The first time Gustavo Beltran met Jennifer Bonilla, she was a 5-year-old with an infectious smile and irresistible spunk, who darted around the playground and insisted on calling him "Dad."
Her mother, Antonia, was a recent immigrant from El Salvador who worked long hours as a housekeeper to make ends meet. Jennifer was frequently home alone.
Gustavo was working as a kindergarten aide at St. Thomas the Apostle, a school in a poor inner-city neighborhood of Los Angeles. He took an immediate interest in the girl, sensing she could benefit from a father figure in her life.
"I learned that her mother was a single mom and that there was no father in the picture," he said. "So I thought, 'Maybe I can give this girl a little guidance.'"
Fast-forward 15 years, and Gustavo's guidance has paid greater dividends than anyone could have imagined. On Thursday, Jennifer and her Illinois teammates will face USC in the NCAA volleyball semifinals in San Antonio. It marks the first time in 23 years that Illinois has made it this far in the tournament.
"We're on a mission," said Jennifer. "We're not there yet, but we're fighters."
A way out
The story of how Jennifer grew from an inner city kid to a prime-time collegiate star all goes back to Gustavo. Realizing this kindergartner who'd become his shadow could easily fall through the cracks like so many in that neighborhood, Gustavo saw his chance to give another child the opportunities he'd never had for himself. He began spending time with Jennifer, babysitting her after school while her mother worked. As she progressed through elementary school, Gustavo never lost touch.
Several years later, the school launched a volleyball program and needed someone to coach it. Though he knew nothing about the sport, Gustavo volunteered. "I figured someone has to do it," he said. He invited Jennifer to join the team. She was only 10, and most players were 13, but it meant giving her something constructive to do after school instead of sitting home alone.
Jennifer, as it turned out, was pretty good. But the team was pretty bad.
"We were something like 0-40 for our first three years," Gustavo said. "We didn't win a match. I knew I was going to have to do something to help these kids improve."
So Gustavo became a student of the game, going to matches at nearby colleges and studying how the players moved, their warmup drills, their tactics on the court -- anything he could absorb and bring back to the girls at St. Thomas the Apostle.
Gradually, the team improved. Even then, it was clear Jennifer had something extra.
"Her ability to listen to what you wanted her to do, then go and execute it was so strong," Gustavo said. "She just kept getting better."
She became good enough that he wanted to give her a shot at something bigger than school volleyball. Together, they attended the USA Volleyball High Performance national tryouts in Anaheim, Calif. Jennifer was only 11, several years younger than the other players. People from back home told Gustavo he was nuts. What was a kid from the inner city doing trying to act all fancy? He ignored them.
"Growing up, I loved baseball," he said. "I was pretty good at it, but my family did not have the money to send me to camp or clinics." To this day, he watches the Dodgers play and wonders, "What if?"
Jennifer made the High Performance team. Perhaps equally important, she caught the eye of UCLA assistant coach Kim Jagd, who was coaching the players. With Jagd's advice and knowledge, Jennifer's game rose to a new level. The next several years involved traveling for tournaments and helping Jennifer fine tune her skills.
It was time intensive and costly. Beltran and his wife, Virna, went into bankruptcy in order to keep the teenager's dream of playing pro volleyball alive. What had started as a casual mentoring relationship had developed into something far deeper.
"Gustavo is like a father to me," said Jennifer, who took his last name, Beltran, as a symbol of her gratitude for all he has sacrificed for her. "It's not like they were wealthy people. Money was tight, and volleyball is an expensive sport. But they gave so much of themselves in order for me to have a chance."
Big Ten, big time
When it came time for college, several schools were interested in Jennifer, but she eventually chose Illinois.
"I just fell in love with the coaches and the program," she said.
The thrill of being at a Big Ten school, where sports are nearly a religion, has been amazing. For Jennifer, just being in college makes an impression.
"I am the first person in my family to [attend college]," she said. "So it means a lot."
Gustavo said he is proud of how she has handled the pressures of school while still paying attention to her game.
"With Jennifer, I'm just trying to teach her how life is," he said. "Not just to encourage her to be the best volleyball player, but to be the best person she can be."
His message has gotten through. After Thursday's semifinal, Jennifer plans to head home and visit one of the volleyball camps Gustavo has founded, trying to help other kids follow in her path.
"Every time I go home, I am surprised and reminded that these kids from my old school have heard about me and look up to me," she said. "And I remember what it felt like to have nothing and no one to look up to. So if feels good to fill that role."
Her leadership skills carry over to the volleyball court as well, where she says good communication skills are key to her role as libero.
"My strengths are being a good teammate as well as being able to pass and dig," she said. Any weakness? "I'm still working on doing a better job seeing everything around me, to help anticipate the next move."
Though Thursday's game could prove historic for Illinois, Jennifer insists it's just another match.
"You can't think of it differently," she said. "You still have to concentrate on the job you're doing and treat it like every other match."
Gustavo and Virna will be there to watch -- or at least will try to. Gustavo admits he took himself to the movies when the team played Florida in the quarterfinals last weekend because he was so nervous. He kept checking the score on his phone during the match.
"She has come such a long way," he said. "She has Olympic dreams, but I just want her to be happy, successful and independent in whatever she does."
For her part, Jennifer knows she would not be standing on the court without the tremendous generosity of the man she calls Dad.
"Gustavo has gone above and beyond what any normal parent would do for their child," she said. "He showed me -- and I want to show others -- that regardless of who you are or where you come from, you have a right to pursue your dreams."