ARCADIA — Emanuel Cruz learned early the value of money, and, more importantly, the value of paying it forward.
He’s also learned that money isn’t everything.
“Being rich in happiness is everything,” Cruz said. “I just think, using my money for good brings joy to me.”
The 17-year-old Arcadia High School senior, who was nominated for the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award, has been finding ways to help his community, friends and family since almost everyone can remember.
Kevin Whalen, an agri-science teacher at Arcadia High School, has known Cruz since 2017. Whalen has been Cruz’s advisor throughout high school.
Whalen has been at the high school for more than three decades.
“Probably the most impressive part of (Cruz) is he’s very selfless,” Whalen said.
The first question Cruz ever asked Whalen, and he asked it seriously, was, “How can I send money to my aunt in Honduras?”
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“To have a 16-year-old ask you that, and then find out that he’s kind of the breadwinner for the whole family, and that he still wants to take care of everyone else, is very impressive,” Whalen said.
Cruz has been working jobs, financially helping out family and friends, since he was 8 years old.
“I try to help anybody who needs it,” he said.
From his earliest years, Cruz has worked manual labor, cleaning up the local soccer fields and locker rooms, and by his freshman year of high school he started working in the Galesville area apple orchards, picking and pruning and killing weeds.
“I don’t mind doing a lot of hard labor,” Cruz said.
At times, he’s held multiple jobs, all the while maintaining his schoolwork. It was just never a question for Cruz.
“My mom was having trouble with money,” he said, “and financial issues. So, I stepped up to the plate and looked for another job.”
When he was 16 years old, he was working part time at both the local grocery and hardware stores.
“It was, go to work, go to work, and then go home,” he said.
Cruz said he’s close to his aunt, who lives in Honduras, and talks to her by phone almost every day. He’s been sending her and his extended family there money for years.
“In Honduras, it’s very hard to live,” he said. “There’s not that many jobs, and there’s a lot of struggles.”
His generosity knows no geography.
Cruz also gives his grandparents money whenever he can. They live in Arcadia, too, and they’re no longer able to work. Not having really had a father, Cruz said, he looked up to this grandfather as a father figure.
“He’s so strong,” Cruz said. “I think I get the working mind from him.”
And, with Cruz, it’s not only his family he focuses on.
“With friends, also,” Cruz said. “If they needed someone, I was the guy to come up to.”
Cruz’s 21-year-old brother, Luis, said Emanuel is an important part of their strong, close family, and they see each other almost every day.
“When I think about my brother,” Luis said, “he’s a really hard worker. He does his best.”
Cruz has also volunteered for Ashley For the Arts, a local festival featuring all kinds of artists aimed at bringing the community together, as well as helping referee and coach local soccer teams, especially focusing on fifth through eighth graders. He’s also active in the Dreamers effort, giving out scholarships and providing volunteer opportunities.
“It’s another community thing we have in Arcadia,” he said.
When he graduates high school, Cruz wants to pursue a welding career at Western Technical College in La Crosse.
“That’s my top priority right now,” he said.
Many in Arcadia already know Cruz’s story. He shares a lot of personal information with folks.
“I feel like, in Arcadia, it’s more than just a community,” Cruz said. “It’s like a big family.”
For this 17-year-old, whose past indicates how much promise his future holds, the feeling seems to be mutual.
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