Pella, Iowa November 17, 2016 -- Central College Wrestling vs Coe College. Photo by Dan L. Vander Beek
Pella, Iowa November 17, 2016 — Central College Wrestling vs Coe College. Photo by Dan L. Vander Beek

PELLA — Ramona Aparicio’s subcompact Geo Metro was touted for its bottom-of-the-market sticker price and its ultra-light three-cylinder engine that produced a fuel-efficiency rating near 50 miles per gallon.

Promotional materials never mentioned it sleeps four.

But for a tumultuous portion of Central College senior wrestler Jaime Miranda‘s (Aberdeen, Wash.) childhood, the Metro wasn’t just an economy car. It was his family’s bedroom.

Back in the coastal city of Aberdeen, Wash., that’s what Aparicio had to resort to for Miranda and her other two young children. She was toiling in a local fish factory, but that didn’t generate enough income to muster rent for an apartment after her husband dropped off the four of them in a Pizza Hut parking lot and drove away, never to return.

That’s far from the only obstacle thrown in Miranda’s rocky path to Central, 1,946 miles away. He dodged many, and crashed face-first into others. When he stood in that parking lot and saw the taillights vanish in the coastal Washington horizon he not only lost his father, he lost his home. When the family later lived in one of the countless apartments it briefly occupied and it burned to the ground, he lost his precious few possessions. Before he finished high school, he lost his mother.

Not surprisingly, when Miranda made the unlikely trek to Central, there was no need for a U-Haul. He brought only a few well-worn t-shirts and shorts, but packed a duffel bag filled with anger and resentment.

Yet in three-plus years at Central, things changed in ways even Miranda didn’t expect. He was surprised to discover that when Central professors and tutors say they’re available for extra help, they mean it. He found a focus for a career working with at-risk youth like himself and opportunities to share his story, even on a national stage. He found faith. He found that letting go of his anger removed a barrier to success. And through coaches, teammates and their parents, he found a family.

“What Central sold me on was family,” Miranda said. “They’ve lived up to everything they said. I don’t have any blood relatives here, but it would be wrong to say that I don’t have a family here.”

This past year, he’s seen a transformative shift, both spiritually and emotionally.

“Before this year, I was an angry, bitter person,” Miranda said. “I had temperament problems and I was just angry at the world. When my mom passed away, I hated God, I hated everybody. I just worried about myself. Being here at Central taught me more about family. Not just your blood but everybody who helps you. Some of the cool stuff that’s happened this year, I just feel really content with who I’m with and who I’m becoming.”

The road to Pella was an unlikely one. Bouncing from homes of relatives and friends, discipline for Miranda was AWOL. School was an annoyance. Yet the one lesson he mastered was perseverance. That he’s now 7-3 as the starter at 285 pounds for the 10th-ranked Dutch wrestling squad would shock many who knew him as a belligerent youth. That he’s on track to receive his bachelor’s degree in sociology in May is an even bigger upset in the eyes of others. Had they seen him in early December, with his tattooed bicep and orange hair, performing at a campus piano recital, or sitting in the front row at Pella’s Third Reformed Church, they’d be more than surprised. They’d likely ask for a DNA test.

And when Miranda stops to think back to the moment last July in Washington, D.C. when he found himself in a one-on-one meeting with an attentive U.S. Secretary of Education, John B. King, Jr., explaining what it’s really like to be a homeless student and filling out financial aid forms when you don’t have parents, he even finds his own legs growing wobbly in disbelief. Miranda was there with a small group of scholarship recipients from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, staying in a luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I’d get up and on my morning run I’d go by the White House,” Miranda said, shaking his head. “It made me think about how far I’ve come.”

Those who ticketed Miranda for failure don’t know about the fire that burns within. He’s determined to make a difference, because of his memories of his mother and all she sacrificed for her children.

“I wanted to go to college because I want to make something of myself,” he said. “Mom wasn’t known in the community, she was just a normal person and now she’s gone. But she was still special to me. I could go on and on about all she did for me and all she went through. A lot of people couldn’t make it a day in her shoes.

