Shirley Santos. Photo courtesy of Shirley Santos.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

VINELANDShirley Santos is one of the most recognized Latinas in South Jersey, winning numerous awards for her extensive community service, whether its been the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland County or co-chair of the Rowan College of South Jersey’s Hispanic Advisory Board.

The longtime bilingual educator at Gloria M. Sabater Elementary School said she doesn’t dedicate her time and talent because of the awards and would rather focus on others who she believes should have the same attention.

“I’m grateful and humble for those recognitions,” Santos told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “They are all special to me, but not everybody gets the recognition they deserve. A lot of people who are behind the scenes don’t get recognized and they deserve the attention as well. I don’t do it for the awards.

Doing What She Loves

“I have been involved with great teams and great organizations. They all have special meanings for me. The Puerto Rican Festival was the first organization to recognize me (in 2004). It really tugged at my heart. I’m just doing something I love. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is right and it’s having an effect,” she continued.

In January, the Tri-County Rotary Club named Shirley Santos as one of its three first-ever Vocational Service Award recipients. Just a small sample of her awards include Cumberland County Board of Freeholders Citation for Community Service 2004, Volunteer Service Award, Puerto Rican Festival 2005, Cumberland County Hispanic Woman of the Year, “Nuestra Comunidad” Newspaper 2008, Teacher of the Year at Johnstone School Year 2009-2010, Vineland Public Schools Teacher of the Year 2009-2010, Cumberland County Teacher of the Year in 2009-2010, 2009 CASA PRAC Community Honoree, Boys and Girls Club of Vineland Executive Director Award 2011 and the 2013 Perfil Latino Youth Community Service Award.

Education First Love

Santos said while volunteerism is in her heart, education is her first love. She said there is no better feeling today than seeing a lightbulb going off in a student’s head where they have learned something that will make a profound difference in their lives.

Shirley Santos (2L) in a group picture of Sabater School Teachers that volunteered during STEM Night Event made possible by a New Jersey Education Association grant. Photo courtesy of Shirley Santos.

“There is no greater joy than serving others,” Santos said. “Our Lord told us to love Him and love our neighbor as ourselves. The world needs a lot of that. If we can do that every day, this world would be a better place to live.” Santos credited her father, the late Anibal Santos, with her drive to help others.

“[Helping others is] really embedded in me as a person of faith,” Santos said. “It was the way I was brought up. My father and many members of my family were teachers and counselors. My father was really involved in his community. He was the role model I grew up with. I don’t know any other way to be. It’s what drives me.

Shirley Santos (R) helping get the Boys and Girls Club of Vineland Youth4Change Center ready for opening. Photo courtesy of Shirley Santos.

“I take great pleasure being around people, doing projects that benefit all of us. I see it like a duty. Dad instilled duty to serve others always. It drives my husband crazy. He said I don’t know how to say no. Now that I’m getting older, I’m picking and choosing more,” Santos said with a laugh.

Since 2010, Santos was involved with the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland County board of director, serving as president in 2014. She recently left the board last year.

“We were able to open up a teen center while I was there and it was a dream we had for a long time,” Santos said. “I always loved the Boys & Girls Club. It has been great for the kids and underserved youth in the area.

“While I was there, we had three Youth of the Year winners and that’s a really a big deal for the Boys and Girls Club. They all came in at about 9 to 10 years old and developed leadership skills recognized at a state and national level,” Santos said.

Higher Education and Latin American Families

Santos also serves as co-chair of Rowan College of South Jersey Hispanic Advisory Board. She said she hopes the board serves as a liaison between the former Cumberland County College and the local Latin American community.

Shirley Santos (R) at Sabater School Supply Drive for Brigida Alvarez Rodriguez School in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy Shirley Santos.

“We promote the college as a way to give our Latino kids a really affordable way to pursue a career,” Santos said. “I think what we bring is the perspective of the Latino community to the college. It’s important know the community that we serve.

“When the college has programs, we look at how those can be tailored to meet the needs of the Latino students. We have a scholarship created by the board. It goes to help students that don’t have financial aid. It can cover anything,” she added.

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Children play a pivotal role in Latino families, Santos said. Those roles can affect the students’ ability to attend college.

“There are situations that can arise,” Santos said. “Now they may have to work more hours if a parent loses a jobs or if a car breaks down. We try to eliminate any barriers that could keep them from finishing. The needs of Latino students are varied.

Shirley Santos (R) helping clean Carmen Gonzalez Park with members of Accion Social Puertorriquena and Boys & Girls Club of Vineland. Photo courtesy of Shirley Santos.

“We want to make it possible for them to really be successful. Rowan College is a Hispanic-serving institution and wants to play a role in helping students in college and in finishing their degrees,” she continued.

Her work with Rowan College also goes back to her father, who once worked there. She currently has a brother who is connected to RCSJ. Both of her children, 33 and 25, attended the college as well. She has been married to her husband, Isaac Rodriguez for eight years.

Two Cultures, Two Languages

Santos was born in Hammonton, but grew up in Puerto Rico. She received her bachelor’s degree at Universidad de Puerto Rico in 1990 where she graduated with honors and obtained her master’s degree from Jones International University in 2011.

“I’m glad it happened that way,” Santos said about growing up in Puerto Rico. “It allowed me to get in touch with my roots and culture. Spanish was the first language I learned and I grew as a person. I feel like I can really connect with the kids and teach them as they grow up between two cultures and two languages.”

Santos is also a member of the Accion Social Puertorriquena, the Vineland Education Association and Hispanic Pro Education. She serves as co-chair of the Hispanic Advisory Board of Rowan College of South Jersey.

Whether in the classroom or community, Santos said she feels like she is fulfilling her father’s legacy and herself by helping others.

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