Former Guatemalan skydiver is happy to land on his feet with park district
by: Jaime Valdez Mario Castellanos, maintenance technician at the Cedar Hills Recreation Center, traded an adventurous life as a skydiver in the Guatemalan Army for the more stable environment of Beaverton to raise his family and work a less dangerous job.

Strolling the halls of the Cedar Hills Recreation Center, Mario Castellanos exudes a Zen-like calm and unassuming confidence.

The Beaverton resident's even-keeled demeanor comes through even when recounting the time - during a skydiving training exercise with the Guatemalan Army - his main parachute failed.

"It was half open," the Guatemala City native recalls. "I had to take off the main parachute and use the reserve chute. It only happened to me once. But it was scary."

But one flirtation with death wasn't near enough to slow down Castellanos, who serves as maintenance director at the Cedar Hills center. As an infantry captain, he went on to make more than 200 jumps - some for combat training, some into stadiums on holidays to entertain local residents.

"It's something different to see the earth coming to your face," he says of his skydiving experiences. "Basically, the first five to 10 seconds, you can feel how fast you're coming down, but after that, when you start moving your hands and start getting the taste, it's amazing - it's great."

These days, Castellanos, 46, leads a less thrillingly adventurous - but rather more stable and rewarding - life as a devoted husband and father and resourceful maintenance technician at one of the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District's busiest facilities.

Deb Schoen, supervisor at Cedar Hills, says there's no problem with the 50-year-old building or its guests that Castellanos can't address with aplomb.

"He can very quickly figure out a fix to almost any situation," she says. "He just puts his best foot forward in the building. He's always found a way to solve a problem, regardless how big or small."

Beyond his skills and stellar work ethic, Castellanos provides a warm, calming influence to the sometimes-chaotic ambience of the rec center.

"I have never heard a single negative word about Mario," Schoen says. "He's been a delight all the way around."

Fair-weather friend

In 1999, Mario applied his problem-solving skills to a life-changing decision for him, his wife Reina and their five children, Dora, Mario, Ivonne, Sofia and Maco. Tired of the political strife and instability in their native Guatemala City, Castenellos sensed a better life awaited them in the United States.

Leaving behind his Army career, not to mention his parents, his house and everything he'd known, Castellanos - inspired by an old friend who'd already uprooted - moved his family to the greener pastures of the Pacific Northwest.

"He mentioned the weather is great and the people are very friendly," Castellanos recalls. "So I decided to come over here."

It took months for Castellanos - who arrived here from Central America in mid-summer - to realize he'd been a bit duped.

"My first winter, I called him and said, 'Hey, why did you say there was great weather here?'" Mario recalls with a smile. "He was joking with me. He wanted me to come live close to him."

Man for the job

Fortunately for Castellanos, who initially spoke no English, the same friend led him to the park district. He first landed a part-time job at the athletic center. Determined to work his way up, Mario doubled his hours with a position at Garden Home, moving on to Cedar Hills and then to the Jenkins Estate.

In February 2010, he returned to Cedar Hills, to fill the maintenance technician role. He repairs and maintains equipment, prepares rooms for various groups to use, coordinates and builds displays for classrooms, cleans and, well, you name it.

Admitting he's learned a lot on the job, Castellanos credits the dedication of his staff and that of the park district with keeping things running smoothly.

"We have a busy building here," he says. "We have very good teamwork. We do our best to do a good job and make everybody happy."

His military training doesn't hurt.

"In the army, I had to inspect every single classroom every morning," he says. "Here, I start at 5 o'clock (a.m.), making sure everything is ready to go and very clean. Military supervision is the same as how I supervise at this building."

The family that stays together

Professional success and satisfaction, of course, would be worthless if Mario's family hadn't made the shift from Guatemala to Beaverton work for them. Fortunately, his wife of 25 years kept the faith and supported her husband's dream.

"It was hard to convince (Reina) to come over, to move to the U.S.," he admits. "In the beginning, it was hard for her - a different culture, different language. Now she's happy. She's OK with the change."

Their children, three daughters and two sons, who all attend or attended Beaverton-area schools, have visited relatives in Guatemala a couple of times, but "they prefer to live in the U.S.," Mario says.

"I actually have two of my daughters married already," he adds, betraying amazement at the quick passage of time. "I have four grandkids. It's weird."

When in the Guatemalan Army, Castellanos thrived on the adrenaline rushes that came through combat training. Now he finds satisfaction and pleasure in other meaningful - albeit less dramatic - pursuits, such as achieving his U.S. citizenship last year.

"It's a special feeling," he says. "Now I have a good life for my family and for myself."

Castellanos occasionally reflects on the derring-do of his military days but prefers to bask in the contentment his life's second act delivered.

"Sometimes I go back and (wonder) what would have happened if I stayed in the army. I have a good feeling that I did my best. But I (was) happy to move to Portland with my family."

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