Lead Story Lynwood Press Professional Sports West Edition

Venus Williams pays return visit to Lynwood school

LYNWOOD — On a bright, sunny day earlier this spring, a shiny black Escalade pulled up in front of Mark Twain Elementary School. A famous occupant got out.

It had been many years since tennis great Venus Williams had been at Twain Elementary. She attended first grade at the Lynwood school and was revisiting her old stomping grounds as part of a California Lottery “Back to the Start” social media video campaign to bring celebrities back to their California campuses to surprise inspiring teachers and reminisce on their educational paths.

Williams was featured in the campaign’s third and final video, which began airing May 1 in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week on May 8-12.

Her first-grade teacher, Judy Vellegas, is now a kindergarten teacher who has taught at Twain for 34 years. Vellegas’ dedication to her students shines through and, as Williams said, leaves a lasting impact.

“I love teaching younger students because they are very honest with you — what you see is what you get,” Vellegas said. “Students contribute and learn more when they are having fun with their education. When we laugh about something, we are learning. I know they understand it.”

Williams sneaked into Vellegas’ classroom to surprise her. Neither could contain their tears as they greeted each other for the first time in about 30 years.

“I loved being in school and watching you with the kids here reminded me of my memories here,” Williams told Vellegas after the emotional reunion. “You are so amazing and such a calming force that a lot of kids, including me, need in their life.”

The two spent time reminiscing about Williams’ quiet personality in first grade, her dad taking her to the tennis courts in Compton after school, and her unwavering desire to dominate in tether ball at recess.

“I used to have to look down to talk with you, now I have to look up!” Vellegas told Williams. “You are such a great role model for my students because if you can do it, they can. I want them to know anything is possible.”

The social media campaign is meant to raise awareness of the California Lottery’s financial support of public schools in California. The California Lottery divides $1 billion annually among all California public schools.

“We want our students, especially our younger students, to see that role models like Venus Williams have come through Lynwood Unified and that they can be just as successful as her with hard work and dedication,” Lynwood Superintendent Paul Gothold said. “I am grateful that she was able to take the time to come back to Lynwood.”

The district’s priority is to prepare all students for college and career and for alumni and former students to give back to their community, inspiring the next generation of students to do the same.

“It’s amazing whenever we have former students come back to our district to talk with our students,” school board President Alma-Delia Renteria said. “I am proud to see that our district is producing such successful individuals who are inspired to make a difference in the world.”

The California Lottery video on Williams’ visit to Mark Twain Elementary can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2oPSZqF.