Andrew Dys

English as second language teacher who drowned changed lives of immigrant kids

Although it is still summer vacation, there was a school assembly Saturday at South Pointe High School’s auditorium. The assembly was not a play, or a concert - although the music was a bluegrass band complete with bass and banjo and fiddle.

It was a memorial service for Heather Dobbins, 38, a teacher who drowned in a tubing accident Aug. 3. The auditorium was needed because so many people loved Dobbins, an English as second language teacher at Rock Hill’s Richmond Drive Elementary School, that all could not fit at her school.

The place was packed.

This was not just a teacher.

“I had her starting in kindergarten,” said a skinny kid, 13, with glasses, and brown skin, and the eyes of someone who will be great some day named Daniel Sandovar. “She paid for my Challenger. She gave me a bicycle. She took care of me. She loved me.”

Challenger is the after-school program where kids get extra help and supervision until parents who work late can get home.

Sandovar is not alone. Every kid who had Heather Dobbins did not have a teacher. The kid had a friend. An advocate and ally.

Mourners said that Heather Dobbins looked out for the marginalized, the downtrodden, the outcast, the poor. The brown and yellow and black and white whose language was not a song always, but initially a barrier that Dobbins broke down.

Rev. Sam McGregor Dobbins’ pastor at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church and proud parent of three children who passed through Richmond Drive school spoke in awe of the diverse crowd that gathered for this woman. Good ol’ boys from Clover and Hispanics immigrants and everybody in between, McGregor said.

“No way this can happen, this gathering, but it did,” McGregor said with irony and a smile.

People gathered, far more alike than different, because Heather Dobbins, who grew up in Clover and graduated from Winthrop and taught immigrant kids in Rock Hill, united them all.

During the middle of the tribute service where hundreds mourned, and cried, Richmond Drive Principal Pat Maness asked each child who had Heather Dobbins as a teacher to stand. The kids stood. Their names were Hispanic and Chinese and Polish and German and Vietnamese.

Their tears were in the language of love.

Diego Ugalde stood at age 17, and his brother Cesar at age 19. Both speak terrific English, almost unaccented. When they and their parents came from Mexico, they knew not a single word of English.

Now they are ready to find college and American greatness – because of Heather Dobbins.

“Mrs. Dobbins was like a second mother to us,” said Diego Ugalde. “She gave us our futures.”

Cesar, called Dobbins, “The greatest teacher in the world.”

The father and mother, Raul and Teresa Ugalde, could not say enough of Heather Dobbins who taught their children English.

And math.

And reading.

And walked their children home, and gave them rides.

What Heather Dobbins gave the Ugalde family was hope.

“Mrs. Dobbins made all of our family more comfortable in America,” Raul Ugalde said. “She loved us. And we loved her.”

Those who could not make it Saturday succeeded because of Heather Dobbins.

There is a professional soccer player for the Real Salt Lake team in Utah who starred for the UNC Tar Heels and Northwestern High School Trojans before that named Enzo Martinez. He was not always an American sports hero.

Enzo started at Richmond Drive in fourth grade, straight from Uruguay, and he was frozen with fear.

Last week, before her death, Heather Dobbins traveled to Salt Lake to watch the college graduate man, who started in her class a child without English, be at the top of his field in America.

At N.C. State University there is a star soccer player named Alex Martinez, younger brother to Enzo. In the third grade he walked in that first day at Richmond Drive with his brother not knowing one word of English. He was terrified.

“Me, my brother, my family, we would not have succeeded in America without Mrs. Dobbins,” Alex Martinez said by phone. “She was a second mother. She was for so many people the person who helped them become who they are. I am one of them. I owe her so much.”

Heather Dobbins was so well loved that the maintenance guys who take care of the Richmond Drive school volunteered to set up the memorial service. Her peer teachers and parents did all the arrangements.

Near the end of the service an offering was collected. It was for St Jude’s hospital for children in Memphis, Tenn. The baskets were passed. A child born in China, who had come with a dozen red roses for his teacher, leaned over and put a $20 bill in the basket given to him by his father.

Both father and son tried not to cry for the teacher who was gone.

They failed.

But the son will not fail in life, and all those kids of heritages that started in distant places but ended up in Rock Hill, will soar into the future of America.

Because of that teacher who told them all that America was a great place. Then opened up her arms, and her heart, and made those kids work so hard and proved it.