Lely High School counselor Beth Colman is small in stature, standing just 5’2”. But she stands tall for her dozen or so “sons” – mostly athletes – who revere their petite counselor.
Colman has been a counselor at Lely for eight years, and until recently was the department head. A particularly challenging school year made her decide to re-evaluate her purpose.
“I’ve stepped down as department head this year,” Beth Colman said. “I didn’t feel I was able to spend as much time with the kids as I did in the past. This year was difficult. I’ve been department head, on and off, at two different schools since 2010. I think it’s time that I take a step back and spend more time with the kids. This year has really shown this to me. The paperwork is always going to be there, but those kids aren’t – and they need me more than that paperwork does. I’m not going to be department chair anymore. I’m going to try to be a regular high school counselor.”
The students Colman reaches the most are first generation Haitian American athletes. To a person, the athletes look upon Colman as a mother figure. They depend on Colman. They respect her. They love her. Most of them call her momma. But one special athlete, Tupac Isme, a thickly muscled Division I running back, is one of a trio of students who started Colman’s unusual counselor-student relationship in 2014.
“Tupac Isme and his two friends, Marvin Liberiste and Richard Annorat are like brothers,” Colman said. “The three of them became like my sons.”
Colman pulls her necklace out of her shirt and proudly displays a silver pendant containing three initials.
“My necklace that I wear has an R, a T, and an M for Richard, Marvin and Tupac. They gave it to me for Christmas four or five years ago. I wear it every day. They all three have gone through Lely. They’ve all three gone to college. They all three have graduated. So those three are the first three that truly started everything for me. And they are all three 100 percent my children.”
On this Saturday, just days after graduation, nine of Colman’s “sons” have gathered in her office to pay tribute to the woman they affectionately call Momma. They love teasing and needling each other. But when it comes time to talk about their individual relationships with Colman, the fun and games quickly come to an end. There is a reverence for the woman most of them tower over. There’s love and respect.
After a quick group photo, Colman leaves her office so each student can talk about what she means to them. Colman appears misty-eyed as she leaves the office.
Isme is the leader of the group. The others remember when he made a name for himself at Trojan Stadium in 2014. As a senior, Isme used a combination of strength, speed, and elusiveness to rush for 1,394 yards – an average of 7.1 yards every time he touched the ball. Since then, he’s moved on to Bethune-Cookman, where he is in their record book for taking a handoff and running 99-yards for a touchdown. It’s a record that cannot be broken, only tied.
Isme is big and tough. But he has an easy smile and kind eyes. One would never guess the heartache this strapping athlete has endured, losing both of his parents at such a young age. Like all of the other young men in her office, Isme feels Colman has saved him in a way. But he doesn’t call Colman Momma like the rest of the guys.
“I personally call her something different,” Isme said. “It only pertains to me and her. It’s our relationship. Her name is Boaty to me. I don’t remember a day where I’ve called her Miss Colman or anything else. It’s always been Boaty. It’s our thing. Boaty was there for me through all of my trials and tribulations. Especially through some major life-turning events. My parents’ passing. I guess one of the reasons it’s hard for me to call her Momma like everyone else does is because I lost my mom. I was fortunate enough for her to be there like no one else. She fit that role so well, so smooth. Whenever I see her, that void is filled. My momma has a different spot in my life. But Boaty is at the same hierarchy. Because every night in college, when I was going through it – or even when I was happy and needed to celebrate – Boaty was there. That’s who she is to me. She’s Boaty.”
Isme feels that saying Colman is like a mother to him diminishes the role she plays in his life.
“I don’t like to use the ‘like’ word,” Isme says flatly. “She is a mother to me. Sometimes I have to go back and reassure myself, but that’s because of my own past, my own tribulations. She’s a gift. She’s a blessing. Because I promise you, I would not be standing here today without the wisdom and the guidance that she has provided. The Tupac you see here – the man you see here – the man that’s willing to be who he is, willing to display all of his errors for the people next in line to see – she has empowered me to be the person I am. I’m just so grateful for her. I just wouldn’t be here without her. And that’s who Boaty is to me – she’s my momma. Facts. That’s it. The struggle is what brought her to us. But it’s way bigger than that. She literally came into our lives and created a lot of happiness. I’m going to chime in every time because she deserves it. Every single thing. All respect. More power to her. She has earned that position in our lives.”
