by Steven Kissinger
Like many students involved in The Immokalee Foundation and its programs, Jesus Velazco has had his fair share of challenges. He struggled to learn the English language after coming to Immokalee from his native Mexico, and school was difficult as a result. But, Velazco was determined to build a better future for himself.
By the time he was in fourth grade, his grades had improved and he discovered a love of soccer. He also met a man that would change his life: Manny Touron, a former principal at Lake Trafford Elementary, Immokalee Middle and Immokalee High schools, and a TIF mentor.
Touron said from the moment he met Jesus, he recognized something special, “There was always a sense of maturity and great leadership qualities. Jesus was always
the first person at practice and the last to leave. The kids looked up to him for direction. I knew big things were coming for him.”
He was right. As a freshman, Velazco entered the foundation’s Take Stock in Children program, a scholarship and mentoring program that provides students with the opportunity to attend four years of college tuition free if they earn good grades, exhibit good behavior and meet weekly with a mentor. Although Velazco didn’t know
it at the time, his involvement with TIF, and the people he would meet along the way, would help pave his path toward achieving his dreams.
John Henry, a TIF board member and mentor, met Velazco before he entered TSIC his freshman year. Thanks to Touron, “Manny knew I was involved in the Take Stock in Children program so he called me. He told me he had a guy I needed to interview; a remarkable young man and we should give him a shot.”
Henry agreed to the interview. That year, TIF accepted 25 kids into the program and Velazco was one of them. The TSIC scholarship made him realize that if he worked hard, he could go to college. It changed everything.
In 2011, he attended a summer camp experience in Maine thanks to TIF’s Charity Classic Celebration Fund A Dream. The owners of the camp called Velazco “extraordinary” and invited him back the next year to attend an exclusive teen leadership camp in Canada.
It was easy to see the exceptional young man Velazco was becoming. He continued playing soccer, played football and was near the top of his class. “Jesus wanted to lead a purposeful life and he was already doing so as a young student,” said Henry. “He was impressive.”
When he graduated from Immokalee High School, his accolades seemed endless, but one in particular stood out. He was awarded the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each year only 1,000 students are selected to receive a good-throughgraduation scholarship to use at any college or university of their choice.
Prior to starting college, with the help of Henry, Touron and J. Richard “Dick” Monro, former chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc., Velazco spent a year at Salisbury School, an all-boys, private college-preparatory boarding school located in Salisbury, Connecticut.
It came as no surprise to anyone that while at Salisbury, Velazco served as an inspiration to the students of his class and won an award for top student. “Jesus is an extraordinary presence,” said Henry. “He is purposeful with a wonderful sense of humor, yet serious about his studies and his mission in life.”
Joe Zednik, chairman of the TIF board, says Velazco serves as a tremendous role model for TIF students, “This is what it’s all about for us. Jesus is a remarkable example that if you work hard, stay drug free and trouble free, you can achieve your goals.”
Next up for Velazco is Colgate University in New York, where he just began his freshman year. “When Jesus visited Colgate, he felt it was the place for him,” added Zednik. “He liked it and he was comfortable. This is simply a continuation of his very exciting journey and we couldn’t be prouder.”
The Immokalee Foundation provides a range of education programs that focus on building pathways to success through college and postsecondary preparation and support, mentoring and tutoring, opportunities for broadening experiences and life skills development leading to economic independence. To learn more about TIF, volunteering
as a mentor or for additional information, call 239.430.9122 or visit www.immokaleefoundation.org.
Steven Kissinger, executive director of The Immokalee Foundation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.