“I just made the decision when she passed that I’m going to make a legacy to her.”

He’s on his way. And he credits the people he’s surrounded himself with at Central for being among those helping chart his course.

A childhood on the move
None of that was on Miranda’s mind at age 7 when he wedged into the folded-down back seat of the Metro, hugging blankets with his two smaller siblings as the chilly winter winds penetrated cracks in the plastic sheet that replaced the shattered passenger-side window. His weary mother didn’t allow herself the luxury of sleep. They were parked on the street in front of an apartment complex in a sketchy part of town and she wanted to stay awake to protect her children.

“Back then, I was real young and being homeless didn’t affect me that much because I thought it was cool,” Miranda recalled. “During the day, you got to run around outside all the time. It was kind of fun.”

Often, they found relatives to stay with, but their situations weren’t always better. For a while, Miranda’s family stayed with his grandmother and an aunt and her boyfriend in a van with a mattress in back.

“People would take turns sleeping on it,” he said.

Occasionally, they grabbed a shower at a friend’s house. They were regular customers at food banks and typically existed on cold cut sandwiches, relying on welfare and food stamps.

“It wasn’t always the best,” Miranda said. “When I was younger, I thought it was cool you could go in line and get all this free food. The older I got, I got embarrassed by that stuff.”

Other times the family would be able to rent a house or apartment, but were routinely evicted when the money ran out.

“We’d be homeless for a little bit but Mom would always find a way to get us somewhere safe,” Miranda said.
Most of his boyhood was spent in Aberdeen, but when his uncle was deported to Mexico, Miranda’s family followed, staying in Tijuana for several months. Miranda and his siblings couldn’t afford to attend school there, so while his mother looked for work, Jaime took their papers and walked across the border each day, his brother bouncing on his shoulders. They’d look for schools and ask if they could enroll, but quickly got used to rejection.

“We’d talk to them, then go the next school,” Miranda said. Eventually, they gave up and stayed home, eating beans and rice for every meal. An occasional potato was a welcome treat.

“That was like a cheeseburger to me,” he said.

After a few months, Aparicio returned with her children to Aberdeen, staying with Miranda’s grandmother, who shared a small house with four men. Miranda’s family of four shared one room.

His mother occasionally had a boyfriend, but they didn’t provide stability and were sometimes abusive. The constant relocations wore on Miranda.

“Being young, I stressed out a lot about not making the rent that week,” he said. “Or we’d have to turn off the lights because the power was shut off or couldn’t take a shower because we didn’t have water. I knew money was an issue but Mom would just tell me not to worry about it. I felt like she looked to me to be a father figure for my brother and sister. I remember her saying when my sister acted up, ‘Be nice to her. She doesn’t have a dad.”

Aparicio fell behind in rent payments for one of the apartments they landed in. Just days before moving out, the structure caught fire. The family was back on the streets.

Brief stability, then a tragic turn
In high school, his father suddenly emerged, with word he wanted to reconnect with his children. Miranda’s mother urged them to do so.

“You’d think I’d be mad, but I was really excited to see my dad,” Miranda said.

Miranda’s father met the three siblings in Aberdeen, took them to dinner, bought them new clothes. His father told Miranda he could get him a well-paying summer job if he came and lived with his new family in Marysville, Wash., a few hours north. The money was good, but the experience was jarring. The children in his father’s new family lived in a much different world.

“They had a nice apartment and nice clothes and nice stuff,” Miranda said. “My little (half-sisters) were like 10 and 8, and they already had a better life than I ever had. I was really angry and bitter. He left us and he’s given them everything they ever wanted or needed.”

Still he tried to remain in contact with his father. But soon, his father became a no-show on promised visits. Messages were no longer answered. Phone calls weren’t returned.

As his brief connection with one parent faded again, his life with the other parent was forever altered. Aparicio was diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn’t want it to disrupt her life and she even remarried after becoming ill, but the disease was destroying her young body quickly.

