When Jaime Bonilla came to Sampson County almost twenty years ago, he could not speak English and would not even be able to tell you what a farm is in English. Now he owns a farm here…..kind of. Bonilla is owner of the new restaurant located on Lisbon Street in Clinton called Mi Finca, or as it is translated from Spanish—“my farm”.
Mi Finca has already become a local favorite to many in the Clinton area having just opened less than six months ago. Mi Finca offers Mexican dining for hungry workers on lunch breaks and for casual diners from miles away. “We have met people here from the other side of the county who will come to us and say ‘When are you going to open one of these in our town?’”, says Bonilla. He laughingly adds, “Another one will have to wait until I have learned everything about this one first.”
Yes, that first one. That’s the toughest one according to SCC Small Business Center Director, Cliff Ireland. “The first small business, or large business for that matter, is always the biggest challenge because it’s the one where an owner must come up with the original idea, the blueprint,” says Ireland. “It is the one where you have to decide if you really believe it will work. What is the business model? Is it worth the risk? Can I really make it?”
‘Making it’ is something that most people probably would have doubted when Bonilla came to Sampson County in 1995 from El Salvador. He spoke no English when he moved in with his brother who already lived here and ended up starting his career here at the age of 18 in construction. Bonilla worked construction for four years until he decided at the age of 22 that he wanted to be able to speak English, which he figured would open many doors of opportunity for him that otherwise he would not have access to.
In 1999, Bonilla looked into Sampson Community College’s English as a Second Language program, otherwise known as ESL. He enrolled and soon he was speaking English. Nydia Gonzalez, the ESL Coordinator at Sampson Community College, remembers Bonilla and says he and his wife are some of the finest people she has met through the program. “To see the excitement it can bring,” says Gonzalez of ESL students, “It makes people understand the impact that it can have not only in their own confidence about learning the native language but the understanding about the many other opportunities it can bring. Jaime is a prime example of that.”
Bonilla continued his studies at SCC learning English while working construction and even began a new job as a jewelry vendor. He was proud of his achievement but his journey was just beginning. Being that he had no high school diploma, he decided to enroll in SCC’s GED program, from which he soon graduated. Bonilla seemed to be addicted to learning at this point. He gave up his construction job completely and stayed at SCC, enrolling in the College Transfer Program.
Bonilla earned his Associate in Arts degree in 2004 and continued his college transfer to Fayetteville State University to earn his four year degree. Bonilla says “Even though I studied computer science and that’s not necessarily the field where I have built my dream, the learning process and experiences I now have in getting an education towards that degree help me on a daily basis with my business and life in general.” He adds that even now he has his sights set on learning more and achieving more. “I plan to go back to school once again soon and study a business related curriculum once the restaurant becomes more established,” he admits. “Many of the courses I have already taken at SCC will transfer over and help me achieve that goal much faster.”
“I had the pleasure of teaching Jaime both in Basic Skills and in Curriculum,” says Candace Taylor, Director of Basic Skills at SCC. “He was a hard working student and very goal oriented. While Jaime was at Fayetteville State, I remember being on Highway 421 North and seeing him on an FSU billboard. I remember smiling and thinking to myself, ‘He was one of ours!’”
“Preparation…that’s the main thing I would tell kids today,” he says. “Young people have no idea how hard it is to make it nowadays but if you put your mind to it, you can do it.” Bonilla says some of his employees are students and he always tells them to keep going, stay in school and plan ahead. “Some people are just wasting time or simply being satisfied making wages they are making when they have the opportunity to do so much more. All they have to do is be willing to open the door to their future through education and it will happen.”
“Mr. Bonilla’s story reflects the dynamic role of the community college system in the United States,” said Dr. Paul Hutchins, President of SCC. “Sampson Community College and other community colleges across the nation provide educational opportunities and training that open the door to success. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to assist Mr. Bonilla in achieving his goals”.
Upon completion of his degrees, Bonilla finally married girlfriend Claudia, with whom he had his first child Jose, 4, and who is also expecting their second child next month. “My wife and children are the things I am most proud of but even so, I prepared ahead of time and even planned all my dreams before I would even get married,” he laughs.
At 36, Bonilla seems to have achieved a lifetime worth of goals. Twenty years ago, he could not even speak English. “With Mi Finca, I just wanted our community to have a great place to enjoy Mexican-style dining with good quality and great service. That was my dream and that is my goal.”
To begin your own path to your dreams or to inquire about any of the programs mentioned in Bonilla’s story, contact Sampson Community College at 910-592-8081.