“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
~ The angel, Clarence, speaking to George Bailey in the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
This annual Christmas story airs every December and it is always such a great reminder to all of us that our lives matter. Simply by being on this earth, we are all constantly helping to shift and shape the lives of all who happen along our life path. Most of the time, we are totally unaware of our impact. I have a story that is very reminiscent of that Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It will move you, inspire you and give you hope in the spirit of love, kindness and goodness. This story actually starts on a crisp December day in Los Angeles, California. The year was 1992. The date: Dec. 14. On this day, a baby boy was born to a loving couple, Ines and Enedina Zuniga, two good and honest people who had immigrated to the United States a few years earlier.
They named their new baby boy, Juan Jose Zuniga. They were so proud. He was special and they knew it.
A year later, almost to the day, this same couple gave birth to a beautiful little girl. They named her Gemma. Juan was always the most loving, caring and protective big brother to Gemma. He was also her greatest encourager. When Gemma won first place in the science fair, as a 4th grader, Juan was so genuinely happy for his little sister that he cheered loudly when the announcement was made over the school loudspeaker. All day long, he continued bragging about her accomplishment to anyone who would listen.
Naturally smart, with a work ethic to match, little Juan did so well in school that they had him skip a grade so that he could be more challenged. His diligence and hard work paid off. He graduated from C.E, Byrd High School in 2010. And then again a few years later from Louisiana Tech University, where he received his college degree in economics. Upon graduation, Juan came back home with plans to work at the family restaurant for just a little while so that he could earn some money before setting out on his own.
But, just as George Bailey’s father does in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mr. Zuniga also tried to convince Juan to take over the family business. With Juan’s humble nature, natural charisma, business smarts and mega-watt smile, he seemed the perfect fit to take over the reigns.
Most fathers love the idea of their son following in their business footsteps. But for Juan’s father, it was even more personal.
You see, after moving to the U.S. at age 18, Mr. Zuniga proudly worked his way up through every job in the restaurant business, learning as he went, with grand hopes to open his own restaurant one day.
During their early years in America, the Zuniga family moved from California to Colorado, until they landed in Shreveport, where they finally opened their own restaurant, El Compadre.
Ever the respectful and obedient son, Juan valued his father’s thoughts and opinions over just about anyone or anything. But he had just graduated from college and had other plans for his life.
Sadly, nobody could have been predicted what would happen next. Unexpectedly, Mr. Zuniga, at age 55, passed away suddenly and without any warning. His family and friends were devastated. In the blink of an eye, the world as they knew it was gone forever.
Distraught and reeling from pain and grief, the Zuniga family had big decisions to make and there was no time to waste. Juan’s sister, Gemma, had aspirations of becoming an attorney and was already well on her way of doing just that. Mrs. Zuniga was working herself to death keeping the restaurant afloat, while also dealing with her personal grief.
And then there was Juan.
Ever the loyal and protective son and big brother, Juan made the decision to forgo his personal plans choosing, instead, to take on the family restaurant business and carrying on his father’s legacy. While under Juan’s helm, El Compadre continued to thrive. In fact, the restaurant was doing better than ever. High school kids, like my own son, Steele, (who was a senior at Byrd at the time), began meeting at El Compadre many nights and most weekends for good food and fun fellowship with friends, while enjoying the comfortable atmosphere that El Compadre provides.
It was during this time that I began hearing so much about this young man named Juan. I asked my son one day what it was about Juan that made people love and respect him so much. He answered nonchalantly, “He’s just a really good guy.” And then he added, “He and I connected over baseball one day.”
I later found out from his sister, Gemma, that Juan has always been a huge baseball fan. He played the sport throughout his elementary and middle school years and absolutely loved it. For a special treat each year, his father would take him to Dodger Stadium on Opening Day, where they would spend that day together bonding over baseball.
I soon came to realize for myself what made Juan so special. His brand of warmth and kindness was as much a pull to the restaurant as the delicious, authentic Mexican cuisine they serve there.