She was only 32 or 34, Miranda isn’t sure. He was still a high school sophomore.

He remembers returning to the wrestling room after a two-mile run during wrestling practice. His principal, coach and athletic director were waiting for him. They took him into an adjacent football team film room.

“My aunt was there, and they told me ‘Your mom’s gone, she passed away this morning,'” Miranda said. “I didn’t say anything, I just said, ‘Oh.’ I went back to the wrestling room and practiced.”

Miranda, suddenly the oldest member of his family, hid his emotion. His mother had wanted the siblings to stay together.  Initially, they remained with his new step-father, but the memories of his mother there were too fresh, too painful. His younger brother, just 6, was unable to cope. They’d find him with a phone to his ear, listening to a light-hearted voicemail his mother once left, playing it over and over.
Miranda walked into his brother’s bedroom once.

“I found him curled up in a ball, crying and holding her picture,” Miranda said.

The siblings began receiving government money because of their mother’s death and pooled it with an aunt’s limited income to rent a house. It was only a few years shy of being condemned. But to Miranda, it looked like the Trump Tower. It made him feel like a normal person.

“It was the first time in a long time that I had my own room,” Miranda said. “It felt cool, because we had a washer and a dryer. I didn’t have to go to the laundromat. I had my own bathroom. Stuff that Central people take for granted. I felt like we’d made it.”

A new motivation
With Miranda’s vow to honor his mother through his own life, along with a desire to remain eligible to compete in football and wrestling, he finally became serious about school. As early as first grade, Miranda was getting into trouble at school and with the law on a too-regular basis. He was a familiar face at juvenile detention centers. Maybe it was the anger. Or maybe because “I was a little (brat),” Miranda said. But now, his grades slowly improved. He found supportive teachers and counselors. One actually requested Miranda be placed in her class, because she “could handle troublemakers,” he said.

His initial dislike for wrestling wore off when he discovered he was pretty good. He began to receive opportunities to travel for off-season wrestling camps, after having rarely ventured beyond Aberdeen’s city limits.

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to go to Wisconsin or Illinois,” he said. “We went to Florida for a tournament. I thought, ‘This is awesome.’

“But it was my first time on a plane. I was scared. I was squeezing the arms of my chair.”

College, a new dream
After finishing third in the state his junior season, college recruiters began contacting him, among them, Dutch coach Eric Van Kley, who recruits the area heavily as there are few colleges in the Pacific Northwest with wrestling programs.

“I wanted to wrestle at a big school, so I kind of ignored him,” Miranda said. “But he just kept calling me, telling me great stuff about Central.”

Van Kley knew Miranda’s story. He knew the college graduation rate for students with backgrounds like his was slim. Yet he sensed something special about him.

“I saw that potential in him very early,” Van Kley said. “I knew Central was going to be a tremendous challenge. I knew it would be a struggle. But what always gave me faith is I didn’t see him ever question himself. He’d get very frustrated, but I told him we would never give up on him. He seemed to take that to heart.”

A social worker and Miranda’s academic advisor liked what Van Kley said about the support Central offered. They knew Miranda would need it to survive.

“I talked to my academic advisor, who is one of the most influential people in my life,” Miranda said. “She said, ‘This is going to be one of the hardest things you ever do. But you’re going to work hard and get through it. It sounds like Central is going to give you a lot of help. You’ve got to think of the big picture. You’ve got to earn your degree. You’ve got to change your life. You’ve got to do it for your mom and for your brother and sister. You’ve got to do it for yourself. Which school is going to help you graduate?’

“So I said, ‘All right, I’m going to Central.’ I decided it was my best chance to graduate and make sure I don’t fall into the same lifestyle. That’s another big goal is to break the cycle in my family of being poor.”

Admittedly, Central wasn’t exactly on his radar prior to Van Kley’s calls and some didn’t understand his decision, including a coach from California who was recruiting him.

“He said, ‘What’s a Mexican kid going to do in Iowa?’,” Miranda said. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Since Miranda enrolled, his aunt returned to school and earned a two-year degree. His younger sister is now in nursing school.

