Students give a car to teacher with tortuous L.A. commute

Math teacher Julio Castro thought he was late to the party when he walked in near the end of a faculty appreciation meeting at YULA Boys High School. He wished he could have put his name in the raffle box.

But the entire event was a charade that, to his surprise, was built up – starting with video testimonials, a procession through confetti cannons and a tunnel of students with arms outstretched. And the finale: the gift of a certified pre-owned Mazda 3 hatchback to ease a beloved teacher’s arduous commute.

Castro lives in the Santa Clarita Valley and commutes about four hours a day to Westside School by scooter and bus because he doesn’t have a car. He usually wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t return home until 9:30 p.m., when his three young children are already asleep.

The commute begins at his home, from where he rides a scooter about seven miles to the subway station. From there, the 797 bus takes about 90 minutes to get to Century City. Then it’s about a mile to the modern Orthodox Jewish campus on Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Despite the commute, “he still makes sure to devote all his time to the students,” said Joshua Gerendash, who happened to see his teacher peering longingly at cars online in hopes of finding something drivable for around $1,500. “He skips his lunch break to help a student and stays after school. He also helps students who are not in his classes. He’s really, really, really dedicated to our future.”

During a month-long fundraiser, these social media-savvy students and their cultured parents produced an Instagram/Facebook post raising $30,000 for the car and a year of donated insurance and gas to thank the teacher who works hard every day more costs miles for them.

Castro knew his students were aware of his commute from his affordable apartment to an LA job, a well-known necessity for many middle-income professionals as well as low-income workers. But he never expected them to do anything.

“I made the best of it,” he says. “I always said to them: What do you do when life doesn’t go the way you do? Don’t cry about it. Don’t whine about it. Just be thankful for what you already have and then move on. And one day some good things will happen.

“And that’s the proof,” he said, marveling at the dark blue 2019 Mazda with a 2.4-liter engine, inline front-wheel drive, leather seats, Bose stereo, sunroof and only 30,000 miles.

A teacher walks between two rows of cheering students who hold up their arms

Students line up and celebrate their teacher Julio Castro, center, while surprising him at YULA Boys High School.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Castro, 31, added that a person should never do things in hopes of being rewarded: “Don’t do it because you’re waiting for a prize. Do it because it comes from the heart.”

Yes, the students admitted, they could have raised money for the homeless or for Ukrainian refugees. But the personal connection to Castro meant something to them.

“No matter what happens to him, he’ll find a way to pass it on,” senior Charlie Leeds said. “We were taught certain values ​​like empathy” and “Treat your fellow human beings as you would like to be treated yourself. Mr. Castro is the embodiment of that. With this car, with this new opportunity, he will find more and more ways to help other people around him.”

As a math teacher, the students said, Castro was patient and resourceful, adept at making his students successful.

“I’m very focused on motivation,” Castro said. “Encourage them to do it don’t have to ask for help. Because it’s not just about knowing the answer, it’s about how to get the answer, and I’m not allowed to tell them. … Math is a skill you learn with practice and dedication – and as long as you show respect for it, it will respect you for it. And don’t worry about the grade, time will tell.”

Castro took a detour in life to end up at the school. He was born in Peru and grew up in different parts of southeast LA County. He graduated from Downey High School and has been helping classmates with math since middle school. A stint at community college led to a degree in molecular cell and developmental biology from UC Santa Cruz in 2015. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and college.

A teacher sits in a new car surrounded by students.

Teacher Julio Castro is surprised at YULA Boys High School with a new car, a gift from his students.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t long before he was teaching math as an assistant teacher at community college, but he wanted more permanent work. He applied for a position at YULA.

“I’m not Jewish,” he told the school. “I know nothing about Judaism. But I know math. Hopefully if you give me a chance the students will like the way I teach.”

He added: “After the first lecture, they started singing and dancing. So that was a good sign.”

Joshua’s mother, Daphna Nissanoff, works as a program manager for Change Reaction, a nonprofit organization that typically makes small, quick grants to people in crisis or in dire need. For Castro, the group deviated from its format and offered a matching grant of up to $10,000. The nonprofit also arranged for a videographer to document the effort.

Another parent, Sarah Pachter, wrote an article for a Jewish website, and the group set up a fundraising platform. Donations totaled approximately $13,000 and came from all over the world.

The boys also raised about $3,000 just before school started by hosting raffles and selling donated groceries at two events they organized — a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and a movie night screening of “Ratatouille.”

Shimmi Jotkowitz, a senior, did the car shopping and negotiation at Galpin Motors, who offered a $5,000 rebate on the car the students pinned their hopes on.

A teacher walks through a cheering crowd of his students.

Students celebrate their teacher Julio Castro, left, as they surprise him at YULA Boys High School.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In high-quality private schools, the teachers and mentors that students look up to often live more humbly than the students they serve. Tuition at the Jewish school is $39,000 a year, though about 65% of students receive some level of financial assistance, according to school officials, who have declined to disclose teachers’ salary ranges.

Castro said his work was a pleasure and that his family members worked harder than he did.

“I have family members who are undocumented — who are undocumented, who have three jobs, are paid less than me, and they don’t complain,” Castro said. “I’m very grateful to have a great partner and great kids. So this commute is literally nothing.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, director of the school, said the effort is “really about gratitude. It’s about our students appreciating the sacrifices that our teachers, and especially Mr. Castro, make to ensure they can maximize their potential and be the best version of themselves.”

Castro tried to make good use of the bus time — by napping or grading work. As a result, switching to sitting behind the wheel in gridlock doesn’t always feel like a morning upgrade.

But the trip was worth it, he said, so he turned down a teaching job near his home.

YULA “opened the doors for me, they accepted me as a family member,” he said. “And you can’t buy that. I want to be here.” Students give a car to teacher with tortuous L.A. commute

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