CLEARWATER — When Simon Pimentel came home from Ecuador last fall, he carried a special piece of paper.
The 52-year-old New Port Richey man traveled back and forth to Ecuador for the better part of seven years, working toward a dentistry degree. He had always pushed his children to do well in school and go to college, and he was determined to lead by example.
"This is to show that you don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it," he said, as he handed his daughters his diploma.
Now his daughter, Liliana, a University of South Florida student, is working on a project to nurture budding leaders among Hispanic middle school students in Clearwater.
Clearwater's Hispanic Outreach Center, with the help of Liliana and some other USF students, is developing the Youth Leaders Partnership, which aims to address the Hispanic community's need for positive role models and greater success in school. The program will identify promising Hispanic students and provide guidance and support to them and their parents.
"We need to grow some leaders in this community," said Sandra Lyth, chief executive of the Outreach Center. "They don't have the number of role models they need."
Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, a group of about 20 University of South Florida students is developing a curriculum for the leadership development program. Organizers plan to recruit an inaugural group of 10 to 15 middle school students and stay with them as they go through high school, while adding a new class of 10 each year.
Once the program launches, the students and parents will meet regularly at the Outreach Center for sessions that will cover many topics, including goal-setting, preparation for college applications, involvement in sports and communication issues between parent and child.
Organizers want to help parents and students reconcile the differences between their traditional culture and the local culture, and help them deal with the isolation that may arise from feeling out of place. Youths feeling isolated might join gangs — an activity Lyth said the center would like to prevent.
"We're going to have to deal with issues of belonging-ness," she said.
The Outreach Center's collaboration with USF was not planned from the beginning. In the late fall, USF electrical engineering juniors Yohannes Samuel and Jean Weatherwax formed Fundamental Learning for Interdisciplinary Technology Education, or FLITE, to promote higher education goals to at-risk youth.
"There's not a whole lot of guidance for kids from certain demographics," Weatherwax said.
Within a few months, a call for help from Lyth landed on the desk of Philip Bishop, a philosophy professor and FLITE's faculty adviser.
"It was stunning," Lyth said of the coincidence.
FLITE was chosen to develop the modules for the program. Liliana Pimentel, a chemistry sophomore, recently joined the group because she wanted to help the community in more tangible ways than just raising funds or awareness.
Samuel, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, said he's helping with the program because he struggled in his high school environment to find guidance when he had questions about how to pursue college.
"They're going to face the same things that I did," he said of today's Hispanic middle schoolers.
The Outreach Center has already used part of the $50,000 Juvenile Welfare Board grant to begin creating a computer lab at its office on Franklin Street for use during the sessions. It will be available for students and parents to use as they meet the goals of the program.
Lyth said mostly existing personnel from the Outreach Center will staff the program, which is slated to start in the coming school year.
Contact Joey Flechas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.