About UnidosNow

Unidos Then: Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Interview with Board Chairman Kelly Kirschner

by Sandy Chase

¡Feliz cumpleaños!  Congratulations, as UnidosNow celebrates 10 years of empowering the Hispanic/Latino community—strengthening Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

A role model for other nonprofits, UnidosNow continues to excel, offering such diverse, crucial programs as Future Leaders Academy Barancik Scholars (FLA), Future Leaders Academy for Girls (FLAG), Future Leaders Academy for Middle School (FLAM), Parent Leadership Program, Mi Voto, Mi Futuro Campaign.

The insightful, untiring, professional Dream Team staff; community partnerships; and dedicated volunteers, including board members and FLA alumni, have enabled UnidosNow to promote its mission of educating, elevating, and integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant community.

Kelly Kirschner, first Executive Director of UnidosNow and current Board Chairman.

We know about the exceptional progress Unidos has achieved over the last 10 years, as local media continues publicize how UnidosNow makes a difference.

But what was UnidosNow like THEN, when former Sarasota City Mayor Kelly Kirschner, local Spanish-language media publisher Luis Eduardo, and Honduran-American attorney Christopher John (CJ) Czaia mounted a campaign to ensure that the Hispanic/Latino population—the fastest growing segment of our population—was represented?

Kelly set aside time from his schedule as vice president and dean of Eckerd College’s Division of Executive and Continuing Education, board chair of UnidosNow, and trustee of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to reflect about UnidosNow’s beginnings.

Why was there a need in our community for an organization like UnidosNow? 

I was serving as the mayor of Sarasota in 2010 and, among others in the community – including particularly local Luis Eduardo Baron and CJ Czaia, we were horrified by the 2010 state of Florida election cycle and its results. The winning gubernatorial candidate prior to announcing his candidacy had zero name recognition anywhere outside of Naples. No political pundit gave him any chance of winning. However he invested over $12M in TV, radio and print advertising focusing squarely on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant message that laid the blame for Florida’s deep recession on the immigrant community and promised to remove them all once he was elected, following the lead of Arizona and their recently-passed “Show Me Your Papers” law.

In spite of such rhetoric in 2010, primarily vilifying the Latin American immigrant community, LatinX voters did not participate or show up to vote – particularly in the City of Sarasota where I was serving as Mayor. My recollection is that of our 20% LatinX population, only 2% were registered and only a fraction of that percentage (maybe 30%) participated in the 2010 election. It was a depressing moment for a number of reasons, the biggest being that if you have such a large and growing segment of your population that is not engaging in the most fundamental civic process, then it is a red-flag indicator of an unraveling of capital “C” Community.

When we looked at other areas of civic integration and asked the question:

UnidosNow founders, CJ Czaia (left) and Kelly Kirschner (right) in 2011.

What is the composition of X and is it reflective of this growing minority-majority community? Our local judiciary, are we seeing proportionate numbers of LatinX Sarasota/Manatee County judges? No. How about policing? No. Local civic and corporate leadership? No; utilization of banking services (no); attending cultural arts performances in the region (no); teachers and school administrators (no) – the list would go on and on, being abundantly clear that this was a marginalized and isolated community. Something needed to be done and greater attention had to be focused on integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant population into the full cultural, economic, educational and civic weave of the Community. 

How did you get involved?  How does your background/career lend itself to the founding of UnidosNow?

As Mayor from 2010-11, I had made it a focus of my period to celebrate our immigrant community and seek to draw a greater percentage of the population into civic conversations with their City government – in particular as it related to policing.

There was a natural evolution then in working with individuals like Luis Eduardo and CJ to encaminar the creation of UnidosNow. Having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Guatemala where I lived and worked for close to four years; a masters degree in Latin American Studies and a significant amount of time studying and working in Latin America, it was natural for me to work with this population. 

What did UnidosNow look like when it opened its doors?

For starters there were no doors. But let’s take a step back…If it weren’t for the initial vision and philanthropic support of CJ, UnidosNow would have never been created. CJ was the catalyst amongst our triumvirate to do something. I had started a non-profit in Guatemala but never in the US. Individually the three of us had understood for a number of years that something needed to be done to draw this community into greater civic conversations, but it was CJ that put up the dollars for many months to get it going.

