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Valedictorian: How Perseverance and Mentoring Have Guided Me

The following are excerpts from essays written by a graduating senior in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program, a college readiness program that is a partnership between the School District of Palm Beach CountyTake Stock in Children Palm Beach County and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. We will feature other student authors in the coming weeks.

My family has a history of overcoming struggles. My grandfather began working in the fields at the tender age of four. My father started working at the age of six. My mother never completed any education beyond 6th grade due to the family’s financial difficulties.

I have had to overcome difficulties since the day I was born. Surrounded by sugarcane and wild rabbits that run the fields in the small rural town of Belle Glade, I was a premature baby, with unhealthy weight and lack of interest in eating. Although my mother tried her best to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy, due to extreme financial distress, she often went without nutritious food.

Gema Cervantes holding laptop and flowers

When I was two months old, I contracted viral meningitis due to weak health and poor environmental surroundings. When I was two years of age, once again, I was rushed to the hospital for surgery from an appendicitis. I later suffered from dehydration right after the surgery. I had extended hospital stays since birth throughout my childhood. The medical bills would often begin to accumulate one after another, and my parents often had difficulty keeping up with them. At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with ADHD and Myopia after years of struggling to do well in school and being inflicted with chronic headaches. I had to be placed in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program for the rest of my elementary years because the effect of meningitis in my brain had caused me to have a learning disability.

The lack of financial stability in my family is directly linked to my family members being unable to attain an education beyond the 6th grade. This fact, in turn, has created a generational chain of inability to achieve an education and consequently, poor health.

One of the differences that has turned me into a strong leader is the strong parents that I have. Both wanted me to have a better chance in life and crossed to a foreign nation in the pursuit of that better life. They wanted me to have what they did not have. They continually remind me never to let my opportunities to learn go to waste. Unlike my parents, I can attend high school and finish college thanks to Take Stock in Children. They have talked to me throughout my high school life to work hard in school so that I don’t have to go through what my parents went through.

During high school, I have participated in over ten extracurricular activities and have strived for excellence in academics. I am President of the Pros and Consequences of Life Club which serves to promote awareness of HIV, STDs and academic focus. I am also President of the Spanish Book Club which drives students to success in their foreign language courses and fundraisers to provide the homeless with dental supplies. I am a mentor with the ESOL Mentoring program in which students are pushed to overcome the stresses and anxieties of learning a foreign language, which I have experienced myself.

My goal in five years is to practice primary family medicine in rural areas in Palm Beach County like Belle Glade. My first step is by finishing my undergraduate degree at Florida State University.

I would like to return twice a month to Glades Central High School to support organizations such as the ESOL Mentoring Program and the Women of Tomorrow to continue empowering women. It would also be my greatest desire to help students with whom I share the struggle and anxiety of learning a second language. I would continue to mentor students from the ESOL mentoring program and to establish an organization that mentors students with the lowest grades at Glades Central High School and with learning disabilities. Being able to help establish this organization would be meaningful to me because I have a learning disability and understand the discipline it takes to control such a disability. My third goal would be to support Take Stock in Children as a volunteer throughout my three years of medical school.

Gema Cervantes wearing graduation cap and gown

Through the growth I have gained from hardships I have encountered and the mentoring support received from TSIC, I will graduate with my AA degree from Palm Beach State College by high school graduation. I will be graduating high school as valedictorian.

My parents may not have received education more than the 6th grade, but they taught me to live with integrity and honesty. My goal is to continue to serve my community, to become the best person I can be, determined to meet my goals and to serve.

Gema Cervantes is a senior at Glades Central High School in Florida and a participant in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program.

Disruption-Loss-Adaptation-Gratefulness…Reflections on My First Month as CEO

I really thought my first CEO article would reflect a glamorous month of my professional coming out party. I envisioned tales of flattering introductions by an articulate and esteemed predecessor to the who’s who in the educational and philanthropic worlds. I expected to see first-hand the finished exhibitions, all-star resume accomplishments and celebrated trophies of JSF investments. I’d travel North America for a few weeks and return energized and inspired to dive into a month of professional development. I just knew these experiences would prepare me to lead and inspire a gifted staff.

Most of this happened, just not how I thought it would. I’m confident that none of us had the March 2020 we were planning for. There would be no travel. I’d spend much of my time glued to a 13-inch laptop monitor, fumbling my way around new technology that included a persistent visual of what my extended social distancing from my barber looked like.

