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OUR NEIGHBORS: Opportunity awaits for this willing, young man

Sobczak traveled to Cádiz, Spain this summer to live with a family and give English lessons to Nacho (10) and Miguel (11). He lived with them, ate meals with them, and celebrated holidays with them for a month, all in exchange for English lessons with the boys.1 / 5
Robbie in the section championship game last fall.2 / 5
Robbie as Romeo3 / 5
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Robbie took dream catchers and wild rice as gifts to his two young charges in Spain. Contributed Photo5 / 5

He was Romeo in the Cloquet High School spring play, “Romeo and Juliet.” He was a kicker for the football team, a soccer player, a tennis star, a golfer, a Nordic skier, an honors student, a REACH mentor, and he taught English in Spain. Could one person really do all these things in a year?

Recent CHS graduate Rob Sobczak did.

But Sobczak has more than just an extensive list of extracurriculars: he has a background that gave him the foundation to do all of those things and more.

“I was born and raised in Cloquet,” said Sobczak. “My name, Robert Gerald Sobczak, [comes] from both my grandpas. Robert was my mom’s dad, and Gerald was my dad’s dad. And it was funny because my Grandpa Gerald’s middle name was Robert, so he was Gerald Robert Sobczak.”

Sobczak’s father, Ken Sobczak, died when he was only 2 years old. His extended family, including his uncles and grandpa, have been extremely important in his life, but it was his mother, Nancy, who taught him to be self-reliant (and a million other things).

“She made me be independent,” Sobczak said of his mother. “As long as I can remember, no matter how young I was, if someone called our house phone, I would answer it. Even if I was scared to see who it was, I would answer the phone because she wanted me to have personal skills and know how to talk. I think she just always wanted me to be a leader and respect others’ feelings.”

Sobczak also remembers his mom pushing him to be grateful and polite, even as a young child.

“She got me comfortable with speaking in public and talking with people. She made me go to the Kiwanis club when I was like 11 years old to say thank you for them giving me money [for a hockey trip to Canada]. And that really helped me.”

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sobczak is an interesting combination of confident and humble, probably thanks to situations like these.

Still, although he was an independent and polite boy, Sobczak didn’t have a father, and having a mentor to spend time with was a good thing. Enter Tom Proulx: his REACH mentor, tennis coach and close friend. They met when Rob was in sixth grade, at the previously mentioned Kiwanis meeting. The next year, Proulx “sorta mentored” Sobczak and coached him in tennis.

“And then we got him in the REACH program,” said Proulx, who described Rob in his Athlete of the Year speech as being “passionate, dedicated, ethical (and) competitive.”  

“I was blessed to be the guy who got to mentor this kid. I’ve really never met anybody like him. He’s so giving, caring, [and] people look up to him. He always puts others before himself. I can’t say enough about how [his mother] has raised him.”

It was Proulx who found out about the teaching opportunity this summer on his own trip to Europe: an international exchange program that allows Americans and Canadians to stay with families in Spain for free, in exchange for lessons in conversational English. When he learned more about what the trip entailed, he thought “this would be perfect for Robbie.”

Proulx told Sobczak about the opportunity while he was still overseas, and Sobczak’s first reaction was unsure.

“You must’ve talked to your mom about it then,” Proulx said, looking at Sobczak. “And she said ‘you need to reconsider.’”
And reconsider he did. Sobczak communicated with the family via Skype, and within two weeks he was on a plane to Spain.

Sobczak was housed with a family who had two sons, Nacho (10) and Miguel (11), in Cádiz, Spain. He lived with them, ate meals with them, and celebrated holidays with them for a month, all in exchange for English lessons with the boys.

In the mornings, Sobczak would wake and prepare his class lessons before eating breakfast (which was usually olive oil and honey on toast). Afterward, he would teach for about two hours.

“At first, I really struggled,” Sobczak said. “When I started out, I had a list of questions that I was asking them, and it wasn’t working because I would ask them a question and they would answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They wouldn’t want to explain.”

So Sobczak had to adjust his teaching style to help the boys get more out of their learning experience, as he explained.

“I ended up figuring out how to write down open-ended questions so they would have to explain more in their answer. Or I’d write down one particular word that I felt they should have in their vocabulary, and I would make them explain it to me. In the end, they really did get to learn a lot more.”

