BY AMANDA SOTELO
HARLINGEN — Left for dead during an armed robbery, Leonel Garza Jr. believes he was given a second chance at life for a reason.
With the help of Texas State Technical College, he has set out to make it the best life he can.
Tonight, the 33-year-old McAllen native will put on his cap and gown and walk the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium stage to receive his associate degree in Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) from TSTC.
“The fact that I’m graduating hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Garza. “I’m excited and proud, but it’s all still so surreal.”
Surreal because Garza almost didn’t make it to see this graduation day.
He still remembers every detail of April 28, 2016, the day an armed robber entered his apartment in Irving, Texas, at 6:45 a.m.
“My roommate, who I called ‘Abuelo,’ or grandfather, and I were getting ready for work and throwing out trash, when we forgot to lock our front door,” said Garza. “A simple mistake nearly cost us our lives.”
Garza and his 65-year-old roommate were shot by a would-be robber. “Abuelo” was shot in the chest and Garza was shot five times on his right side and back as the gunman demanded money and items.
“By the grace of God I was able to call 911,” said Garza. “I couldn’t feel my legs so I crawled to ‘Abuelo’ who was lying on the ground. This is the day I realized who I was as a person. I could have easily given up, but I didn’t.”
Garza said he remembers thinking that he had to live for “Abuelo,” who survived the attack, and for himself.
“At that moment I realized I wasn’t ready to die. There was more to life. I wanted a career, to be a husband and a father. That’s why I fought hard to live,” he said.
Garza had only been in Irving a few months on that fateful day. He had recently left a 10-year job as a security guard with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, was celebrating the completion of his HVAC certificate at an Irving vocational institute and was looking to start a new career.
The gunman was never arrested and Garza was left to slowly recuperate with three bullets forever lodged in his body. The incident also affected him emotionally and mentally.
“Physically I was a mess. I couldn’t walk without a walker or a cane and I was advised not to work for at least a year to allow my body to recuperate,” said Garza. “But I also wake up every day with the fear of being shot.”
Since then, Garza has returned to the Rio Grande Valley, married and now has a 1-year-old son, but he struggles daily with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But that has not stopped him from achieving his goals and living his life to the fullest.
Garza said TSTC, his instructors and classmates have helped him more than they will ever know.
“For a person like me who lives in constant fear, everyone at TSTC has given me the power to overcome it,” he said. “They have helped me move forward with my life and my education. They have helped me gain my life back.”
During his time at TSTC, Garza maintained a 3.75 grade-point average allowing him to graduate with honors, served as president for TSTC’s SkillsUSA chapter and parliamentarian for the Texas SkillsUSA chapter, even traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, last month for the SkillsUSA national conference.
Garza has also already interviewed with local HVAC companies and is waiting to get a call back. He hopes to gain experience in the field for a few years before pursuing his ultimate goal.
“Someday I plan on returning to TSTC as an HVAC instructor,” said Garza. “I hope to follow in my instructors’ footsteps and help other students the way everyone has helped me.”
Nearly 300 students will receive certificates or associate degrees during TSTC’s Commencement Ceremonies tonight at the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
For more information on HVAC Technology, visit tstc.edu.