Darlene Liparoto started volunteering at Tarpon Springs High School to keep an eye on her own teenagers, to learn who their friends were and what they were up to. A guidance counselor noticed students flocked to Liparoto for advice. She suggested Liparoto become a mentor for a fledgling scholarship program the Pinellas Education Foundation had launched for low-income students.
Participants who keep good grades, attend school and stay drug- and crime-free can earn a four-year college scholarship.
Mentors were a key component to help the students, many who faced tough challenges — personal and academic — persist, graduate and secure their scholarship.
"I was a cheerleading squad, somebody there for them if they needed direction," said Liparota, 58.
One of those she rooted for was Lisa Peart, now a guidance counselor at Northwest Elementary in Hudson. Nearly 20 years ago Peart was awarded the scholarship as she began high school and was teamed up with Liparota.
The support, both emotional and financial, acted as a huge incentive to keep going and do well in school, Peart said.
"It can be discouraging for kids whose parents don't have a lot of money to think about college and how you're going to pay for it," Peart said. "Maybe I wouldn't have gone to college. Maybe I would have given up. But getting this scholarship in ninth grade kept me on track."
In the 20 years since it launched the program, the Pinellas Education Foundation says it has received $15 million in donations and awarded 4,000 scholarships, providing a path to higher education for students who might otherwise miss out. Key to the program are the mentors who help students navigate the sometimes difficult path from poverty to educational success.
Liparoto said it was important for her to make the students she mentored believe they were worthy and important as individuals. "I knew they were so much more than what they thought they could be," Liparota said.
She also tried to come up with practical solutions for students if they struggled.
"I listened if they had a difficulty," Liparoto said. "I would point them in the right direction, talk to guidance counselors on their behalf, find them tutors and help keep them organized."
Liparota did even more than that for her, Peart said.
When it was time for prom, Peart recalled, her mother was unable to afford her prom dress so Liparoto drove her around Tampa to find the perfect one and shoes to go with it. At the last minute, her date didn't show up and Liparoto convinced the tearful girl to get in the limo and enjoy her prom.
"I went and had fun and looked good," Peart said. "I was really upset and was still hoping at the last minute that he was going to come through. Darlene was there and she told me I looked beautiful and to go have fun."
Over the years, Liparoto has attended countless marching band performances, graduations and weddings, as the relationships with some students endured. She even coached one former student through childbirth.
Liparoto, who owns an automotive shop in Tarpon Springs with her husband, is not currently mentoring for the Doorways Scholarship Program because she's taking care of a new grandchild. But she loves when former students reach out to her to share their lives.
That's exactly what Peart did about a year ago, finding Liparoto on Facebook.
"I've always thought of her as a very important person in my life," Peart said.