hope is usually in short supply. 

Oritz said the families come to her school with challenges “beyond our understanding.” They need intensive support, but after decades of disinvestment, Cameron, like many schools, is not fully equipped to provide it.  

“Our teachers, our staff, and the community have really stepped up to help,” she said. “From our safe passage workers outside who help identify families in need of warm clothing, to the nutrition services staff who donate food, to a local coffee shop that sponsored holiday gifts for an entire class of newcomers — everyone has come to the table to help.” 

At capacity

Cameron has welcomed 200 newcomers, 140 who are houseless, but Ortiz said the school lacks the capacity to serve them. 

“All of our classrooms are full and we don’t have the staff to open up new bilingual classrooms,” she explained. “So, if students have even a little understanding of English, we’re forced to put them in a monolingual classroom, which is far from ideal.”

Even though Cameron’s counselors go above and beyond, Ortiz said the school needs more personnel to meet the mental health needs of its newcomer students.

Ortiz began working as STLS coordinator this past fall, after taking a few years off to spend with her two small children and after volunteering with the police station response teams in her Humboldt Park neighborhood.

She had been working as a guest teacher at Cameron, which is down the street from where she lives, when the school’s STLS coordinator position opened up this past fall. She applied and began the job in October.

With migrant families enrolling at Cameron almost every day, Ortiz said her first order of business is to welcome them and address any barriers that make it difficult for the students to succeed at school.

Bienvenidos

“I am usually the first staff member, aside from our amazing clerk, who they meet,” she said. “I greet them with a smile and a ‘Bienvenidos,’ just like I would when welcoming anyone into my home.”

She works to help families access the resources available to them: food pantries, Medicaid, immigrationPhoto of winter jackets collected for students by Cameron Elementary staff. attorneys and advocates, and after school programs. She also explains their rights under the McKinney-Vento Act, which guarantees houseless students the same access to educational opportunities provided to housed students. And, this week, she said she will be visiting an Ecuadorian student who is undergoing treatment at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Ortiz also helps run a “free store” which provides clothing and personal items to students. The store is a collective effort among Cameron’s educators and staff, as well as mutual aid partners in the community, such as Blocks Together, a community organization serving Humboldt Park.

Almost fate

Ortiz said it was “almost fate” that brought her to Cameron, but she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She received her bachelor’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education from Northeastern Illinois University in 2014.

“As cliché as it sounds, I always knew I wanted to do something impactful, working with children. I always believed that school is our second home and that all children deserve a safe and warm place where they can feel loved and accepted,” she said. 

She began teaching second grade at Patrick Henry in Albany Park then moved to Barry Elementary in Hermosa, where she spent seven years in a third grade dual language classroom. “Those were wonderful years and it’s where I learned how important it is to cultivate and maintain one’s native language,” she said.

Ortiz is proud of CTU’s vision and work to provide a better future for our students. She particularly appreciates the union’s commitment to supporting bilingual educators and staff in this critical moment. 

Humanitarian crisis

Photo of shoes and boots collected by Cameron Elementary staff for students.The CTU recently sponsored a roundtable discussion about the migrant crisis with CTU President Stacy Davis Gates, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Cameron staff. “I definitely felt like my voice mattered and that our union leaders were listening to what I had to say as someone on the frontlines of this issue at my school,” she said. 

While she has glowing remarks for CTU’s support of newcomer students, she cannot say the same for state and federal officials who fail to recognize the urgency of this moment. What would she say if she could speak to Gov. J.B. Pritzker or President Biden? “What are you waiting for? This is a humanitarian crisis. The time to act is now.”