In his 20 years at San Diego Jewish Academy, head custodian Juan Suaste has learned a lot about Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. He has watched as students participate in Tikkun Olam community service programs that teach the young students that it is their responsibility to make the world a better place.
“I’m very inspired by the way the children work for their community and the adults reach out and communicate with each other and help each other,” Suaste said. “I know I can’t change the world myself but I just want to do something.”
Suaste was particularly inspired by the school’s Yad b’Yad committee, a group that works to ease the burden on families in times of need such as a death in the family, an illness or a natural disaster. He took that spirit of outreach to his hometown of Nuetla in the state of Guanajuato.
After a woman in the small village was diagnosed with a form of stomach cancer, Suaste stepped up and pitched in and then he encouraged others in the village to do so. The outpouring of support, both financial and emotional, was overwhelming. He then encouraged everyone to continue to donate or set aside funds, about $10 a week, to a village fund that would be around whenever someone needed help, whether it was an unexpected illness, care for an elderly family member or assistance for deported family members. Suaste created a board and they decide together how the funds will be distributed.
“I know that I can’t solve all their problems, but at that moment at least it is something,” Suaste said. “We just want to make sure we can help.”
Suaste came to America from Mexico when he was just 14 years old by himself and worked hard to earn everything he has. He was one of 11 siblings and didn’t finish the sixth grade.
“I grew up a lot in this school,” said Suaste, who took English classes from the SDJA librarian Bobbi Spurley.
Armed with a great memory and a good ear for languages, he not only learned English but through the years has learned a lot of languages from school families — he knows 50 Hebrew words, Chinese and can understand some South African languages.
“This is all my house,” Suaste said of SDJA. “I enjoy the children, parents, everything. I’m happy for everything and one of the things I love is that every day is different because there’s so many things going on at the school. There’s always something to do and that’s why I love my work.
“This job, and my wife and sons, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Before starting the community fund, Suaste often gave back to his community in smaller ways, bringing back clothing or books from SDJA. He has goals to grow the fund and to be able to give back even more.
When he visits his town, he is most struck by the children.
“I was one of those children before. I didn’t forget where I came from,” Suaste said. “In my town there is a lot of drugs and 12- to 13-year-old children are using drugs sold to them as cheap as a dollar. I want to help children by buying instruments, teaching them to play music, give them something better than being on the streets.”
Suaste said he gets a “personal, beautiful satisfaction” from the work he does and is humble about receiving recognition for something he simply feels is his responsibility to his world and his hometown
“The children adore him and the school depends on him and his crew,” said Chaim Heller, head of school. “It is so heartwarming to know that the values taught here are being lived by everyone – and that those values are being lived a thousand miles away.”