Bay Area Proud

Elementary School Custodian Missed His ‘Kids,' So He Got Creative to Let Them Know How Much

James Herrera is much more than the custodian at Holly Oak Elementary School. He's also their artist-in-residence.

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Eight months into this pandemic and few things have been quite as disquieting as the quiet of an elementary school.

James Herrera has heard it. Or, more accurately, not heard it.

For the past seven years, Herrera has been the custodian at Holly Oak Elementary School in San Jose. The quiet campus has been unnerving to a man who loves the energy that young children bring into his life.

"It's very bad. Something's missing," Herrera said. "Every time I walk past the playground and see it empty, I forget what my job is."

Herrera is looking forward to the day when all his "kids" can safely return to school. Until that time, though, he has another plan to bring students back to campus.

"I'm going to make my own," Herrera laughs.

Now, to understand just what Herrera means, there's something you have to understand about him. He is much more than Holly Oak's custodian. He is their artist in residence.

Herrera's creations are all over Holly Oak: sculptures, paintings, and mosaics adorn almost every building at the school.

The school's principal, Kyle Sanchez, says in all his years as an administrator, he's never worked with someone quite like Herrera.

"I've never seen that level of commitment to the school," Herrera said.

The inspiration for Herrera's lastest project came from a painting he recently purchased at a flea market. It's a bird's-eye depiction of a bustling beach town, filled with people playing, strolling, and shopping.

"When I saw the picture it reminded me of the playground during recess," Herrera said. "A light blub went on in my head."

So, for the past month, Herrera has been cutting out young person-sized images on cardboard, then sending them home for students to decorate and then return.

Herrera now has more than 100 and is hoping to display all of them on the school's playground, bringing "life," in a way, back to Holly Oak.

He knows that distance learning has left many students feeling disconnected from their school community and he wanted to let them know they were missed.

"Their moral is down," Herrera said. "So, that's what it's for. Build them up."

"Build them up," by letting the students know that even if they can't be there in person, they are there in cardboard, paint, and most of all, in spirit.

All thanks to a custodian who clearly cares about so much more than just cleaning.

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