Advocating for Literacy

St. Mary’s fifth-grade teacher and Books on Becker volunteer Merita Wilson has been named one of the News-Bulletin’s 2021 Unsung Heros. She has been teaching for more than 35 years. Makayla Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo

“I had always wanted to be a trailblazer. I wanted to be an Elenor Roosevelt, an Ameilia Earheart, a Mother Theresa, Merita Wilson said. “I wanted to be somebody who made a difference in the world and I’ve probably made a few differences.”

Elementary school teacher and child literacy advocate Merita Wilson may have only lived in Belen for a few years, but has already begun to make waves with her volunteer work with Books on Becker, the Friends of the Belen Public Library and now on the Rio Communities Library Board.

“I like to make books come alive for kids, not just reading them,” Wilson said. “I tell [my students] all the time: Good readers cannot help from having questions pop up in their mind; good readers cannot keep from wondering about things; Good readers know when they are not reading well anymore.”

Dorie Corrao first met Wilson in a local yoga class shortly after Wilson moved to Belen. Although Corrao was one of the older women to participate in the class, Wilson took the time to go over and comment on Corrao’s beauty.

“I think all of us were just kind of, we come do our exercises and leave,” Corrao said. “I went out of my way just to tell her ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ Bless her heart, she told me one day, ‘Did you know you’re one of the most beautiful women in this room?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m probably the oldest woman in the room.’ She’s just a very caring person.”

Shortly after, Corrao quickly roped her in as  a volunteer with Books on Becker, leading to Wilson establishing and designing their children’s room along with volunteer Kathy Jaramillo. Her dedication to children’s literature led Corrao — a past Unsung Hero herself — to nominate Wilson for the acknowledgement this year.

“She just is wonderful when kids come,” Corrao said about Wilson. “She knows all of the children’s literature being an elementary school teacher. She had retired, but she missed it so badly, she decided to go back.

“She’s just a person who goes around doing good things. She is just a joy for the community. She is bright, cheerful always, and she is very competent. I have just loved her since I’ve met her.”

In the children’s room, Wilson bought the curtains, brought in decorative pillows and generally decorated the whole room. Every child who comes in the store, she will help them pick out two free books.

“If they come everyday, then everyday they get two books,” Wilson said with a smile, adding if she knows anything, it’s children’s books.

Overall, Books on Becker has seven different rooms with floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves, each one overflowing with good reads waiting to be discovered.

“You would think you’re in a little quaint New York City bookstore if you go there,” she said. “It is beautiful. I would say that 98 percent of our books are either a quarter or a dollar or free.”

Before becoming involved as a volunteer with Books on Becker, Wilson said adjusting to retirement had been a difficult transition after teaching for 34 years, especially when she would see what her friend’s classes were doing on Facebook.

“That first year that I was retired, it was like the first Halloween and all my friends were posting pictures of their class and my heart was just so sad,” she said. “I spent the whole year dreading turning on the computer and seeing what my past life was doing.”

That’s when Wilson decided to make the move back into teaching again with a job at St. Mary’s Catholic School in a fifth-grade class — her favorite grade level — after substituting at the school.

“Like ‘How Stella Got Her Groove’ back, I got my groove back,” Wilson said with a laugh, although admitting she had never actually seen the film.

Wilson knew going back into teaching in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult, but she just took a deep breath and walked in.

Before starting her post-retirement  life in Valencia County, Wilson spent years teaching in Hatch, N.M., Albuquerque and Grants, N.M.

She grew up and wed her husband — who she said was the only date she had ever been on — in Grants before Valencia County was split in two creating Cibola County, so she equated moving to Belen to a homecoming.

Wilson credits her training in Hatch for transforming her from a good teacher into making it her passion. She admits while she was resistant to the new techniques at first, after she adapted them into her classroom, she never looked back.

In her time in Valencia County, Wilson also served on the Friends of the Belen Public Library Board as the treasurer, and was appointed in August to the new Rio Communities Library Board.

“My fame and glory on that is I have balanced those books down to one cent,” Wilson chuckled. “The bank says I have a penny more than I have. I don’t know where I missed that penny.”

Although Wilson said she knows she’s a trailblazer who has made a difference in her students’ lives, being named a 2021 Unsung Hero still came as a surprise.

“My heart dropped. I feel honored, but I know that there are so many people in this community who are as deserving or more deserving,” she said. “It’s just they don’t always get named. I’m very appreciative, and my mother will cut that article out and stick it on her refrigerator.”

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Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.