Isme’s colleagues are hanging on his every word. When he finishes speaking about Colman, a number of the young men utter positive affirmations. “Definitely, facts,” they say with reverence.
The students step up one after another to pay tribute to Colman. They feel like they’re giving her the recognition she richly deserves for all she does for them.
“I call Miss Colman Momma,” said Bradley Chery, “because she is like a second mom to me. School is difficult. She’s always there for me. I was on the verge of not graduating. And she came and helped me. Gave me motivation. Pushed me. I got through it. She’s always been that for me. And not just for me – for everybody. The amount of time she gives to people is crazy. She sacrifices a lot. I really appreciate what she does for everybody.”
Ralph Branchedor steps up next.
“Basically, Miss Colman, she does a lot for all of us,” Branchedor said. “Even though she’s really busy, she tries to make time for all of us. I can come to her office any time I want and talk about anything. She’ll always give me the best advice. Just tell me what I need to do to make things good. She helped me with the recruiting process. Picking my college. What college I wanted to go to. She broke it all down for me. What the cost was going to be. I really appreciate her for that. She’s like a second mom for me. No matter what, I can always call her or text her. She does a lot for all of us.”
Next up was Loresandro Gabriel.
“Me and Ma’s relationship kind of started near the end of my junior year when I got moved up to varsity,” Gabriel recalled. “That’s when our relationship started taking off. She’s been with me through a lot. With the passing of my best friend. She’s been someone I can lean on when times get tough. She’s always been very supportive and helpful. She’s come around my family. They love her. They always ask me, ‘Where’s Miss Colman? What’s Miss Colman doing?’ She’s just such a very lovable person around everyone. I don’t see how you could not love Miss Colman. She’s helping me get into the dream college that I want to go to. Trying to get me away from here so I can focus on my future. She’s such a helpful person. I love her to death. I’d do just about anything for Miss Colman.”
Jordy Rejuste takes his place on the couch across from Colman’s desk to bare his soul about his counselor. None of the students appear the least bit embarrassed to talk about how this woman has helped them. On the contrary, they are quite proud to honor Colman in front of their peers. And they all hang on every word being spoken.
“I call Miss Colman Momma,” Rejuste said. “Just because she’s just done a lot for me. Me and her just started talking for real about three or four months ago. From the passing of my friend. Throughout all those times, she’s always there. Every time I texted her, she replied. She’s just a lovable person. She likes everybody. She’ll like you no matter what. She has a good heart. I just hope she keeps going. She’s just helped me with a lot. I wasn’t going to graduate this year, but she pushed me. Made me do what I had to do. Now I graduated with the class of 2021. She just puts a lot of joy in people’s heart. Without her I don’t think I would have made it through all that. For real. I love Miss Colman to death. I love her to death. Not Miss Colman, it’s Momma, let’s get it right. I love Momma to death. I’d do anything for her. I don’t care what it is. She could text me anytime, she’d know where I’m at. She knows I love her, and she loves us. We’re doing it for her.”
Jonis Dieudonne remembers Colman from his very first days at Lely High School.
“I met Miss Colman my freshman year,” Dieudonne said. “I was trying to figure out my classes. She was the first one there. I knew her from my uncle Culmer St. Jean, he coached Lely football back in 2014-2015. She had a relationship with him. She brought me in her office and told me she’d always be there for me. Ever since the start. Each year our relationship grew. When we had family events she was always there. Always had a good time. She’s so loving and caring. She’s like a mother figure to me – to all of us. She always does what she can for all of us. There’s a lot of students always around Miss Colman, so I kind of left her alone when I was a freshman. But when I became a sophomore, we became real tight. When we were struggling in football, she was always the person to come to. She was definitely the person we came to when we were struggling. I really think she was the reason why we finished off our senior year good. I give it all to her. Preparing for college, she was definitely the one to come in our room and help us with our financial aid. And I thank her for that. She was always at family events – and Tupac, too. We always have a good time. We dance, do different things. We just want to show her that we love her. She’s always caring. For personal things, she’s the one to go to. She just understands you personally. That’s one of the best parts about her.”