My predecessor, Malcolm Macleod, and I would embark on reaching out to every grantee through video conferencing. Our meetings would typically last for 30 minutes and most were back to back to back. I would meet or be reintroduced to many of the rock stars in the educational and philanthropic worlds. Our meetings did not take place in prestigious office spaces, adorned with organizational accomplishments. Most conversations were held in living rooms, over kitchen tables, and a few in the front seats of automobiles.

The actual experience I’ve had in my first 30 days on staff, was far better than the glamorous month I had envisioned. The COVID-19 Crisis offered a candid look into the lives and callings of JSF grantee partners. These partners were sober in their assessment of the COVID-19 crisis, painfully aware of the havoc and change it would likely bring, but stubbornly resolved to serve their students and vigorously pursue their mission.

Most of our conversations revolved around some common themes:

Disruption—The COVID-19 crisis had turned their lives upside down. The means of their work had been changed dramatically, but the ends of that work had not. They remained staunch advocates for their organizations and the students they serve.

Loss—This crisis exacted a real loss -losses that included time with students, celebratory graduation ceremonies, refunded revenues, muted philanthropic giving from their donor bases, canceled fund raisers, and separation from colleagues, friends and family.

Adaptation—All of them were continuing to adapt to the changes around them. From their communication means to the schedules they held.

Resolve to be better—“We won’t waste this crisis.”

Optimism—I suppose this is a prerequisite to be an educator, advocate or philanthropist. Most grantees felt the crisis would yield fruit in their organizations due to organizational efficiencies forced upon them in the crisis. Some viewed the crisis as an opportunity thrust upon them to reinvent themselves or their approach.

Gratefulness—Our inquiries were met with such a permeating attitude of gratefulness. They all deeply appreciated the intentional outreach of JSF. It was very obvious to me their gratefulness resonated from the experience of many years with JSF staff, consultants and Board.

The month of March has ended. It has not been glamorous, but it has been remarkable. A crisis will often strip away the glamorous and reveal the underlying character and qualities of organizations and people. The staff I intended to inspire has inspired me with their own willingness to adapt and resolve to serve. The themes that resonated through the conversations with grantees have been echoed in correspondence with JSF staff, Board and consultants. I have learned a lot and been reminded of more. I’ve been emboldened to lead by the gracious deference and encouragement of our Chairman. I am so very grateful for my first 30 days on staff at JSF.

Robert A. Krause is an entrepreneur and business consultant to the Central Florida agricultural industry. He has served as a member of the JSF Board of Directors since 2013, most recently as the Foundation’s Treasurer. He recently was named JSF’s new CEO.

American Indigenous Business Leaders Look to Raise $150,000 to Create Care Packages for Elders in the Community

Johnson Scholarship Foundation, a supporter of the American Indigenous Business Leaders, is glad to share AIBL’s efforts to support the communities of Indigenous Peoples during this uncertain time.

Donations for Food, Cleaning Products for Seniors Accepted Now at

PHOENIX – Tribal communities have long looked to their elders to pass along wisdom, customs and traditions, and now, future business leaders from across the nation are banding together in support of their senior members.

American Indigenous Business Leaders (AIBL), a national nonprofit with more than 500 active chapters spanning 20 states, has a lengthy history of empowering and supporting Indigenous business students from across the United States. In the wake of recent events, the organization is temporarily shifting its focus from supporting students to supporting seniors, many of whom are suddenly facing exacerbated health issues, a lack of transportation to and from stores, medical services, and similar hardships.

To do so, AIBL has launched a campaign to create Senior Citizen Support Care Packages and is looking to raise $150,000 to put toward the effort. AIBL chapters from across the nation will then use the funds raised to create care packages valued at either $100 or $50 apiece, with $100 packages containing food and cleaning essentials (think paper products, baby wipes and other tough-to-find items), and $50 packages containing food, exclusively.

“In tribal communities, younger members have always looked to their elders as sources of respect and leadership – they have an endless amount of admiration for those who came before them and feel a responsibility to care for them,” said AIBL’s Board Chairman Dave Archambault Sr. “The AIBL community is one that recognizes the evolving needs of senior citizens and is ready to step up and help support those who have long done the same for their families and communities. We are asking people to help, knowing that good things will come to them for their generosity.”

Once care packages are ready for distribution, AIBL members will deliver them directly to the recipients’ doorsteps to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“Some of these recipients simply don’t have a way to get around, or have health issues at play that make it more difficult for them to visit public places like grocery stores,” said AIBL Executive Director Prairie Bighorn-Blount. “Others don’t have any local family members who can help. We’re here to step in and help ensure that no one goes without essential items during this time of crisis.”

AIBL is currently accepting donations of any size to help further the effort and reach even more senior citizens across Arizona and the nation. To donate to the cause or learn more about the organization, visit