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A Ladybug Blessing: A Coming Of Age Story

Mia Rodriguez, center, receives a coming-of-age blessing during her Quinceañera Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Le Grand. She’s holding hands with godmother Bertha Hernandez, left, and her mother, Margie Vallejo.
Mia Rodriguez, center, receives a coming-of-age blessing during her Quinceañera Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Le Grand. She’s holding hands with godmother Bertha Hernandez, left, and her mother, Margie Vallejo.

When ladybugs suddenly appear, it is believed to be a symbol of good luck, and a reminder to cherish the little, extraordinary things in life.

Some say they are a sign your plans and goals will be blessed, and that they will grow into something beautiful, and reward you with so much more than you ever expected.

Fortunately, Mia Rodriguez understands the significance of the cute, polka-dotted beetle.

The 15-year-old girl from Le Grand was touched by the “Legend of the Ladybug,” and she thought the story would be perfect for her coming-of-age celebration. She insisted on reading it out loud during the Quinceañera Mass in her honor.

On the morning of Mia’s big day, Our Lady of Lourdes Church was packed with her family members, friends, caregivers, mentors and former teachers. In one way or another, they had all supported Mia on her journey to this point. They shared in her triumphs and disappointments. And they also shared in her challenges living with autism.

When Mia walked up to the altar, with her mother at her side, it was like they all held their collective breath because they knew it was going to be a very, special moment, that would bring tears to their eyes.

“Loving God,” Mia began, “I thank you for the gift of life.”

 

Mia Rodriguez wasn’t the one who asked for a fiesta de quinceañera to celebrate her 15th birthday this year.

It was her mother, Margie Vallejo.

“She is my only girl,” Vallejo starts to explain, “and a quinceañera is suppose to be like the big event for her coming of age. But for me, it’s more than just that. I wanted her to have her Mass because that’s the more traditional and significant part of it. It’s basically to thank God for letting her get to this stage in life, and asking Him to guide her.”

Vallejo is quick to point out that she’s not super spiritual. She doesn’t go to church every Sunday.

“I feel like faith is something that was instilled in me,” she says, “and it’s something that I have instilled in my kids.”

When Vallejo came of age in the late 1980s, she passed up the opportunity to have a lavish Mexican-style celebration.

“My parents let me choose between a quinceañera and a car — and I chose the car,” she says with a half-smile.

Vallejo is the daughter of Maria Renteria and the late Ramon Vallejo, a native of Mexico who immigrated to the United States when he was just 16. Ramon settled in the Le Grand area about 60 years ago, and found lasting work at Bright’s Nursery. He became a foreman and ended up working at the local company for 40 years.

Little Margie Vallejo grew up in a world surrounded by farmland, long two-lane roads, and a big, open sky.

She attended Plainsburg Elementary School from kindergarten through 8th grade, and then Le Grand High School where she graduated in 1991.

She had dreams of going to a university, earning a degree and starting a professional career, but incredibly, more than two decades would pass before any of that happened.

Instead, Vallejo married and gave birth to her first child,  John, when she was 19. She became a stay-at-home mom for a time, and then worked part-time at a school her son attended to be close to him and involved.

“I always told myself that my career goals wouldn’t take away from my kid’s childhood,” she says.

Nevertheless, a few years later, Vallejo found herself living as a single mom. She was compelled to work a number of diverse jobs — including one at the local Pizza Factory, and another as a classroom assistant.

The restaurant experience introduced her to pretty much everybody in town and the countryside. Le Grand has only a couple sit-down restaurants, and the Pizza Factory is the main one for local gatherings. The owners at the time, Cory and Mary Kay Haas, treated their employees like family, and Vallejo was no exception.

Vallejo became known for her big smile and non-stop energy, even though serving up doughy Italian pies was just another way to make ends meet.

What she really wanted was a career in education.

There was something about being in a classroom. It was captivating, engaging, and not to mention, a challenge.

Vallejo remembers being young and somewhat naive when she was first hired as a teacher’s aide in a special education class at Le Grand High School.

“Back then, a lot of the kids were really there just due to their behavior,” she says. “I went home after that first day and cried. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I had taken the job because it was full-time with benefits. My parents always taught me not to quit anything without first giving it my best. I told myself I had to stick it out — at least ’til the end of the school year before I made any decisions.”

Vallejo did stick it out, and it’s a good thing she did.

She ended up falling in love with Special Ed.

“I love giving students a voice,” she says. “I love watching them succeed when provided the support they need. Special Education became my passion.”

It was a new day for an inspired Margie Vallejo, and in fact, it really was the dawn of a new millennium — the year 2001.