Jayden Noel is the son of a Lely football star from the past, C.J. Noel. His father was a standout running back who received Division I scholarship offers. Documentation issues kept his dad from furthering his football dreams. He instead opened his own insurance agency in Naples. Jayden was a standout point guard for Lely’s basketball team. He graduated a year ago. But he still looks to Colman for support.
“I met Miss Colman my eighth-grade year going into my freshman year,” Jayden Noel said. “But I didn’t start talking to her until my sophomore year. I always had a close relationship with Miss Colman, but I was never in her office until my sophomore year when I needed help with school and classes. Since then, we just kept building a stronger relationship. I talk to her every day, every night when I need something. She’s there for people when they’re going through something. She’s one of those people you can talk to. There’s things I was going through that I couldn’t even talk to my parents about. I just go to Miss Colman. I would just stay at Miss Colman’s house at night. Sometimes crying. Sometimes angry at myself for not achieving goals. I would stay at her house and she would keep me company, calm me down. Tell me everything’s going to be alright. When I went through a personal situation in my life, she was the first person who came to mind. Automatically I knew that I should call Miss Colman. I know if I go to Miss Colman, I’ll be safe. I know I’m loved and protected and everything like that. After high school it made me realize even more how much she cares about the students. It showed me how much time she spends away from her husband John. She’s with the kids more than her husband. When I saw that it made me realize how much she really loves us. A lot of people around this school say, ‘You can always talk to me if you need something.’ But Miss Colman is someone you can tell something to and not worry that the word is going to go around to anybody but Miss Colman. And you can trust that for a fact. I think that’s why everyone loves her. Why everyone has that kind of love for her. It’s a never-ending cycle. She gets a new group each year.”
Colman actually took Noel into her home for two weeks.
“Another time I really knew Miss Colman would always be there for me was when I had a situation in my life where I couldn’t feel like myself at home. I wasn’t feeling like myself. The first person I called was Miss Colman. I knew no one else would – I don’t want to say understand—I would say listen. Actually, take it in what I’m saying and try to help. It was late at night, so I didn’t want to annoy her. I slept in the car the first night. She was at school, so I didn’t want to bother her, because I know she’s busy and she has a lot of kids. She deals with a lot of kids all day, every day. So, I waited until she got out of school the next day and I asked if I could talk to her. So, I went to her house. Her and her husband John – he and I are also real close. He kind of accepted me like a son. He told me as long as I’m going to be there, I’m not going to be wild. I’m going to do what a regular kid should do. They didn’t tell me to clean the house—but I helped clean the house. Miss Colman did my laundry for me. I always feel like I need to give something back to her. Not for what she does for me but for what she does for everyone. And how many lives she impacts. She’s been doing this for a long time. I tell her all the time that she’s a celebrity in Naples. She doesn’t want to believe me. She’s literally known everywhere. Every school knows Miss Colman. She doesn’t know them, so that’s why I call her a celebrity because she has fans everywhere.”
Johnathan “Nano” Garcia is the lone junior among the seniors and graduates gathered in Colman’s office. Garcia was the star of Lely’s state semi-finalist soccer team. He is also the lone Mexican American in the group.
“I started talking to Miss Colman the end of my sophomore year,” Garcia recalled. “She became a big part of my life. She would bring me into her office. She would calm me down when I needed it. She was checking up on me throughout the whole year. I don’t know what I was doing the first quarter of the year this year. She said, ‘You’re going to be ineligible for your sports’. She really helped me out. I fixed my grades. She tried to help me as much as she could. She really saved my life from not being able to go out and play soccer. She came along with us for our soccer journeys. She wanted to celebrate with us. She was there with us for everything. When we lost in the state semi-finals, it killed me. It just brought a bunch of depression to me. I was just depressed throughout that time. She felt as bad as I did. She just wanted to be there for me. She’s probably the best, sweetest person here at this school. Like a mom here for everybody.”
