Women's Volleyball
Bonilla provides Illinois' version of the 'Blind Side' Story

Jennifer Bonilla has been a part of USA Volleyball for six years.
Jennifer Bonilla has been a part of USA Volleyball for six years.

by Mike Koon, University of Illinois Sports Information

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Episode 1 of Volleyball Freshman Year

Freshman Jennifer Bonilla takes over at one of the pivotal positions on a volleyball team, libero, for a school, Illinois, ranked in the top five in the country with Final Four aspirations. Talk about pressure. If you have been through what Bonilla has, however, you'll have no doubt that she'll be up for the challenge.

"I have met so many people through the years who have wanted to help me and support me. That is what has pushed me to this point. I have constantly been thinking what's going to happen at the end of this dream. I'm hoping it's something great. That's what I'm working toward."

"I can deal with pressure and I'm okay with it because I've learned how to deal with a lot of things," Bonilla said. "There have been so many times that I have had to grow up fast. I knew what I was getting into coming here. I just say `Bring it on. This is going to be great.'"

Bonilla's Tough Road

The road to Illinois somewhat resembles the 2009 hit movie The Blind Side , for Bonilla. Coming from humble beginnings, Bonilla found a family willing to take her into their home, got her into volleyball, sent her to an exclusive private school, and helped her realize her dream of going to college. Only this family wasn't as wealthy as the one in the movie and sacrificed even more to give Bonilla a new life.

Bonilla was born and raised in inner city Los Angeles, a stone's throw from L.A. High. Her mom, Antonia, emigrated to the United States from El Salvador and worked as a housekeeper six days per week. Her father was never in the picture, so Antonia was left to raise Jennifer by herself. The neighborhood wasn't safe, so Jennifer spent all her time indoors and with no caretaker at home, Antonia brought Jennifer to work with her.

"It's rare when you find a child born and raised in that area who says `I want to do this and goes on to do it," Jennifer said. "It's rare to find opportunities because it's kind of hard to give your kid that dream."

Antonia figured a catholic school education would benefit her daughter so she enrolled her at St. Thomas the Apostle, a K-8 school about 10 minutes away, and took Jennifer to there every day on the city bus until she had her first car when Jennifer was in second grade.

A Life -Changing Connection

With no father around, Jennifer looked up to her kindergarten teacher, a man named Gustavo Beltran.

"I would call him my dad," Jennifer remembers. "Being a little kid without having a father, this was a way to fill that void."

"She was looking for some kind of role model," Beltran remembered. "She would go outside on the playground and called me her dad. From then on that is the role I took."

Gustavo Beltran (left) with kindergartner Jennifer Bonilla at St. Thomas the Apostle school.

Beltran had a challenging upbringing of his own, being raised in the inner city with four brothers, he wanted to play baseball, but his parents never could afford to take him to play on the traveling teams.

"I told myself that when I get older, if I had a chance to help a child that was a high-risk kid, I will do it," Beltran said. "So when Jennifer came to me, I decided I'm going to help her. At the time, she hadn't developed an interest in sports, but I knew that sports was going to be a key."

Even after kindergarten, Jennifer looked to Beltran for guidance. The school offered basketball, softball and volleyball for girls.

"In the inner city, a lot of parents would use sports as a babysitting service," Beltran said. "They never really thought their kids were going places."

Beltran took on the role of volleyball coach for the both the varsity (seventh and eighth grade) and junior varsity (fifth and sixth grade), but didn't win a game his first season.

"I didn't know a lot about volleyball," Beltran remembered. "So I started going to workshops, watching other coaches and video to help get our program off the ground."

Beltran let Bonilla play junior varsity as a third grader and by the time she got to fourth grade, she had jumped to varsity.

"Jennifer was the only one who would stay behind after practice," Beltran said. "I could see Jennifer's potential because she was a good listener. She takes what you tell her and embraces it."

Beltran teamed with his brother to coach a club team named En Fuego, his brother coaching the 16 and under group with Gustavo taking on the 14 and under team.

