future leaders academy

Interviewing Luz Corcuera: The Guiding Light of Our Community

by Sandy Chase

Be a voice for the voiceless and encourage others to use their voice. No one person can do it alone. Together, we can change the world.  

– Executive Director of UnidosNow Luz Corcuera, Speech at Women in Power Award Luncheon

Praised by her staff, volunteers, students and parents, alumni, and community leaders for her untiring effort and insightful strategies, Luz continues to serve as a role model—not only for the Latino community but for all who have collaborated with UnidosNow.

Peruvian-born, Luz and her husband experienced years of terrorism and political unrest before moving to Toronto, Canada, and finally to Sarasota in 2000.  Having overcome the challenges of integrating into a new community and country, Luz endorses education—empowering one to realize all dreams.

Aptly named, Luz has indeed brightened the lives of the underserved whether at UnidosNow or during her earlier health career as program director for Healthy Start Coalition and community health director for the Florida Department of Health, both in Manatee County; or as a family and group therapist in Canada, retaining her membership in the Ontario Society of Psychotherapists.

Berit Dullerud and Luz Corcuera.

Berit Dullerud, MSW, RSW, Luz’s supervisor at the Toronto Hospital—dubbed “best boss ever” by Luz—remembers a committed, ethical, competent professional.

“A fun individual with a smile that lit up the room, Luz was focused on women’s health and well-being.  She always saw the potential in everyone.  Luz wanted to assist women improve their lives—continuing to succeed.”

A recipient of numerous awards, including Martin Luther King Jr. Outstanding Citizen Award (April 2005, Palmetto Youth Center); Women in Business Leadership Award (May 2019, SRQ Media); and Women in Power Award (January 2019, National Council of Jewish Women), Luz continues to execute her values:  improving the lives of women, children, and families by safeguarding their rights and freedoms:

But according to her, no award—no matter how meaningful—can compete with feedback from individuals she’s inspired.  

Future Leaders Academy (FLA) alumnus Oscar Portillo-Meza’s comments encapsulate the effect she’s had on future generations.  Graduating from the University of South Florida (USF) next spring, he’ll receive a degree in economics, after which he intends to apply to the USF College of Business for an MBA.

From left to right, FLA Alumni Vanessa Tasé-Sueiro, Esther García, Jane Plitt, Luz Corcuera, and FLA Alumni Oscar Portillo.

“Luz has been a mentor and a guiding North Star.  She’s gone to bat for me probably far more than deserved.  Her advocacy for students in dire need and for the future of education is unmatched and brilliantly done.  She has taken the meaning of leading by example to the next level.”

Oscar continues:  “Because of UnidosNow, I was able to cling onto the great equalizer: higher education. As my undergraduate journey nears its end, I reflect on the guidance and tools that UnidosNow offered me as a young man, realizing their effectiveness—for now and the future.  I’m grateful for how UnidosNow continues to shape me—for the better.” 

Lucero Guzman, soon to receive her BA in biology from USF, also exemplifies how Luz has encouraged her to dream big—to pursue higher education.  

“Luz had believed in me before I believed in myself. Although I have always been dedicated to learning, I struggled to find my place as a first-generation student.  I’m thrilled to give back by mentoring FLA students as a peer buddy in the UnidosNow College Completion Program.”

Wil Colon, Lucero Guzman, Corie Naeger, Wendy Barroso, Luz Corcuera, Lisbeth Oscuvilca with Elek, and Lisa Ramirez.

As an intern, working with the Future Leaders Academy for Elementary-School Girls and Future Leaders Academy for Middle School, Lucero plans and delivers workshops for these students.  She also communicates with parents—vital during this pandemic.

Lucero echoes others’ sentiments:  “I look up to Luz’s compassionate, strategic, value-driven leadership.  Without UnidosNow, my path to higher education would have been bumpy—lacking the unique direction, mentorship, and purpose that UnidosNow helps students find.” 

Luz personifies her commitment to education—for herself as well.  Receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Clinical and Organizational Psychology was just the beginning.  Pursuing a second master’s in Pastoral Ministry—to deepen her faith and understanding of social justice—was the next step on her educational journey.  

Her first-semester professor at Florida’s Rice School for Pastoral Ministry (Barry University), Sallie Latkovich, DMin, CSJ, remembers welcoming Luz to the social justice class: 

“I was impressed by Luz’s intelligence, faith, and insight—especially her love of learning and of befriending those ‘on the periphery.’  A woman of a strong, tender heart, she wept as we viewed the story of Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who advocated for the oppressed.”  

