Diego Barajas' internship at Chrysler came through a work-study program at Cristo Rey High School in southwest Detroit, which gives students on-the-job opportunities at the automaker. (David Coates / Detroit News)
Auburn Hills— The last-minute decision to add Diego Barajas to a tour at two Chrysler Group LLC facilities may have fixed his destiny.
At his boss’s insistence, the Chrysler intern joined 10 Mexican trucking executives visiting two assembly plants, wowing them with his fluent Spanish, his confidence and the story of his immigrant family’s struggle for a better life in southwest Detroit.
Two of the visitors were so impressed during the tour last spring, they granted the Detroit high school sophomore a $40,000 college scholarship.
At 15, Diego has new hope for his future.
“I was really overwhelmed because college is not the cheapest thing in the world,” he said during a break between classes at Detroit Cristo Rey High School. “Not having to worry about finding a job to try to pay for college will be such a relief.”
Diego’s internship at Chrysler came through a work-study program at his school, which gives students on-the-job opportunities at the automaker and about 80 other companies, including Henry Ford Health System, Art Van Furniture, Strategic Staffing Solutions and R.L. Polk. The school’s 253 students, from 14 to 19 years old, all participate in the work-study program.
“The support from our corporate partners since we opened in 2008 has been amazing,” said Michael Khoury, the school’s president. “But the incredible gift of a $40,000 college scholarship is unprecedented. These are wonderful men and it is truly a blessing for Diego and our school.”
Elizabeth Stone, a Chrysler logistics operations specialist who was Diego’s supervisor at the time, said she diverted him from his regular duties that day so he could meet the visitors from Mexico.
“When I read an email that morning offering the opportunity for others in our group to join a plant tour, I instantly thought of Diego and that he needed to be on this tour,” she said.
During the visit with the Mexican executives, Diego shared his love for soccer and his challenges. The family lives in a southwest Detroit neighborhood where the median household income is about $25,000. His mom, who has multiple sclerosis, works as a home health aide; his dad is a construction worker. Diego has two siblings.
The two executives who funded the scholarship for Diego — both carriers for Chrysler — said they were impressed by his background, poise and intelligence.
“I remember thinking this young boy is all what someone can hope (for) in a son, in terms of personality, character and the will to succeed,” said Francisco Lopez, owner of Transportes CLC.
Gerardo Tamez, an owner of Transportes Penon Blanco, said Diego impressed him as a young man with a “strong purpose to achieve a much better life for his parents and for himself.”
“Diego is, at the end, as a son of Mexican immigrants ... my fellow citizen,” said Tamez. “For multiple reasons, they didn’t (find) opportunities in Mexico although they are hardworking people. I am sure that Diego (deserves) an option for becoming a successful person. That is why I decided to support him.”
Diego works at the Chrysler Group headquarters one day a week.
“Part of my job involves Excel work, where I have to produce a carrier error report,” he said.
He also helps order supplies and create an inventory for equipment, including pens, paper and toner for printers. “They’d try to challenge me,” he said.
Still, his tour with the Mexican businessmen was almost halted by an anxious Chrysler executive. Frank LaSota, manager of process and cost management, and Stone’s boss at the time, initially told her no when she asked to include him in the plant tour.
“I was (upset) when I first heard about it,” said LaSota. “He was a 14-year-old kid at the time, for goodness sake, and we were responsible for him. These were not truck drivers from Mexico. These were people who ran the trucking companies in Mexico.”
He feared so many things could go wrong.
“I’m a dad and I worried about it all day because Elizabeth didn’t have a plan, and he needed to be delivered back to his school by 4 p.m.,” said LaSota.
Stone would not be deterred.
“I wanted (Diego) to learn as much as he could about anything I could put within his reach, because as a young Mexican-American boy, it would be good for him to see and meet these successful, professional Mexican men,” she said.
Stone accompanied Diego on the first part of the tour, to the Warren Truck Assembly Plant, but could not be there for the second part of the tour, of a trucking facility in Detroit.
Stone asked Ivan Castillo, manager of transportation procurement for Chrysler de Mexico, to introduce Diego, take care of him during the rest of the tour, and make sure he got back to school on time.
Castillo introduced Diego to the group, and he took it from there. Castillo ultimately proposed the idea of the scholarship to Tamez and Lopez.
“To see a young man who I have been coaching on his ‘elevator speech’ stand in front of a large group of professionals, poised, and command the attention of these professionals, making eye contact with all of them, and do so both eloquently and in Spanish, was a very proud moment for me,” said Stone. “He had command of not only his audience, but of himself.”
LaSota, who finally relaxed after Diego arrived safely back at school, said he cannot take credit for the teen’s good fortune. “It’s nothing I did,” he said. “Diego was Diego, and Elizabeth was persistent, saying he needed to be there.”
Five months after the tour, on Sept. 24, the day before Diego’s birthday, Khoury summoned him to a conference room at the school when he returned from work at Chrysler.
“Then I saw my mom there,” he said. “I was trying to think of what I had done wrong.”
Khoury began talking to both of them, and others gathered in the conference room, including Tamez, Lopez and Castillo, about the impression Diego had made on the businessmen from Mexico, and told them about the scholarship.
During an interview at the school, Diego translated as his mom, Maria Barajas, talked about what the scholarship means for her family.
“My whole family is really thankful to Chrysler and Cristo Rey for our son to be able to work there and to get this scholarship,” she said. “We were worried about how he was going to go to college, even though we work very hard. I’ve always seen how difficult it to get a job, being disabled, and I didn’t want that struggle for my children.”
The day after Diego learned about the scholarship, Khoury said he pulled the student from class and asked how he felt about it.
“He talked about the responsibility that went with it,” he said. “He also talked about gratitude toward the benefactors. These were the exact things I had wanted to discuss with him — but he was already there! I was impressed and proud of him. I told him I had planned on talking to him for about 20 minutes — but I didn’t need to! I sent him right back to his class.”