NEW PORT RICHEY — Some of these kids have dealt with things most of us will only see on TV. They've been abandoned. Molested. Abused. Forgotten by parents in a haze of drugs. Some have fought learning disabilities or fierce shyness. They've been hurt and they've wallowed in rage. They've hung out with the wrong crowd. Some could think of years past and count on one hand how many days they went to school.
They were unmoored, floating off to a bleak horizon.
But something in all 29 of these children — who were recognized Thursday by Pasco County Project Turnaround — fought back. Something clicked deep inside, saying, "I am better than this," and they changed.
At a ceremony at Spartan Manor in New Port Richey, each student got a turn on stage. Every county middle, high and alternative school chose its winner for a Turnaround Achievement Award. Students were introduced by their mentor (a teacher or staff member from school). As the adults spoke, it was clear how much they loved their students.
"It's not the salary that keeps us here," said Travis DeWalt, a teacher and coach at Gulf High School, as he introduced his Turnaround Award recipient, Ladarious Jackson.
"This," DeWalt said, motioning to the kids, "is what it's about."
Each student up on stage could have given up. But now, because of their determination and the love and support of mentors, they have goals that they will reach. They've realized that they are smart.
A student who previously couldn't pass math now wants to major in it in college (and also, German). A girl who once mouthed off to teachers all the time is going to be in honors English next year. Another young woman made a huge change: she dropped her bad friends, lost 70 pounds, joined the volleyball team and participated in Odyssey of the Mind.
A young man in JROTC who used to take and deal drugs went to rehab, has been clean and focused and now wants to be a military officer. Many of these students already work — some 30 hours a week or more, in addition to school. A waiter. An auto mechanic. Electrician. One young woman said that whenever she feels like giving up, so she can be carefree again, she thinks of how far she has come and she just can't let that go.
Zeyla Aviles, 15 and now an eighth-grader at John Long Middle School, had something traumatic happen to her when she was in sixth grade. In seventh grade, she fell off her normal grid. She became a bully and didn't care about school.
"I was going through a lot," said Zeyla, who is petite and had her shiny hair tied with a bow. "I couldn't focus."
One of her teachers, Terri Hensley, took her in, and Zeyla (and her two younger sisters and their dog) lived with Hensley for a year before returning to live with their mother. Zeyla said it just got to a point where she said to herself, "I have to change."
She wiped tears from her face. Zeyla is now determined to become a doctor. To think of where she was and where she is now overwhelms her.
"I'm really proud of myself," she said, softly.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.
Bayonet Point MS, Corey Gray
Centennial MS, Chelsey Smith
Chasco MS, Amanda Bell
Gulf MS, Preston Kline
Hudson MS, Kaytlin Weeks
John Long MS, Zeyla Aviles
Pasco MS, Nikiya Woods
Pine View MS, Leoneli "Danny" Marteli
River Ridge MS, Rebecca Acuna
Charles S. Rushe MS, Rashaud Daniels
Seven Springs MS, Jessica Evans
Paul R. Smith MS, Karlie Geraci
Raymond B. Stewart MS, Kayla Ankers
Thomas E. Weightman MS, Patrick Larkin
James Irvin EC, Ariel Novas
H. Schwettman EC, Mike Majors
Marchman Technical EC, Daniel Artascos
Moore Mickens EC, Shane Heath
Gulf HS, Ladarious Jackson
Hudson HS, Steven Whitworth
Land O'Lakes HS, Christopher Rodriguez
J.W. Mitchell HS, Kenneth Korchak
Pasco HS, Ray Serrato
Ridgewood HS, Kindra Lehmann
River Ridge HS, Sarah Stall
Sunlake HS, Davion Samuels
Wesley Chapel HS, Raul Barrio
Wiregrass Ranch HS, Brittany Doxsey
Zephyrhills HS, Richard Carrico
2008 Turnaround Awards