Zaira buttoned the blouse she had ironed the night before. She slid her feet into sleek black pumps. She looked in the mirror, and exhaled. As she walked the tap of her shoes on the polished wood floors rang throughout the auditorium. The room was full of people and yet quiet at the same time. She realized for the first time how nervous she was. She smiled to herself as she heard her father’s voice in her head, teasing and calling her “inquieta.” It means to be restless, anxious, and like clockwork her breathing became uneven and she started to fidget. But just then someone started speaking on the podium, a voice she knew almost as well as she knew her own. And everything else – all the buzz and the nerves and the fear – faded into the background when she looked up and caught Margo’s eye.
Years ago, Zaira and her sisters watched their father get arrested because he couldn’t present documentation. Theirs were the last faces he saw before he was deported. After that, her mother struggled to make ends meet for her family. Zaira struggled as well, to find belonging and acceptance at school. She was bullied, underestimated, and disrespected. She was full of so much confusion and self-loathing she didn’t even know what to do with herself. Until a woman named Margo came into her life.
Christina’s father was her hero. When she was 8 years old, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in a federal penitentiary. When the center of your world falls apart, there’s not much left to hold onto. Christina became withdrawn, depressed, and filled with anger. Unsurprisingly, she did not excel in school at this time. In 8th grade she was assigned a mentor, a woman named Ylise.
What Ylise and Margo had in common was that they were both volunteers for a program called Seedling Foundation’s Mentor Program. The purpose of this program is to provide children of incarcerated parents a mentor in whom they can confide, and receive encouragement and support. The mentoring is research-driven, school-based, and is offered at 90 schools throughout Central Texas. 100% of children who are provided services by Seedling Foundation are from low-income families, and more than half are defined as ‘at-risk.’ Last year, 608 children’s lives were directly affected by mentors from this program.
When Ylise walked up to Christina on that very first day, during Christina’s lunch break, she looked every part a successful, powerful Latina woman. Instead of feeling threatened, Christina felt inspired: she could be that too. They broke the ice with some small talk. Then Christina started to open up. She knew she could trust this person, she knew Ylise wanted nothing but to help Christina become the best version of herself. At the end of their first meeting, Ylise looked Christina in the eye and told her she was going to be there for her throughout high school. She told Christina she could depend on her. And she did not disappoint. Ylise and Christina met once a week, without fail, for 4 1/2 years.
Once the applause following her introduction died down, Zaira took the stage.
“Margo came into my life at a time when all I needed was a friend.” She paused to look out over the microphone to the crowd of people whose eyes were glued to her. “We met once a week during my lunch hour and that was enough to help me cope with the loneliness I had been accustomed to. It was enough for me to finally feel a sense of worth. After my visits with Margo something clicked. I knew I was different, and I had potential to do great things and if I mattered enough for someone so important to dedicate time out of their day to me, I needed to begin to value myself. The change in my mood and in my personality was drastic. Margo wanted to hear about my family, my interests, my life. She asked me about my day and how things were going. Having someone show up for you is a huge, huge deal.”
Here, Zaira directly addresses the 8th graders who have earned the scholarship to pursue an education through Seedling Foundation:
“You are everything. You are what drives this room full of accomplished individuals. You are what sets the world on fire. Do not accept what you do not want from life. Instead, work to change it. Be the person that wakes up an hour earlier, to live an hour more. Because life is meant to be lived, it is meant to be felt, to be questioned. Nothing can stop you. This scholarship is a blessing. It is a promise to you that you can pursue your dreams. Whatever difficult situations you might encounter, or disadvantages that life may throw at you, if nothing else, always remember that someone cares enough about you and your future, that they went ahead and invested in you this early on. You matter that much.”
As the room collectively stood to applaud this marvelous young woman, this woman who was finishing her third year of college at UT, who had won scholarships, studied hard, fought her way out of bullying, monotony, a life she did not want to live, she found Margo’s eyes. Hers were filled with tears, just like Zaira’s. The two women shared a special moment amidst the standing ovation and the roaring applause. They had done it. Margo had given Zaira a gift that could never be measured or quantified: she had given her a vision, a purpose to work for a life Zaira had never even thought to wish for. And in return, Zaira had given Margo something equally as valuable: hope.
As a growing non-profit, Seedling is always searching for funding and partnerships with other non-profits. A trusted friend, who happened to be a Chiver, mentioned one day – “Chive Charities is always raising money for other organizations… they should just raise money for Seedling!” Just like that, Seedling Foundation applied. And just like that, Chive Charities came through with a $25,000 grant from the Chive Fund. To train a mentor and guide them through the program for one year, the cost is roughly $1,000. With the grant, Seedling Foundation will be able to help 25 at-risk children.