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Sarah Carnes battled through heartache and hardship to help her students go to college.

Now, Whataburger is helping them say 'thank you' in the most awesome way

If you ask Sarah Carnes, she’ll tell you point blank: “This has been the worst year of my life.”

It’s the year her parents’ home was damaged in Hurricane Harvey. It’s the year her mother was diagnosed with vascular dementia and passed away. It’s the year her husband was diagnosed with cancer, went through chemotherapy and radiation - and their family vacation was canceled.

It’s seemed like every time she was about to get a break, another hit came.

But through it all, friends and family say, Sarah’s unique energy and spirit drove her.

“You would never know she was having a hard time,” says Vanessa Reyes, principal at Sam Rayburn High School, where Sarah guides kids on the college application journey. “She kept taking care of all of the students, and she was always smiling.”

A driving spirit

For Sarah, it’s simple. “Everything that was happening … it’s been very hard. But I am inspired by these students every day,” she says. “If I can help them see their potential, and help make a difference in their lives, that means the world to me.”

Sarah has always been passionate about the power of education. “Without her, I wouldn’t be going to college,” says Angel Navarrete, a senior at Rayburn.

Navarrete was enjoying a Patty Melt at Whataburger this fall when he was asked: “Who is your hero?” The high school senior didn’t have to think twice.

“Who’s made a difference in my life? Ms. Carnes,” he said. “She has helped so many people. I would love to do something special for her.”


Sarah impacted his life -- as well as hundreds of other students -- through RayburnU, a program that helps kids navigate the often-confusing college application and scholarship process.

Sarah believes in these kids even when they don’t always believe in themselves.

“She pushed me to dream bigger,” says Carlos Sotelo, a 2013 Rayburn alumnus who went on to graduate from Princeton University.

Sotelo, who followed in Sarah’s footsteps and is now a college counselor in the Houston ISD, has seen the ways big and small that his mentor has made a difference for students. She hosts parties to help seniors fill out their financial aid paperwork, continues to counsel students even once they’ve gone on to college, and meets with every single student at Rayburn multiple times to make sure they’re thinking about what they want to do after high school. “She’s a force of nature,” Principal Reyes says. “Nobody cares more about these students or helping them achieve their dreams.”

Whataburger has focused on its fresh, made-to-order burgers and friendly customer service since 1950 when Harmon Dobson opened the first Whataburger as a small roadside burger stand in Corpus Christi, Texas. Today, the company is headquartered in San Antonio with more than 900 locations across its 14-state footprint and sales of more than $3 billion annually. Whataburger is a 2022 Top Workplaces winner. The brand has more than 50,000 Family Members (employees) and more than 60 million customers who like to customize their Whataburgers just like they like it. Visit whataburger.com for more information. To apply for Whataburger jobs, visit whataburger.com/careers.

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