RUSKIN — Julia Sarmiento has never worked a day in her life.
At least that is what it has felt like since she started teaching in 2006.
"Every day I wake up and do what I was destined to do," she said.
Sarmiento is in her second year as the student intervention specialist at Shields Middle School. Before that, she taught English and TV production at Lennard High School.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation recently named Sarmiento the 2014 Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year. Sarmiento stood among the teachers honored last month at the Hillsborough County Excellence in Education awards.
Her brother Adrian Sarmiento began working at Lennard High School after she did, as the school's dropout prevention specialist. When the student intervention specialist position at Shields opened up, he encouraged her to apply.
She was happy at Lennard, she said, but saw an opportunity to help bridge the gap between middle school and high school. The brother-sister team immediately took on the task.
Now, Julia goes to Lennard one day a week to follow up with the students who have moved on to high school. Her brother comes to Shields to become a familiar face to the middle school kids who will soon find themselves at Lennard.
They're working on expanding the program into the elementary schools, to give kids as solid a support system as possible from start to finish.
"The dropout rate in our area is significant," Julia Sarmiento said. "We know we need to start earlier."
Sarmiento also started Shields' Leadership Program. Teachers tutor students in core subjects for 90 minutes after school, with transportation provided, to give extra support to at-risk kids.
Julia grew up in Wimauma and graduated from East Bay High School. She received a bachelor's degree in English and American literature from the University of South Florida and is enrolled in the Educational Leadership degree program at USF.
The chance to be a positive influence in the community motivates her, she said. And her degree isn't just hers.
"We've always felt the degrees, they aren't our degrees," she said. "They belong to the community.
Adrian made "Wimauma" his middle name on his college degree, he said.
"The degree I obtained is to serve them," he said. "If I got it, they got it."
Julia and Adrian also both work for the Lennard Adult and Community School. It's important to reach out to students who have dropped out, Julia said, because they're still members of the community.
"Situations happen while in school that cause them to stop going," she said. "That doesn't mean we stop caring."
Julia's passion for helping the community and supporting students stems from her family, which provided such a strong support system for her and her siblings, she said. They learned about servant leadership from their father. If you're doing something without thinking of others, he'd tell them, it's for nothing.
Her mother worked from home as a hairdresser, and her father owned his own sprinkler service business. Both former migrant workers, they stressed the importance of education to their children.
"They wanted to keep us away from that," she said. "We saw what it was for people to struggle. It's hard work."
She grew up knowing that you would only hear bad things about Wimauma and Ruskin on the news, she said. But she never saw her community as bad. The people are humble and hardworking, she said. She likes working in a diverse area with many different cultures represented, and helping students from different backgrounds.
"There's so much potential," she said.
Adrian said it's an honor to be able to work with his sister to help a community they both care so much about. He recalled at the awards ceremony watching the look of pride on their mother's face as Julia accepted her award.
"That was a totally different award itself," he said. "She didn't get to see that but I did."
Julia also serves on the boards of the Firehouse Cultural Center and the nonprofit Florida Home Partnership, which offers home ownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income first-time home buyers through a federal self-help housing program.
She lives in Apollo Beach with her fiance, Matthew Cohen, and two children, Julian, 4, and Sophia, 9 months. Her family has been a great support system throughout all she has taken on, she said.
"All this can end if you don't have the right support, people who can understand," she said. "They understand this is more than just a job."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]