Dr. Latkovich continues:  “To this very day, I admire all Luz’s ministry of service in the various organizations she’s led, especially, Unidos Now.”

Dr. Sallie Latkovich.

On numerous occasions, you’ve mentioned your gratitude to volunteers—not only at UnidosNow but through your earlier directorships in the health field.  What would UnidosNow look like if there were no volunteers?

Our volunteers are the heart of UnidosNow.  Without their support, passion, and dedication, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish our mission.  UnidosNow began—thanks to the vision and work of caring volunteers who were committed to find ways to elevate the quality of life of the growing Latinx community in our region.  Our volunteers, who come from different places and possess various fields of expertise, are unexpected gifts.  

These altruistic individuals share their time, talent, and treasure to make sure that our students and their families are able to create a better life and future for all of us.  UnidosNow would look like an isolated island—with very few resources—if it weren’t for the generous people who are at the core of what we are able to accomplish together.

What messages do you have for Latino students and their parents?

Our main goal is empowering you, which entails having to put in the extra work to commit to all our programmatic demands and never stop dreaming big or believing in your ability to make those big dreams a reality.  

Luz Corcuera and Roxie Jerde with our Parent Leadership parents and their children.

We inspire parents through our Parent Leadership Program.  Attendees learn English, life skills, and available community resources—as well as how to support their children’s educational goals.  Parents feel more confident when you can use your voice and do not have to depend on others, particularly on your children.  

With the growth of the young Latino population, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to ensure that our future is in the best hands possible and we can accomplish this goal only when our students are able to reach their fullest potential.   

UnidosNow gives you all possible tools to succeed.  We encourage you to be proud of who you are and of your cultural and family values—sharing that richness with the entire community.  

Education is vital to creating circles of opportunities for others and to pave the road for generations to come.  I have no doubt that this generation of leaders is filled with conviction, ambition, hard work, love for our country, and compassion.  Our future is in great hands.

 What do you look for when hiring staff or choosing your professionals to oversee a particular program?

As a general practice, I hire people based on a combination of values—extremely important—and expertise.  Every team member needs to breathe the passion for our mission.  Understanding the needs and aspirations of the people we serve is key to effective, meaningful work.  

Of course, people need to have the skills and be open to learn what they need to empower the talented, hardworking, resilient students and their parents to create a better life—opening opportunities for others.  I like to have people with natural curiosity, who are not afraid to innovate and think outside the box.  We have a conference table where we gather for our team meetings—named “Innovation Station.”  That pretty much says it all.

The UnidosNow Team at Manatee Technical College in May 2016.

Every idea is welcomed.  Being a small organization, every team member has primary responsibilities, but we all need to be ready to wear multiple hats at a given time.  I am very proud of my team and grateful for their never-ending creativity, energy, and passion for empowering others to succeed. 

A small organization—with big dreams—we respect, trust, love, and rely on one another.   UnidosNow is a caring family that looks out for others.  Our alumni know that they can always count on us.

What are some of the latest UnidosNow initiatives?  What changes do you want to implement? 

The pandemic has taken UnidosNow to uncharted territory.  We were forced to add outreach, education, emergency assistance, and access to vaccines—to our already flourishing programs.  

Hundreds of families turned to us or agencies referred them, making it a difficult decision to take all this on.  But we were fortunate that our generous community understood and supported our efforts.  

I am proud of my team for being able to switch—without any interruptions—to an all-virtual format.  Luckily, before the pandemic hit us, we had upgraded some of our technology and were able to make significant changes.

In addition, we developed a tutoring program for our parents and students—with the help of our alumni and high-school students.  One of our scholars had the initiative of starting his own nonprofit—recruiting tutors from his peers—seeing it grow exponentially.  As we move forward, we need to continue innovating—being flexible to the emerging needs of the students and families we serve.

We are also now providing paid internships to our students who are doing a fabulous job helping in our different programs.  Equally important is the participation of our parent ambassadors who are trusted members in their own communities and have been instrumental in helping us with our efforts to provide outreach and education related to Covid-19 and now with access to vaccines.

As executive director, what has been most fulfilling?

What brings a big smile to my heart is hearing or seeing:

  • Stories and testimonials from our students and parents, learning how they’ve used their wings to fly high.
  • Parents inspired by their children—returning to school or improving their jobs choices.
  • Our elementary-school girls talking the language of robotics, coding, and science; and competing as a team. 
  • Parents getting involved as coaches of a robotics team after receiving necessary training.  

