Raised in a Christian family as one of eight children, Betty Lewis-Gomez grew up enjoying her local library, as well as reading her mother's pile of National Geographic magazines at home.
"We went to the library every day – it was three blocks from our house so we practically lived at the library," recalled Lewis-Gomez, who was born in Natchez, Mississippi.
"Still to this day I love National Geographic – I have an entire library at my house," she said. "Reading has remained my passion."
Today, she is sharing her passion for reading and literacy as a first-grade teacher at Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School. The vocation is also a way for her to instill in students the lessons she learned about the importance of education.
"For me, education was instilled early on because my grandmother and grandfather and a lot of my family members were not able to go to school," Lewis-Gomez said. "My mother raised her 13 brothers and sisters when she was growing up. She had to drop out of school and she worked in the fields."
As a result, the bar was set high for Lewis-Gomez and her siblings.
"We couldn't get low grades," she said. "We had to read all these different books and we had to write about what we read. We also had to read the newspaper. And if we got in trouble we had to read passages from the Bible."
All her reading and dedication to literacy paid off.
On April 9, Lewis-Gomez was among five educators honored during the 2016 "Read On" Teacher Salute Award ceremony at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California.
"I'm really grateful, especially when I look at these other awesome honorees whom I admire," she said. "I don't see what I do as special...it's part of my purpose."
Before she became a teacher, Lewis-Gomez attended nursing school when she moved to California at age 17.
"That became my life for some time," she said.
In the late 1980s, she started teaching pre-kindergarten for the Head Start program, and discovered her passion as an educator.
"So I decided to change careers," said Lewis-Gomez, who started working for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2000.
In her classroom, she feels that it is her responsibility to light the fires of imagination and curiosity. To that end, she requested and received iPad minis for her class, which the students use for phonics practice, reading and math.
She also believes it is her duty to actively participate in her school and has held a variety of out- of-the-classroom positions. For instance, she coaches other teachers in her local district's schools, volunteers to coordinate special activities for children, and designed and coordinated a grant for a fifth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.
"I love it when the light goes on with the kids – when they understand how important education is to their lives," Lewis-Gomez said. "Not only are you touching them but you're touching their whole family. And if you do your job really well, everything will fall in place for those families and those kids."
Her job continues outside of the classroom as a foster parent.
"Over the years I've fostered approximately 15 children," said Lewis-Gomez, whose five biological children are grown. "I made a promise to God as my kids matured and moved away, I would bring in kids to foster them."
In 2014, she adopted two boys and two girls, ages 6, 7, 10 and 11.
"All my kids are grown so I'm starting over with the four adoptees," she said.
"They're awesome – I'm really lucky."