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Sal Monteagudo (seated left) is the 4th-annual Morris Human Rights Award winner. Seated with Monteagudo is Elaine Simonds-Jaradat, who nominated him for the award. In back, from left, are Morris Human Rights Commission members Tom McRoberts, Christine Gibson and Bert Ahern. Not pictured are commission members Ida Stewart, Ann Streed and Becki Jordan.

Sal Monteagudo, Community Activist: Mentoring across cultures

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MORRIS, Minn. - We often assume that our individual efforts are not powerful enough to have an impact. "I'm only one person, what can I do to make a difference?" No doubt Sal Monteagudo is familiar with this cliché, but one could speculate he's never said it.

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When looking for a quality college to attend, the St. Paul native and Harding High School graduate first researched and was then recruited by former director of the campus Ethnic Student Program, Bill Stewart. Monteagudo chose to attend the University of Minnesota, Morris and, following his college graduation in 1999, he chose to make Morris his home.

"I saw the love among people of all cultures here," said Monteagudo, who finds the sense of community in Morris similar to what he experienced growing up in his St. Paul neighborhood.

Born March 18, 1977, to parents Ansie and Necita Monteagudo (pronounced mon•tee•ah•GOO•doe), who emigrated from the Philippines, Monteagudo finds challenge invigorating and people inspiring.

"As a college student I had mentors who inspired me and who continue to inspire me," he said, "and now I'm trying to 'pay it forward.' The dedication of Tom McRoberts (former director of the campus' International Student Program and associate director of Continuing Education) to help international students fueled my passion to help other students. I'm remodeling my basement so, like Tom did, I can host college students." A student from Japan is currently staying with Monteagudo.

Pastor Neil Thielke was one of several people who helped foster Monteagudo's spiritual growth. "He and (spouse) Ruth would invite students to their home. Neil often chatted with students in the campus student center. I changed spiritually while I was in college," he said. "Spirituality is 24-7, not just a Sunday thing." Sal has taught Sunday School at the Morris Community Church and also attends the service given in Spanish at the Morris Evangelical Free Church.

Monteagudo's enthusiasm, his penchant for thinking outside the proverbial box, and his appreciation for diversity have afforded him the opportunity to share his talents as well as to learn alongside people with special needs.

He worked with the Morris Special Touch Chapter to provide a variety of activities for the local developmentally disabled community and their caretakers on the first Saturday of each month through Hosanna Worship Center. Through Divine House in Morris, Monteagudo was a human services trainer and adult mentor with an autistic youth as well as with a high school student with special disabilities.

Today he enthusiastically works as a "job coach" for physically handicapped and mentally challenged disabled adults at the Stevens County Developmental Achievement Center in Morris. He also works with some of the same group, in addition to mentoring one-on-one, at several group homes for St. Francis/Prairie Community Services.

"I admire my co-workers and the people who serve in this type of field, as I learn from them too," he said.

What began as a volunteer position in Fall 2004 has evolved into ongoing work for Monteagudo as a GED-ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor and tutor through the Alexandria Adult Basic Education Consortium. "The Hispanic community is growing. Spanish workers would come up to me and ask where they could learn English. I wondered, 'Why are they coming to me?'"

It's said where there's a will there's a way. Leave it to Monteagudo to find a way. He consulted with director Cindy Perkins at Morris Area Community Education and, armed with three years of high school Spanish and a bachelor's degree in liberal arts for the human services, he earned his ESL teaching certificate at Hamline University.

"The Adult Basic Education open class provides an opportunity for everyone to learn English as well as a chance to receive a general education diploma (G.E.D.-equivalent to a high school diploma)," said Monteagudo, who has taught ESL for seven years. He credits others, like UMM students with the Jane Addams Project and Robert Frischmon, who teaches English and Spanish to Riverview Dairy employees, with helping him learn how to teach and "for keeping this passion going in the community."

"I've met people here from all over the world," said Monteagudo. "There have been students from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Philippines, Nigeria, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Pakistan, and elsewhere, who come here to learn various agricultural practices and the sciences. We have diversity at Zierke Farms, the Soils Lab, UMM, and the West Central Research and Outreach Center. You can experience a bit of the whole world right here in Stevens County, Minn.," he said. "It's exciting." 

In 2004 Monteagudo participated in the Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) Community Dialogue Series "to address issues of cultural diversity...in particular to build a tolerant and welcoming community environment." He participated in the Blandin Foundation Community Leadership Retreat in 2005 and currently serves as one of the volunteer stewards for Stevens Forward. "[Stevens Forward] is always looking for additional help and participation to reach their county-wide goals (destiny drivers)," said Monteagudo. (If you would like to be involved with Stevens Forward contact Sal at sal@fedtel.net.)

In 2004 Monteagudo traveled with the Morris contingency to Atlanta to participate in the All-America City competition in which Morris was a finalist.

"My involvement was to represent cultural-ethnic diversity," said Sal. "I was chosen because of my involvement with Blandin and that I chose to stay in Morris due to the sense of community I found here. I had encountered some challenges related to ethnicity and wanted to make it better for current and future ethnic-minorities."

In addition to Monteagudo's laundry list of community action and service talents, he likes to learn various trades, among them shingling, painting, landscaping, gardening--home projects, large and small, that help to reduce costs in maintaining one's own home. What he doesn't know how to do, he asks an expert or researches Internet sites.

"I learned on YouTube how to install a sump pump," he said with a smile. He has learned first aid, CPR, "and various group home setting skills needed to serve the physically challenged population."

Monteagudo also enjoys music--"It may sound 'cheesy,' but The Sound of Music is one of my favorite movies"--and photography. "I capture moments through photography so, during the bad times, people can remember the good times."

An admitted "techy," Monteagudo has five YouTube accounts, one of which chronicles his weekly ESL class, five Twitter accounts and three blogs. He posts his photos of events and people "to help folks remember great times in Morris and other places."

Beyond his many projects, Monteagudo still finds the time to participate in high intensity training year around at the Regional Fitness Center. "We're made up of a body, a soul and a mind," he said. "We need to exercise all three."

The last person to tout his own accomplishments, Monteagudo admits he's one who "goes all out. I don't like to do things that everyone else is doing. I like to teach and encourage others to get involved as well. I'm learning too, and serving others helps me become a better person."

Webster--or in this era of technology, Wikipedia--tells us that an extraordinary person is "very unusual or remarkable." Extraordinary people rarely believe it is they who are the remarkable ones. But, like Monteagudo, they know others who are.

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