What was the first UnidosNow project?

When I stepped down as Mayor, I took the lead as the first Executive Director and just as the Peace Corps, it was an incredibly hard, but equally rewarding job. Our ‘offices’ were local coffee shops with free WiFi. I had a volunteer intern -Victor Yengle, a Dreamer who grew up in Sarasota and had to drop out of UF because they revoked his scholarship and in-state tuition the day he arrived to move in as a freshman and couldn’t prove his citizenship. (I’m proud to say that Victor is now a US citizen, a UF graduate and is in graduate school at Cornell University currently.)

UnidosNow protest in front of the Manatee County Administration Building in Bradenton in February, 2011.

The two of us were probably in a state of complete disorder trying to address as many issues in the region as we could at once, coupled with great energy and an unspoken understanding of the late John Lewis’ call for all of us to find the spaces in life where we are obligated to start “good trouble”. The biggest issue in our first year was addressing that “Show Me Your Papers” bill that the Governor promised he would make law in Florida when elected.

UnidosNow worked with a number of other immigrant/Latino-support organizations, Spanish-language media outlets, University of South Florida and its Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, New College, and southwest Florida faith-leaders for more than seven months, awakening the conscience of the state’s Hispanic/Latino community.

Through organized advocacy that led multiple groups to Tallahassee as well as local protests, the proposal never made it to the floor nor has it been brought up again since then. A number of individuals and groups throughout the state point to the work of Unidos in being critical to help stop that. 

After defeating the “Show Me Your Papers” bill, what were next steps?

Our vision has always been that UnidosNow would be a large-tent, immigrant-integration organization—working across the spectrum of education, culture, civics, and economics to better integrate this community into the full fabric of our larger Community.

After our first year, education emerged as our primary focus.  We were fortunate to partner with the former Sarasota YMCA Hispanic Achievers Program Director Estela Curiel on building the first cohort of our college-prep program:  FLA, which continues helping phenomenal students attend some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in this country. We hope and expect that these students will one-day return to their home in SW Florida and be these eponymous leaders of our region. 

How did you decide on the name UnidosNow?

UnidosNow at a community event providing books for children and information.

Our current Executive Director, Luz Corcuera, has told me since I first met her over a decade ago that this concept of a melting pot in the United States is terribly flawed. There is no melting. What makes the US such a brilliant country is its diversity and the maintenance of customs and traditions from around the world that not only brings the world to a nation, but brings the enterprising, risk-taking spirit of an immigrant who leaves all that is loved and familiar to travel to our distant land to make a new life.

As such, Luz said the US has the most brilliant, complimentary fruit salad – where all immigrants represent their own, ripe, delicious, unique fruit and flavor profile – and together they make a perfect dessert. The creation of our name then sought to reflect that respect of richness, diversity; that multilingual is actually better than monolingual. It is also a play on words in that the United States in Spanish is “Estados Unidos” – so the fusion of Unidos with the urgent “Now” for an immigrant integration organization focusing on the LatinX community seemed to be about perfect. Uniting the community now – for the greater good of the United States is embodied in the name and our red, white and blue color palette. 

What challenges did you have to overcome in achieving your goals? How have you overcome these challenges?

When we first started, I think we confused many people. Some thought we were nothing more than a “flash-in-the-pan” political noise that would soon pass and fold.

Luz Corcuera, current UnidosNow Executive Director and fearless leader.

As a result, it was very hard to fundraise for our core programs, like FLA, with institutional funders. At some point in our second year, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation was the first large area foundation that felt they had done their due diligence on us and could invest in our work.

I’m proud to say that we have done everything we have said we would do not only for our friends with Gulf Coast, but all of our other funding partners, private donors and volunteers. That has grown the trust and level of credibility in the organization in the region and something we are very jealous of maintaining. 

Luz Corcuera’s leadership is foundational to this respect and credibility and we cannot begin to give her enough credit for how she has grown Unidos and our impact to levels that the three founders only dreamed of accomplishing in 2010.

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!

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”.

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!

Scholars Tutoring Scholars

by Sandy Chase

Our Future Leader Academy Scholar Daisy tutors our FLAG Schoclar Jennifer. UnidosNow Family Engagement Director Lisbeth Oscuvilca made the connection between the two students.