“Things are looking good for my family,” he said. “Because of all the hard work my sister and I have put in, our family’s going to be changed forever.”

Even tougher than expected
Miranda quickly learned that the 3.5 grade point average he eventually attained in high school didn’t automatically translate to college success at Central.

“It’s freaking hard,” he said.  “I’m not stupid and I worked hard. But it’s hard.”

He was barely eligible after his first semester.

Miranda began frequently seeking help from tutors and faculty members.

“Central lived up to what they say about being there for you, that’s totally true,” he said.

It still did not come easily. He was pulling an F and two D’s his sophomore year and told Van Kley it was time to quit, that he wasn’t smart enough to be at Central. His aunt was willing to buy him a ticket back to Aberdeen.

Van Kley didn’t think much of the notion.

“He kind of gave me this dirty look,” Miranda said. “He was like, ‘So what? School’s hard for you. Life’s hard for you. It’s always going to be that way. That’s what you get, Jaime. But you can do this.'”

Miranda gave it another shot. He wasn’t shy about banging on faculty office doors seeking help, and he seemingly spent more time with tutors than he did his teammates. The F became a C minus and the D’s became C’s. And the grades continue to climb.

“Each semester, I do better and better,” Miranda said. “I’m not scared anymore. Coach Van Kley taught me that every semester, there’s going to be that one class that’s hard, that I don’t think I’m going to pass. But I just make it happen.

“I finally learned to be proud of myself, of where I am and how far I’ve come. It’s pretty cool, I think.”

The words flow easily now, without betraying the pain he’s endured. He’s not ashamed of once being homeless. He’s not ashamed that he leans on tutors to get passing grades. He’s not ashamed that he’ll likely graduate with a pedestrian 2.5 GPA. Miranda realizes that telling his story is perhaps the best way he can help others avoid the cycle of endless poverty so many fall into.

A national audience
Miranda found his highest platform last summer.

With no financial support from his family, Miranda applied for any scholarship he could find even after enrolling at Central. He was a finalist for a National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) scholarship after his freshman year, but wasn’t selected—an honor that netted him a $5 Amazon gift card. But a faculty adviser noticed that he was eligible to apply again the following year. Miranda carefully crafted an essay and had Van Kley read it. He turned to professor of English Joshua Dolezal for help.

“I think I did five rough drafts,” Miranda said. “It turned into a two-month process.”

It paid off. He was one of 13 students nationwide chosen. At the end of the year, he was flown to an NAEHCY conference in Kansas City.
“They paid for my flight, they paid for my food, we stayed at a nice hotel,” Miranda said. “They said, ‘We’re going to treat you guys like royalty because you’ve been through a lot.'”

Miranda was so excited he failed to read the rest of the message. In talking to other students at the conference, he learned he had to give a speech to 1,000 social workers. The other students were polishing their meticulously scripted speeches. Miranda didn’t even know what he would talk about. After a moment of panic, he spoke from his heart.

“I just told them my story,” he said. “Afterwards, they told me I was really articulate.”

Last summer’s conference in Washington, D.C. topped that event.

“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Miranda said. He savored wandering through the Smithsonian, trying to absorb all he could, and touring other prominent sites, but going to the Department of Education exceeded his expectations. He found a receptive audience in King. Miranda was open about his regular brushes with the law growing up. Causing trouble was often a show of defiance and a way to strike back. But he told King that the few times he was caught stealing, he wasn’t swiping iPods or Air Jordans. He was grabbing necessities like deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo. Why couldn’t homeless students be provided those?

“It was really cool to be heard,” Miranda said. “At the conference, they told us we were speaking for thousands of homeless students. Now I tell my story all the time and maybe it will become easier for them.”

A newly found faith
Miranda’s anger followed him to the Central wrestling mat. His wrestling room partner for three years was Jay Pike, who eventually beat out Miranda for the starting spot at 285 pounds before graduating last spring. Unlike many coaches, Van Kley doesn’t stage wrestle-offs for starting positions. Consequently, many wrestling room partners become close friends, as Pike and Miranda did, and work to help each other become better.

