Ana Reyes couldn't remember her first grade teacher's name, but she never forgot the kindness she showed her, coming to school early every day in order to teach Reyes English.
Reyes, 46, immigrated to Louisville, Kentucky, when she was in kindergarten, after living in Spain and Uruguay. The next year, her first grade teacher, Pat Harkleroad, noticed that Reyes was struggling due to the language barrier, and immediately set up one-on-one English lessons. "I've thought about that countless times over the years and discussed it with many friends," Reyes told People. "I know I was incredibly lucky."
With the limited information she had — Reyes knew the name of her elementary school and the year she was there for first grade — Reyes asked the Kentucky Department of Education to help her track down the teacher who changed her life. They were able to find Harkleroad, 77, and on Friday, after they both tested negative for COVID-19, Reyes and Harkleroad reconnected.
"Being able to say thank you to someone who changed my life felt so meaningful and uplifting," Reyes said. "And realizing that Mrs. Harkleroad is just as wonderful as I remembered her was very affirming. I know I will never forget the day." Harkleroad told People she "wasn't gonna let this girl fall through the cracks." Reyes, she added, was "willing to work hard" and "soaked up everything like a little sponge."
It didn't take long for Reyes to become fluent in English, and she went on to flourish in school, eventually graduating from Harvard Law and earning a master's in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University. Now a lawyer, Reyes told People that she was inspired by Harkleroad to help others, and that's one reason why her work includes representing refugees, pro bono. Catherine Garcia