Not far from the beautiful, affluent communities of Naples and Marco Island is the small town of Immokalee, home to thousands of working poor. As part of a migrant labor network that produces nearly 70 percent of all the nation’s winter vegetables, Immokalee sees its population swell from 25,000 to 40,000 during the agricultural season.
Many of Immokalee’s residents come to America from Caribbean and Latin American countries to find better opportunities for their children. Hard work and optimism define the people of this close-knit community, yet according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 45 percent of its residents live below poverty level. Much of this can be attributed to low income and lack of education, which have created a vicious cycle of poverty. However, it’s a cycle that The Immokalee Foundation is determined to defeat.
For more than 20 years, TIF has been committed to strengthening the Immokalee community and fostering a brighter future for its youth through programs that provide students with opportunities to learn, grow and advance.
With a 100 percent graduation rate for students involved in its programs, TIF’s focused and disciplined approach to providing supplemental education produces results. Those results that don’t just happen by accident, but rather with the support of volunteers, donors, businesses and, perhaps most importantly, a dedicated staff – those who care deeply not only about the children, but also the community in which they live and work.
Noemi Perez, manager for TIF’s Take Stock in Children and College Success programs, has spent more than five years, working side by side with students to help guide and encourage their goals toward a post-secondary path. Perez knows firsthand the struggles and triumphs of growing up in Immokalee – she’s been there all of her life.
“Growing up in this small town, I didn’t know there was so much more out in the world,” Perez explained. “As a young teen mom, I was forced to grow up quickly and look for employment. Working at TIF allowed me to meet different people who mentored me along the way and showed me there was opportunity outside of Immokalee.”
Through her own experience, Perez said she felt the need to come back and help others realize the enormous possibilities within their reach. Through TIF’s programs, she helps with early intervention in academics, behavior and attendance, and creates individualized success plans for students. She meets with them quarterly to set goals, help with improvement plans for ACT/SAT testing, assists in finding scholarships and more. For college students, workshops are held during breaks for topics, such as time management, study skills, healthy living and others.
While Perez certainly inspires her students, they also inspire her. Last year, she received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Hodges University. Although it was difficult because she was working full-time, had a family to take care of and was taking full-time classes, it was the students who kept her going. She said, “Receiving my college education was always one of my goals and the students helped inspire me. I thought if I am here telling them how important it is and that they can do it no matter how hard life is, then I had to prove it to them. Now I’m better for it and I know they appreciate my words of advice.”
Elda Hernandez, program manager for TIF’s Career Development Program, is equally as passionate about Immokalee. She came to the community at age 13 and considers it home. She said she is particularly moved by residents’ desire to help each other. “It’s great to see the young help the elderly and less advantaged by donating food, time and energy. The majority of the kids ask where they can help. These values stay with them and continue to adulthood. Their children, in turn, follow their steps. This is why I keep coming back.”
As program manager for the CDP, Hernandez providing outstanding career development services, utilizing best practices, facilitating educational career panels and job shadowing/internships. By providing these opportunities, TIF students will enhance their professional skills necessary to become confident, productive and successful citizens. Hernandez began working for TIF as a volunteer about seven years ago and eventually was asked to come work full time. “I wasn’t sure I had the skills TIF needed, but TIF believed in me. Now I do the same to the students. I share my experiences to help them.” In 2010, she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration – one of her proudest moments and one she uses to help encourage others.
Both women say there’s nothing better than being able to help the community where they grew up. “Knowing and understanding where some of the students find themselves, as far as not having parents that understand the post-secondary path, gives me a sense of responsibility to help the students as much as I can,” stated Perez.
The Immokalee Foundation has a range of programs that focus on building pathways to success through college and post-secondary training, mentoring and tutoring, and opportunities for broadening experiences, life skills development and economic independence. To learn more about TIF, volunteering as a mentor or for additional information, call 239.430.9122239.430.9122 or visit www.immokaleefoundation.org.
Liz Allbritten is executive director of The Immokalee Foundation and can be reached at email@example.com.