Mentors Encouraged by the Immokalee Foundation

Debbie Divita and Amy Hale BMO Wealth Management with Lessett Perez a student with the Immokalee Foundation

Leaders are made, not born as the saying goes. Thanks to support from the Southwest Florida business community and its own leaders, students in The Immokalee Foundation’s programs are learning to be leaders, too. This important instruction is done through mentorship by the men and women who share their time, talent and experience to encourage Immokalee youth to excel in their studies – and their lives. More than 140 mentors are currently paired with students in The Immokalee Foundation’s Take Stock in Children scholarship program.

The program is growing, and more mentors are needed. January is National Mentoring Month – a good time to think about joining The Immokalee Foundation’s volunteers in shaping the future of a young person. The mentoring arrangement is a win-win situation. “The job of the mentor is to provide advice, support and friendship to a young student,” said John Costigan, a foundation board member and mentor, along with his wife, Emily. “We enjoy mentoring because it puts a face on the scholarship program and gives us a very personal connection to the important work of The Immokalee Foundation. We feel students benefit from a perspective they might not otherwise have, and we benefit from making a contribution to a very deserving student’s success.”

Each student newly inducted into Take Stock in Children – mostly seventh- and eighth-graders – is partnered with a volunteer mentor who provides support, guidance, accountability and friendship. Many mentors come from local companies; these participants say they enjoy the same rewards as the Costigans. “It’s been a great experience for me,” said Debbie Divita, associate portfolio manager with BMO Wealth Management in the Naples division. “The kids in
Immokalee are just amazing. They all kind of realize they want to have different opportunities than their parents did. They want that education and they’re willing to work for it.”

She learned about mentorship with the foundation through the bank’s managing director, Amy Hale. “Amy introduced us to Leessett Perez, a student with The Immokalee Foundation,” said Divita. “Leessett talked to us at a staff meeting. Afterwards, I went to Amy and said, ‘I’d really like to be a part of this. I’d like to do something.’” Divita signed on as a mentor and was paired with Litzy Rojas, a junior at Immokalee High School. “We hit it off right from the start,” Divita said. “It all seemed to gel from the beginning.”

Often, new mentors find out about the benefits of this relationship from colleagues. Samantha Bhagwandat is teller supervisor at Florida Community Bank’s branch in Immokalee. She learned about the program from Luis Cartagena, a colleague and board member for The Immokalee Foundation. Bhagwandat has since mentored Carol Galvan Leon, a senior at Immokalee High School, for three years.

Like other mentors and mentees, Bhagwandat and Leon meet once a week for formal and informal activities, including
discussions on books about leadership, which they take turns choosing. Bhagwandat is proud that her employer is
nurturing the next generation. “Our bank is very much involved in the community, and this helps these young kids to develop,” Bhagwandat said.

Luis Cartagena is mentor to Elizay Bravo and Loudjina Louis. “From the beginning, we have made a commitment to each
other to stay consistent and stay effective,” Cartagena said. He talked about a recent day when he met with both mentees. “We discussed in great detail their individual goals for this school year and how we were going to accomplish each of their set goals. With both mentees earning a 4.0 GPA and both dual enrolling at Florida SouthWestern State College – and also throwing work and extracurricular activities in there – it is clear to all of us that any distractions will take us off course. It is a true partnership, and we are committed to win together.”

As vice president and branch manager of Florida Community Bank’s Immokalee branch, Cartagena believes firmly in business support of community programs. “When companies step up, they set the example of their level of commitment to the communities they serve,” Cartagena said. “When any company steps up, it also empowers their employees to get engaged. Each employer has a great amount of talent on its team that each and every student can benefit from. And these kids are our future.”

The Immokalee Foundation provides a range of education programs that focus on building pathways to success through
college and post-secondary preparation and support, mentoring and tutoring, opportunities for broadening experiences, and life skills development leading to economic independence. To learn more about The Immokalee Foundation, volunteering as a career panel speaker or host, becoming a mentor, making a donation, including the foundation in your estate plans, or for additional information, call 239.430.9122 or visit

Steven Kissinger, executive director of The Immokalee Foundation, can be reached at


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