What also rewards me is hearing from our alumni, who share their challenges and successes—proud of how they put to good use the tools they learned in our programs.  But most important, is knowing that every effort we make as a collective has a tremendous effect on others.  

Given the extensive UnidosNow programs, what do you envision UnidosNow will look like in 2030?

There is no question that the pandemic has brought many challenges, and nobody knows what the new normal will be.  I see the next decade for UnidosNow as a decade of growth.  

Luckily, we have an entire generation of students who will have graduated from college or will have started on a career path.  They are already role models for younger generations who aspire to be on the same path one day. I think UnidosNow is well-positioned—embracing trust and empowerment.  

Given your noteworthy health career, why did you choose to vie for executive director position after Hector’s retirement? 

Hector Tejeda, Wendy Barroso, Luz Corcuera and Lucero Guzman.

I did not vie for the position.  I kept in touch with the leadership of UnidosNow from its inception and joined forces in some advocacy initiatives, supporting some of their efforts in a limited capacity over the years.  

Hector Tejeda came to UnidosNow—with his passion, knowledge, and credentials and took UnidosNow to a higher level, along with Catalina Kaiyoorawongs—giving a solid seal to what it is now the FLA for high-school students.  

In 2015, Kelly Kirschner invited me to lead UnidosNow.  My immediate suggestion was that the board of directors advertise the position nationwide and search for a dynamic, young college graduate who could take the organization to the next level.  I had other professional responsibilities at the moment and, at first, I did not want to consider this role.  

Although Hector had retired from his pharmaceutical career before locating to Sarasota, he assumed the leadership of UnidosNow until December 2015, when he suggested that the board find a new executive director for the organization.

It was only after several conversations with Kelly and the board and looking at the direction that UnidosNow had taken and the growth of the Latino population in the region that I entertained the thought of taking on this challenge. 

I am happy to say that in January 2016 I joined the team to lead the organization.  I wanted to build on the success of the FLA for high-school students by going deeper and empowering middle- and elementary-school students—expanding and enhancing our parental engagement component.  

I have enjoyed every second being dedicated to UnidosNow:  it has afforded me the opportunity to work with amazing community partners, volunteers, and generous donors who embrace UnidosNow’s mission.

Who have been you role models?

UnidosNow’s Noche Latina, October 2019.

My role model has always been my parents and, in particular, my mother:  an intelligent, loving, and giving woman.  She always found the way to make everyone feel special and to encourage me and my siblings to be the best version of ourselves, whereas my father reminded us about the value of the education—instilling high expectations.  

All along I’ve had teachers, friends, and mentors who inspired me to go after my dreams and live life to the fullest.  I have been fortunate that my mentors have come along at different stages in my life and have helped my personal and professional growth.

UnidosNow Shows the Community What Is Possible: An Interview With Debra Jacobs, CEO and President of The Patterson Foundation

by Sandy Chase

Since its inception, only 10 years ago, UnidosNow has proved itself as a role model for other community nonprofits.

During a recent interview, CEO and President Debra Jacobs of The Patterson Foundation (TPF) attributed this Latino organization’s success to its “magic sauce,” consisting of leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture—“spiced” by its passion to ensure that Latinos achieve their potential.  

An inexperienced organization, UnidosNow had to establish itself by building its reputation—one program at a time—especially focusing on improving opportunities for college-bound teens, which has come to be known as the Future Leaders Academy, the model for other showcase programs.

As it evolved, UnidosNow defined its mission of elevating the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.  Debra points out that during her tenure as president at the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, she was fortunate to be a sounding board for Kelly Kirschner, an UnidosNow co-founder and current chair.

Collaborating with TPF, most notably by having been chosen as one of five nonprofits to benefit from Margin & Mission Ignition 2018 (MMI), UnidosNow continues to learn how to develop and implement revenue-generating ventures.  

TPF also supports UnidosNow through the Giving Challenge and by posting Executive Director Luz Corcuera’s recent blogs on TPF’s website:  one about the recent census; the other, MMI.

(See here)

Luz says, “The leadership and support that The Patterson Foundation provides in our region is exceptional.  Behind many successful, important initiatives is Debra Jacobs, encouraging us to collaborate and look at best practices.  A role model and mentor, Debra is an amazing leader.”

The following interview with Debra also shines a light on TPF, as it, too, celebrates its 10th anniversary—proving that “the world moves at the speed of change, and change happens at the speed of trust.” 

As is evident by Debra’s examples, TPF helps individuals, organizations, and communities thrive because of five C’s:  Caring, Connecting, Collaborating, Contributing, and Creating—not unlike what UnidosNow continues to foster. 

