By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
At Mary Ann Binford Elementary School, there was a boy who would get into trouble quite a bit, so physical education teacher Janice Saavedra was always working with him.
But this day at school, Saavedra was gone; ill and unable to be there.
At a hectic point that day, the boy asked Cella Garcia, another PE teacher who worked with Saavedra, " 'Do you need help, Ms. Garcia?'
"I said, 'sure,' " remembered Garcia, who was putting up equipment and such. "So he starts helping me out. And he looks around the gym, and he looks at me, and he says, 'You know what? It's really hard around here without Ms. Saavedra.'
"So I think even the kids saw that she was a strong person."
Saavedra taught PE for 23 years at Mary Ann Binford Elementary. She was the one who started the Play Day year-end outdoor celebration and the annual school and community fitness Fun Run that's come to be named after her. She oversaw an intramural sports program during her lunchtime, ran the after-school program and was instrumental in starting the school's conflict mediation program, which trains students as mediators so they can iron out their differences among themselves.
"Her label here at the school was 'PE coach,' but she was more than that," said Angela Gurule, a colleague. "She was all about the kids. She was here for no other reason except for the kids."
Janice Saavedra died July 10 after battling cancer. The Albuquerque resident was 49.
Saavedra was thrilled when she landed the physical education teaching position at Binford, said her life partner Deborahrose Poster.
"It was her dream to teach PE (and it combined) her love of sports, her love of teaching and her love of children," said Poster, who also is a Binford teacher. "And she had a gift with that. She knew how to explain things to them to make them better at what they did. I saw examples of that throughout her whole life, even with her nieces and nephews."
One niece, Alyssa Martinez, wrote this about Saavedra: "You were always there for me to cheer me on in the sports or when I messed up, you would always be there to cheer me back up and tell me what I needed to do to be better. Whenever I had a choice to make, you would always be the first person who I would ask for advice. You would tell me what you thought ..."
Martinez's tribute is one of nearly 40 to Saavedra that was posted on an online funeral home guest book Friday.
Saavedra was a Duke City native who moved to Bosque Farms when she was about 10. She graduated from Los Lunas High School, where she was "an amazing athlete and great teammate," those who played alongside her recall.
"What didn't she play," Poster said. "She played basketball. She played softball, she did track and field, volleyball."
Saavedra got her bachelor's degree in physical education from the University of New Mexico and returned to school to get her elementary education degree.
After substitute and student teaching work in Los Lunas, Saavedra got a job as a fifth-grade classroom teacher at Mary Ann Binford, and a few years later became the PE teacher.
"When I first started working there, I was mostly amazed that she knew every kid's name — 840 students in the school, and Janice knew every child's name," Garcia said. "I would see it with her kindergarten class that came in. She would repeat their name as they came in all the time.
"She said it's important to make them feel special."
"Ms. Saavedra" or "Coach Saavedra" was not the type who ambled in when the school day started and skipped away when the last class concluded.
"She worried about the kids," Garcia said. "Sometimes during her prep time she would say, 'There's been kids who are getting into trouble at recess,' so she would go out and she would walk around the grounds during recess just to make sure they were behaving."
In the conflict mediation program, she didn't settle for the children who were eager to take part. "She would put a lot of thought into it and she would choose students who sometimes were maybe taking the wrong path and she would say, 'I know this program is going to change them,' and it would," Garcia said.
These are among the many descriptions of Saavedra: "The backbone of Mary Ann Binford." "The rock-hard foundation of that wonderfully loving school." "Janice was loved by her co-workers and students. She was always upbeat and full of energy."
Poster says students gravitated to Saavedra for a number of reasons: Her knowledge of sports, and helping the children learn how to play them. There was her charm, or as Poster said, "there was always hugs."
"It's one thing to give the kids advice, but it's another thing to give the kids advice and for them to understand it and grow with it," said Tim Martinez, a nephew. "Janice had the ability to do that."
Martinez also leaned on his aunt for advice, advice that drew reactions like, "Why didn't I think of that?" or "Oh, wow, that makes sense."
"That's what's going to be greatly missed about her," he said. "The family lost a loved one that we're going to miss dearly, but I feel bad for the community because she had so much more to give to the community. ... She had so much more room to touch other people, especially the youth."
Saavedra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late 2008. She left Mary Ann Binford for a time, returned, and left again in August 2009.
"And still there was not a day that went by that there was not at least one student who, when they walked into that gym, they would ask me, 'Is Ms. Saavedra back?' 'When is Ms. Saavedra coming back?' " Garcia said.
"The kids really, really missed her."
Along with her life partner of 23 years, Deborahrose Poster, Saavedra's survivors include her father, Arthur, of Bosque Farms; sister, Josie (husband Candy) Gabaldon, Los Lunas; brothers, Mike (wife Ida) Saavedra, Los Lunas and Steve (wife Barbara) Saavedra, Bosque Farms; many nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews. Services took place this week at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande Catholic Church. Interment followed at Gate of Heaven Cemetery.