ST. LEO — If you're 14 years old and tied in a human knot with a dozen other teenagers, it's awfully hard not to say anything. Your neighbors are pulling and squealing, and everyone has an idea about how to escape.
But silence was the rule, and so the teens did what they could to extricate themselves.
That human knot was a good symbol for the challenges facing 22 teens last week at Saint Leo University. All come from low-income families in Hernando, Pasco or Polk counties. All had vowed to do whatever it takes to attend college and make something of their lives.
"The point of this activity is, sometimes it's important to talk and communicate," said Shauna Kincade, program coordinator of the state-funded College Reach-Out Program at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
For more than a decade, the program has cultivated promising students in grades 6-12 with a combination of motivation, information and education. This summer's program began last week with a residential program at Saint Leo, followed by daily classes at PHCC and Polk Community College.
Over the course of that first week, students got to swim in the college pool, eat meals in the cafeteria and meet teens from other places. Some didn't get a lot of sleep in the dorms at night, but they began to see a world beyond their own neighborhoods, said Imani Asukile, director of multicultural and equity services at PHCC.
"I think one of the critical things is to begin understanding separation and living independently of home," he said. "You've got to raise the bar with them because they're not going to raise it themselves."
On Thursday, students were clutching copies of a biography of famed African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune. There would be a test on the book soon, and another on college financial aid and admissions procedures.
The skits students performed that day were a welcome relief from that agenda, full of laughing and horseplay. But the topics they chose spoke of a tougher reality. Two groups chose teen pregnancy; another chose violence, and a fourth selected school bullying.
"Everything they're doing is true to life," said Annie Phyll, a retired teacher from Polk County working with the group.
Marqui Redding, a 14-year-old student from West Hernando Middle School, said writing and standardized tests had always been tough until he attended the CROP program.
"I used to be a horrible writer," he said. "My reading and math have also improved.
"I thought it was going to be something boring," he added. "It was interesting. I want to come back next year."
Isaria Ranson, a 19-year-old camp counselor from Dade City, said she felt homesick the first year she attended the program. But it was also the first time she had been surrounded by kids with dreams like hers.
Now she's attending Edward Waters College in Jacksonville and working on the outreach program's staff.
"I got to meet many kids, and they were in the same boat I was in," she said. "I had goals, and I achieved them."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.