Leadership and backstory set this Bristol teen apart

BRISTOL — For those who know him, it’s no exaggeration to call 17-year-old Victor Hinojosa of Bristol a pillar of the community.
Hinojosa is a Bristol Fire Department cadet, and working on an Eagle Scout project to put birdhouses in Sycamore Park. He’s Vermont Order of the Arrow lodge chief and vice president. He’s testified before the Vermont Legislature and more than one governor in support of Starksboro’s Unbound Grace youth program. He’s volunteered at Unbound Grace as a junior counselor, in Bristol at the food shelf and in the children’s department at Lawrence Memorial Library. He’s already enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve.
That was all before he graduated from Mount Abraham Union High School this month.
“Victor has always been a kind, conscientious person, even since elementary school,” said Catrina DiNapoli, who was his principal at Bristol Elementary, where, as a sixth-grader Hinojosa was recognized for extraordinary service and leadership in being awarded the school’s Terence Evarts Award.
“He was recognized by his teachers and peers as someone always there to help someone, find a solution to a problem and be the voice of reason,” continued DiNapoli, now Mount Abraham Unified School District assistant superintendent.
The United Way of Addison County last month bestowed on Hinojosa its High School Senior Volunteer Scholarship Award for his impressive record of community service. And he was recently awarded the Army Reserve’s four-year Minuteman Scholarship.
Last year, Hinojosa was one of MAUHS’s representatives to Vermont Boys State, where he was elected Speaker of the House. And come this fall, he’ll attend Norwich University, majoring in political science and joining its Corps of Cadets.
Hinojosa has his sights set on a career in law enforcement with the Vermont State Police and plans to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives.
One day, he also hopes to be elected governor of Vermont — a goal that anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in Hinojosa’s company would be inclined to take seriously.
Yet based on the bare facts and circumstances, events in Hinojosa’s early life suggests a story that could — all too easily — have gone another way.
According to court documents, on Dec. 21, 2000, at around 6 a.m. Cristian Hinojosa-Gutierrez, 35, fatally stabbed his wife, Betty Jo Goodrich, 22, in the bedroom of Trailer 43 at Blaise’s Trailer Park in Bristol. Courts had already issued a relief from abuse order on Goodrich’s behalf and police had a warrant out for Hinojosa-Gutierrez’s arrest. Immigration officials had also been looking for him for over five years, for deportation to his native Chile.
Before calling 9-1-1 to report the murder, Hinojosa-Gutierrez carried his 17-month-old son, Victor, out of the bedroom where he’d been sleeping in his crib and gave him some juice.
A year later, Hinojosa-Gutierrez pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life, with all but 15 years suspended and credit for time served. He was sent to the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland.
Victor and his older sister, Kathryn, were placed under the guardianship of their maternal grandmother, Dixie Goodrich.
Victor Hinojosa refuses to be defined by the past.
“Someone without parents is considered an orphan,” he said. “I hate that term. When I think of an orphan, I think of someone who doesn’t have steady roots, who doesn’t have someone to love them.
“It might sound harsh, but personally I think that people that have had a bad past — they can really move forward and do something good with themselves. I’d like to think that I’ve done something like that.”
Hinojosa’s accomplishments, his ambitious plans for the future, his dedication to serving others bear witness to his own remarkable strength of character.
His story also says something about the power of family and of community — and their crucial place in helping all young people reach their true potential.
“I owe whatever success I’ve had to the communities I’ve been involved in, whether it be the Bristol town community, the fire department, the Boy Scouts, the Order of the Arrow, Unbound Grace,” Hinojosa said. “They taught me. They gave me something, maybe not something physical that I could hold in my hands but they gave me something that I took away and I learned from it.”
When Hinojosa was around nine or 10, he tagged along with this aunt and sister to visit a horse camp, Starksboro’s Unbound Grace, run by Kerry Kurt (see related story by clicking here). Right away he knew he wanted to go.
Hinojosa’s involvement with Unbound Grace provides a telling example of how he’s learned from each of the communities that have embraced him and how he’s taken each lesson to heart.
One of Kurt’s first rules, said Hinojosa, is no running in the barn because it spooks the horses.
“I was in the barn and I was brushing a horse and there was a kid at the end of the barn and he started running,” said Hinojosa. “Of course the horse got spooked and it bit my butt. When horses bite, they don’t let up. They clench all the way down.
“So it’s things like that that you don’t realize when you’re a kid. I had a bruise on my butt, that’s all I cared about. But now I can apply that to real life: What you do today is going to affect other people tomorrow.”
And then there was the time the kids dared each other to touch the electric fence.
After one kid touched the fence and nothing happened, Hinojosa grabbed it himself — and got a jolt. A bit surprised, he started laughing.
“I remember that as a great experience. We all just laughed,” he said. “It gave me the experience of messing up and being able to laugh at myself and learning from that.”
Being around horses also taught Hinojosa how to face challenges gracefully. He said that Kurt emphasized that to brush a horse you have to keep one hand on that powerful animal so it knows you’re there.
“It was very scary at first being alone in a stall with a horse,” Hinojosa said. “Taking that first step into a stall is very nerve-wracking. But I wanted to learn more about that horse. It sort of shows kids that a lot of things can be scary but they don’t have to be if you understand them better.”
He fondly recalls the big end-of-camp campout: hot dogs, a campfire, sleeping in tents, staying up with other campers and talking all night.
Indeed, his life’s plan to become governor is rooted in his Unbound Grace experience.
“I could help a lot of people (as governor). But before I can ride that horse, there’s all this poo that I have to shovel beforehand, all these horses that I have to brush or feed or water beforehand to get to that point.”
Hinojosa credits “Nana” Goodrich with creating a secure and loving home in which to grow up and for teaching him “the backbone of being a good person to other people.”
He and his sister lived with Goodrich, Aunt Alice Chandler and cousin Karen Chandler in Bristol. Just weeks before his 16th birthday, his grandmother died of breast cancer.
“It stunk, to say the least. She was sort of like my mom,” Hinojosa said.
Yet, even while battling cancer, she kept up her sense of humor.
“She had a really good attitude. She didn’t want to dampen our days. She wanted us to just keep going and know that she was there to support us in any way that she could.”
The fire department has provided yet another important family for Hinojosa; he joined two years ago. Fire Chief Brett LaRose said Hinojosa’s first experience in the fire service was to help rescue a cat out of a tree.
“Not only did he see the value of what we do in helping people but at the same time he also got kind of a little laugh out of it,” LaRose recalled. “‘Really? You guys do this too?’ Yeah, we do. If people don’t know who to call, they call the fire department.”
For LaRose, Hinojosa is a young man who truly demonstrates the fire department’s core values.
“Victor brings whatever you need to the table,” he said. “He is responsible. He’s a young man who demonstrates integrity, honesty. He’s thoughtful. He’s caring.”
Hinojosa has, in turn, been influenced by LaRose’s approach to leadership: his high standards for training and excellence, the ways he encourages firefighters to support each other, his focused decision making.
“Brett’s taught me that when you’re going to make a decision, make it when you are informed enough to make it and make it decisively. When we’re on a fireground and he’s the operations command, you have to make those split decisions. He makes them — from my standpoint it looks very easy to see him doing it.”
Indeed, one of LaRose’s statements at fire department meetings has become for Hinojosa a guiding principle in life.
“Brett said, ‘If you can’t change, you can’t grow.’ That has stuck with me. That’s a huge thing to remember,” Hinojosa said.
“I think we could all learn something from that and say: Use your time wisely. I try to help as many people as I can no matter what I’m doing and try to really focus on helping other people rather than on myself.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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