Describe TPF’s relationship with UnidosNow.  

First, let me provide some context about The Patterson Foundation.  Rather than traditional grant making, we don’t fund organizations; instead we invite them, and they choose to work with us.  In that way, we foster wide participation—believing that individuals, organizations, and communities are the best architects for their own future. 

Through our collaboration—whether with Margin & Mission Ignition initiative or The Giving Challenge—UnidosNow personifies its mission.  

Let me give you a few examples, starting with MMI.  We may start with 100 organizations participating in learning labs.  With each lab, the number of participants dwindles—indicating which organizations can develop a plan to do earned income. 

Five characteristics for developing this plan are critical to igniting thrivability:  leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture.

I’ve now described UnidosNow:

  1. An incredible, “award-winning” staff and board leadership team—wanting to strengthen the organization and lift the potential of others.
  1. Willingness to look at new ideas—passionate about exploring ways to improve the lives of those they serve—providing avenues for individuals to reach their potential.  
  1. Ready, even though they might face challenges, such as COVID-19.    
  1. Capacity to achieve their mission. 
  1. Culture to grow and change

Always looking to work with others, Unidos Now shows up “to be in the conversation.”  It’s evident when we do a “pop-up” neighborhood event—a surprise visit to a laundromat where TPF  pays for laundry services that day—UnidosNow comes with a joyful heart, which I believe comes from the leadership setting the tone that they care and want to create new futures. 

Debra Jacobs, President and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.

What has impressed you most about UnidosNow?

What has impressed me most is that over the years UnidosNow has focused on what can they do with excellence—bumped up when Luz came on board.  I applaud her style and integrity.  Her honesty is a magnet for volunteer leadership.  

Achievements of their college-bound teens, now shared by elementary and middle-school children—and their families—continue to improve our communities.  

Another noteworthy attribute of UnidosNow is how they realized that when the pandemic hit, they had to pause and rethink their MMI solid business plan based on marketing to raising money for Beyond College Now (BCN).    

Originally, their program was intended to help all Sarasota-Manatee students gain admission to “best-value” colleges.  By offering college-advising services for a fee, the nonprofit had planned to share their college-preparation expertise—reinvesting the proceeds in their core mission:  to empower Latino students to succeed through higher education. 

Rather than plowing ahead, they’ve learned to adjust their focus because not everything works the way you envision.  And as we speak, UnidosNow is demonstrating their innovative skills—not stymied by an obstacle—demonstrating forward thinking. 

What have been some challenges UnidosNow has had to face?  

As with any startup, financial stability is key.  Ideas are no good without money.  In the beginning, UnidosNow sought supporters and grants.  But it was a struggle until Luz came on board, leading the nonprofit toward incremental successes, credibility, and visibility in the community.  

UnidosNow has proved itself repeatedly that it exemplifies a strong organization.  We believe that their collaboration through the Margin & Mission Ignition initiative has also boosted their status, even during COVID – 19.

Besides Margin & Mission Ignition, what are other examples of TPF collaboration?

We’re also proud that we have matched donations given to UnidosNow during every Giving Challenge, sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County—proving the nonprofit’s determination to raise money to better the lives of individuals and strengthen the community.  

Another recent endeavor was during one of the many Seasons of Sharing:  support organizations participating in a joint philanthropic partnership between the Herald Tribune Media Group and Community Foundation of Sarasota County.  TPF catalyzes funding from donors to help support the most vulnerable.  Money is then distributed through organizations that are part of the network, UnidosNow being one.

To celebrate this latest Season, we invited those organizations to a Zoom get together, awarding one-time honorariums to all participants, showing our appreciation.         

How does UnidosNow encourage learning and sharing and help fortify this community?

During our knowledge-sharing workshops with other nonprofits, such as TPF’s Thrive and Dine, UnidosNow inevitably is asked to be a presenter for a particular theme.  Always knocking it out of the park, they create a beehive of people who go over to speak with their representatives.  

UnidosNow is committed to learning.  Luz and her team are always about what is the “best way we can do this?”  In return, UnidosNow is becoming the go-to place for other organizations who want to know what they should do.  

Because of their expertise, UnidosNow has become the “oracle” where others seek answers.  A case in point is the recent census, where other communities “borrowed” UnidosNow best practices.  TPF worked with the Herald-Tribune to create a Spanish primer and coloring book related to the census, which UnidosNow shared, helping Latin communities in four counties:  Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, and Charlotte.

