To his classmates and teachers, Mt. Whitney junior Alejandro Diaz can seem shy and reserved. But at the Quail Park Senior Care Community, where he volunteered for more than 100 hours this summer, Diaz is a hoot. “Alejandro was a quiet and shy kid at first, but after a matter of days, he really warmed up,” said Candi Barnheart, who oversaw Diaz at the senior care facility. “Many of our residents have asked us: When is he coming back?” “He was a real joy to have at Quail Park,” Barnheart added. Diaz was selected for the CHARACTER COUNTS! Caring Pillar. The award is given annually by the Tulare County Office of Education after a stringent process to select a winner from hundreds of nominations across Tulare County. Students who were considered for the award had to be kind, help others in need, show compassion and forgiveness, and be true to themselves, according to CHARACTER COUNTS!

Diaz says the opportunity to help care for some of those who need it most was a powerful experience. “I didn’t believe in myself until I started (volunteering at Quail Park),” Diaz said. “My teachers and some of the patients I had the chance to interact with really inspired me.” Tim Perrotta has taught Diaz at Mt. Whitney for two years. He says nominating Diaz for the CHARACTER COUNTS! award was a “no-brainer.” “I was initially concerned that Alejandro wouldn’t be social enough to work with patients,” Perrotta said. “But he came out of his shell to show real dedication and compassion for the (Quail Park) residents.”

“It’s been a pleasure seeing him grow into himself these past two years,” he continued. Diaz is enrolled in the Academy of Health Sciences at Mt. Whitney, so the internship served a practical purpose for the 16-year-old as well. The academy is one of several that prepares students across the district for careers in a chosen specialty. This is the second year that Quail Park has partnered with the district for the health sciences academy, according to Barnheart; she says that Diaz exceeded all their expectations and set a high precedent for students to follow.

“Alejandro took it upon himself to help residents care for their gardens and even washed their cars for them,” Barheart said. “Residents still wonder when that ‘sweet young man’ will return to wash their cars.” Diaz eventually hopes to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Caring for others is important to Diaz, especially after the personal tragedies he has experienced. “It was hard after I lost my father in February,” Diaz said. “I want to help families, so they don’t have to go through what mine did.” Diaz struggled with depression following his father’s death, so his work at Quail Park became almost therapeutic, he said.

“(The staff and patients at Quail Park) Became like this huge family to me,” Diaz said. “They’d tell me about their lives, and I’d tell them about mine.” Diaz was sad when the internship ended. “I had the opportunity to make real connections with many of the residents,” Diaz said. “We cared about each other. I hope to see them again soon.”

Diaz says he plans to return to the facility next summer. Only a lack of transportation keeps him from volunteering during the school year. Diaz is currently studying to receive his nursing assistant certification at Mt. Whitney. He hopes to enroll in a nursing program at Fresno following graduation. “I have no doubt that Alejandro would make a wonderful health care professional based on our experience with him at Quail Park,” Barnheart said. “I believe that would be the perfect career path for him.”