Yet Miranda and Pike went at each other with fierce intensity.

“It would always be a battle,” Miranda said. “But he’d end up beating me. He always told me, I was a better athlete than him and I had better technique than him.”

Miranda pointed at his head.

“But he said, ‘I beat you up here. I don’t get angry. If you keep your cool, no one can stop you.'”

Van Kley agreed.

“Jay just wrestled extremely smart,” he said. “He would beat a lot of guys in the last 30 seconds of the match. Jaime watched and learned from that.”

Miranda also learned that his emotions often worked against him.

“He used to put so much pressure on himself,” Van Kley said. “When things didn’t go right, he’d be unbelievably hard on himself. We’ve tried working with him and channeling that passion and commitment so that he’s better able to handle adversity. The first two or three years, he had regular counseling sessions where he could learn better techniques for handling things.”

Miranda found the ability to let his anger go through that counseling and by developing Christian faith, something that hadn’t ever mattered to him. In Aberdeen, Miranda once had a hunger for church but it wasn’t a spiritual longing. He saw a church’s offer of free pizza after a worship service. Miranda’s friends mocked him for going, but to Miranda, the logic was obvious.

Dude, it’s free pizza,” he said, baffled that they would pass it up. “It’s only an hour.”

No one at Central pressured Miranda to go to church. Or offered pizza for doing so. Many students don’t attend and, for a long time, neither did Miranda.

ut he looked up to upperclass teammates like Tyler Lowy and Sam Apland, as well as Pike.

“They’re like big brothers to me,” Miranda said.

Miranda studied them closely. He sensed they had what he longed for.

“They had stability,” he said. “They had a serious relationship with God. They always seemed like they were strong and secure. They had something I strived to have.”

This year he’s become a regular at Third Reformed Church, where hundreds worship each week, led by senior pastor Kevin Korver, a 1977 Central grad and former Dutch basketball player whose son Kyle, plays for the Atlanta Hawks. Korver quickly began greeting Miranda by name, which still surprises him.

“I like to sit up front,” Miranda said. “I can see how excited and passionate he is about what he’s preaching. It makes me feel like I’m closer to God.”

Van Kley said the changes in Miranda are evident on the mat.

“He is so much more self-confident,” he said. “But he’s also humble. He’s able to handle stressful situations and not let anger get the best of him. I think he’s gained some perspective. It’s OK to make wrestling important, but it’s not the most important thing in your life.”

Miranda has finally figured that out.

“Sports are awesome,” he said. “But really, who cares? I’m going to graduate and our family is going to be changed forever.”

A chance for a special season
Miranda eagerly awaited his chance to be in the Central lineup. He’s getting it in his senior season.

Iowa Conference wrestling is fiercely competitive and it’s the NCAA Division III’s most dominant league. Earning an NCAA national tourney berth by advancing through the Feb. 25 Central Regional in Dubuque is a tougher ticket than a Taylor Swift concert. But that’s Miranda’s dream.

Van Kley, in his 10th season, inherited a traditionally strong Dutch program that was scraping bottom, finishing his first year with four healthy wrestlers and methodically constructing a powerhouse. He called this year’s squad could be his best yet. Central’s No. 10 national ranking is its highest in more than 20 years.

Miranda and the Dutch have their sights set even higher.

“My goal for the team is to place in the top five and for myself, to qualify for nationals,” he said.

For Miranda to take the mat at the NCAA meet in La Crosse, Wis. March 10-11 is not just a dream, Van Kley said.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are going to be seeded in that 4-5-6 range at the regional tournament, which means they’re one big win away from making it,” Van Kley said. “Jaime is in that group. But when you get to that last weekend, so much of it is how badly do you want to keep wrestling? Jaime’s pretty focused and wants to keep it going.”

Physically, the ability is there. But unlike typical Iowa wrestlers, Miranda didn’t start competing until ninth grade.