The group who gathered in Colman’s office is a brotherhood.
“Everybody’s got ties,” Isme said. “Lely’s one big family. It’s not like other cities where everybody’s scattered around. We all came from the same spot. It’s like the underclassmen see what the upperclassmen are achieving. They support you. I’m the oldest one here. I love to see everybody excel. To see them conquer is satisfying to me. To see people going off to college, breaking that generational curse. Everyone in here is either first generation Haitian American or Mexican American. Sometimes people don’t understand how much pressure there is on us. We have to learn things for ourselves.”
Wilkens Jocelyn met Colman through Garcia.
“Mrs. Colman is like a mother to me,” Jocelyn said, repeating a common thread among the young men. “The first time I met her was at the end of my junior year, but we weren’t real close then. In January Nano basically introduced her to me. With the passing of my dad, I was in a dark place. When I found her, she basically saved me. I really don’t know what I’d do without her. She helped me through school. After my dad passed, I was ready to give up on school. I didn’t care about school no more. But she said, ‘No, you’re right there. Keep going.’ I didn’t even think about college. She said, ‘Come on, you’ve done 12 years of school and there’s only four years of college. Keep going!’ So, I just listened to her and kept going.”
Shakeem Harvey was the final student to honor Colman. He had worked all night and had to roll himself out of bed to come by the school to say his piece.
“Miss Colman means the world to me,” Harvey said. “She made my high school experience easier for me. It wasn’t so stressful knowing Miss Colman had my back. She was really close to my family. She took me in the first day I came to Lely. She made me take the right classes. She made me stay on top of school.”
Colman wasn’t surprised that the students were so open with their feelings. She’s not entirely sure why.
“I don’t know if it’s just our kids or if it’s the generation,” Colman speculated. “They seem to be more willing to talk about their emotions and be able to say things like that. It’s nice for me because it makes my job a little bit easier sometimes. I don’t have to pull so much out of them. And they actually will come and talk to me. And I don’t know that’s a trust that they have with a lot of people.
“One of the boys, just this year, said to me, ‘Mrs. Colman, when you said you loved me, it was the first time I’ve heard that in months. When you hugged me, it’s the first time I’ve been hugged in a long time.’ I’m surprised if that is truly the case, that I have not heard that before this year. One of the kids that’s been on one of our sports teams for years, who’d never opened up before, told me that. That was impressive.”
Colman just finished her eighth year at Lely after stops at Immokalee High School, Immokalee Middle, and the district office. She feels like she’s the one who should be thankful. She hopes to finish her career at Lely.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “The community has been way too good to me. The families have been way too good to me. I know aunts, uncles, cousins, moms, dads, brothers, sisters – everybody. They’ve been so good to me. They welcome people in. They want to take care of you as much as you want to take care of them.
“I don’t know that my husband knew what he was signing up for. I’m sometimes gone three to four nights a week. But my husband knows a lot of these kids now, and he gets invited to the parties. There’s one family in particular that I think are more concerned whether he’s coming to the party than if I’m coming. That’s not a joke.”
“Tomorrow night Tupac’s sister-in-law and brother are coming over for dinner. Tupac isn’t even coming. It’s his family who’s coming over.”
Jayden Noel is a work in progress for Colman and her husband John. She knows his parents, who are good people.
“Jayden’s gotten very close to John and I,” Colman said. “Very close.”
She doesn’t look at Jayden’s need to get out of his parent’s house for a while as anything unusual.
“I don’t think it’s anything different than a teenage son and his dad butting heads,” Colman said. “And he just needed to get out of the house for a little bit. I called his mom and said, ‘I’m not going to let him in if you don’t want me to let him in.’ She’s like, ‘No, please, yours is the only place I’d want him to be.’ He stayed with us for about two weeks. This was about a month ago. He and John got very close. John told him, ‘You’ve got to be a man. If you’re going to be here, here’s what I expect of you. You can’t come in at any hour of the night. You’re just a year out of high school.’ He was good with him. And he was soft with him. And my husband is not soft at all. He doesn’t joke around.”