Vallejo welcomed in the 21st century by earning an AA degree in Liberal Studies at Merced College. This time, she was on her way to becoming a full-fledged teacher.

However, what she didn’t know was how long it would take.

Maybe a little longer than usual. Maybe several years.

But 13 years more? Would it really take that long?

 

Special education teacher Margie Vallejo works with a group of students at Planada Elementary School.
Special education teacher Margie Vallejo works with a group of students at Planada Elementary School.

There’s always a higher plan, the faithful will say, though it may not make life any easier.

And so, while attending college was definitely in the picture, Vallejo’s family portrait was still developing. And soon, it was going to be in need of a bigger frame.

Margie Vallejo met Aaron Rodriguez, and in 2003, their son Ethan was born, followed by the birth of their daughter, Mia, less than 22 months later.

Early on, before Ethan was 2 months old, Vallejo started to notice something was “going on” with his development. She thought she was being “super, over-conscious” — almost paranoid.

After all, she was 30 now, and a decade had passed since she had her first child.

Worried but hopeful, she decided to wait and see.

Over the months, Ethan’s baby sighs turned to babbling, and then his sounds started to sound like words. By 18 months, he was doing “a lot of repeating, a lot of mimicking,” which was normal, but Vallejo didn’t sense the behavior was part of any interaction. It wasn’t like he was having a conversation with others. He was just doing it.

“I finally told the doctor, ‘We need to go somewhere to find out what’s going on,’” Vallejo remembers. “But back then, they were still really cautious, and I think even doctors were afraid to say ‘autism.’”

This may seem surprising in today’s world where autism awareness campaigns in the media target families on a daily basis. But it’s important to remember that “back then” wasn’t really that long ago. Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in America, was founded in 2005.

Instead of receiving a prompt screening and referral, Vallejo was given reassurances. It was pointed out that Ethan was making good eye contact as opposed to paying more attention to objects than people. Maybe so, but Vallejo would learn that not every kid on the autism spectrum has a problem with eye contact.

Fed up, she told the local medical professionals: “You know what. You need to send me somewhere, or I’m going to find someone who will send me somewhere.”

A determined Vallejo was not going to be denied.

The family was sent to Stanford University where they spent an entire, emotional day there, complete with questions, observations, and tests.

“We got the diagnosis, but I already knew,” Vallejo says, “I just needed the diagnosis so then I would know what to expect. Once it was confirmed, I just felt better because I was like ‘Ok, now what? What’s available? What can we do?”

Vallejo was diligent as a mother and an advocate, making sure Ethan was provided with early childhood intervention programs. It was an amazing effort considering Vallejo was already nurturing her daughter Mia, a newborn at the time.

 

Mia Rodriguez studies at Merced High School in a Tier Academic and Behavioral Support (TABS) classroom for students with severe disabilities. It’s run by the Merced County Office of Education.
Mia Rodriguez studies at Merced High School in a Tier Academic and Behavioral Support (TABS) classroom for students with severe disabilities. It’s run by the Merced County Office of Education.

A lot of attention was focused on Ethan, of course. And yes, it did sort of cross Vallejo’s mind that her baby daughter could be facing the same developmental issues as her son.

But at the time, Vallejo didn’t think it was very likely. She didn’t want to believe anything of the sort.

“I read that autism rarely developed in girls,” she says. “The research was very heavy on boys. If I had another boy, then yes, maybe. … So with Ethan, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening, but I’m OK with it. But with Mia, I was kinda of like, ‘What are the chances of me having two?’”

Needless-to-say, it took some time for Vallejo to come to terms with the idea that maybe Mia is growing up with autism. She was such an active, curious little girl.

However, as the months passed by, it was becoming obvious Mia was struggling with early language and motor development.

“Just before Mia turned 3, I went to a friend who worked in the autism program at Galen Clark Preschool in Merced,” Vallejo says. “I asked her if she could take in Mia, and observe her for awhile. … It didn’t even take 5 minutes.”

Once again, Vallejo sprung to action, scheduling appointments, meeting with evaluators and filing out paperwork to assure that Mia too would receive early, specialized education, mostly through the Central Valley Regional Center and the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE).

 

Just like most kids, Ethan and Mia started public school at the standard age and grade levels, but they were placed in the Tier Academic and Behavioral Support (TABS) program for students with severe disabilities. TABS classrooms are located at various schools throughout the county.

The two children gradually began to improve their early language skills while approaching goals such as reading, writing and critical thinking outlined in their respective Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.

Meanwhile, Vallejo was reigniting her own educational goal: using her Merced College credits and transferring to Stanislaus State University.

It was a productive and fast-paced time for awhile, but then the family experienced another setback when Vallejo and Aaron decided to separate.