He talked about the trip and the family a lot, sometimes referring to notes on his phone to make sure he wasn’t leaving out any interesting parts, such as how church was outside, and how everyone drank their milk warm (something he just couldn’t get used to).

The trip was good practice for Sobczak, as his future plans include becoming a teacher. Sobczak is attending St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., (where he’s on the soccer team which will scrimmage at the University of Wisconsin-Superior at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28) and hopes to come back to Cloquet after he graduates.
“[I’ve wanted to be a teacher] maybe since the beginning of my senior year,” Sobczak said. “I had thought about wanting to go into international business, because I like the cultural world, but now that I’ve traveled — I really enjoy it — I [prefer] being in my own home and teaching people and coaching. So, I’d like to be here, and talking about world issues and cultures and stuff.”

Sobczak said his teaching choice was influenced by all of his high school teachers.

“I enjoy history, but I’m more of a social studies teacher who would teach American government, or world cultures or current events type of stuff,” he said. “I like geography, I liked Mr. Swanson's government class. I like writing, too. I’d be the type of teacher who would implement a lot of writing into the class.”

For Sobczak, teaching is his way of giving back to the teachers who inspired him and the community that gave him a great education.

“I grew up not reading much, and saying that I would never crack open a book after I graduate from college, but I completely take that back because of Mr. Naslund’s class,” Sobczak said, referring to the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s English literature class that he took as a senior at CHS. Sobczak said he learned some personal lessons in the class and from the assigned reading materials, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Atticus Finch is the father I want to be,” he said.

Sobczak is also eager to help out sports teams in Cloquet after he graduates from college. While he’d prefer to coach tennis someday, he’s ready to take on whatever role he is assigned.

“I could help out on any team that they wanted me to,” Sobczak explained. “I would just find a job, find a spot — other than the swim team, because I’m not much of a water-sport kind of person. But, I mean, if they wanted me to be a towel boy, I’d help out.”

Proulx agreed.

“He’d be an excellent tennis coach, he’s got an unbelievable knowledge of the game,” Proulx said. “He’s good at teaching, he’s good at working with kids. They look up to him [and] respect what he says. He was able, even as a senior, to coach the kids better than I could because they look up to him so much; he was a peer and a great leader.”

Although his plans include giving back, that won’t be a new experience for Sobczak. After being mentored by Proulx through the REACH program, Sobczak became a mentor himself.

“That was another experience for me because I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” said Sobczak. “I knew that the kid had a troubled background and I wanted to be in a position to say ‘You can’t smoke pot, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ but that’s not what the mentorship is about. It’s about being that person who is like a friend, and you just want to be there for them so if they ever seriously need someone to go to, they can call at any time. You don’t want to be that person who is lecturing them like a teacher, you just want to be someone who is there for them, all the time.”

Even though the official mentorship has stopped now because Sobczak is off to college, he hopes the relationship will continue.

“I made it clear that, no matter if I’m in Winona or wherever, he can call me at any time and I’ll figure something out for him,” he added.

Sobczak said his optimistic attitude was influenced by being involved with the CHS theater program, one of his “favorite things in the world.”

“I think just being with very, very nice people all the time, and how happy you can be from that when you’re in that environment just showed me that there’s no point in living a day in frustration,” Sobczak said. “It was fun to go to play practice every day because everyone was really nice. Mr. Hamre, for example, is like the nicest person in the world and he’s known for that. I have nothing bad to say about theater, I loved it.”

Proulx knows that Sobczak going off to college is only the beginning.

“With everything that’s going on right now in politics, the world, the presidential race and all the shootings, he gives me hope,” Proulx said. “He’s going to do great things, he’s going to be a leader, and that’s what we need. I always joke — because he’s in my [county] commissioner district — that if he ever ran against me, not only would he beat me, but I would vote for him.”

Sobczak’s advice to incoming freshman?

“Ninth grade is the most important year in high school because when you get in there, you’re still in eighth-grade mode, so you don’t understand how important grades are,” Sobczak said. “When you’re sending grades to colleges, that ninth-grade transcript is on there. For me, my first semester of my ninth grade year, I had grades that were just OK, and they could’ve been a lot better if I knew, going in, how important they were. Work hard and enjoy yourself, because everything happens so fast.”

Considering everything that Sobczak did, there’s no doubt that his high school years flew by.

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