On Friday night, Manny Santana was coaching basketball when he received a call, so he let it go to voicemail.
It was from a staffer from the office of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, inviting him to attend the State of the Union address.
On Tuesday, Santana, a Clearview High School special education teacher and coach of the Clipper girls junior varsity basketball team, sat across from first lady Michelle Obama and wounded Afghanistan war veteran Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Rembsburg as President Barack Obama spoke.
“It was all kind of just a whirlwind thing,” said Santana.
Santana was selected because of his accomplishments while receiving long-term unemployment benefits, according to Kaptur spokesman Steve Fought. Santana, 40, was laid off in 2002 by the Ford Motor Co., from his assembler job at the Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake. He was hired later that year by USG Interiors Inc., in Westlake, but was laid off in 2008.
While receiving benefits, Santana earned a bachelor’s of education degree from Ashland University in 2012. He was hired as a teacher at Clearview in August where he has coached since 2008.
Fought said House Democrats decided to invite constituents whose long-term unemployment benefits expired Dec. 28 when House Republicans blocked an extension. But Fought said Kaptur wanted a guest like Santana.
Fought said Santana demonstrates how people benefit from long-term unemployment insurance and dispels assertions that people would rather receive benefits than work.
“He’s an inspiration,” Fought said.
Santana said it was scary being laid off and wondering how he would support himself and his daughter, Raquel Santana, now 17. Santana said receiving about $375 per week was “enormous” in allowing him to earn a degree in 3½ years without having to seek a low-wage, part-time job. Santana said he is also grateful to his family — he lived with his sister and brother-in-law while attending college and Raquel Santana lived with her mother — and his counselors at Ashland and with the Ohio Job Network.
Santana, who has twice voted for Obama, said he supported Obama’s call for Congress to renew benefits. Some 1.3 million Americans — including 52,000 Ohioans and 1,600 in Lorain County — lost benefits in December.
While the unemployment rate has dropped since the Great Recession, times remain hard. In October, there were nearly three unemployed Americans for every job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some Republicans oppose renewal because it will add about $25 billion to the $650 billion deficit. Others say it discourages the unemployed from seeking work — maximum weekly benefits in Ohio are $413 — and make it harder for employers to find workers.
The Senate is expected to debate an extension next week. Fought said he’s hopeful that passage in the Senate could lead to passage in the House.
He said some Republicans may drop opposition because some of their constituents are unemployed. Fought said pressure is on Ohio congressional Republicans.
Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December compared with 6.7 percent nationally, according to the bureau. Fought said most Ohioans have either received unemployment benefits or know someone who has.
“For that reason, there’s more of a broad base of support than there would be on an issue that doesn’t directly affect so many people,” he said.
Santana said he’s grateful to be back working. Clearview Principal Jessica Tafe said his perseverance is a good example for students.
“We talk about grit,” Tafe wrote in an email. “Mr. Santana’s grit got him past being unemployed and to a very rewarding career in education.”
Santana plans to be back in the classroom today and said he enjoys teaching.
“I differentiate instruction for my kids to learn,” he said. “It’s rewarding when that light bulb clicks on and they really understand it.”