By Jacob Beltran
Friday’s Arbor Day Tree Planting ceremony at Main Campus Building is a joint event celebrating both Arbor Day and the life of Sonya Renee Guerra, a former university employee.
Guerra died in June after an eight month battle with breast cancer. She was 46. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, she endured chemotherapy treatments several times as the cancer spread to her bones and eventually her liver and lungs.
A tree, planted in memory of Guerra, will be placed between Main Campus Building and Central Academic Building and will include a bronze plaque placed in front of the tree with the words “Sonia’s Tree of Life.”
One of the first employees hired by the university, Guerra’s 11-year career found her in positions such as administrative assistant in the formerly named Department of Arts & Sciences and a clerk in the office of procurement.
“She was an amazing lady who loved this university,” said Director of Procurement J.J. McQuade, who worked alongside Guerra for four years. “I guess you’d call her a tough bird in many ways, but as gentle and as compassionate as you could find.”
Born Sept. 12, 1966 in Houston, Guerra was raised in San Antonio.
She graduated from Southside High School in 1985, and before that, found a job working at La Cabana restaurant on the city’s northeast side at the age of 14 alongside her older sister, Nema Brown.
Even as she worked for the University, Guerra continued serving at La Cabana on the weekends. “She’s always had a lot of customers that she liked and that came to see her too,” her sister Nema said.
She worked and attended college simultaneously.
She graduated first from Palo Alto, and then became one the first graduates to earn a bachelor’s in accounting from the Texas A&M Kingsville System Center-San Antonio.
Following graduation, she worked as a clerk in the office of procurement with McQuade. In an unlikely turn of events, Guerra interviewed McQuade for his current position.
“She was loved across all levels, across the entire university,” McQuade said. “For a long time it was just the two of us in the office and we struggled with a lot of work together, but had a lot of fun….My fondest memory is when I was her boss, she sat down and interviewed me as part of my interview process, which I didn’t mind at all ….that’s how I got to know her.
Told by doctors she had 11 weeks to live, Guerra continued to help other cancer patients by asking for donations.
Guerra also started the university’s own Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure team which has been active for several years. Each year, Guerra was able to collect between $600-$800 to be donated to the foundation. Last year she hit close to $800.
“She had days to live, and she was still asking to help others,” McQuade recalled.
Because of budget cuts in the cancer center she was treated, patients could no longer receive snacks as they waited through chemotherapy treatments. Guerra asked her coworkers to collect hard candy and snacks to donate to the center.
McQuade said she sympathized with other patients during treatment because of the bad taste chemotherapy injections leave in patients’ mouths. “They spend all day there with nothing to eat,” McQuade said.
Guerra also donated her time to newly diagnosed cancer patients. “She would talk to a lot of different patients about the treatments, saying the worst thing is not knowing what you’re about to go through,” her sister said.
The idea to plant a tree in her honor came from Elena Tijerina, executive assistant to the vice president for finance and administration. Tijerina said the idea was put into her heart because of her strong connection with Guerra, spanning back to when their offices were housed in portables at the Gillette Campus.
“She was warm, friendly and very personable; a strong person,” Tijerina said. “She was very determined to accomplish things, and she accomplished a lot in her life.”
Although they didn’t work in the same office, they often ran into each other as passersby in the portables. Grabbing lunch with her at times, Tijerina said, “I could take her anywhere — and I don’t care where I took her — somebody knew her.”
The idea of planting the tree coincided with the Arbor Day celebrations, making it a great time to honor her, McQuade said.
State representative Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, will host the Arbor Day Ceremony to be attended by Thomas Boggus, the state forester and director the Texas A&M forest service.
The ceremony, hosted by State Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, will be held 9 a.m. Nov. 1 south of Main Campus Building.
Senior communications specialist Jillian Reddish said at least 20 trees with a pink ribbon will be given to relatives and friends to plant.
Farias, Boggus and the city representative will head separately Harlandale, East Central, and Southwest schools to participate in the school hosted Arbor Day ceremonies.
To honor Guerra’s contribution to cancer patients, visitors are asked to bring hard candy and snacks to the ceremony, which will be donated to the Start Center for Cancer Research. Snacks can also be donated any time to Jonie Foster, senior assistant to the provost in Room 303 of Main Campus Building.
Sonya Renee Guerra
Born: Sept. 12, 1966, Houston
Died: June 23, 2013, San Antonio
Preceded by: Brother John Pitchler
Survived by: Mother Betty Jo Pitchler, daughter Jennifer Guerra, sons Bradly and Travis Guerra, sister Nema Brown and brothers Jack Pitchler, Darryl Schindler and Willie Long.
Schedule of events:
9 a.m. – Arbor Day Kick Off and Commemorative Tree Dedication, TAMU-SA Main Campus
10:30-11:30 a.m. – Community Tree Planting, East Central, Harlandale, South San, Southside and Southwest ISDs
12-2 p.m. – Arbor Day Fair and Tree Adoption, TAMU-SA Main Campus
The celebration will culminate with an Arbor Day Fair from 12-2 p.m., featuring tree giveaways, educational booths and a farmer’s market at the A&M-San Antonio Main Campus.