Beltran's life was changing in another way too. He married his wife, Virna, when Bonilla was in fourth grade, and she too played the role of reaching out to Jennifer. Not long after that, the Beltrans had a son, Isaiah.

"He and his wife have big hearts," Bonilla said. "It's just something in their nature. They honestly never thought with their heads, but with their hearts. They sacrificed so much in order to help someone who was in no way related to them."

With Bonilla's mom working 10-12 hours per day, it was tough for Jennifer to get from to school to volleyball practice to games. With Beltran losing his second job managing a movie theater, it was time to devote more and more attention to Jennifer. At the age of 10, Bonilla played for Beltran's 14U team and with the Beltrans commuting an hour away from the valley in Reseda, Jennifer began spending more and more time at their home, often spending the night. Gradually Jennifer became part of the Beltran family. To Jennifer, they became parents.

"The only thing going through my mind was `I need to get out of here. I need something different for myself." Bonilla said. "Gustavo and Virna told me this could be the start to something bigger. They took me into their home as their own, and they not only supported me but they gave much more than that: love"

Jennifer played for En Fuego in fifth and sixth grade.The Beltrans built a sand area in their back yard where she could do conditioning and would work with her in the park digging balls.

Emerging on the national scene

The real break for Bonilla came as a sixth grader. Beltran had heard about a USA Volleyball try-out in Anaheim and decided to take Jennifer. It was there that Kim Jagd, an assistant coach for UCLA at the time, discovered Bonilla's potential.

"Jennifer was 11 going on 12, but her skills were still raw," Beltran recalled. "The first thing that Kim asked was how were Jennifer's grades. I told her she was a good student. She asked if she would be homesick. I said she would adjust. Two months later we got the call that Jennifer was selected for the first team."

Bonilla was two years younger than most of the rest of the players on that USA Volleyball High Performance National AI Roster. Current Illini Michelle Bartsch played on that team as did current Washington player Amanda Gill and USC setter Kendall Bateman.

"That opportunity put Jennifer to the next level," Beltran said. "Kim nurtured her a lot. Because of that her dream school was UCLA."

In seventh grade, Bonilla began playing a lot of games on the west coast in places like Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach, areas that are hotbeds for volleyball. For the first time, Jennifer started thinking seriously about scholarships and playing volleyball in college. Jennifer and the Beltrans also began looking at which high school to place Jennifer in following her days at St. Thomas the Apostle.

Beltran took his team to play such schools as St. Paul the Apostle out of Westwood and was exposed to the high schools that were especially strong in volleyball. Near the top of the list was Marymount, an exclusive all-girls college preparatory school of about 400 students. The problem was the school's $24,600 per year price tag. Marymount offered as much as 80 percent of scholarship money, which only a couple of students received. That still left about $5,000 per year. Fortunately for Bonilla, not only did she qualify for the 80 percent scholarship, but a donor to the school covered the rest.

Marymount was a culture shock for someone from the inner city or even someone from the valley, where Bonilla now spent most of her time. She rode to school with Beltran, who trained Jennifer on the side. Beltran called Jennifer, "a piece of cake to have around the house and an ideal daughter."

Marymount is located on Sunset Boulevard near the Bel Air Estates and the UCLA campus. Its alumni include the likes of Mia Farrow, Kim Kardashian and Biana Lawson, but few from Bonilla's background.

"The girls were really nice and welcoming," Bonilla said. "It was a hard transition, but I adjusted."

On the court, Bonilla has remained in the USA Volleyball system for the past six years. The sport has taken her to Puerto Rico, to Europe, to Thailand and to Mexico. Most recently, she was the starting libero for the USA Junior National Team as the Americans won gold at the NORCECA Women's Junior Continental Championships. Two years ago, she was named the best libero at NORCECA Girls Youth Continental Championships, again leading the United States to gold.

For the past two seasons, she has played for Jim Stone on the U.S. team. The former Ohio State head coach believes Bonilla has the potential to be one of the best at her position.

"Certainly Jen has the ability to play at a high level," Stone said. "She is dedicated to being a good player, is a quick study and is very competitive. The competitive aspect will allow her to be a successful player both within the Big Ten and nationally."

