Blog

UnidosNow Fights Back

by Sandy Chase 7/25/2020

Scholars and alumni have answered the UnidosNow call for help during COVID-19 because they understand the difficulties Latino youngsters and their parents face.

Almost immediately, scholars and guest college students registered to tutor one or two younger Latinos. Tutors are meeting once or twice weekly, helping students with homework and online learning.

Look for interviews from Future Leaders Academy (FLA) scholars and alumni who selflessly donate their time to “educate” students and their families.

Also, look for upcoming interviews from young students (tutees) continuing their education, even though schools are closed. Because these youngsters have been receiving academic assistance, they too can become the next generation of leaders.

Together, UnidosNow will win the fight.

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Covid -19 continues to wreak havoc on this country—infecting us, killing people, and closing schools, businesses, and our favorite places to eat and play. But UnidosNow will not surrender to this virus, especially when it comes to our community.

UnidosNow is fortunate that its tutors are dedicated to strengthening educational opportunities—a cornerstone of its mission.

To quote Executive Director Luz Corcuera, “We are grateful to our scholars who have added their talent, energy, creativity, and tech skills to support our younger students and parents as they adjust to online instruction.”

For almost 10 years since UnidosNow began, this organizations has been empowering Latinos to achieve their American Dream—through education, integration, and civic engagement.

COVID challenges UnidosNow. But because of staunch supporters, the organization won’t give the virus a chance.

On Both Ends: Our FLA Scholar is Now a Mentor

By Reynaldo Claro, Future Leaders Academy Scholar

As you may be aware, UnidosNow mentors students of all ages from graduating seniors all the way down to elementary schoolers. I have happily been on both the receiving and giving end. This past year, UnidosNow helped me pass my own feat, college. With their expertise, I gathered endless knowledge on every small detail that goes into a college application and can with pleasure say that I will be attending Vassar College for the next 4 years.

I am solely an end result. A proud product of all the hard work I put in and all the help I received along the way. I was a mentee, and that is why now, I am a mentor. I recently have been mentoring middle schoolers and future high schoolers on my experience including the ins and outs to college. It’s great to see the small smiling faces listening contently to what you have to say about the stages that lead up to college and college itself.

Above all, I have taken as much from the interactions as they have because, as a prospective college student, I as well noticed I should follow my own advice. Among my advice comes simple things such as sleep early, learn to manage your time, make study habits, and primarily don’t procrastinate. These are only some of the things we talk about, but they all reach the same place. The overarching theme arrived at every time is each and every one of them ARE leaders and all in all, if you wish it and work towards it, you’ll accomplish it.

We each have passed this moment in our lives; the moment where we believe anything is possible. That is why the work UnidosNow is doing is amazing. They reinforce this thought through education, boost it through the countless support, and ultimately inspire the students to not only DREAM BIG, but most importantly DO BIG.

Thank you UnidosNow for the opportunity you provided me and the opportunities you continue to give. This wonderful group is truly dedicated as they say to EMPOWER!

A 4th of July Message

By Kelly Kirschner, UnidosNow Board Chair

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On behalf of the UnidosNow Board, our staff, dedicated volunteers, students, and families, I want to wish you a happy and safe 4th of July holiday. Never in my lifetime has there been a more sober period in our national experience to honor and celebrate Independence Day. 

The celebrations in 2020 will be muted as public fireworks performances, festivals, and parades are cancelled, and we all wrestle with the pain of the ongoing pandemic; the global financial and unemployment crisis; and a reckoning with our long-held myth of American exceptionalism, in particular as it relates to our neighbors of color being able to equally participate in such an exceptional land.

With the backdrop of the current Black Lives Matter protests and the tumbling of statues around the country, it is a good moment to reflect on the history of the Statue of Liberty–our nation’s most iconic and recognized statue and its intersections with our current national challenges and the work of UnidosNow. As documented in this 2019 Washington Post article, the Statue of Liberty was originally conceived in 1865 to celebrate freed slaves, not immigrants. 

The plaque with Emma Lazarus’ poem—“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was not added to the base until 1903, not too far from the broken shackles of slavery that lie at Lady Liberty’s feet, but rarely do we see included in images of her. The same French benefactors who beat the bushes to raise money to make the statue were also eagerly raising money to support recently freed slaves, who had been set forth into a land without a penny in their pocket, much less any benevolent-aid organizations to help them adjust to such a radically different life. 

