By Noelle H. Lowery
It was a day of discovery. It was a day of celebration. It was a day of bonding. It was Buddy Day 2014 at Hideaway Beach on Marco Island.
Some 168 second-graders and 200 adult volunteers participated in the Guadalupe Center of Immokalee’s annual Buddy Day event, which rewards children enrolled in the Guadalupe After-School (G-A-P) Program for their hard work and dedication to reading and academic achievement.
The students and adults spent the day at Hideaway Beach learning about sea life in the Gulf of Mexico from Rookery Bay volunteers, studying coastal and migratory birds with park rangers from Big Cypress National Preserve, playing games with a crew from the Greater Marco Family YMCA, creating masterful pieces of artwork and enjoying snacks, lemonade and bottled water from Sysco, Chaney Brothers Inc. and Culligan. Kids to Camp also provided each child with a stuffed animal and book at the end of the day.
“This is the highlight of every year for the volunteers,” said Dianne Ryan, whose husband, Allen Ryan, is the treasurer for the Guadalupe Center and whose brother-in-law, Mark Ryan, organizes the event each year and is member of the Guadalupe Center Advisory Board. “The kids are the most amazing kids. They are eager to learn and polite.”
For more than 30 years, the Guadalupe Center has offered the children of Immokalee a pipeline to prosperity through educational and special support programs strategically designed to start from six weeks of age and continue through college graduation. Many of the children served by the Guadalupe Center come from agricultural families who have faced long periods of poverty, where even their basic needs may not have been met.
This poverty raises barriers for these children — emotionally, socially and academically. In fact, by the time impoverished children reach middle school, they are more than two-and-a-half-years behind their middle-class peers, according to Guadalupe Center officials. The result is devastating for these children, and they are less likely to be successful in school and life.
Enter the Guadalupe Center, which focuses on the most critical periods of a child’s education: early childhood (six-weeks to pre-Kindergarten), early elementary (Kindergarten to second grade) and college-prep in high school. These programs have proven to break the cycle of poverty and provide the children of Immokalee with a strong educational foundation and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
“The whole concept is that if we don’t intercept these kids early and get them reading at grade-level by third grade their chances of graduating from high school are horrendous,” explained Mark Ryan. “We started this 23 years ago with two tutors and 23 kids in a soup kitchen trying to learn English…Then residents of Hideaway Beach started raising money, and within 10 years, we had 100 kids and 20 tutors. Today, serve 600 kids at four elementary schools.”
The work begins at Guadalupe’s Early Childhood Education Center, where educators and care-givers seek to mitigate the effects of poverty in the Center’s state-of-the-art learning facilities. Center officials know their formula is working as the program is consistently ranked in the top quartile of Florida’s Early Childhood Educational providers.
The work continues through the G-A-P program which provides kindergarten through second-grade children struggling in school with tutoring to perform on grade level. Students benefit from remediation help and enrichment opportunities provided by high school students in the Center’s third-tier program — Tutor Corps. Tutor Corps students serve as academic role models and tutors for the younger children, showing them success is within reach. Students from four Immokalee area elementary schools are eligible: Pine Crest, Highland, Trafford and Village Oaks.
Additionally, Tutor Corps students are coached to success by their community mentors, and earn a wage through the tutoring program. In fact, they can earn up to $16,000 in scholarships for college. These high school students receive instruction in test taking skills, guidance in selecting a college and career, assistance with financial aid and securing additional scholarships, and on going support ensuring once they are in college. Because of Tutor Corps, 100 percent of the Center’s students have graduated from high school and were accepted to college, and 93 percent of those kids have continued on to graduate from college.
The need for the services provided by the Center are glaringly apparent in its enrollment and wait list numbers. Currently, 270 children are enrolled at the Early Childhood Education Center, while another 350 are on a waiting list. Some 650 students benefit from G-A-P during the school year, and another 300 continue to be served during the summer. More than 100 high school students apply to be a part of Tutor Corps each year. At this time, 70 high school and 107 college students are part of the program.
Back at Buddy Day, the Center’s early successes are apparent to the adult volunteers, who spend the day embracing, laughing with and teaching the children as if they were their own. Mark Ryan noted wistfully that every year there are a number of children who reluctantly board the buses home, but he suspects the adult volunteers are even more disappointed to see the day end: “I think the big buddies get more out of it than the little buddies.”