“Jaime came to Central extremely raw,” Van Kley said. “He was very athletic and had a great work ethic but he needed to improve.”

Miranda attacked his training program, regularly spending steamy Iowa summer evenings, grinding away on his technique.

You don’t see too many guys willing to come in every night in the heat and drill, but that was just part of his routine.”

Miranda’s technique is now a strength and his mindset is finally where it needs to be.

“This is the best I’ve ever wrestled in my life,” he said. “I leave frustration out of it and am wrestling with a calm head.’

A new family
Miranda also benefits from support beyond what he could have imagined. Far from his hometown, Miranda has found a family–and not only teammates, coaches and professors. Tod and Lori Pike from Solon, Jay’s parents, and Tom and Tracie Moss of Winterset, parents of Zach Moss (senior), began inviting Miranda out for meals after meets. They quickly grew close.

After a match last year, Miranda found Tod Pike waiting for him.

“He said, ‘God doesn’t usually talk to me, but when he does, I listen,'” Miranda said. “He wanted me to tell you we love you and we’re proud of you.’ I started tearing up.'”

The Pikes and Moss’s routinely wait to see him after matches just as they do for their own sons.

“They tell me they love me,” Miranda said. “It makes me feel good. Mama Moss sometimes sends me my favorite hot sauce in the mail. I don’t ever get care packages. I literally have two mother figures and two men who are great father figures. They’re great fathers to their children. They’re the kind of fathers I want to be.”

Jay Pike graduated in May, but to Miranda’s amazement, Tod and Lori still attend Central meets, and wait for him afterwards.

“They’re driving two-and-a-half hours just to watch me wrestle,” Miranda said. “They bring me food and tell me they love me. It makes me happy.”

Making a difference—and making his mom proud
Miranda told his mother before she died that he wanted to work with at-risk youth by going into law enforcement, a decision that pleased her. He’s taking an internship with the Pella Police Department and, backed with a letter of reference from chief of police Robert Bokinsky, is applying for positions around Iowa.

“He’s prepared me a lot,” Miranda said.

Miranda likes Iowa and wants to stay. But someday, he’d like to follow an additional dream.

“I have more to offer,” he said. “My biggest passion is for kids. Aberdeen is not a great community. I want to give back to my community and start my own program with at-risk kids and help them avoid some of the mistakes I made.”

It’s also his way to preserve the memory of his mother.

“I want to help kids where I came from,” he said. “People are going to see me helping change the world, and they’re going to see my mom.”

Bokinsky said Miranda oozes potential as a law officer.

“One, because of his character and two, his motivation,” Bokinsky said. “And one feeds off the other. He’s got a purpose. He doesn’t want to be a cop because he saw some really cool TV shows or he’s on a power trip.

“He’s had help in his life from a number of people and he wants to pay that back. And what better person to be a police officer than someone who wants to do good in the world?  He gets it that the job is more than going out and catching a lot of bad guys. He’s trying to do what he can to make sure there are fewer bad guys. We don’t need to create more bad people.”

Because of all Miranda’s young eyes have already seen, he’s not likely to be intimidated by crisis situations or threats.

“He doesn’t take things personally,” Bokinsky said. “He’s a lot more proficient at de-escalation. He’ll understand why a person is acting the way they are and be able to de-escalate the situation.”

But even more important for an officer is his integrity.

“I believe his character to be sound because I’ve been around him every day and I’m confident that any community that employs him will have that,” Bokinsky said. “If you don’t pass the character test, the rest of it doesn’t matter. He’ll pass the character test.”

Miranda’s Central story isn’t typical, Van Kley said, but every student’s story is unique and impacted by those around them. Miranda’s Central experience has been life-changing for more than Miranda.

Van Kley paraphrased something that Al Dorenkamp, his predecessor as Central’s athletics director, told him about time invested in students.

Jaime Miranda‘s life is better because of Central College,” Van Kley said. “But Central College is also better because of Jaime Miranda.”