COVID-19 will not defeat us—especially when we have resources like our Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Scholars and alumni—embodying the UnidosNow mission: Elevating the quality of life of the Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration and civic engagement. Guest college students and current FLA members have come to rescue because they understand the difficulties our young students and parents face.

When COVID-19 hit us and forced us to stay home, many of our families needed to adapt to this new way of life, as they became “substitute” teachers, learning how to manage technology so their children could join online classes. 

Many parents—unprepared and uncomfortable with their new role and concerned that their children were becoming demotivated—began asking for our help.

That’s when we turned to our scholars to tutor these students during the “New Normal” of online classes.  

Our FLA Scholar tutors Maribel Perex

It’s a simple concept that our scholars understand and practice: “Give back to the community.” Almost immediately, they registered to help one or two young students. Methodically, we assigned students to our tutors, depending on the subjects they feel comfortable teaching. Now, our tutors are meeting once or twice weekly, helping students with homework while addressing their struggles with online learning.

We’re proud to say that elementary- and middle-school students and Parent Leadership programs are benefiting from this new support we are offering. 

Someday, COVID-19 will be a topic in a history book.  But because of our scholars, our young students will be making history.

My UnidosNow Story: “Retirement With Benefits” for Sandy Chase

When Sandy Chase read the UnidosNow placard her husband, Gary, had brought home from a local exposition several years ago, she knew she wanted to learn more about the organization. 

“This card, a little larger than a bookmark—with three words:  Educate, Elevate, and Integrate, and quotes like ‘I have found my own path to success,” and a list of such programs as Future Leaders Academy, UnidosNow Clubs, and College Prep Workshop Series—motivated me to explore volunteer opportunities.”  

Since that time, Sandy has been collaborating with the Dream Team and Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik scholars to help bolster the UnidosNow mission—whether as a writing coach or part of the newsletter team, led by Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, an experienced communications director.  Most recently, Sandy has also been working with Cintia Elenstar, program manager, on her important alumni e-newsletter.

Sandy says, “My role at UnidosNow intrinsically rewards me, especially when high-school seniors reach and often times exceed their goals—graduating with honors, being accepted to the college of their choice, and receiving scholarships to fund that educational experience.”

Sandy further explains how editing the newsletters—with her “eagle eye” and relentless “red pen”—is win-win. 

“Even if I’m not involved in all UnidosNow programs, I’m learning firsthand how this organization helps students and parents embark on their journeys to success—whether it’s the FLAG ‘Mighty Queso Coders,’ parent-leaders at Gocio and Tuttle Elementary schools, or Peer Buddies, alumni giving back to the community.”

As an UnidosNow EDITOR, Sandy’s life has been:

  • Enhanced by
  • Dedicated staff who are
  • Intelligent
  • Tenacious 
  • Organized and
  • Respected in Sarasota and Manatee counties for furthering the goals of the Latino community

Sandy summarizes her appreciation: “Gracias por la oportunidad de disfrutar de mi jubilación.”

Future Leaders Academy Barancik Scholars and Alumni Connect

On December 20th, we held the Winter Alumni Reunion, with participation from current Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik scholars from the college-prep and career-readiness tracks, UnidosNow high-school club members, parents, mentors, board members, and staff. We had a great turnout.

The event featured both an alumni and parents’ panel, enabling attendees to engage in a conversation pertaining to critical issues that students and parents face during the transition to college. Attendees participated in a trivia contest and interactive activities that encouraged networking and sharing. 

One of our FLA alumni said: “Thank you for inviting me. This gathering is great and I’m happy to have reconnected with so many people. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for UnidosNow. I’m so happy to be a part of the family!”

During the reunion, we officially launched the “Peer Buddies” program, which pairs up college and high-school students. The goal of this program is to enhance our mentoring program by providing peer-to-peer coaching and to provide our alumni with the opportunity to give back by supporting younger students.

We wholeheartedly thank everyone who attended in person, video-conferenced via Zoom, and sent us messages. We are also very grateful to the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation for supporting our scholars and to the Scheidel Foundation for supporting the College Success Program.