November 4, 2021 by HCDE-Texas
It’s early on a Monday morning. Her feet move quickly, and she’s already sweeping the entryway, wiping down windows and toys, rolling lunch carts into classrooms, and chatting with colleagues.
La Porte Head Start custodian Janny Leiva, Harris County Department of Education’s November Employee of the Month, wastes no time. “The day is too short,” she affirms.
“It’s amazing! It’s like she’s a robot!” exclaims La Porte Head Start Campus Manager Nadia Epps. “She’s busy all the time! I’m always looking for her. I go all over the building looking for Ms. Leiva, and she’s always doing something. I can imagine when she gets home that she is exhausted because she’s moving so much.”
But Leiva is so much more than a hard worker.
“Ms. Leiva is just awesome. She is the La Porte Head Start grandma!” says Epps. “She is the heart and soul of this center. I think she is a rare, rare breed. She just reminds me of my grandmother—I think I’m going to get emotional.”
Leiva, a breast cancer survivor and a political asylee from Nicaragua, moves through the world with the wisdom of experience and the optimism of faith.
She emigrated 33 years ago while pregnant with her second child and with her 20-month-old son and 14-year-old brother to flee the violence spurred by the Sandinista revolution.
“God has given me many second chances. [When I was diagnosed] with cancer 10 years ago, they gave me six months to live,” she said. “I know God gave this time to make the world different for all people.”
Though she was not in favor of the regime, Leiva worked for a regional office of the Casa Nacional de Apoyo al Combatiente, the National House of Support to the Combatant, during Nicaragua’s civil war. There, she worked for the program for the fallen.
“I have seen death in the eyes. We were at war [and the morgues were overwhelmed],” she said. “I would accompany the director to collect the bodies of the fallen. If they were decomposed or dismembered, you cleaned them up, put them in a tin-lined chest, sealed it, put the flag on it, and would then present the body to the family. It was the last time that those parents, their wife, or their children would see them, so we wanted to return the body to the family in the best condition possible. That was the last memory they would have of them, and we wanted it to be a dignified one.”
Later on, Leiva worked for the woman who would become the current vice president and first lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo. At the time, Murillo led the Asociación Sandinista de Trabajadores de la Cultura, the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers, a government agency.
“Every time we went out, we had no guarantee that we might be able to return because there was a civil war between the former national guards and the Sandinista front,” said Leiva. “There was always fighting, and you might not come back [alive]. So, whatever you do every day, you only have that moment to do it.”
This philosophy—and her desire to continue making the world better for others—is what propels her second lease on life.
“I am happy seeing other people happy. Happiness is not selfishly in oneself,” affirms Leiva.
With this in mind, her sister-in-law, Marcia Leiva, HCDE’s chief accounting officer, suggested she apply for a job at Head Start.
“She was the one who said, ‘I have the perfect job for you,’ because she knows that I like working with children and with children’s programs. For the past 12 years, I have worked in youth catechism programs.”
For Leiva, the experience working in Catholic faith formation programs mirrors the goals of Head Start.
“If the prayers were not learned, [the parents] would say, ‘it is the fault of the catechist who is teaching you.’ My motto is, ‘if you are going to criticize, also give me the solution.’ The problem was that the parents also had to be trained. That is the same vision that the Head Start program has. We help parents to educate their children.”
Leiva was hired in January. After Winter Storm Uri, the La Porte Head Start campus sustained flooding damage and Leiva was temporarily reassigned to the Baytown center.
“They told me I was doing a good job, but I told them that I belonged to La Porte. You have to help those in need, and I knew there was a greater need there,” says Leiva. “Because of COVID, they were short-staffed, so when I returned, I had to start from zero. You had to learn how to do a little bit of everything.”
Epps attributes the positive culture on the campus largely to the love and care that Leiva puts into her work and bestows onto others.
“Ms. Leiva makes us feel like we are her children. We are her family. She just comes into the building and is like, ‘Good morning Ms. Nadia, how are you? Is everything ok? How was your day?’ It’s just warmth!” Epps laughs. “She always hugs and then gets right to her job. If she’s brought maybe some cookies or some cupcakes, or she makes coffee first thing in the morning, it’s just those little things that make coming to work so special. For me, it feels like I am coming from home to home.”
Drawing on the obstacles she has faced in her own life, Leyva recognizes the responsibility the center’s leaders bear.
“They need someone who will support them,” says Leiva. “This is our center. This is our home. You have to make life easier for people, more comfortable so they can give 100%. If they are happy, the children are happy. If they are stressed, the children absorb the stress. I try to create a positive environment so that the children and staff want to return the next day.”