He remembers you. He makes you feel important. …Like you matter. Things seemed to be running smoothly at the restaurant…until one fateful night when something terrible happened.
After closing time, one Saturday night, two masked gunmen tried to rob Juan’s mother. Instinctively, Juan jumped into action to save his mom. It was in that moment that Juan was shot in both lungs leaving him hanging on for dear life. Had it not been for Juan’s cousin’s quick response and dialing 911, Juan may not have made it through the night.
Thankfully, the first officer on the scene that night had just been equipped with one of those newly issued trauma kits and it was that kit that ultimately spared Juan’s life. Although he remained in very critical condition, he was alive and that gave his family hope. I don’t think Juan or his family could have ever imagined what would happen next. When news spread of this heinous crime, thousands upon thousands of people in this community rallied together to help Juan and his family. The goodness that Juan and his family had lavished on their customers throughout the years was all coming right back in the way of monetary gifts, words of love, prayer chains and even a candlelight vigil in his honor one evening.
Lola Magazine Publisher Bevin Hicks also felt the need to do something, so she cleverly created “All for Juan and Juan for All” t-shirts that were so nice and comfortable that hundreds of people ordered their very own, knowing that all proceeds would go directly to Juan and his family.
The outpouring of love and solidarity among those in this community was something none of us had ever witnessed before. It truly felt like a take from movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life .”
Thousands of dollars were raised to help with Juan’s medical finances, as well as the restaurant’s financial loss following the days after the robbery. Groups from all over were having prayer meetings for Juan, clinging to hope and asking God for his ultimate healing and speedy recovery.
Gemma, the little sister who had always been protected by her big brother, was now home from Baylor Law School and in the position of being her brother’s protector. Gemma was thrust into the role of liaison between her brother and an entire community anxious for any word regarding Juan’s health and recovery.
Mrs. Zuniga was holding strong and steady for her children because, quite frankly, that is what moms do. She has been by Juan’s side and giving God all the glory for his life.
People in our community have made it clear that they have a great desire to *do something* to help Juan and his family. Whether giving money or offering help in other ways, people simply want to show them their love and support.
We actually have a Christmas expert in our midst, here in Shreveport. Her name is Teresa Powell and she has come up with an amazing solution to help our great need to *do something* for this young man who has so fully captured our hearts.
Teresa is like this Christmas Fairy Godmother, who, with the help of her team, (whom she calls her “elves”) whisks into your home, turns it into a beautiful Winter Wonderful and leaves you with a tangible sense of the Christmas spirit.
Her idea is to do something extra special for Juan and his family this holiday season. She would like to create an *Inspirational WORD* Christmas tree.
And this particular tree is one we will ALL be allowed to help decorate.
Teresa’s plan is to sneak her team into the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day, (with the family’s permission, of course) and set up the perfect tree in the perfect spot of their restaurant.
Once this very crucial part is complete, Teresa and her elves will decorate the tree juuuust enough so that there is still room enough on there for the REST OF US to add our own encouraging and inspirational ornament to the tree.
Words are so powerful.
Words can be so healing.
And sometimes, words have the ability to sum up our heart when our actions are unable to do the trick.
So, if you wish to participate in this very special “Spirit of Christmas” endeavor for Juan, please feel free to stop by El Compadre Restaurant during this upcoming holiday season and place your inspirational ornament anywhere you wish on this very special *Word Christmas Tree*. He already feels your love; now he’ll get to see it.
This traumatic event in the life of our city did something unexpected to us.
It opened us up.
It united us.
We were all unified in our love for this humble, unassuming young man, who simply uses his life to invest and spread goodness in the lives of others.
What a lesson for all of us.
Simply by showing kindness, love and respect to others, Juan has taught us what greatness looks like in human form. And in doing so, he has made this corner of our world a better place to live. With people like Juan Zuniga in our world, it really is “A Wonderful Life.”