A bittersweet graduation


ST. PETERSBURG – Each school year the Carrera Summer and Afterschool Program has guided its members on how to become better students and citizens. And even though the program is set to end in July, program participants didn’t miss out on a spectacular graduation.

Nearly 60 eighth graders and their families packed into the Enoch Davis Center located at 1111 18th Ave. S., excited to walk down the aisle and pick up their diplomas. It was a bittersweet moment for the adults who run the program and have seen these kids grow from timid sixth graders to the well-rounded graduating class of 2014, ready to embark on new adventures in high school.

The Carrera program is supported by the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) and Pinellas County Health Department. Sixty boys and girls from John Hopkins Middle School were chosen to participate in the mentoring program, which was originally set to following the same students from sixth grade through their high school graduation. JWB, however, deemed the program too costly and criticized for not targeting enough students in need.

The program was originally established in 1984 in Harlem by Dr. Michael Carrera, the Thomas Hunter Professor Emeritus of Health Sciences at Hunter College of the City University of New York, in an attempt to revitalize the worn out system he felt was failing the youth. He envisioned a program that would provide a positive, loving support system for young people and their parents. This no-cost federally funded program is offered where the need for “parallel parenting” is greatest.

So with a sad heart and tears overflowing, Program Director Susan Jenkins thanked parents, guardians and friends for being there before sharing a couple of quotes from the late Maya Angelou, who had passed away that morning. Jenkins described Angelou’s love affair with words and the power they embrace.

“She said ‘if you give only one smile, give it to the people you love, nothing will work unless you do,’” recited Jenkins. She also spoke on how Angelou believed that people needed to change the things they didn’t like, while not complaining about the things they can’t change.

“I just want to tell you how much you mean to me,” she said to both the students and staff, overcome with emotion, her voice shaking. “Each of you is so special. You are such wonderful kids with such potential for the future.”

For some, this will be the last time these students will be in such a close-knit mentoring group, and with the program set to end after this summer, there will never be another graduating class, there will be no other students to receive the honor of being a Carerra member.

Community Coordinator Barbara Burnett kept her words simple, but they rang true just the same to all in the room. “Our kids are at promise, they’re not at risk,” she said as she emphasized what a powerful weapon education is and how it can change the world. “They can do whatever they set their minds to do.”

Youth need a purpose and the Carerra program was purposeful for the children fortunate enough to attend. Patricia Boswell works as Director of Clinical Services for the Pinellas County Health Department, and kept it real for the graduates remembering the good and the bad times.

Boswell told the graduates to prepare themselves for a life in which they will experience situations that seem unfair and witness inequality in all aspects of the workforce and social stepladder. Because let’s face it, life is not all about always coming out on top. But Boswell is confident the Carerra kids have learned how to face those negative moments and turn them into learning points, into something positive.

“That means doing the right thing, no matter who does wrong,” she said.

City councilmember Wengay Newton encouraged program participants to continue to do their best and not to become a statistic. He brought a slide show presentation depicting the students as they arrived in the program as, “little fifth graders heading into middle schools trying to find which way to go,” said Newton describing how small and cute they were in 2011 at the inception of the program.

Newton recited some hard facts about juveniles in jail beds across the city, some 2,500 of them, and told the graduates to remember the lessons learned in the program throughout their high school career.

Graduates soon were called on to get their certificates of graduation and hear some words of encouragement from Dr. Carerra read by Fidelity Manager Ronalda Hopkins. He expressed his heartfelt best wishes and expressed his disappointment that the program was not continuing. However, he wrote he was “positive that the extraordinary education and caring that you have received over these years from the staff will successfully carry you forward to your individual goals.”

Good luck in high school Carerra graduates!

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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