Helping people understand, Luz and her team build relationships—contributing to a stronger community—affirming that everyone has potential.  In return, UnidosNow has earned the respect of the region.

How can UnidosNow continue to contribute to community?

As they mature, UnidosNow must invest in themselves. There must be continuous improvement, never losing sight of their mission—being an exemplar—all for the purpose of improving community.  
The next 10 years will provide that opportunity for UnidosNow, an organization that represents what is possible.

Interviewing Cathaleen (Catalina) Kaiyoorawongs: A Volunteer Who “Dreamed Big”

By Sandy Chase

Cathleen Kaiyoorawongs, Hector Tejeda and one of our Future Leaders Academy Alumni.

“Dreaming big”—a phrase coined by Hector Tejada, the current director of education initiatives—describes Cathaleen Kaiyoorawongs (Catalina) and her efforts to draft a roadmap for today’s successful Future Leaders Academy (FLA).

As a volunteer, she played a vital role in helping the nonprofit identify its mission.  Catalina advocated for Latino high-school students:  preparing them for postsecondary education and careers.  She also underscored the importance of looking beyond immigrant rights and financial literacy to ensure the organization’s sustainability by attracting donors and partners.

Catalina had a vision for UnidosNow:  empower Latino youth by strengthening FLA, which at the beginning, was a fledgling group of no more than 10 students.  Moreover, she knew that she had to reach parents, reeducating them in order to overcome misconceptions and cultural barriers.

Catalina’s mantra—which UnidosNow continues to instill in its youth and families—is optimize your resources:  money management and education are vital.

Recognized as a Top Latino Educator in 2016, Catalina was chosen as a fellow in the NCLR’s (National Council of La Raza) National Institute for Latino School Leaders.  Through this prestigious institute, she fortified her advocacy skills—further strengthening UnidosNow’s educational program.

Because of her foresight almost eight years ago, UnidosNow is no longer Unidos THEN.  NOW it’s recognized for improving the Latino community and Sarasota-Manatee at large.

What prompted you to get involved with UnidosNow?

In 2012, a mutual friend introduced me to then-Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who, like me, served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.  He told me about UnidosNow, which he had founded with CJ Czaia and Luis Eduardo Baron, and introduced me to Frankie Soriano, the executive director.

Having returned from Guatemala, I was no longer interested in becoming a lawyer, and hearing about UnidosNow piqued my interest.  I wanted to work with the Latino community, so I offered to volunteer.

What role did you play as a volunteer?

UnidosNow receives a grant from IBERIABANK for our Future Leaders Academy.

As a volunteer, I helped in any capacity, especially conducting workshops on financial literacy and immigrant rights.  I also assisted with events, such as resource fairs—helping to promote UnidosNow in the community.  

FLA was in its infancy, with only a handful of high-school kids meeting after school.  UnidosNow was establishing its identity that would help ensure financial sustainability.  That’s when I pitched to the board a larger vision for the FLA education program, which I believed could help the organization build a base of community support.

The data on higher-education access spoke for itself:  Hispanics were graduating from high school at higher rates than the average.  However, their postsecondary access and attainment were lower on average as compared with that of their white counterparts. 

Using numbers and other information, I sought board support to move forward with my vision for UnidosNow and the families we ardently supported.  I became the director of education initiatives, also responsible for fundraising—enlisting substantial financial support from the Gulf Coast Community and Knight foundations.

What programs did you institute as the director of education initiatives?

To boost FLA, I started a summer ‘academy” (2013-present) hosted by the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USF).  Robin Groelle (education consultant) helped us design and develop the curriculum for the revised FLA. 

The six-week summer workshop—now an integral part of FLA—continues to prepare rising juniors and seniors for college and careers—exploring such topics as college selection, financial-aid programs, interviewing skills, and resume writing.   Participants also prepare for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.

“Job shadowing” is another component, where attendees visit local professionals to talk about their careers.  In the past, Ritz-Carlton, SRQ Media, and Kekering, Baberio & Co. (CPAs) partnered with us. 

Students were also introduced to science-based careers, visiting the Mote Marine Laboratory, and learning about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) from Dr. Aparna Telang, a USF biology professor. 

Before the end of my tenure, UnidosNow provided college tours, expanded the summer program by four times, and established FLA high-school clubs in Palmetto and Sarasota high schools. 

Another crucial aspect was helping parents with anxieties related to college life and review what parents can do to support their children in the college-application process.  We worked with parents to explain that college preparation was more than academic excellence.  It was also about developing extracurricular interest outside of school.

