Seminole County, Fla. — Vita looks at her math and science assignment grades and can hardly believe what she sees – 80s and 90s in math and 100% in science! The Seminole County, Florida 14-year-old is repeating seventh grade at a new school after enduring ongoing bullying from students at her old one, including an incident that students shared on social media.
What she experienced disrupted her learning and home life. She took out most of her anger on her father.
“I screamed and all that stuff,” she said.
For Vita’s parents, whose primary language is Spanish, dealing with their daughter’s pain and outbursts and identifying resources to help her was beyond difficult. It was also tough for her younger sister and brother. More than once, police got involved.
Early in the summer, a Seminole County Embrace Families program that diverts young people from the youth justice system, referred Vita to Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a national nonprofit that provides services to young people and families at home as an alternative to youth incarceration and other placements. In communities in 31 states and the District of Columbia, YAP hires and trains Advocates who live near and share cultural values and experiences with program participants to empower youth and families to see their strengths and connect them with tools to nurture them.
Vita remembers the day she met Rusemery Araujo-Rosales, the YAP Advocate assigned to her and her family. Araujo-Rosales grew up in Venezuela, and like Vita’s family, immigrated to the U.S.
“I saw that she was nice, but I was scared to talk to her,” Vita said as she reflected on the day that she and her parents met Araujo-Rosales.
Araujo-Rosales said Vita has come a long way since that first day.
“I saw an introverted little girl, willing to comply but hesitant to engage in social activities,” she said. “She was not interested in being part of the community. Anger management skills were an issue.”
Araujo-Rosales has taken time to build a bond with Vita and provide her with the support she needs. At the same time, she works with Vita’s parents to ensure that they’re connected to tools they need to firm the family’s foundation.
“Now, I talk a lot with her. I like to talk with her a lot about anything,” Vita said. “We laugh and we do a lot of stuff.”
Vita most enjoys learning about her Advocate’s birth country and cooking with her, especially when she and her mother share their traditional Guatemalan dishes with her and try their Araujo-Rosales’ Venezuelan cuisine.
One of Vita’s favorites are her Advocate’s Venezuelan empanadas, and Araujo-Rosales has fallen in love with Guatemalan tamales, tortillas and other dishes Vita and her mom make with corn. She also likes when they play Guatemalan music.
As the summer ended and news arrived that schools in the county would safely reopen with COVID-19 precautions, Araujo-Rosales went into high gear. She knew that Vita could not return to her old school.
Working with YAP Program Director Seyny Dressler, she learned about and informed Vita and her parents about Step Up for Students, a special scholarship for students like Vita. Working up to the deadline, Dressler and Araujo-Rosales helped the family complete the application and get Vita enrolled in a nearby private school. Everyone was thrilled to learn that Step Up for Students agreed to provide a scholarship for full tuition, uniforms, field trip fees and school supplies for all three children.
Vita’s been in the new school for just a few weeks and already, her future appears brighter than ever. For her parents, seeing those first grades was pure joy.
“Words can’t describe how immensely proud I am of her,” her mother said in Spanish, as Dressler translated. “Before [during the pandemic], the old school just gave her a laptop and she had to fend for herself. Now the new school is taking time with her to make sure she learns.”
Vita is already making friends at her new school, which has made a big difference at home, too.
“I feel better now. I feel more accepted because everyone is nice to me. I used to just go to my room,” she said. “Now I hug my mom.”