Jeff Jardine

June 7, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Turlock women's career callings determined by fate

Supportive parents, E. coli and a flying croquet ball lead Turlock women to careers in medicine, dentistry and more.

Her baby sister’s illness compelled Turlock native Celina Armendariz Maldonado to become a doctor. At 28, she’s working in three New Jersey hospitals while awaiting her residency assignment.

Alma Armendariz, at 27 the second eldest of five daughters, always saw herself as her sisters’ protector. She eventually became a social worker, helping others, and is transitioning to become a registered nurse. Once again, she’ll help others.

A broken tooth, courtesy of kid sister Melissa, convinced Monica Armendariz to become a dentist.

Melissa Armendariz, meanwhile, is a 20-year-old Modesto Junior College student who loves pickup trucks and plans to run track at Sonoma State University next spring.

The youngest, 17-year-old Stephanie Armendariz, nearly died from E. coli as an infant – the illness led Celina to the goal of becoming a doctor. Stephanie will spend part of her summer on a student exchange visit in Germany, returning the favor by entertaining the girl from her German host family a month later. Then she’ll begin her senior year of high school.

Indeed, every path to success has its reasons, motivations, a bit of luck and some common denominators.

For the Armendariz sisters, mom Maria and dad Alberto have provided not only emotional and financial support, but also perhaps the most important parts: work ethic and expectations. All the girls have attended Hilmar High. Four of the five went on to college and the fifth will, too. Celina and Monica both graduated from the University of California, Davis, and Alma from Merced College. Celina went on to medical school at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Monica, 24, will start dentistry school at the University of California, San Francisco, in August.

“I always tell them, ‘difficult but never impossible,’ ” said Maria, who has worked the past decade as a waitress at the SOS Club. “I love the opportunity this country has given me. I’ve always told them to take opportunity and not abuse it or let it go.”

Wise words from a woman who came at age 14 to the Central Valley from Mexico in the mid-1970s, to work in the fields and orchards. She became a U.S. citizen at 20.

Likewise, Alberto’s family came from Mexico to the United States, where he was born in New Mexico. His family also moved to the Turlock area, where his dad started a Mexican restaurant called Kiki’s, later adding a tortilla factory and retail store. Alberto and Maria met when she came to the business to shop.

Shortly after they were married, a priest from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Turlock came into the store and told Alberto, “ ‘You can do better than this,’ ” Alberto said. “ ‘I’ll find you something.’ I said, ‘If you can find me something, I’ll go for it.’ ”

Soon after, Father Ernesto returned to the store. He drove a brand-new Toyota Corolla. “I talked with the guy who sold me the car,” the priest said. “He needs a Spanish-speaking salesman.”

With his dad’s blessing, Alberto left the family business to sell cars in Stockton, beginning a career he remains in today.

“We thank God for everything we’ve had,” he said. Including the daughters of whom they are joyfully proud, but not boastful.

“Humble,” Maria said.

In some ways, they see the efforts and sacrifices they’ve made for their children as investments that will someday pay off in the Valley. How so?

In 1997, Celina brought home a case of whooping cough she’d contracted while attending sixth-grade science camp. Stephanie, just 6 weeks old at the time, got it, too. Maria and Alberto took the infant to the hospital, where things got infinitely worse.

“She got E. coli,” Maria said. The baby’s kidneys failed, and she was rushed to UCSF Medical Center, where she spent the next four months. Maria stayed with her. Alberto and the girls went back and forth to visit.

“It’s a story I like to tell, but it’s hard to talk about, too,” Celina said. “I felt responsible. She had to have a blood transfusion on the way to the hospital. The doctors were telling Mom, ‘I don’t know if she’s going to make it.’ She would be talking to God, saying, ‘If it’s not meant to be, please take her with you. I don’t want her to suffer.’ ”

Stephanie recovered from the E. coli and from a subsequent medical problem as well.

The care Celina’s tiny sister received – the way the doctors handled her, the respect with which they treated Maria and other family members – made a huge impact. She decided she, too, wanted to become a doctor and help others as they helped her family.

“I would love to go back and give to UCSF like they gave to us,” Celina said. And also back to the Valley.

“I plan to go into family medicine,” she said. “I like the idea of being able to help not just the Mexican community, but all of the underserved.”

Monica, meanwhile, settled on becoming a dentist after an accident left her marveling at the skills of their own family dentist.

“We were just country kids playing in the (swimming) pool,” Monica said.

They found sinkable objects they could then dive down to retrieve. Melissa, though, found a croquet ball.

“She launched it from the top of the slide,” said Monica, who turned just in time to catch it squarely on the mouth.

“It broke off half of (a front) tooth and exposed a nerve,” she said. The accident happened on a weekend. “We went to church and I wouldn’t open my mouth at all. On Monday, I went to our family dentist and they fixed it up.”

Her dentist’s skill in repairing the tooth, and also being inspired by an uncle who is a dentist, led Monica to become one herself. She finished her undergraduate degree at UC Davis and turned down the opportunity to attend dental school in Wisconsin, instead choosing to learn her craft at UCSF.

“UCSF gave us our sister back,” Monica said. “I feel completely blessed and honored to be completing my schooling there.”

Like Celina, she hopes to someday establish a practice back home in the Turlock area, to help those in need and to give back in the community.

Alma, who attended Merced College and spent roughly five years as a social worker in Modesto, is taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom and to begin working to become a registered nurse. She said it was easy to excel in school because her parents made it that way.

“She had breakfast on the table before school every morning,” Alma said. “When we got home from school, she’d have prepared a meal for us. We studied and did our work.”

Melissa plans to major in communications at Sonoma State. Outgoing and personable, she’s “our dad’s tomboy,” Monica said. “That kid can do whatever she wants. When we were at UC Davis, and she came up to visit, people fell in love with her. They said, ‘She’s the coolest 18-year-old (at the time) we’ve ever met.”

“I’m not going to be a doctor or a dentist,” Melissa said. “But I know that if I go to Sonoma State and do communications, my parents will still be proud of me.”

Same goes for Stephanie, the youngest. It all comes down to drive and work ethic and the accompanying expectations, with a huge dose of love and support from Mom and Dad.

“It’s just a normal thing for us,” Alberto explained. “Everything we do, we do for them.”

As for the types of careers their daughters chose, those things just seemed to happen on their own.

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