African slaves were immigrants—not of choice but by brutal force. Yet in many ways, the Lazarus’ poem does apply as much to the descendants of slaves as it does to today’s immigrant community: this nation, founded on the premise of Liberty, stands out amongst all others in the world, as you will breathe free here and share in the equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. 

Amidst these uncertain and tumultuous times, there is a latent sadness many of us share with how our nation’s ideals continue to be elusive, if not an outright scam for so many of our fellow citizens of color. Maybe this was best encapsulated on July 4, 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt honestly reflected on our nation’s Founding Fathers during an Independence Day celebration at Monticello, the former slave plantation of Declaration of Independence author and President Thomas Jefferson: “Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be.” 

As a supporter of UnidosNow, helping us raise an astounding $282,000 during the recent 2020 Giving Challenge that now supports over 400 of the region’s most vulnerable families bridge our current crisis, it is with utmost gratitude and appreciation that you are here with us and support us in this effort to build and make things as they ought to be in our community today – continuing to call into being the promise of our nation that was laid out on July 4, 1776. 

Please enjoy your holiday, be safe and thank you for your continuing support.

Marvict Rodriguez-Benkert: Dreaming for Herself and Others

by Sandy Chase

Marvict Rodriguez-Benkert

Marvict is determined to excel in all she does—serving as a role model for her students and mentees.  Having faced challenges head on, she’s become a stronger person.  Those who know her say that she has grit—courage to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.

A seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, Marvict enjoys discussing stories and poems that help her students learn about themselves, others, and their world.  

“The satisfaction I feel when my students understand the importance of working on critical thinking and communication skills is invaluable.”

For Marvict, “It’s rewarding when my students tell me that they enjoyed a specific piece of literature, connected with the characters or events, or they’re able to understand a viewpoint that’s different from their own.” 

Having received her bachelor’s degree in English from University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Marvict has been teaching ELA for four years, her first two at Bradenton’s W.D. Sugg Middle School.  

Currently, Marvict teaches at the State College of Florida Collegiate School (SCFCS), a charter school providing a dual enrollment program:  a high-school diploma and an associate’s degree.  

Teaching at SCFCS gives Marvict more freedom to develop her curriculum—with more technology at hand.  As a new teacher, she devoted countless hours planning her lessons—questioning her strategies.  Over the years, she’s become more confident in her informed instructional decisions. 

However, an ongoing challenge is reaching every student.  Marvict has come to realize:  “Those who want to learn will, and those who don’t—won’t.  Ensuring that students are using technology appropriately is another challenge.”

But Marvict embraces challenges:  obstacles won’t prevent her from realizing her dreams.  During her college-application process, that determination was tested repeatedly.  

An ex-Dreamer, Marvict and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela 22 years ago.  Because of her undocumented immigrant status, Marvict couldn’t attend any of her choice schools—even though she excelled in high school and received several scholarships.  

Marvict explains, “I couldn’t apply for financial aid or claim any of my scholarships.  My single mom couldn’t afford to pay my tuition.”   

Refusing to accept the inevitable, Marvict says, “I was angry for a while.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned to value what my Dreamer experience had taught me—persevere and never give up on my dreams.”

True to herself, Marvict became a U.S. citizen in 2014.  Before then, she pursued an associate degree and worked at Starbucks, setting aside part of her salary for school and helping her mom.

Fortunately for her students and UnidosNow mentees, Marvict continues to make a difference in others’ lives.  Without a doubt, her 10-month-old daughter, Emilia, benefits from continual “learning” opportunities.  Laughing, Marvict says, “Soon she and I will be dancing together, one of my favorite pastimes.”

Kelly Monod, senior head of school at SCFCS, applauds Marvict’s determination to excel, reach new levels of expertise in her field, and inspire her students to achieve the highest standards of which they’re capable:  

“Marvict has grit—shown by her professional goals and in the classroom. Never giving up on her students, she always meets them at their academic level.  She asks them to grow in their learning, while celebrating their successes.”

A colleague attests to Marvict’s refusal to be defeated.

