Couple offers undocumented youth new life

NASHVILLE (BP) -- The first time Cesar Virto met his neighbors Don and Carol Ann Webb, they called the police on him. The second time, they introduced him to Jesus.

"I would not be at LifeWay without them," says Cesar, who is now a bilingual customer service representative at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn.

Cesar was in elementary school when his family moved to the small town of Guin, a community of 2,500 in northwest Alabama. Carol Ann and Don lived a few houses away.

Like many young boys, Cesar got into a bit of mischief. He and his brother liked to play in an empty house the Webbs owned across the street.

"He and his brother were breaking windows in the house," Carol Ann said. "We were afraid they were going to get hurt."

That first encounter led to an unlikely friendship between the couple and Cesar.

"It was a blessing, and we didn't even know it," Don said.

The next summer, Cesar appeared on Don and Carol Ann's doorstep, asking if he could mow their lawn or do some other odd jobs. Before long, he was a regular at the Webbs' house. He'd come over on Saturdays for breakfast and work around the house most of the day.

When things got rough at home, Cesar would stay at their house. That was fine with Carol Ann, who laid down the law with Cesar. He could stay at their house, as long as he abided by their rules.

"It was a lot of tough love," Carol Ann said.

As a teenager, Cesar made a startling discovery. He'd asked his dad if he could sign up for a learner's driving permit. That wasn't possible, his dad told Cesar, because the family had no legal status.

"He told me, 'Son, you don't have any papers,'" Cesar recalled. "That's the first time I realized I was undocumented."

Cesar knew his family had come to the United States from Mexico when he was 2 or 3 years old. But he didn't know his family had crossed the border without legal permission. At first Cesar was angry. Then he was disappointed and frustrated.

"My thought was, 'Why would you do that?'" Cesar said.

The more he learned about his father's background, the more Cesar understood. His family came from the state of Guerrero, one of the poorest in Mexico, and struggled to put food on the table.

Coming to America offered a chance at a better life.

"My dad always said, 'When the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and your kids are starving -- you're going to jump the fence,'" Cesar said. "No matter who you are."

Being undocumented meant certain rites of passage were out of reach: getting a part-time job or a driver's license, going to college, or voting. He started to see school as a waste of time. He was already struggling. What's the point of studying hard and getting good grades, he thought. No college would accept him without legal status. Even if he were accepted, he couldn't afford tuition.

Enter Don and Carol Ann.

"You take care of the little things," Don told Cesar. "Let God take care of the big things."

Growing up, Cesar's family didn't have interest in matters of faith. So he never went to church or learned much about Jesus or the Bible.

Things changed as he got to know the Webbs. That first day he arrived at their door, as they sat down to have something to eat after the yard work was done, Don led all three in a prayer.

"That was the first time I wanted to know about God," Cesar said.

Cesar started going to church with Don and Carol Ann on Sundays and Wednesdays, and even joined them on several mission trips. During a trip to Texas, where the mission team led basketball camps for kids, Cesar accepted Jesus as his Savior.

When they got back from the trip, Cesar began to take his newfound faith -- and his schoolwork -- more seriously.

Carol Ann began to help him with his homework and to teach him study habits. At the time, Cesar said, he could barely read.

On Friday nights, instead of going out with friends, he spent time with Carol Ann and Don, working on reading.

"Imagine a 17-year-old kid, hanging out with two older people, reading books," Cesar said.

Some nights they'd be up after midnight studying. At times, Cesar wanted to give up. But Carol Ann kept encouraging him.

Don wasn't always so sure. Some nights he'd throw in the towel and head to bed, sure that Cesar's schooling was a lost cause. That earned Don a lecture from his wife.

"I told Don, 'God didn't give up on us, and we are not going to give up on Cesar,'" Carol Ann said.

Cesar graduated, and Carol Ann and Don helped Cesar find a college that would accept him despite his legal status. They found a sympathetic admissions counselor at Blue Mountain College, a Baptist school in Blue Mountain, Miss.

His first semester at Blue Mountain was a disaster. He flunked most of his classes and feared Don and Carol Ann would give up on him. Since he was undocumented, Cesar didn't qualify for financial aid and the couple was paying for his schooling. By failing, he felt he let them down.

"I thought that was it," he said. Instead, after some heated words during the drive home, Carol Ann told him it was time to start over. Her persistence left Cesar in tears.

"A lot of people would have given up on me," he said. "She told me, 'Okay, we failed. Now let's go back and try again.'"

Cesar went back and kept at his studies, and his grades improved. But he still worried about his legal status. Carol Ann and Don had taken him to several lawyers, but his options were limited.

Then in 2012, President Obama announced a new program called "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" or DACA for short. The program, known as the Dream Act, allows students like Cesar, who came to the United States as children, to receive a renewable work permit to stay in the U.S.

The Dream Act allowed Cesar to get a social security card and a driver's license, as well as a job on campus to help pay his bills.

In 2014, Cesar graduated from Blue Mountain with a degree in business and Bible. He came to work for LifeWay last summer.

He set aside part of his first paycheck to buy a Christmas present for Carol Ann and Don -- gift cards to use on a weekend to Nashville, so they could attend the Grand Ole Opry. They've become like family. He calls them Grandma and Grandpa, and says he doesn't know what he would have done without them.

Don and Carol Ann have also shown him how to live out his faith. They told him about Jesus, but they also showed him God's love. He wants to do the same for other people, including his parents. Carol Ann says she and Don were simply trying to do what God has told them to do -- love their neighbor in Jesus' name.

It's no accident, she said, their lives crossed with Cesar's. "We knew God put Cesar on our street for a reason."

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine. This article first appeared in LifeLines, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.
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