“The kids are the most important people in our lives,” Vallejo says. “We were both supportive, and we told them we were always going to be there for them.”

Nevertheless, a parental breakup is a tough thing to explain to little ones, let alone those with learning disabilities.

“I was afraid they were not going to understand the whole concept,” Vallejo says. “Ethan had more issues with it. There was a lot of resentment. He was angry. We kept telling him, ‘We are still a family … We [Mom and Dad] are just not living together anymore.’”

Vallejo managed the situation as best she could, and again, found herself facing adversity as a single mother.

Here she was taking care of a household, making sure two kids with disabilities are ready for school and tucked in at night, working at the Pizza Factory and as a classroom assistant, and never giving up on attending classes part-time at the university.

She had extra help though — from family and friends — including Bertha Hernandez, a caregiver in Planada.

“Bertha has been a godsend,” Vallejo exclaims. “If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school, or finish school. She was watching my kids the whole time. Sometimes I was getting home from Stanislaus at 10:30 at night.”

The hard work and support paid off.

Vallejo graduated from Stanislaus State in 2014, earning a BA degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Exceptional Children and Youth. She landed a job right away as a teaching intern at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School in Planada.

“Schools are always in need of special ed teachers,” she points out.

Two “crazy years” later, Vallejo earned her teaching credential from Fresno Pacific University in Merced.

She was hired on at Planada Elementary School where she continues today working one-on-one, or with groups of students with special needs or those who are struggling with a particular academic subject. She also coordinates a K-5 reading intervention program.

“I am a firm believer in everything happening for a reason,” Vallejo says.

She says her early experience in special education helped prepare her for raising Ethan and Mia. In turn, her kids gave her a valuable perspective for her career as a special ed teacher.

“Parents feel more comfortable,” Vallejo says. “They trust that you know where they are coming from.”

She understands parents of children with special needs sometimes feel crushed by the idea that they are the only voice for their children.

She knows what it’s like to want and push for the best outcomes.

“Sometimes we become unreasonable with our demands,” she admits, “because we don’t realize there is another side of it. I think, because of what I do for a living, I am able to see both sides of it. … The education side is not easy. It’s not always like you ask for something and you’re are going to get it. There has to be a need. A realistic expectation and a need.”

 

Vallejo says she has tried to facilitate every opportunity for Ethan and Mia to live life to the fullest despite their disabilities.

“When people find out I have two kids living with autism, they are surprised and they think it must be really hard,” she says. “I don’t look at it like that. I don’t see it as an extra burden. I’m just raising my kids.”

As the children grew up, they were able to participate in more and more extracurricular activity at school and outside in the community.

Ethan, for example, was able to join a junior league football team. Mia became quite the artist, learning to draw, paint and create little ceramic figurines. She has even sold her artwork during several different Merced Art Hop events.

Also, they both continue to compete in the Special Olympics program coordinated by the county, volunteers and parents.

And naturally, the two siblings became very close. They are like best friends. They watch out for each other. They get on the bus together. They hold hands.

“One time, they were getting a flu shot, and Mia was right there holding Ethan’s hand because he doesn’t like being poked with a needle,” Vallejo recalls. “Afterwards, she turned to him, and was like, ‘You are OK, right?’”

Today, Ethan and Mia are both teens studying in the same TABS classroom at Merced High School. Their teacher, Jesse Flores, says it’s rare to have two siblings together in class; however, Ethan and Mia have demonstrated they can participate independently without impeding each other’s learning process.

People might even see Ethan and Mia as “high functioning” students with autism. They can communicate verbally, and follow instructions. They can take care of their personal hygiene, dress themselves, prepare snacks, and be left alone for periods of time.

However, Vallejo says her children face significant cognitive and emotional challenges. They often say things with no “filter” for sensitivity or rudeness. And most of the videos, shows, books and music they love are often meant for much younger children.

“Ethan is more aware of the differences,” Vallejo says. “Sometimes he will say, ‘I don’t have any friends.’ When we are out in public, he gets really loud, and will make reenactments of what he sees on TV. I will tell him that he can’t do that, and sometimes I feel bad because I should let him be who he is, but at the same time, it’s kinda like he needs to learn how to behave appropriately if he is able to do so.”

Vallejo describes Mia as “sometimes stubborn, often inquisitive, and always pure hearted.”

“She is the type of kid who will cry if she sees someone else crying. She’s very compassionate. She believes in heaven. She believes in angels. She believes when we pass away, we are all going to heaven, and we are going together. She knows grandmother is there. She knows grandpa is up there. We had a puppy who died, and she knows the puppy is up there.’

