It’s impossible to meet Joseph ‘Gabe’ Sonnier and not feel changed. He has an aura of positive energy that is quite contagious. I took my 13 yr. old son with me on the road trip to meet Gabe so it was a fortunate windfall for him to hear Gabe’s story firsthand.
Gabe Sonnier is a testament of perseverance, faith and focus. Thirty-three years ago Gabe was hired at Port Barre Elementary School in Port Barre, Louisiana as the school’s custodian. He held the position for 27 years. In November of 2013, he was appointed the school’s newest Principal. Gabe’s journey is an inspiration and we are proud to relay it here.
Gabe is the oldest of five siblings. He was born in Leonville, Louisiana in 1961. He and his siblings were raised by his mom. Needless to say, a mom raising five kids on her own met with struggle trying to house, feed, and clothe a family. At the same time, the determination in the household was for each child to get their education no matter what. After graduating from Leonville High School in St. Landry Parish, Gabe went on to attend Southern University. He opted to forego college, after his freshman year, to find work.
He wanted to help financially with the household his mother worked hard to maintain while helping HIM with college expenses. College was put on hold indefinitely as Gabe’s brothers and sisters were all seen after and they themselves completed high school. After a few jobs that included working at a supermarket, working construction and at a sawmill, Gabe found himself married with children. He again put his own aspirations of college aside to focus on raising he and his wife Felicia’s two boys, Shaun and Maurice.
In 1981, Gabe learned that a former teacher, then principal at the school, was looking for a janitor. Gabe applied for the job and was hired as custodian at Port Barre Elementary. The Principal at the time, Westley Jones, noted Gabe’s infectious personality and ability to reach and relate to those around him early on. Gabe must have made quite an impression as one day in 1985, Principal Jones pulled him aside and encouraged him to get involved in the education field and go beyond working as the school custodian. His message, “I’d rather see you grading papers than picking them up.”
Once his sons entered college, Gabe enrolled in Louisiana State University at Eunice and began working toward his Associate’s degree in General Studies.
The school district management and the school's principal worked with Gabe to create a work schedule that would allow him to be a full time student and still make his salary. This meant that Gabe reported to work at 5:00AM daily, worked until it was time to leave for his college courses, then returned to work in the afternoon and completed the balance of his shift. Often Gabe’s work day ended late in the evening and he arrived home to start homework. Sleep a few hours, then repeat. During this time, Gabe and Felicia also faithfully attended their sons’ college games every weekend.
Through the milestones and obstacles, including the death of both his father in 2005 and his mother the following year, Gabe was able to maintain a 4.0 grade point average. By 2008, Gabe had earned his Bachelor’s degree from University of Louisiana-Lafayette and transitioned from custodian to Port Barre Elementary School teacher!!
Gabe didn’t stop there. After teaching for three years, he went on to enroll in the Master’s program through Arkansas State University and earned a Masters degree in Education Leadership.
Fast forward to 2013 and Gabe applied for the Principal’s position vacated when the school’s Principal retired. "I remember when I got the call offering me the position. I felt all my hard work was vindicated. I was exhilarated to reach another milestone in my life. My family was so proud."
Gabe is determined to bring his best to his new position. Now 8 months into his new role at Port Barre Elementary, he still greets his students with a smile and a strategy to improve their lives with a proper educational foundation. Gabe also is involved with his church’s prison ministry program and shares his inspirational story as much as possible. He believes that his destiny is sealed and God’s intention is for him to inspire others with his story. “It’s not about where you start from, it’s how you finish”
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