An accomplishment I never imagined possible

By Karen Arango

Karen Arango

Receiving my MA has been an enormous blessing. It is an accomplishment I never imagined or thought possible. When I went to college for my undergrad, I knew I wanted to get a Master’s Degree as well but with all the debt I had, the possibility seemed impossible.

Thankfully, this community supported me and helped me with scholarships to further my education and continue giving back to my community as a visual artist. I know many doors to my career and my future are opening, and I can’t wait to see where it all takes me.

When I think about my arrival to the United States, more than twenty years ago, and where I am now, I get emotional to think of all I’ve been able to accomplish and contribute to the country that has given me a home.

Mentoring UnidosNow scholars is an honor. The scholars have so much desire to succeed that it is both humbling and exciting to see. Although I’m grateful to have the opportunity to mentor some scholars, it is fantastic to know that my educational and career experience can help someone’s academic path. In the end, I learn more from them than what they learn from me. The FLA scholars are wonderful, and the program is highly impactful to these students. 

Nicole Llamas, Karen Arango’s mentee.

Education as a resource to my community

By Lucero Guzman

Lucero and her mom in 2016, during her participation at the Future Leaders Academy.

Five summers ago, I was busy getting ready for my senior year of high school. I was attending all the UnidosNow Future Leaders Academy workshops, planning for my next step. College seemed far away, but my senior year of high school was over before I knew it. That year, with the help of UnidosNow, I decided to attend the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

After high school graduation I was looking forward to a new chapter. College was filled with late nights studying, the occasional all-nighter, friends, school events, and a lot of thinking about the future. From medical school to epidemiology to genetics and so much more, I was constantly changing what I wanted to do with my biology degree. Getting involved with UnidosNow as an intern opened even more possibilities that I had not considered, but realized I was just as passionate about. 

Lucero and her parents on her graduation in 2021.

The majority of my last two years of college took an unexpected turn with the start of the pandemic. Although everything was online, those last two years contained some of my favorite classes and the classes that made me look at my future career with more excitement than ever. I am interested in a research based career and am taking the time after graduation to explore different areas. I am involved in a marine science seagrass research project over the summer and I plan to explore a different field upon completion. Meanwhile, I am still involved with UnidosNow, which brings me so much joy. When I work with our young students, I am able to be the person I wish I had been as a child. 

I already edited this paragraph above.Having the opportunity to attend college is something that I do not take for granted. From an early age, I knew that there were realities in my life that put me at a disadvantage in comparison to my peers. I was constantly reminded by my parents to not be afraid or discouraged. Thanks to them, I was determined to not give anything or anyone the power to take my dreams from me. School became my biggest priority because I knew that education was the greatest equalizer and a passport out of my situation. As first-generation students, we often carry high expectations from others and ourselves, a longing to improve the lives of our parents, and the need to build our own future. All these experiences and goals were and continue to be my driving force throughout college and beyond.

I will not say that my journey to college and my journey to graduation was easy but it was rewarding to keep my dreams in the forefront no matter what challenge presented itself. The achievement of graduating with honors from college is not just mine, but also of my parents who sacrificed everything, my community, and UnidosNow. I am excited to continue using my education as a resource to my community.

The ABCs for a Stronger Community: Interviewing Robert Howe of Team Success A School of Excellence

by Sandy Chase

When you think of Team Success, remember your ABCs:  Alliances Bolster Communities.  In this case, the partnership between UnidosNow and the charter school is a lesson worth learning.

Collaboration is a keystone of Team Success, an exceptional school in the Manatee County School District.  Having earned a reputation as the highest-performing Title I school in the county, its students continue to lead with impressive math, civics, and science scores based on the Florida State Assessment.

CEO Armando Viota says, “We are a team, where everyone plays a fundamental part in the education of our students.  Bus operators, maintenance, support staff, cafeteria, faculty, parents and families, and administration work together to ensure our students’ success!”

So it’s no wonder that the partnership with UnidosNow—sponsoring its high-school club (organized in October 2020), parent focus groups, and other endeavors—continues to bolster the community.

What’s even more impressive is that Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholar Genesis Getsemani Martinez and proud student of the Class of 2021 took the initiative to help establish this partnership—ultimately becoming the club leader.   

Having heard about the school through a family friend, Genesis began as a 4th grader, nine years ago.  

She has only praise for the school, comprising kindergarten through 12th grade—whose students are low-income, first-generation Latinos seeking post-graduate education.  

“I wanted to attend Team Success because they actually care about our education. They really push us to our limit and motivate us to keeping going.  They have been amazing.” 

She enjoys Team Success “because our classes are small, and teachers focus on individual students so everyone gets the attention they need.  Our relationship with our teachers makes it easy to ask for help and be myself.”

Planning to attend State College of Florida and pursue a career in social work, Genesis approached her College Counselor Robert Howe to explore possibilities of having an UnidosNow Club.

“One day I was explaining to Mr. Howe about UnidosNow, FLA, and our high-school clubs.  Becoming interested, he reached out to the organization.”  

UnidosNow Executive Director Luz Corcuera says, “Last year, Team Success contacted us, wanting to establish a club at the school.  We followed up with a presentation that generated great interest and engagement.  Since that time, we continue to build a strong relationship that helps promote our mission of elevating, educating, and integrating.”

Beaming, Genesis says, “I’m proud that our club allows us to help other college-bound students and those who will choose a career upon graduation. We now have 15 members.”