I also worked with the Florida College Access Network to build a local college access network in Sarasota County.  I worked with the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the United Way to start a coalition.

What other positions did you hold before attending the University of Michigan to pursue your M.B.A. (Ross School) and M.Ed. in Education, Leadership, and Policy? 

As the associate executive director, I fervently pursued fundraising while finding the best team to bolster the FLA program, especially the summer workshops.  I ran board meetings and strove to fulfill the UnidosNow mission—looking for creative ways to sustain the organization through a mission everybody would support.

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow? 

I could readily identify with our Latino kids and their families.  The eldest daughter of a Thai father and American mother, I grew up in two cultures—challenged by financial stress, especially when my father’s business failed during the Asian economic crisis.

My mom raised us in Sarasota, where she worked several jobs, leaving me to care for my sisters.  But these experiences taught me determination—which is why I related to the UnidosNow students. 

I worked several after-school jobs, learning money management from a wealth manager for whom I babysat his kids.  In fact, another employer recommended me for a position at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office after having received my degree from Barnard College.

Attending Barnard, the women’s college of Columbia University, I learned the importance of leadership, especially for women. 

During my time at Barnard, I studied abroad in Ecuador and traveled all over Latin America, learning Spanish and deepening my knowledge of the socio-political culture, which I learned about and how it affects the Latinos of Sarasota-Manatee.

My experience in the Peace Corps (Guatemala) also taught me the importance of defying its cultural gender barriers—even earning me the title of “The Woman Who Wears Pants”—instilling a greater level of confidence—which helped me, as a UnidosNow volunteer, to articulate my vision.

More important, I saw first-hand the link between poverty and lack of financial education—strengthening my commitment to financial literacy and economic integration, a cornerstone of the UnidosNow mission.

What challenges did you face in your UnidosNow positions?

In the early days when UnidosNow didn’t have any apparent program structure or approach to fundraising, I was convinced that I was the person to take on this challenge. I was early in people management in my career. We operated on limited resources, and I was just inventing everything as I went along.  I thrive on traveling paths less traveled.

What were the rewards during your tenure as director of education initiatives? Associate executive director?

Catalina Kaiyoorawongs, Maribel Cardenas and Gloria Muñoz.

The effect I had on the students, the trust built with them, the hope their parents had, and the fruits of seeing results of my work—rewarded me multifold.  I sprang out of bed every morning and it was the greatest joy to work with students.

I love bringing together the best and the brightest and figuring out how to improve things and develop systems.  For example, we moved FAFSA (federal student aid) completion for Sarasota County from 34th in the state to the top 10 in Florida.

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.

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.

Meet Our Scholars

The Giving Challenge 2020 is here, and we want you to meet some of the students and families that we are impacting through our Future Leaders Academy programs in elementary, middle, and high schools.

It takes a community to raise the next generation of leaders and we are grateful for YOU, our mentors, donors, and community partners that support our mission.

UnidosNow will be participating in the Giving Challenge 2020 on April 28 and 29 noon to noon and we hope to count on your support again. You can donate on April 28 and 29 here.

Be The One to support our students to dream big and reach high.

Axel Soto and Kamila Kemenyfy-Rojas

Ximena Chafloque and Luis Guevara-Flores

Bella Macias and Vanessa Tase Sueiro

Xiomara Orozco and Igor Kitanovski

Axa Salas and Nicholas Coelho

Nahyara Piedrahita and Andrea Salazar

Genesis Martinez and Paula Rodriguez

A Mighty UnidosNow High School Club

Bella Macias and Xavier Rosado, Braden River High School UnidosNow Club President and Vice President.

The Braden River High School UnidosNow Club features Bella Macías as President, Xavier Rosado as Vice President, Sophia Innocenti as Secretary, Michael LaPointe as Treasurer, and Ayaka Quesen as Publicist. 

This mighty group of five work extremely hard to prepare an informative presentation every other Friday at their advisor’s—Mr. Kirchberg’s—classroom. The team usually meets on the Fridays when they do not have a club meeting, establishing their topic for the upcoming presentation. The club also consists of four committees: Community Outreach, FAFSA & Marketing, Workshop, and Essays, and each committee has their own committee chair.

Moreover, to encourage ESL students to participate in the club, they have an ESL Outreach Ambassador who bridges the communication between the two parties. The main goal of the club is to provide enough information to their members, where they feel confident enough to tackle the college application process. Whenever anyone has a question of any sort, they are always free to ask questions to any of the officers. 