“Marvict can best be described as fearless—especially when facing challenges.  Looking at what needs to be done, she’s one of the first people to present viable ideas.  Not shying from the unknown, Marvict has an ability to connect with students.  She always goes the extra mile for them.”

UnidosNow Executive Director Luz Corcuera also praises Marvict:

“Marvict brings passion, knowledge, and dedication to UnidosNow—whether as a volunteer at our Noche Latina celebration or for our mentoring program.  We are forever grateful for her time and talent over these last four years.”

One of Marvict’s ex-mentees Daisy Mendoza, a psychology major at Florida Gulf Coast University says, “She was a big help when I needed to have my college essay revised.  Always available, she made sure I filled out my applications correctly.”  

Marvict replies:  “My mentees and students inspire me to continue learning and become a better person so I can help others.  Staying involved in my community has helped me focus on my next dream—that of attending graduate school.”

Law fascinates Marvict. “I want to use my critical thinking skills to change a person’s life in a positive way.  Immigration law interests me because I’d be able to help, guide, and represent others in an emotionally taxing process.”  

Marvict wants to apply her writing skills and life experience to draft laws that would improve people’s lives in a diverse society.  She’s also interested in exploring leadership roles in the public-service sector.

Wherever Marvict’s journey takes her, she won’t stop striving until she’s realized all her dreams and helped others to achieve theirs as well.

Together in the Distance. Our Parent Leadership Program Participants Stay in Touch

By Marnie Howell, Parent Leadership Coordinator

When we couldn’t attend a classroom, our Parent Leadership group created a WhatsApp group for our classes at Gocio and Tuttle elementary schools. We found a new way to connect with students, and our site has been unbelievably busy.

Our daily communication consists of a small lesson that’s posted in the morning. Some of our favorite themes have been flowers, recipes, specific foods, history behind holidays and celebrations, and lessons parents can do with their children.

We also use the group to post news of locations of food banks, where masks are being handed out and any other critical information. Our participants have become very adept at using new technology, and are constantly sending pictures of the food they’ve received, wishing each other happy birthdays, as well as uplifting each other in any way they can.

Here are some comments from our moms about what this online tool has meant for them:

“It is very fulfilling for me opening up a chat and that someone is always there wishing well, or sharing something good, or learning something in this beautiful group; all that happens to me. So when I open WhatsApp, this is the frist chat I open… I miss you.” |“Es muy satisfactorio para mí abrir un chat y que alguien siempre esté deseando algo bueno o compartiendo algo bueno o estar aprendiendo algo en este bello grupo; me pasa todo esto. Así que cuando  abro el WhatsApp, el primer chat que abro es este… Las extraño”.

“Personally, I want to thank you, for the teaching, the time shared, and your dedication to continue giving your best to us every day. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed and made the most of each class, and learned new things.” | “Personalmente quiero agradecerle,  por las enseñanzas, el tiempo compartido,  y su gran dedicación a seguir cada día dando lo mejor de ustedes hacia nosotros. Gracias. He disfrutado y aprovechado cada clase, he aprendido cosas nuevas”.

A Future Leaders Academy Scholar Provides Summer Enrichment Sessions

The name of our college and career readiness programs is the Future Leaders Academy, but we know our scholars are already leaders: Denny Lu is a perfect example.

Knowing the challenges many low-income families face in supporting their children to keep up with their school work, Denny has created a nonprofit organization to help these children with tutoring sessions over the summer: Your Advance is now in full session, and Denny and his volunteers are already working with our younger scholars in the areas of reading, science, and math.

This month he connected with our team to ensure our Future Leaders Academy for Girls scholars could benefit from it. Hear from Denny himself his motivation to create this organization:

“Recently, I launched my new non profit organization called Your Advance. Because of the interruptions we all experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is already stressful for many students—especially those who don’t have the financial means to afford tutors or classes outside of their school time—to enrich their learning and refine the skills to excel for the upcoming school year.

“This became personal for me in fourth grade when I was truly helpless in math class and felt overwhelmed, but fortunately I was connected to a volunteer tutor that still inspires me on to this day to achieve the most I can in school and in life. I wanted to create an organization that aimed to inspire youth and foster a growth mindset, which laid the foundation for my non-profit Your Advance.

“Over this summer, my intention is to continue providing students—regardless of economic hardships or barriers—an opportunity to have free enrichment and tutoring that prepares them for the rigor and challenges of the upcoming school year.