In many ways, Vallejo has had to come to terms with the reality that they can’t just say ‘No,’ and always expect their kids to fully understand. They have to accept that their kids won’t always enjoy what other kids enjoy. And they have to think and plan ahead to avoid meltdowns that can end up disruptive, time-consuming, and even costing money.

“When we went to Disneyland for the first time, it was not a good experience,” Vallejo says. “I made the mistake of trying to make it a surprise. We got in the car, and I was like, ‘Guess where we are going?’ and I thought they were going to be happy. But it was horrible. They were just not having it. They weren’t ready. We didn’t start having fun until the day was almost over.”

 

Mia is prepped for her big day during a rehearsal at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Le Grand.
Mia is prepped for her big day during a rehearsal at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Le Grand.

The Disneyland mishap is the reason why Vallejo now knows she needs to prep her children before big events or new experiences.

She began prepping Mia months before her quinceañera on Nov. 9.

“I put it on the calendar and said, ‘It’s almost time, it’s almost time.’ And I showed her pictures, and I explained what was going to happen.”

Some friends asked Vallejo if the quinceañera was really something Mia wanted, or if the idea was just stemming from Vallejo’s own maternal desire.

“I was thinking it was going to be a good experience for her,” Vallejo says. “It’s not something I would force on her. When I told her, she was fine. She’s been excited. I told her it’s a big party, she’s becoming a young lady, and everybody wants to see her, and celebrate with her.”

Still, Vallejo was nervous and worried about how Mia would react to certain situations. Would she be able to make it through the hour-long service, kneeling in front of the altar? Would she be able to read a prayer of commitment to God in front of a church audience? And would she be able to do so wearing a puffy, Cinderella-like formal dress — something she had never worn before and wasn’t too thrilled about?

Fortunately some of the groundwork had already been laid. Ethan and Mia were baptized in the Catholic Church, and later Vallejo took advantage of a special First Communion class in Planada for kids with disabilities. And, of course, they’ve experienced a Mass, though mostly from the back pews.

Smartly, Vallejo wanted to keep things simple for the kids — a Mass at noon, and a dinner reception immediately after. She promised Mia she only had to wear the dress to church, and at least for the first hour of the reception.

“It’s like three dresses in one,” Vallejo says. “She doesn’t like all the ruffles underneath. It’s heavy and makes it hard to move around. But I think when it’s on her, and she is the center of attention, she might leave it on.”

 

Margie Vallejo prepares a Day of the Dead themed table for the reception and party at the American Legion Hall in Le Grand.

A quinceañera celebration can be quite elaborate affairs, complete with limos, ballrooms, maids of honor and chamberlains, and hundreds of guests.

“I have heard of people spending up to $10,000,” Vallejo says. “I was no way near that. … And the people that know me know I’m not going to ask for help. But they did help, and I really appreciate that. People have come together, and it’s touching to see. And it’s all because they know Mia.”

Vallejo was set on the Nov. 9 date, and wanted to use the popular American Legion Hall on Le Grand Road, but she was told it was already reserved for an annual dinner for veterans. Then suddenly, an angel appeared in the form of 93-year-old Pete Chapman, a World War II veteran, longtime Le Grand resident, and a charter member of American Legion Post 660. Chapman told Vallejo he would look into it, and he somehow found a way to reschedule things and open up the date requested. He even showed up at Vallejo’s house to let her know the good news. She was so happy, she profusely thanked him, and invited him to Mia’s party.

“Please come,” she told him.

Getting the venue was the first domino to fall, and then others followed in line. Vallejo’s sister Sonia offered to buy the dress. A friend showed up one day with a special pair of Crocs — casual shoes, but the only ones Mia likes to wear. They were light pink with glitter to match the dress. Mia’s teacher and classroom aides put the music playlist together for the DJ because they know what the kids like from the many school dances.

Vallejo’s best friend Patricia Gonzalez found a perfect decorative bible for the Mass. It came with a Rosary bracelet made up of little ladybugs, and a story called the “Legend of the Ladybug.”

Mia is crazy about bugs, and when she saw the bracelet she put it on, and has worn it ever since. She also read the story, and loved it — so much so that she told her mom she wanted to read it at her Mass.

“She was getting excited,” says Vallejo. “She took invitations to her school and invited all her classmates.”

A day before the quinceañera, the family were called to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Le Grand for an evening practice run. An assistant to the deacon who would be conducting the service led Mia through the various aspects of the Mass. Mia did really well, and only asked out loud a few times about how long the Mass was going to take. She didn’t want to be late for the party. After practice, Mia went to Confession with a priest in order to receive Communion the next day.

