Three days a week you will find Andy Morales at Rio Vista Elementary School. On the surface this would not seem like much of a big deal, after all he is the school’s physical education teacher, but Morales does not have any classes to teach. Technically, Morales is on summer vacation, but still comes out those three days a week to tend to various projects he has going on.
Morales does more than just teach P.E. at the school. He has taken it upon himself to help build the student community. He has been there 17 years, in fact has second generation students, and has put a lot of his personal time and money into making the school better.
He is hardly alone, the school, which is a Title 1 school, meaning it has a high percentage of students that are considered “disadvantaged” by the government, has numerous dedicated teachers, but Morales has stepped up and gotten some important things done.
He has built a reading garden, is working on a second community food garden. He started a new shoe bank and helps with various handy man projects whenever he can.
If that was not enough, Morales has a daughter who plays softball at CDO and is on travel teams year round. He is also a high school sports blogger and has a photography business on the side, which has replaced coaching in his busy schedule.
Morales grew up on the Southside and has worked in lower income shoes his entire 25-year teaching career. One constant seemed to be a need for athletic shoes, especially for girls. All too often these families have the budget for just one pair of shoes and get something more fashionable and less functional.
“Tennis shoes for girls is not a high priority so a lot of young kids come to school with ‘jellies,’ dress shoes, boots or even shoes that may look like sneakers but they have heels or go all the way up to their knees as a fashion statement,” Morales explained.
This sets them back in P.E. because they cannot fully participate. Other kids just can’t afford new shoes and all too often get hand me downs or used shoes.
Last winter Morales helped with a blanket drive that saw the from the girl’s basketball teams from Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge, the boy’s soccer team at Pusch Ridge, as well as students from Desert Christian collect over 600 items.
“So, I thought why not a shoe bank?”
Morales put his money where his mouth was and his own family donated $500 to buy 50 pairs of shoes to get things started. Those shoes were gone in about a month and teachers began donating shoes. One ever threw a house party where visitors had to bring a new pair of shoes. Soon a gentleman, who has wished to remain nameless, began donating $50 every month. Morales and his students even sold pickles to raise money for new shoes, as well as underwear and socks.
“I’m always running to the store at lunch time buying new shoes,” says Morales who buys everything from the smallest children’s shoes, to adult sizes. “My dream is to have a new pair of shoes for every kindergarten student who comes to our school.”
“We have some parents who can’t afford new shoes at all,” said Rio Vista fourth grade teacher Amanda Larriva. “I had one student who was wearing hand me down shoes that did not fit and were falling a part. Andy bought him some shoes that fit and that student was so happy.”
Despite the time and effort, it is all worth it to Morales who was been taught to be selfless by his father.
“I cannot describe the feeling I get when I see a kid put on one of our shoes for the first time,” Morales said. “The girls are the best because they take a few moments to stare at their shoes before they skip away. That alone was worth the sacrifice my family has made.”
His hard work does not come as a surprise for his family.
“Andy surprises me by all that he does, not what he does,” said his brother Javier Morales. “He has always been dedicated to his craft whether it be teaching, coaching or writing. He is a tireless worker who never puts himself above and beyond the subjects he cares about.”
For many a project like the shoe bank might be enough, but Morales saw other opportunities to improve the school. An empty corner of the school was being unused so he thought it might make a nice area to read. He and the school’ student council tried to raise funds by approaching several hardware stores and even the local housing industry. Only the City of Tucson came through with a $500 “Clean & Beautiful” Grant. Morales matched the grant with $500 of his own money.
Now that formerly unused corner of the school is a reading garden where students can eat, read or study in peace while being outside and surrounded by some nature. There are flowers in pots designed by the teachers, cacti and other plants and even a small fish pond.
Now Morales is working on a community food garden that is just in the initial stages of construction. The city has again helped with a small grant and the University of Arizona Agriculture Center has been a wealth of knowledge.
“After we received the first-ever “A” rating for a Title 1 from Amphitheater and earned a Top 20 school status in all of Pima County, I felt our school should start offering more for our students that they may not experience at home so a Community Food Garden was the next logical step,” Morales explained. “In a way, these gardens have taught kids how to build, learn, study and grow and try to work everything out with little help from the community. Everything is a learning experience for me ad for my students.”
Morales has done some other small projects around the school, he built a sandbox and will build a deck next to the art room so that the students can work outside,
When he’s not at the school, he’s probably at a high school or youth sporting event. He watches his daughter Maggie’s softball games, as he did with his two older daughters, but he also does a sports blog that has blossomed into a part-time photography business. Morales, who was taking photos for the blog, saw professional photographers at events who charged a lot and did not deliver much. He looked to change that and now not only does sports photos, but does team photos and affordable senior photos for students who can’t spend a lot.
And what has he done with this extra income? Most of it has gone right back into the gardens and shoe bank.