“Summer is always the best time to actively continue education, not in an overwhelming matter, but constantly engaging students is part of the process of continual learning.”

Thank you for using your leadership skills to be there for our community.

Seven Awards, and Lots of Love From Our Community

This year’s Giving Challenge brought one more challenge: working remotely during the Challenge. But that didn’t stop our community to show up or UnidosNow from giving our best to participate.

Our successful challenge—together with the seven prizes we won after the 24-hour event—prove that we’ll never give up.

From the bottom of our hearts, we thank the students and families we serve, our mentors and other volunteers, and our staff, board, and sponsors who made this year’s Giving Challenge possible:

¡Muchísimas gracias!

Our Required Work

By Kelly Kirschner, UnidosNow Board Chair

2020 marks the tenth anniversary since the local immigrant-integration, non-profit UnidosNow was formed. I am proud to be one of the founding members, having done so amidst the backdrop of local, state and national issues negatively impacting immigrant communities. On a local level, from 2009 to 2012, a period during which I served as City Commissioner and Mayor, the bright light of disparate treatment of minorities by law enforcement focused on the City of Sarasota’s Police Department. 

Similar to recorded killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the only reason that this came to the public’s attention and outrage was due to the Sarasota Herald’s publication of a video recording showing an SPD officer allow an inebriated immigrant, Juan Perez, climb out of a squad car and fall six feet onto his head, his hands handcuffed behind his back. The officer then proceeded to kick and stand on the man. It ultimately led to the firing of the officer, the resignation of the Chief of Police, the creation of a City Police Complaint Committee and an Independent Police Advisory Panel. In spite of a history of other complaints of excessive use of force against the offending officer, similar to what is seen in Minneapolis with former Officer Chauvin’s record, he remained and advanced with the force prior to the Perez incident that ultimately cost the City hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuit settlements and legal fees. Perhaps most disturbing, three years after the incident, a panel of Sarasota residents that included a former and current City Commissioner on the Civil Service Review board voted unanimously to reinstate the fired officer, giving him three years of back pay, in spite of the then African-American Chief of Police appearing before the board advocating that they ratify the officer’s termination, due to his dangerous disregard of policies and protocol in caring for a handcuffed individual.

I share this story because the frustration and the violence we are seeing in our country today is not just about the individuals who police us; it is really about us and a four-hundred year history since African slaves were brought to these shores of not demanding better, in spite of our insistent belief in American exceptionalism. When I say ‘us’, I’m really referring to us, the majority white population of this country that inherit, whether we like it or not, the legacy of our nation’s forefathers who wrote and signed a “Declaration of Independence” that declared “all men are created equal”, while many of the signers, including the principal author, Thomas Jefferson, owned thousands of African slaves, including their own children. A little over a decade later, this caste system was enshrined in the Constitution, an amended version that we still use today, determining that a slave was only 3/5ths of a human being. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, wrote in her award winning New York Times essay last fall, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”

UnidosNow was formed in many ways, then, to stand in solidarity with our black community and join the fight to make these ideals true as we seek to integrate our vibrant immigrant community into the social, economic and civic weave of the American Dream. The fight is not a struggle that our black and LatinX neighbors (many of whom are also descendants of African slaves brought to Latin America) must wage on their own. Indeed, the truth and reconciliation process must take place within our nation’s Caucasian community where the hope of any progress to get us beyond where we are now will take place. As Dr. Ibram Kendi in his best-selling book, “How to be an Anti-Racist”, points out – it is not acceptable to simply say, “I am not a racist.” The question for all of us is rather, “how are we being and behaving in an actively anti-racist manner?” Anyone who has watched the videos from Georgia and Minneapolis this past month is horrified. Many are moved to action, as witnessed Sunday in Payne Park with hundreds of local residents peacefully convening and marching throughout downtown Sarasota calling for greater police accountability. While this is a start, white residents have the obligation to educate themselves how to be better allies and active, committed anti-racists. As Americans guided by the noble aspirations of our Founding Fathers, it is our obligation to help create a more just and equitable society where all people have a fair chance to be healthy, free and alive. To better empower conversations and civic activism in that process for white residents and parents, here is a link to a myriad of resources that will help you become a more engaged, anti-racist: bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES