From left: Caroline Coley, Genesis Castillo, and Irene Castanon together before the start of the recognition ceremony.

From left: Caroline Coley, Genesis Castillo, and Irene Castanon together before the start of the recognition ceremony.

Family, friends, and mentors with Take Stock in Children (TSIC) came together on June 7 for an evening of celebration and recognition at South Florida State College.

They filled the seats of the SFSC University Center Auditorium on the SFSC Highlands Campus to honor the accomplishments of 23 TSIC mentees who had just graduated from high schools in DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands counties.

“This is that wonderful evening each year when we come together for our mentor appreciation and mentee recognition ceremony,” said Jamie Bateman, executive director for Institutional Advancement at SFSC, who also heads up the SFSC Foundation. The SFSC Foundation serves as the lead agency for TSIC within the college’s service district of DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands counties.

“Before I talk about our students’ accomplishments, it’s only fitting to say ‘thank you’ to our mentors,” Bateman said. “They have given so much of their time to help shape these students into the young ladies and men we see here tonight.”

The 23 graduates had completed the journey to high school completion with the help of their TSIC mentors. TSIC matches students at-risk of not completing high school with mentors who guide them toward earning their diplomas, with college scholarships awaiting those who graduate and enroll in college.

Bateman illustrated the students’ achievements. “The average grade point average for the 23 graduates was 4.71,” she said. “One student graduated with a 5.4052—I had to get that number two in there,” she said to the laughter of the audience.

“One of our graduates just finished high school and simultaneously earned her associate degree from SFSC and another earned an occupational certificate,” Bateman said.

Collectively, the students earned $228,627 in college scholarships, Bateman said. She added they had already earned 360 hours of college credit toward their undergraduate degrees by participating in the dual enrollment program at SFSC.

TSIC mentors typically meet with their assigned students each week during the school year, offering encouragement, advice, and a sympathetic ear. A TSIC college success coach provides support and guidance to the mentor and the mentee.

Bateman then called each graduate up to the stage. One by one, they mounted the stage and introduced themselves to the audience, mentioning their mentor’s name, what college they would attend, and what they would study.

From nursing to medicine to psychology, the students spoke of their dream careers, with most saying they would complete their first two years of college at SFSC.

“We have a bunch of bright grads here tonight,” Bateman said after the parade of graduates had left the stage.

Bateman called two students back to join their mentors on stage. She asked each pair to speak about their relationship and what it meant to them.

Caroline Coley, a 92-year-old retiree from New York, joined her mentee, Genesis Castillo, at the microphone. Turning to Castillo, Coley said, “This young lady is so bright she did not need my help with her schoolwork. What she needed was someone outside her usual circle who would listen.”

From left: Irene Castanon, Wally Cox, and Jamie Bateman.

From left: Irene Castanon, Wally Cox, and Jamie Bateman.

Castillo graduated at the top of her class at Avon Park High School. She has completed enough college credits as a dual enrolled student at SFSC to enable her to complete her associate degree in one year.

Mentor Karen Creamer gave her mentee, DeQualon Fudge, a hug after wiping away the tears she shed in recalling their years together since meeting in the seventh grade. “I have been honored to serve as this young man’s mentor on his journey to adulthood,” Creamer said.

Fudge will enroll in Florida Gulf Coast University this fall where he plans to major in accounting.

Before the evening event could come to an end, Bateman noted there was an item on the agenda that bore no name. She asked Wally Cox, who will close out his 16 years as Highlands County Superintendent of School, to come to the stage. Bateman handed him a framed photograph with an inscription thanking him for his service to TSIC.

The audience rose to their feet, whistling and applauding Cox as he accepted the photograph.

“What a wonderful evening we have each year when we recognize the mentors and mentees,” said Irene Castanon, coordinator for the local TSIC program. “What makes it so special is watching the mentors and mentees come together for one final meeting before the grads start the next chapter in their lives.”