Bright futures

Advocacy groups ready children for school success

Mario, Anna, Jasmine and Maria Torres have watched Grace Place grow from an afterschool club to a multi-generational facility over the last decade.

Photo by Erik Kellar

Mario, Anna, Jasmine and Maria Torres have watched Grace Place grow from an afterschool club to a multi-generational facility over the last decade.

Backpacks are packed and ready, outfits have been painstakingly chosen and pencils are sharpened to a perfect point. Indeed, sometimes the best part of going back to school is getting ready for it.

But for many children in Collier County, school readiness is a big problem. And unfortunately, we’re not talking about having the right backpack and supplies — although for many that’s a struggle too. Instead, many kids aren’t ready for school from an academic standpoint, arriving at kindergarten or college or any of the grades in between, sorely unprepared.

Luckily, Collier County has many children’s advocacy groups devoted to getting students ready for the future. From early learning initiatives to college application help, local organizations are making sure all children arrive on their first day totally prepared.

For a closer look at how these charities are lighting up local futures, we spoke to two of the best in town.

Amazing Grace Place

It didn’t take the Torres family long to hear about Grace Place.

The Golden Gate-area center has grown from an afterschool club to a multi-generational education facility in less than a decade. In doing so, it has truly become the talk of the town.

“It has helped us know about our neighbors and our community. We didn’t know anyone, but Grace Place was a place where we could come and get to know our neighbors,” Mario Torres said.

It was actually Mario’s wife, Maria who first heard about Grace Place. A friend told her the center needed volunteers to watch infants during its “Bright Beginnings” parenting classes. Soon after becoming a volunteer, Maria learned that Grace Place also offered programs for her two young daughters.

Three years later, both Jasmine, who is now entering seventh grade, and her sister, Anna, entering fifth grade, are thriving. The girls attend Grace Place’s afterschool programs during the school year and camp during the summers. Jasmine says she hopes to join the mentoring program when she’s older, so she can give back to the younger kids.

“The magic [of Grace Place] seems to be that they get the kids fired up, they make it fun,” Mario said. “Sometimes I want to stay home and be with the girls but they say, ‘no, we want to go to Grace Place!’”

Jasmine, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up, says she loves all the guest speakers and field trips Grace Place offers. “We went to the hospital and they taught us about cells. That was cool,” she said adding, “And once they brought in a cow and we learned to milk it. I learned that cow’s milk is very, very hot.”

Her sister, meanwhile, naturally gravitates toward reading and writing. Earlier this year, Anna’s parents worried she was falling behind in math; specifically, she was having trouble mastering her multiplication tables.

“They made it fun and she got it,” Mario said.

Her sister Jasmine jumps in, explaining that Anna’s class learned the dreaded multiplication tables using a game called “I Have, You Have.”

“The teacher hands out cards and says, ‘I have three times six, who has that?’ The kid with that card raises their hand. The class beat their goal time in the game they got so good at it.”

But what makes the Torres family proudest is that Grace Place really is a community effort. Everyone who takes advantage of its services is also expected to pitch in, whether it’s at a community workday or watching the infants.

“The first day we came to volunteer, it was a mulching day, they had all this mulch they needed put down,” remembers Mario. “We came and there were hundreds of people here waiting to help. I remember when we were done Jasmine said ‘wow, that went fast, what a rush.’ That’s when it really hit me why it was so important to give back to Grace Place. It just fills my heart to be a part of something like this.”

This Stock is Rising

Champions for Learning (formerly the Education Foundation) has been an educational heavy-hitter for many years in the county, doing everything from helping teachers apply for grants, to preparing high school students for college. But its Take Stock In Children program — a five-year commitment that pairs students with mentors and results in a college scholarship upon completion — has been astonishingly successful. Ninety percent of the students who enter the program complete it. Ninety nine percent of those are accepted into the post-secondary educational institution of their choice, and 95 percent of those have finished (or are currently working toward earning) their degrees.

Not only that, Take Stock in Children graduates tend to be phenomenal students. Cindy Lewis, the Edison State College Dean of Student Affairs, said that many Take Stock graduates end up in leadership roles at Edison.

“They’re really committed and really grateful. Their whole families are really grateful. And many of them are involved in student government; they just come with this really great attitude,” Lewis said.

China Pierrelus has always had that really great attitude. Even as a young child she knew education was important.

“I don’t think my parents ever worried about me or had trouble with me,” she said. “There weren’t any real negative incidents I remember.”

But Pierrelus — who is starting her senior year in the pre-med program at FGCU — was the fifth of six children. No one in her family had ever been to college and even though both her parents worked, she doubted they’d be able to help her through school.

“I honestly don’t remember how I heard about Take Stock, but I applied and I remember being really happy that I got in,” she says. “I think without Take Stock I still would have pursued a college education, but I don’t think I would have set my goals so high. Having their support really gave me the confidence to pursue my goals.”

The Take Stock in Children program starts in eighth grade when participants are matched with mentors. Each week for the next five years, mentors meet with students, helping them with everything from homework to college applications. During these years, students must remain drug and crime-free, but with the support of their mentors, that’s usually not a problem.

Due to extenuating circumstances, Pierrelus actually had three different mentors during her time in Take Stock. The last few years of her tenure in high school, Karen Palumbo, a science teacher at Pierrelus’ high school, mentored her. Three years later, the two still keep in close contact. Whenever Pierrelus has a break from classes she and Palumbo meet for lunch or a quick coffee.

“I honestly don’t know what the hardest part of applying to colleges was; with all the help I got from the Take Stock program it was all pretty manageable,” she said. “They helped me get my personal statements done, my paperwork done; they had things really well-organized.”

All that help is something she hasn’t forgotten, and it’s something she’s passing on. When her youngest sister wanted to apply for a nursing school, Pierrelus guided her through the application process.

“I’ve realized no one gets to where they are without any type of help. When people doubt you, you begin to think the same way as them, but when someone believes in you, you have the confidence to pursue your goals. Being able to encourage others is so important.”

Information: www.graceplacenaples.org and www.takestockinchildren.org.

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