Persistence, pride in work motivates Serrato
By Dana Delgado
For 18 years, Mari Serrato has been cheering on and comforting thousands of elementary school students in the Liberty Hill Independent School District.
As the custodial team leader at Bill Burden Elementary School (BBES), Serrato’s smile and loving spirit have been infectious and her work ethic incomparable and legendary. She is so dedicated that she has never been late to work despite working from the wee hours of the morning to the afternoon and sometimes into the evening.
With nearly two decades of service, she is the longest tenured custodian in LHISD, according to district officials, and has been recognized numerous times by the school district and her school.
“We love Ms. Mari!” exclaimed Tanya Lambert, BBES principal. “She is extremely dependable and takes care of things before we even know they need to be done. We often have visitors come into the building and ask if we are the new school because of how well she takes care of our campus. She takes great pride in our students and loves them like her own. We celebrate Ms. Mari every day!”
Serrato, along with the other campus custodians, was honored at the campus Wednesday during National School Custodian Day. Principal Lambert said that the Sunshine Committee organized students to decorate the custodian room doors and surprised their custodians with countless thankful letters of gratitude.
“I love my work and the kids,” said an emotional Serrato. “All of my teachers have helped me greatly. It’s a privilege to work here. They have treated me so well. I don’t want to ever leave.”
Her journey in the school district, however, almost never got started. After walking her children two miles to school for three years, she decided to seek employment. Officials balked at hiring her at first because of her limited English speaking skills. Through a translator, Serrato told the official that everything would be fine and that she would do the work and do it well.
“We will see,” she recalls the official saying who finally agreed to hire her for three hours a day at Liberty Hill Elementary. That day, Jan. 4, 2001, is etched in her mind.
“The first day at LHE was horrendous,” she recalls. “I went home distressed. I thought I didn’t want to return to work. I thought long and hard that night and realized that if things were difficult, I would need to overcome them and went back to work the next day.”
The next few weeks didn’t go any better for Serrrato.
“The other custodians yelled at me at first,” she said, “but I went on working.”
Two years later in 2003, former LHE Principal Larry Nicholson, who had come to her rescue and encouraged her after she had proven herself those first two years, told her that “it was time for her to go full-time,” she recollected. In 2006, she moved to Bill Burden Elementary where she captured the hearts and respect of the entire school community.
Former BBE Principal Terrie Chambers took notice of her exceptional work and dedication as well as her relationships with others and regularly honored her. The two formed a strong bond those 13 years they spent together.
“Mrs. Chambers helped me understand things and really encouraged me,” Serrato said. “When she left (retired at the end of 2018-2019 school year), I felt alone but she told me the district and the kids needed me.”
It was during their time together that Serrato was named the custodial team leader in 2009.
“It was my prize,” she said. “When I get the thanks for a great job, it’s a great honor. I am so thankful to God who has given me the strength.”
Besides serving the school district, Serrato cleans the Liberty Hill Post Office in the evenings to support her family. She has been there for the past 16 years.
“My bosses there have opened doors for me like I am family,” she said. “It’s beautiful to serve others. I just think it is a wonderful thing to do.”
Serrato is married to Hector, her husband of 39 years. The two, with professional college degrees, immigrated to the United States 35 years ago from Durango, Mexico. She had a business degree in accounting and worked in Juarez, Mexico, as an accountant and secretary at a college. He was a teacher.
“We were very poor,” she said. “We wanted a better life and a better future for our kids and we did that.”
They lived in Harlingen for two years before relocating to Liberty Hill where other family members resided.
In Liberty Hill, the couple raised their three children, Hector Jr., Jessica and Julie, all of whom went on to graduate from Liberty Hill High School.
Jessica, married to Dennis Mallinger, is a local real estate agent; Julie is a 2019 graduate of Texas Tech University and now doing graduate work at the University of North Texas. Hector Jr. has returned to Mexico to work as an interpreter and assists with framing houses. Two grandchildren, Riley and Sydni Serrato, attend LHHS and Liberty Hill Junior High respectively.
Speaking for her siblings and to her mother, Jessica Serrato described their mother as “our pillar, our rock, and our strength. We owe all we are today to you. You have shown us with hard work and determination that anything is possible. You are patient and when you put your heart on something, you don’t give up until you see results. You are a pure soul. Your advice has been an inspiration to us all. We love you so much to the moon and back.”
Jessica remembers her mother teaching her how to write checks while she paid bills so she could grow up to be a “sufficient, well-adjusted woman, knowing the value of a hard-earned pay check.”
She recalls driving her mother to the emergency room in Austin despite not knowing how to drive and being only 13 years old.
“‘I’ve seen you, you can do it,’” she said her mom told her. “With my mom saying that to me my whole life, I say if I drove through I-35 at 13 years of age, and my mom said I could do it, I can do anything.
“When I confide in my mom and I tell her I’m having a hard time with something, she always brings that story up and makes any situation feel easy to overcome and accomplish,” she said.
“Instead of counting numbers, which I did as an accountant in Mexico, I get to count children at Bill Burden Elementary,” Serrato said. “Their smiles lift me up and I lift them up. It’s beautiful to see them laugh. Liberty Hill is home and my life is my kids. I am so grateful.”