  • Besides the many informative meetings the officers have scheduled, each committee has a particular goal they set for themselves for the year: 
  • The Community Outreach committee, with Orlando Chinchilla as chair, has aided the club in establishing a sister program with Oneco Elementary’s Boys & Girls Club. They volunteer there every other Thursday, where they offer help in tutoring for all sorts of academic topics, while also offering some support for the kids. 
  • The Essays committee has received multiple college essays at the beginning of the year, and Demi Dionela, the chair, has organized the committee members to edit specific essays depending on their strengths. The project was a success, and many seniors were grateful for the grammar and spelling checks that were provided by the club. 
  • The FAFSA & Marketing committee, with Fiorella Recchioni as chair, was instructed to create the FAFSA video during the first semester, where they helped the club win the prize of a pizza party. Overall, the video helped inform not only the club about the FAFSA application process, but many other students who follow them on social media. 
  • Finally, their Workshop committee, led by Khushbu Patel, is currently working on constructing a College/Job Resume Workshop, where any student from the school could attend the meeting in order to learn how to write a resume. The Club has also held a few workshops led by the officers team, including their College Kid Workshop, which featured previous BRHS students who gave advice to their members on college information during the potluck meeting.

This club has not only allowed students to grow and learn, but they are all able to work through their struggles and hopefully attend the college of their dreams. “When convincing my many friends to join the club, I always say that it’s worth it, because everyone needs help, even me,” says Macias.

My UnidosNow Story by Bella Macias

UnidosNow is turning 10 this year, and we are asking our scholars, parents, mentors, volunteers, staff, and board members to share how they first heard about UnidosNow and how they’re involved with our organizations. This month we highlight Bella Macias’ story:

“I first heard about UnidosNow from Mina Quesen who founded the club at my high school, and also participating in the Future Leaders Academy (FLA). Mina eventually became one of my closest friends and mentor. 

The FLA program allowed me to connect with those dedicated to help shaping my future, and putting me on the path to achieve my goals. Without the FLA program, I would’ve been completely lost when applying to colleges, especially since both my parents came from out of the country. This program paired me with a mentor that could relate to my struggles, as well as friends that could understand the problems I faced when applying to colleges.

The FLA program has not only guided me through the difficult terrains of applying to college, but the UnidosNow team has supported me in achieving my goals in becoming an astrophysicist with their personal statement workshops. This program has allowed me to feel more empowered to reach the stars and receive a PhD. in the future, while also giving me great feedback as I run the Braden River High School UnidosNow Club as the President.”

An Internship in Toledo, Ohio: Mina Quesen’s Experience

Future Leader Academy Alumnus Mina Quesen shares her experience as an intern with MidStory Media Thinkhub in Toledo, Ohio.

“’I have an internship in Ohio.’

‘Why?’

This was the conversation I had over and over in the weeks coming up to my internship with MidStory Media Thinkhub. What text doesn’t convey is that the “why” wasn’t a subject of, “Why do you have an internship?” but rather, “Why Ohio?” Ironically, this response was exactly why my internship existed at all.

In the last week of January, I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long internship with MidStory. This was part of a program hosted by Princeton’s Career center in which alumni host students for a day or week for a Princeternship. Where others had a job-shadowing experience, I would certainly say that my experience was a week for an intern. 

MidStory is a non-profit media thinkhub located in Toledo, Ohio, a city I didn’t know existed prior to January. The company was founded by three Princeton alumni and an MIT graduate in 2018 with the goal to “retain, cultivate, and attract the youth and public” to the post-industrial cities of the midwest through creative storytelling and solution-oriented projects. In other words, the MidStorians are working to revive the midwest starting with Toledo. The midwest which is often overlooked and talked about in major news located on the coasts. 

As I was scrolling through the options of companies I could get matched with, MidStory stood out because it combined my love writing but also a love I had formed by working with UnidosNow. Non-profit was so familiar and became so dear to me because of how much UnidosNow helped me throughout high school. I initially ranked MidStory as my second choice. In between the application and interview, I couldn’t help but think MidStory was a better fit. In the interview, I asked for my options to be reordered, putting MidStory first. 

Through my week with Midstory, it was odd that I felt closer to home in Toledo than I did in Princeton (it helped that I75 that I lived next to my entire life also ran through Toledo). At Princeton, you’re surrounded by so many people who have passion, but often they are work-oriented. They live day to day for classes and clubs and teeter on burn-out. Although I love my school and the people I’ve met here, it is sometimes easy for us to forget to do something we enjoy outside of academia. In Toledo, I was thrown back into an environment where people worked for passion. I was shown to how much work and detail goes into every day let alone every event. I saw first hand how much work volunteers do, how much is hand-made, how many hours are spent outside of a 9-5. I was reminded of how families are built and how they grow.