Like other UnidosNow high-school clubs, the one at Team Success has taught her about the college application process and the many post-secondary options available.

“Mr. Howe, our advisor, ensures that the club provides hands-on experiences, including completing college applications, writing essays, and applying for financial aid and scholarships.”   

Genesis says, “The greatest thing about the club is becoming a better version of ourselves—myself.  We also gain confidence.”

Genesis has also had to deal with challenges, saying, “I must communicate with members, understanding their needs.  When we first began, we had lots of ideas, but we were disorganized.”  

Through trial and error, Genesis has learned that she needed to set due dates and speak with her officers, striving to become a role model.

“At first, I was uncomfortable pointing out our mistakes, but I quickly realized that I had to tell them what needed to be done.  Working together, we were able to roll with the club.”

Rising Team Success senior and FLA scholar Dianna Lezama, who’s considering Harvard as her postsecondary choice, attests to the club’s success:

“I look forward to attending the UnidosNow club because it opens up new opportunities for me, and I get to meet incredible and amazing people.” 

That partnership between Team Success and UnidosNow exemplifies that practicing the ABCs helps encourage success for life.  

Why was Team Success established?

Team Success was established because our founder and visionary, Fred Spence, saw a need in the community to serve the underprivileged students and families in the Manatee County School District. 

The charter school was founded in 1997, operating under the umbrella of the Police Athletic League (PAL).  In 2013, the name became Team Success – A School of Excellence.  

Describe your collaboration with UnidosNow? 

After being introduced to UnidosNow by Genesis, when she was a junior, Team Success started its own UnidosNow Club—one of the biggest in Manatee County—pre-pandemic. 

We had our meetings—sometimes during school breaks and in the summer—here on campus because transportation for some of our families is difficult.  They have been at our parental-involvement meetings, focus groups, and other workshops—all resulting in a thriving community. 

How has your collaboration helped strengthen your high-school students’ future?

The UnidosNow club has served the students by providing them with more resources than they would ordinarily receive.  Our club also provides increased opportunities for our high-school graduating class.

Many of our students are coming from a background where their parents haven’t received much education.  Our club and UnidosNow better inform our population and their parents of the massive amount of resources and assistance they can receive.  

How has your School of Excellence helped bolster the Hispanic community—particularly your high-school seniors?  What goals do you have for that continued success?

We have helped to bolster the Hispanic community by promoting the idea that our students can achieve great things if they put their minds to it.  I’m constantly amazed at these kids and how hard they work even in light of their family’s challenging circumstances. 

In the future, we plan to open more facilities and add resources for our students.  One of the ways we are realizing our goals is by opening a second campus near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for our growing population.  In this way, we can help students explore possibilities in the aviation industry—opening the door to more avenues of success.

What is most fulfilling about working at Team Success?

As the college and career counselor, the most fulfilling aspect about working here is that I am able to help students reach their future career dreams.  I’m proud that our Class of 2021—the first graduating class—will embark on the journey to continued success.    

Most of our seniors came to us as early as 2009, when we had only grades K-8.  In 2017 we started our high school.

Now, they are about to receive their high-school diplomas.  The majority of our seniors have signed up for post-secondary education, preparing to pursue careers in social work, auto repair, law, and engineering.  There are no limits!

Where Are The Jobs?

REACH Manatee and its partners are excited to share the 2021 Where are the Jobs?, a guide that has the highest demand jobs in our region listed by educational pathway.

In partnership with CareerEdge, REACH Manatee has been able to update the document, and they are grateful also to their workforce partners who offered input and insights on the labor market analysis to identify the jobs included in the guide.

Bank of America has generously provided a grant for the printed version to be used at schools, youth organizations and partners who want to provide it to students and families, and/or incorporate it into their educational programming.

Read the full report here.

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.

Our Scholars and The Giving Challenge

Another silver lining of this pandemic has been the support we’ve received from our Future Leaders Academy Scholars and alumni during the 2020 Giving Challenge. We asked a few of our scholars why they wanted to get involved and what they got out of the experience. Here are two answers:

Leonela Tasé Sueiro, Future Leaders Academy Alumnus and student at George Washington University.

The Giving Challenge is a unique opportunity for community members to show how much they care for and appreciate local organizations, which do so much to empower, inspire, and encourage the next generation of movers and shakers

UnidosNow—being at the forefront of this unceasing, rewarding task—can and will always count on my support and participation. I especially enjoyed getting to be a panelist this year because I got to showcase just a sliver of what I have learned as a Future Leaders Academy scholar and UnidosNow alumna. 

I hope that through this experience and future ones, I can become a role model for younger teens. I want to show them the importance of giving back to the people and organizations that shape you and help you achieve your goals. In that way, The Giving Challenge is as much of a gift to me as it is to our wonderful Dream Team and UnidosNow programs. – Leonela Tasé Sueiro

Liam Ordonez, Future Leader Academy Alumnus, studying at Cornell University.

Because of COVID-19, I have had the privilege to come back home and connect with local nonprofits and other organizations that once served me. While I have been home, I have specifically extended a hand to UnidosNow. Their mission highlights my aspirations and passions; “to elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.” 

My passion for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their promotion of higher education within minority communities has given me the motivation to support organizations such as UnidosNow. When helping during The Giving Challenge, I felt empowered as a past Future Leaders Academy student who was now supporting other promising Latinx students. Through this experience, I got to stand on the other end of the program as I promised to support this organization in any way possible. – Liam Ordonez

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.