It Takes a Village

“The best way a mentor can prepare another leader is to expose him or her to other great people.” Those words from leadership guru John Maxwell perfectly express the philosophy ELEVATE Orlando applies to build future leaders in Central Florida.

The organization, which pairs Orlando-area students with a teacher or mentor as an elective class in school, believes it takes the community working together for urban youth to thrive. The Teacher/Mentors take an active role in the students’ academic and personal lives, organizing activities that range from college interviews and job shadows to dinners and beach days — and it works. ELEVATE Orlando students have a 100% graduation rate, with 96% moving forward to continued success in college, vocational school or military careers. The program is even getting national notice, recently receiving a $200,000 grant from the NBA Foundation.

In 2021, the NBA committed $300 million over 10 years to drive greater economic empowerment for Black youth. Their recent round of grantmaking focuses on workforce development, pathways for higher education, mentoring and entrepreneurship. It’s no wonder that ELEVATE Orlando is one of 40 organizations — and one of just three in Florida — to receive the honor.

“We are grateful for this amazing investment by the NBA Foundation, which will strengthen ELEVATE Orlando’s College and Career Pipeline Program exposing Central Florida’s urban youth to emerging industries, equipping them to thrive and contribute to their community,” says Jonas Cayo, Operations Director at ELEVATE Orlando.

ELEVATE Orlando’s College and Career Pipeline Program starts in middle school when 8th-graders declare a major and participate in industry-specific activities to increase their breadth of knowledge in their prospective career interests. The program incorporates after-school activities that expose students to careers in those fields. Students recently participated in a mock trial at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, serving in roles from plaintiffs to attorneys and jury members. Students also participated in the Medical Enrichment for Diverse Students Program (MEDS) at the UCF College of Medicine, where they were able to interact with medical professors and students while participating in hands-on activities in myriad potential healthcare careers.

These experiences are eye-opening and inspiring, especially for struggling middle-of-the-road students at risk of falling behind and giving up on their education. Many participants come from single-family homes and deal with significant personal setbacks. They are often the first in their families to graduate high school and attend college, all thanks to a mentor investing early on to guide the way. In turn, middle and high school students pay it forward and become mentors through the Little ELEVATE program, which pairs them with an elementary school buddy to teach reading lessons. Through this cross-age mentoring, ELEVATE Orlando forms an extensive mentorship pipeline that reaches 2,000 Orlando-area students every week.

It all comes back to ELEVATE Orlando’s main motto: No one gets there alone. Helping first-generation graduates succeed creates an ever-expanding pattern, where those students return to their communities and continue to enrich the next generation. “It takes people from the community to solve problems in the community,” Cayo says.

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Written by Nicole Paskowsky

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