Later that night, Vallejo and a small team of family members and friends decorated the American Legion Hall in Mia’s honor. Since it was the start of November, they chose a “Day of the Dead” theme. They created a colorful altar at the entrance with photos of Mia’s grandparents who have passed. They put skulls and skeleton figurines on the tables. Festive “papel picado” and tissue marigolds lined the walls.

 

On the morning of the quinceañera, Vallejo, Mia and Ethan made their way down the block of their neighborhood to the home of Andrea Morales, a hair stylist who has a salon set up in her garage. Morales has been doing Vallejo’s hair for years, but she’s also earned the trust of Mia.

This day, however, Mia was in for a complete makeover, including eyes and face makeup — something she never had put on before in her entire life.

Morales’ daughter, Lilianna Murillo, was the designated makeup artist, and she worked her magic patiently as Mia squirmed and fidgeted with every layer of cosmetic base, every touch of eyeliner, and every swipe of lipstick.

When Mia was ready to go, Morales gave her a mirror and exclaimed: “You look fabulous.”

Mia smiled and replied: “Yes I know.”

To make things easier, Vallejo arranged to have Mia dressed at church in a room just behind the altar. The church was already packed with family and friends when Vallejo and her sister started putting the petticoat around Mia’s waist.

Everybody in the pews could hear the commotion going on in the back, but there were smiles not concern on their faces.

Deacon Javier Higareda, who would lead the service, looked a little concerned, but when he walked into the room and saw Mia ready to go, he smiled and nodded his head. In turn, Mia reminded him that she was going to read her ladybug story.

Moments later, Mia was walking down the center aisle, all on her own toward the altar, followed by her parents.

It was a heart-warming moment, and there were many tears of joy on the faces in the aisles.

Mia was full of grace the entire time. When the deacon made the sign of the cross, or stretched out his hand in a sign of blessing, Mia would do the same.

After her mother read a reading from the Book of Proverbs (2: 1-12), Mia joined her at the podium to make a commitment to God and the Blessed Virgin to live out the rest of her life according to the teachings of Christ and the Church.

Mia spoke slow and steady, pronouncing every word in a loud voice for all to hear.

She commanded the attention of all, and all were listening intently.

“I say ‘yes’ to all that you will for me,” she said.

And after she was done, she was granted her wish, and she was able to read the story of the ladybug for everyone in attendance.

She revealed that the name of the “ladybug” comes to us from the Middle Ages, when the Catholic farmers prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary to help save their crops from a plague of aphids.

“In answer to their prayers,” Mia read, “a cloud of small, black-spotted, red insects arrived, devoured the pests, and saved the crops.”

When she was finished, a very pleased Deacon Higareda mentioned to the congregation that nervous young ladies often read softly and very fast during their Quinceañera Mass, and sometimes the message is not completely heard.

In contrast, he said, Mia did a great job.

And then the deacon turned to Mia and said: “Congratulations. You are wonderful.”

 

Mia’s quinceañera party was wonderful too.

There was all-you-could-eat tacos, beans and rice. Great music. Games for the kids. And beer and tequila for the adults.

Mia danced with her father, her godparents, her classmates — even her high school teacher.

She actually appeared to like the way her puffy dress swayed back and forth as she moved. Her mother was right. Mia loved being the center of attention, and she kept the dress on for hours.

More than 150 people showed up, including aunt, uncles, and cousins who traveled all the way from Southern California to witness Mia’s big day. Some were relatives Mia had never met before.

Her 28-year-old stepbrother, John, arrived with his wife and their six children. And Mary Kay Haas, the former owner of the Pizza Factory, showed up too.

The fiesta went on to midnight.

One of the most touching moments came when Pete Chapman walked in the hall. The WWII veteran, who helped free up the Legion Hall for the event, said he never had experienced a quinceañera before.

Vallejo escorted him to Mia’s table of honor, and he sat with her the whole time. Later the 15-year-old quinceañera and the 93-year-old soldier shared a dance together. Everyone in the house was taking pictures.

As for Vallejo, she says: “Everybody kept telling me things would fall into place, and I think they really did. … The whole experience has made me reflect on my life.”

Not that she is pressing the brakes on anything at this stage.

As a matter of fact, Vallejo is looking forward to finishing up her master’s degree at Fresno Pacific.

It’s just that today, more than ever before, she is enjoying the bigger picture.

“When my kids were younger, I would always think: ‘Am I pushing enough? Are my expectations high enough?’ … Honestly now I feel like it’s good for them to be enjoying happy experiences without that pressure. Not that they don’t do academics, because they do. But that’s not the big focus. The focus is to have happy kids.”

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