Tupac Isme, with his muscular appearance and soft heart is what started it all for Colman at Lely.
“Tupac is the youngest of nine kids,” Colman said. “He is one of the most kind, caring young men you will ever meet. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s been through a lot of tough things at a very young age. A lot of times I will tell people I know why I was brought to Florida. He is a very big reason. But I also think a lot of these kids are a big reason. I wasn’t real crazy about coming to Florida, but now I wouldn’t leave for any reason. I know the impact that I have had with some kids, like Tupac, Richard, and Marvin. I wouldn’t trade it for the world because they’ve had just as much of an impact on me. I always try to let people know that I think I’m the lucky one, because they teach me more than I teach them. I’m lucky to have them. It’s as simple as that.”
Colman becomes emotional when she shares a story about Isme’s grandmother.
“His grandmother is in her 90s,” Colman said. “Tupac’s mom was her daughter. She refers to me as Tupac’s mom. I walk in the house and she says, ‘Tupac’s mommy, Tupac’s mommy.’ I’ve always been very, very, careful not to step on anybody’s toes, a mom’s toes. I don’t want to interfere. I don’t want them to think I’m trying to replace them or anything like that. Especially in a situation where a parent might have passed away. But I want the student to know that I’m available and I’m there if needed.”
Colman said this past year has been especially tough for her students.
“It was much tougher on kids than a lot of us at school realized with the pandemic,” she said. “I think the pandemic may have led into other things. I think it was around January when we began to realize that it may have stemmed from the pandemic. They were home a lot more. They weren’t with their friends. Teenagers and their parents don’t always get along. So, if they’re staying at home so much more, there’s going to be so much struggle.”
Colman said two of her students lost a close friend to an unexpected death.
“We did have a few students who had to deal with some loss,” she said. “It was very difficult on them. I was involved with it. It was unlike anything I ever dealt with. It was good for the kids to have someone who could relate with what they were going through. Because I’m not sure that anyone that they’re around had dealt with it. That was awful. That’s such a sensitive one.”
Colman wants to help her students, but not spoil them.
“I never want to spoil our kids to the point where they can’t do it themselves,” she said. “But I do spoil them, and I do love on them to the point that it can benefit them.”
One might wonder if Colman is ever brought to tears on her job.
“Every day,” she said without hesitation. “Absolutely every day. They’re good kids. I cry when they do something good. I cry when they do something bad. I’ve seen both in the last month. Every day I cry about one of those kids. I know I do. I’m an emotional person. I’m a strong person, but I’m an emotional person. They’ll all tell me how strong I am, but each one of them has seen me cry as well. They’re good kids.”
Colman mentioned three special students who couldn’t come by her office Saturday. Sergio Morancy, one of the top football players in the county, had to catch a plane to Iowa where he will begin his football and academic career at Northern Iowa. Teammates and best friends, JJ Dervil and Schneider Natan, accompanied Morancy to the airport.
“JJ and Schneider were saying goodbye to Sergio at the airport,” Colman said. “It’s sad that they couldn’t be here.”
Colman figures relationships like the ones detailed here will continue to develop as she serves her final decade or so a school counselor. She sees many more success stories unfolding in the ensuing years.
“I think it will,” she speculates. “As long as they work hard, and they do what we ask of them – with a little bit of assistance, they can achieve whatever they want. We just have to get them to believe that. And that can be hard. The parents are not at home constantly. The kids are stretched thin. I don’t think the kids are at home as much as I was when I was in high school. A lot of these kids are playing two to three sports. So, there are the demands of practices and games. Off-season workouts. But there’s a lot of parents who are working two jobs. Mom or dad may not be home when they get home from school. So, they might not have that support. And I know some of our high school kids are looking after younger siblings. So, they may feel that they’ve lost some of their childhood.
“I hold them accountable, but I let them be kids at school. I never lose sight of that. We’re the adults. We’re responsible for getting them to mature and learn how to take care of themselves. But I don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re still the kids in the building.
“I love them. You know that. You can see it.”