My responsibilities throughout the week were to help prepare for their Annual Review event and prepare my own self driven project about Toledo. I took to writing about how on the first day me and my fellow interns were dropped off in the middle of the city and told to explore. As I worked through this reflection, I had guidance with any question and support for any idea. When I wanted to create a map of our path, one of the MidStorians took the time to teach me about design and helped me produce a final project that I’m proud of. From the very start, we were welcomed into MidStory and taken under wing. We were invited to a dedicated staff and volunteer network. Non-profits are projects of passion and love, and my week in Toledo made me realize that even though the future is unclear, that environment of passion is one I want to find and contribute to. 

Beyond that, I got to explore Toledo, Ohio, which doesn’t seem like something I should be excited about but really is something I’m glad to have done. It’s a city of promise. It’s quiet, which is shocking considering there are world class attractions in Toledo, including a free art museum that challenges those in New York. It’s a city waiting for rebirth, and the Midtorians are taking the first steps toward it.”

Our FLA Students Present at PINC

The PINC Conference, which stands for People, Ideas, Nature, and Creativity, hosted by Dream Large in Sarasota. Thanks to the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, two of our Future Leaders Academy Scholars were invited to attend along with their favorite teachers: Nicholas Coehlo, a junior at Riverview High, chose Ms. Es Swihart, and Nahyara Piedrahita, a junior at Sarasota High, chose Ms. Casey Garrett.

During a showcase at Dream Large, the participants shared their experience at PINC where they presented their work in front of their teachers, community, and sponsors. Nicholas created a song that he composed to illustrate the impact of PINC, and Nahyara, a drawing about her experience. They both were exceptional.

Below you can to read about the experience directly from our students. We thank the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, DreamLarge (organizer of PINC), the School District of Sarasota County, and, last but not least, our students for being amazing ambassadors of UnidosNow.

Nicholas Coehlo

“How do I present something completely original? There are no guidelines, or examples to follow, there’s no one to copy, the pressure is on. So, I made my own path, unique to me and my PINC experience.

On presentation day, I was ready to show PINC what they taught me. I walked into the Dream Large studio feeling confident and prepared. Then I saw the stage, so small and close to the audience, I imagined cameras pointed in my direction and 40 pairs of eyes looking back at me. I wasn’t feeling so good anymore.

Feelings of intimidation and worry flooded my mind, if I didn’t get a grip on my emotions, my presentation would be a train wreck. As the event began, the audience and presenters took a seat. I closed my eyes and prayed, I breathed deep, then I drank some water and breathed deeper.

Slowly, my confidence returned. In good timing too, because now it was my turn to present. I smiled at Mrs. Luz as she introduced me, making my way to the stage with a gulp of courage in chest. 

I started to speak:

‘Hi everyone! PINC was great! I learned so much from people I never thought I would meet. But my main take-away is the process of creativity. Creativity is a process that takes failure and perseverance until you reach the goal.

When I chose to write a PINC inspired song, I learned that failure was a great teacher. I also learned that inspiration was everywhere, in my everyday experiences. I was inspired to write about something we all have, problems. I could list so many and so could you. With that said, its normal to not be normal, which makes it normal.

When I feel the pressure of problems surrounding me, I pray and think of every good thing I’ve been given, then I feel peace unlike anything else. That’s what the song is about. Problems and how I handle them.’

The song played as I flipped through the projected lyrics. The presentation ended, and the audience applauded, I smiled. All I had to do was be was me and that was enough.”

Nahyara Piedrahita

“I am beyond grateful to be able to be part of the PINC Experience 2019, It motivated me in many different ways and there are no words to explain how great this conference is. 

They asked me if I could in some way or form describe my experience with PINC so I combined it with what I love most, art. I made an acronym of my own depicting what I obtained from this conference.

PINC originally stands for People, Ideas, Nature, and Creativity but as  I sat in the audience from my perspective I viewed the definition of PINC differently, the talented people brought on stage their Passion, the love for what they do or the talent they carry. 

Imagination, the way they created new concepts or ideas and made it their unique way.

Nurture, the speakers expressed a caring heart for the individual uniqueness and as an audience, you could observe the way they took care of it.

And finally, they brought Culture into their ideas whether it was their own culture or the culture we live in today but all in one they brought the audience in awe, and that’s what made 2019 PINC and unforgettable experience for me.”

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote this article about the event.