Three elders celebrated in Columbia Heights
Fourth-graders at Valley View Elementary in Columbia Heights honored the life stories of three community elders through music.
The Dec. 6 performances marked the seventh time that the Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song program has been at Valley View. Fifth-graders have participated in the program previous years.
Principal Willie Fort said he was privileged and honored last year to be an elder, which he described as a very meaningful and enjoyable experience.
This school year, Larry Long, who created the nonprofit organization Community Celebration of Place, worked with fourth-graders for two months. The elders – Namgyal Dorjee, Fernando Guerrero and Marlaine Szurek – met with one classroom for an hour and a half to share their life stories. Their words were transcribed and were turned into the lyrics that the students sang.
Each elder on Dec. 6 received a bouquet of flowers and a photo of them with their classroom of students.
Namgyal Dorjee’s parents walked for several months over the Himalayan Mountains from Tibet to India. Dorjee said thousands and thousands of people were killed in 1959 when Tibet was occupied by China, but his parents were able to escape.
Dorjee’s father died when he was about 11 years old, and he was sent to foster care, which also served as a boarding school.
After graduating from high school, Dorjee received a teaching license and taught in Nepal for three years. He received a Fulbright Scholarship, so in 1993 he came to the United States and earned a master’s degree in school counseling at Pennsylvania State University.
Dorjee was a child welfare specialist in New York City. In 2003, he moved to Minnesota, where his sister and brother lived. He went back to school and received a license in school counseling.
Dorjee is now an education assistant at Valley View Elementary and serves as the president of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota.
His words of wisdom to the students: “I want all of you to work hard and someday every one of you will get a scholarship to go to college. In America, we’ve got a lot of opportunity.”
Born in a small town in Mexico, Fernando Guerrero walked to and from school each day because there were no buses for transportation. He and his classmates stayed in one classroom with one teacher for eight hours every day.
After graduating from high school, Guerrero arrived in the United States when he was 18. One of his goals was to study in America and gain a better life. He rented a place to live, but didn’t have enough time to study because he needed to work.
Ten years ago he began working in construction, and he says although his job is really hard, he loves it.
Guerrero has three children – a son who is a fourth-grader at Valley View, a daughter who is in kindergarten at Valley View, and an eight-month-old son.
His words of wisdom: “If you don’t try, you can just lose your way. … You need to have a lot of strength to continue your studies. You need to continue if you have dreams.”
Marlaine Szurek’s maiden name is Morse. She is a descendant of Samuel Morse, who invented the Morse code that was used for sending messages before the telephone. She is also a descendant of William Floyd, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, and President James Monroe.
Szurek was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the oldest of four siblings. She lived through the polio epidemic, which she said was an extremely scary time. Two of her friends died from it.
Later she met her husband, who was in the Naval Air Force. They had three children, and Szurek was a Girl Scout leader for her two daughters.
She attended the University of Minnesota and earned degrees in interior design, business and architecture. She later got a job designing banks.
Szurek has served on the Columbia Heights City Council and has run for the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Minnesota Senate. She currently serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Economic Development Authority.
She and her husband have traveled to six of the seven continents, and her favorite place was Africa, where she met members of a Maasai tribe.
Her words of insight: “Columbia Heights has changed. There are more apartments, condominiums and strips malls. I think we have lost those close communities, which is really sad. We should care about each other more.”