Alexis, Debra and John Newman

For the Newman family of Topeka, Kan., the Washburn Institute of Technology is like a second home.

Debra Garcia-Newman followed her husband and children through its doors. The culinary arts student competed in Restaurant Service at the SkillsUSA Championships. She’s married to John Newman, who advanced to the state competition in Collision Repair Technology. He accompanied Debra to the 2015 nationals, their daughter Alexis in tow.

The family’s lineage at Washburn Tech dates back to second son Michael, who started with construction and graduated from a fast-track welding program at the same time as his dad. John moved on to auto collision, while daughter Chelsea studied to be a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Oldest son John Jr. took small-engine repair classes there through his employer, while Alexis plans to study early childhood development. “And Mckayla,” their youngest, “likes to go because they have free Wi-Fi” and helps out with the culinary arts program, Debra says.

It seems as if the family has boundless energy, but it wasn’t always that way. Both parents have had gastric bypass surgery (see related story, Page 15). They met almost 27 years ago while working at a fast-food restaurant. John jokes that it started with making all those ice-cream cones.

“I almost weighed 400 pounds,” he says, after dropping over half of that.

“If I still had that weight on, I don’t think I would’ve gotten up and out to [go back to school],” Debra adds. She’s lost nearly 150 pounds, half her weight on the day of her 2010 surgery. “Now she wears my clothes,” Alexis chimes in.

Their energy levels today are “off the roof,” as John says. He’s involved in the school’s service program that recycles vehicles and donates them to the needy. The couple has raised about $120,000 for their church, mainly through months-long food sales, according to Debra.

“Going to culinary,” she begins, “it got me a little more familiar with the food side, helping with these campaigns and the church kitchens —”

“Her cooking tastes a lot better, too — ” Alexis jumps in.

“Definitely got her out of her ‘norm box,’ her comfort zone,” John says.

Smiling, Debra quickly clarifies that her SkillsUSA experience has had similar benefits, “because I’m not one to get up in front of people and compete.”

Laid off from a job in the health insurance industry, she took care of the family for 13 years before returning to school. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, the people you’re working with, your bosses, that type of thing, it’s a lot easier,” she reflects.

“Yeah, and not only work, but school also,” says John, who suggests they enroll together in the auto mechanics program. “I love my teachers … just like a big family. It’s huge.”