When John Omernik ’88 tied his shoes, stretched, and headed out the door for a run, he had no idea how much his life was about to change.
It was Holy Week, and Omernik, the principal of a San Miguel Cristo Rey Catholic high school in Tucson, Arizona, was vacationing in Mexico City. As he ran through familiar streets, something compelled him to take a break and head inside an unfamiliar church.
“I stopped in this little chapel and said, ‘God, here I am again. What do You want me to do next?’”
Omernik already knew the answer. Being back in this city he loved, Omernik had felt a pull to put his vast educational experience to good use in a place that desperately needed it. But whenever he’d start to entertain the idea of making a life-altering decision, his head would fill with reasons not to do it.
He’d have to move to a new country. His life wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable. He’d need to improve his mastery of Spanish.
Inside the chapel, these excuses melted away.
“The message I got back was, ‘Look at me on this cross. Do you think this was easy? I’m with you all the time. Have I ever not been with you?’”
Two years later, Omernik lives full-time in Mexico City, where he runs The Little Spanish-English School out of his apartment in Tlatelolco, a working-class neighborhood. The humble location belies a hugely ambitious mission: to teach underprivileged children and their parents to speak English, a transformative skill in Mexico.
The Little Spanish-English School’s roots date back to the fall of 1985 when Omernik studied abroad in Mexico City as a Notre Dame student. That experience was cut short when a 8.1-magnitude earthquake forced students to return to South Bend, but Omernik left determined to return at some point.
He graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in finance and began his career with Ernst & Young in San Francisco. Seven years later, Omernik began volunteering at St. Dominic’s Catholic school in San Francisco and realized his true passion was education. He became a full-time teacher at the school. Omernik went on to teach and serve as principal at San Miguel, Nativity, and Cristo Rey Catholic schools in economically challenged neighborhoods in the most underserved areas of San Francisco, The Bronx, and Tucson.
He first returned to Mexico City in 2007 for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical, but he ended up staying until 2010. He lived in community with Christian Brothers, taught English at a local Christian Brothers’ school, and worked at their orphanage, where he mentored and befriended a number of abandoned children, several of whom now help him run the Little Spanish-English School.
After his visit to the chapel during his 2016 trip, Omernik relocated to Mexico City a few months later. He converted a bedroom in his apartment into a classroom. In the afternoons and evenings, every Monday through Thursday, three different classes of 5-10-year-old girls and boys and their parents learn to read and speak English. Each class is limited to 10 students—five children and five adults. “Because it’s the maximum I can actually fit in the room,” Omernick explains. The waiting list to attend the school has reached over 20 aspiring students.
The cost per student is roughly $1 per class. Each session begins with a quiz on the previous day’s material. If the students perform to a certain level on their quizzes, the cost of that day’s class is refunded.
“We’re giving money back half of the time, and I’m thrilled,” Omernik says. “I love it. Because that means they’re motivated and learning.”
Omernik is in awe of the progress his students have made, but he’s far from satisfied. Seeking a broader impact, he’s hoping to purchase a building to open a large, full-time school for children in preschool through high school. It will be a private, tuition-free school designed to provide a holistic, life-changing education for underserved and vulnerable children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to one. The school day will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., much longer than the typical one in Mexico City, where only 3.5 hours per day are required. All classes will be taught in Spanish and English so that students graduate with a mastery of both languages.
His goals even stretch beyond his adopted home of Mexico. Eventually, Omernik would like to expand his model to other Latin American countries, with Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador as early targets.
To make these dreams a reality, Omernik has set up a non-profit foundation and reached out to his friends and former colleagues for support. In January, a group of Zahm Hall friends from Notre Dame threw a fundraiser in Chicago and raised over $75,000.
Still, Omernik faces significant obstacles. He points to government corruption and a lack of focus on the value of education as the biggest challenges in Mexico. The massive earthquakes that struck the city in October and February also has complicated his plans, making potential buildings for his school scarce and more expensive.
Yet Omernik’s faith in his mission remains unwavering. It’s been two years since he stepped into that chapel and answered the call—“Look at me on this cross. Do you think this was easy? I’m with you all the time. Have I ever not been with you?”—that transformed his life. While the challenges are many, Omernik says they are nothing in light of the chance to give even one child the hope and opportunity of education, and he is embracing the biggest challenge of his professional life.
“There’s days when I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, are we ever going to get there?’” he says. “But we will. All in God’s time.”