"Volleyball has opened me up to a lot things that I wouldn't have known and taken me places that wouldn't have otherwise gone," Bonilla said. "Now I have dreams to be in the Olympics some day. It's something I have been working toward since sixth grade when I first tried out for USA High Performance."

Leaving for Illinois

It was at one the High Performance training sessions during her freshman year, that Bonilla and Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly, a regular evaluator for USA Volleyball, first crossed paths. Bonilla had just made the switch from a hitter to a libero.

"I didn't know anything about her, just that she was the best libero by far," Hambly said. "She was an outstanding athlete and her ball control skills for her age were incredible."

Hambly made an impression on Bonilla, so much so that she asked if she could come to the Illinois volleyball camp prior to training with the USA team in Colorado Springs that summer.

"Gustavo called me and said he wanted to send her to camp because Jennifer liked the way that I coached and did things at High Performance," Hambly said. "I was excited to have her, but didn't think much of it."

"I instantly fell in love with the school," Bonilla said. "The coaches, the girls, the whole atmosphere is so different."

Bonilla scheduled an unofficial visit during the fall of her sophomore year, attended a match at Huff Hall and decided that Illinois was the place for her, even over what had once been her dream school, UCLA.

"I've been to matches at UCLA and USC," Bonilla said. "They have nice facilities, the names are good and they get fans, but nothing like this."

Hambly was working on another impressive recruiting class and still didn't fully comprehend the seriousness of Bonilla's interest.

That is until two days later, when he got a call from Beltran.

"Gustavo said `Do you not like Jennifer?" Hambly recalled. "I thought she was great and she'd be the number one on our list at libero. I told him that I wanted to make sure she was serious. He said, `Kevin, I wouldn't have flown her out there if she wasn't.'"

True character revealed

It was only after the commitment that Hambly began to really know Jennifer Bonilla and her story.

"As a person, she is one of the more driven people I have ever been around as far as her goals, but she is not in your face about it," Hambly said. "She plays with aggressiveness, but she's also driven as a student and as a human being."

Bonilla is a solid student, planning to major in kinesiology at Illinois, and an avid reader, soaking in all the necessary tools for good character and how to be successful. Her favorite book is A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by John Wooden.

Bonilla has never forgotten where she came from, going back to St. Thomas the Apostle regularly to encourage the kids to follow their dreams and set a goal to go to college. She gives them her number and e-mail and has stayed in contact with many of them. She shows them the gold medal she got from the NORCECA games and the jersey she wore.

"Getting to that school is where it all happened," Bonilla said. "I believe a lot in destiny. Sometimes the kids there think this is as good as it's going to get. There are kids there that say `I want to do what you do' and I tell them they can. It's not easy, but I know you can because I did. There are not a lot of Hispanics that succeed in volleyball because it's such an expensive sport. I hope that by showing them what I've done, they will say, `I can do it too.'"

Bonilla's story is what movies are made of. Perhaps no one is more aware of it than Beltran's son, Isaiah, who is eight turning nine, much like the boy in The Blind Side.

"He wants to know when he is going to get to go through the tunnel at Illinois," joked Beltran.

This February, Hambly made a home visit to Bonilla. They went to visit her mom in central L.A., to St. Thomas the Apostle School and to Marymount.

"I think what amazed me the most is how humble she is about everything," Hambly said. "She is the most accomplished libero, yet you'd never know it by talking with her. To see her in all those three very diverse places and to see how she has found a way to fit in at all of those places, her ability to communicate and articulate and how intelligent she is, I was just in awe of how easy it was for her to transition."

"I have met so many people through the years who have wanted to help me and support me," Bonilla said. "That is what has pushed me to this point. I have constantly been thinking what's going to happen at the end of this dream. I'm hoping it's something great. That's what I'm working toward."

"No matter what success she has on the volleyball court, she is going to be successful in life," Hambly continued. "She is going to be successful because she is driven to be. She'll get the most out of what she has. What that means, time will tell."