When Laci Polotzola walked the halls as a student at Port Barre Elementary in Port Barre, Louisiana, she’d often wave at the jovial janitor, Joseph “Gabe” Sonnier.
“He made us feel safe and comfortable. He was the person who made us happy,” Polotzola, 32, of Port Barre, whose children now attend the school, tells PEOPLE.
One day in 1985, principal Wesley Jones stopped to chat with Sonnier and shared his vision for the janitor’s future. Sonnier recalls the conversation like it was yesterday.
“He said, ‘Being a janitor is a good job and it’s an honest living,’ ” Sonnier, now 53, tells PEOPLE. “But I taught you unlimited potential. I think you’d benefit the students better as an educator. I’d rather see you grading papers than picking them up.'”
So Sonnier – belatedly – took Jones’s advice. Fifteen years later, at the age of 39, he went back to school while still working full-time.
His schedule was grueling.
He’d arrive at Port Barre Elementary at 5 a.m. and work until 7 a.m. He’d then go to classes at Louisiana State University Eunice and the University of Louisiana, often returning to work after he was done with his night classes.
“I’d finish there and then go home and do homework,” he says. “It was hardly much rest.”
All his hard work paid off. In 2006, he graduated with an associate’s degree in general studies from Louisiana State University Eunice, and in 2008 he received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Louisiana.
A master’s degree followed, and then a proud promotion: Last November, Sonnier became principal of the same school he’d cleaned for 27 years.
“Who would have thought 33 years ago, when I set foot on this campus, that I’d eventually be the leader of this school?” he says.
A Path Interrupted
Sonnier had always planned to go to college right after high school, but family circumstances prevented him from continuing his education.
“After my first semester, I had to drop out because my mother and father were separating,” he recalls. “My mother was a housekeeper and she needed help with the bills, so I went into the workforce. I was going to do anything to help my mom.”
After taking jobs in construction, at a grocery store and a sawmill, he began working at Port Barre Elementary as a janitor (a job that his father had done for most of his life).
“When I first started, it was my intention to work five, maybe 10 years as a janitor and then look to do something else,” he says.
Those five or 10 years turned into almost 20. It was around that time that then-principal Jones’s fateful comment about Sonnier’s potential finally took hold.
“The seed was planted in my heart and my mind,” says Sonnier, who is married with two children.
After he held his first staff meeting as principal, “that’s when it really sunk in,” Sonnier says. “I had an entire staff wanting to know my expectations of them as a leader. I know this job can be overwhelming at times, but I take one detail or one thing at a time.”
An Inspiration to Others
Kindergarten teacher Tonya Stelly and four other staffers were recently inspired by Sonnier to earn their own master’s degrees.
“Sometimes it felt like too much and I’d want to quit,” Stelly, 34, of Port Barre, recalls. “But he always had encouraging words. He’d say, ‘Just stick with it. It’ll be worth it in the long run.’ ”
She was a student while Sonnier was a janitor and now not only teaches at the school but her kids are enrolled there as well.
“He definitely gives people hope,” she says.
One extra task as principal that Sonnier insists on doing? He cleans his own office every night.
One day last December, Sonnier stood alone in the principal’s office, opened the blinds, looked out at his school and said a prayer of thanks.
His lesson: “It’s not where you start, it’s how you finish. There are other Gabes out there, and they should know that there’s hope.”
More Heroes Among Us:
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