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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Vilma Valle is congratulated after taking the oath of citizenship at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City Wednesday. She works at Edith Bowen Laboratory School.

For the past five years, students at Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan have greeted Vilma Valle, their beloved custodian and the woman who kindly opens their milk cartons every day with a smile.

They greeted her with hugs, flowers and many congratulations Wednesday after she took the oath of citizenship and became an American citizen along with 1,500 others during a ceremony at the Capitol Theatre.

"It is very exciting. I am sad. I am happy. I am so many things together," Valle said, with tears in her eyes and her arms overflowing with gifts. "Right now, when I see all the children, I'm very happy."

The students had no small part in Valle becoming a citizen. They spent the past year collecting money to cover her citizenship fees and prepped her for the citizenship test.

"She's a great custodian, and I know she'll make a great citizen of the United States," said Nicholas Rodgers, a fifth-grader at Edith Bowen. He helped her learn the colors of the flag and the number of stripes it has.

"To be a citizen means that you support your country, you love your country and you are proud of your country," Rodgers said. "She is so nice. I know she can do that."

Valle came to America 20 years ago to find a new life after an earthquake "destroyed my house, my life and also my marriage." She left her two children with family and walked from her native country, El Salvador, to California, riding only a short while on the back of a cart.

The life she found eventually took her to the school, a laboratory learning facility on the Utah State University campus, where she got to know several students, faculty and staff while working as a custodian.

"It's a job I know I can do," she said. "I grew to love it here. It is my family and home here."

Several years ago, then-Principal Kaye Rhees approached Valle after school one day, learned her story and discovered her desire to become an American citizen.

"She was dumping garbage cans, just doing her job like she always does, when I learned of her great sacrifice to get here," Rhees said. She said Valle was intimidated by the citizenship process because she didn't think she spoke English well enough or had the money to pay for the process.

Rhees turned the project over to the student council, and the kids took it from there, earning more than $400 in quarters throughout the year, enough to pay for the citizenship test and other materials. Kids also quizzed her on the questions contained in the exam, which in turn helped them learn the importance of being an American.

"I am very happy for her," said fifth-grader Alyssia Martin. "She can actually vote and be able to be a citizen now." The 10-year-old said the school would be "a mess" without Valle.

Students at the First Amendment school — meaning it receives federal grant money to operate — have spent countless hours learning, studying and living rights granted under the Constitution, Rhees said.

"What more is there than to watch real America take place," she said. "This is the real thing. This is something they will remember."

Valle was overwhelmed by hugs from the fifth-graders, who have watched her take the necessary steps toward becoming a citizen since she began working at the school. The next step, she said, "is to help bring my kids here now." She expressed excitement to be able to vote in the upcoming election and also to become just like the people she has grown to know and love in the Logan community.

"They have helped me, helped push me to this day," Valle said. "They are my friends. They are my citizens."

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