Helen Midney knew she was destined for greater things while she was still a student at Immokalee High School. Her mother, who emigrated from Paraguay and never made it past elementary school, had instilled in her the importance of a proper education. “She basically said, ‘you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not taking advantage of your opportunities,’” Midney recalls.
So she studied hard and in 2006 joined the Guadalupe Center High School Tutoring Corps, a program that prepares selected Immokalee High School students for college while they make a wage by tutoring the nonprofit organization’s elementary school students. The program also pairs students with mentors.
At the guidance of her own adviser, Midney applied to Bowdoin College in Maine, where she spent four years on a full-ride scholarship. “I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had I not had my mentor, and I would not have had my mentor if I was not in the program,” she says. Midney’s mother may have swayed her good grades, but it was her father, an American citizen who met Midney’s mother in the Peace Corps, who influenced her future.
“[My dad’s] side of the family were teachers, and he would say, ‘You know, you were given these skills and blessed with compassion and knowledge and drive to go further, so you need to give back.’” So she joined the Guadalupe Center as high school tutor corps coordinator in 2014. Midney now helps youth who mirror her own upbringing. While the teenagers she sees may differ on the outside (out of her 100 students, 70 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent are African-American, and 1 percent is Caucasian), they all share similar backgrounds.
“A lot of the kids’ parents are farm laborers, or they work in the packing houses or construction,” Midney says. “There are some differences, but only one parent of the current 100 kids has a college degree,” she says. Midney has implemented essay writing workshops to help the children—many of whom are English-language learners—hone their voices. One of Midney’s biggest payoffs is watching the kids become more confident in their communication skills.
There is one moment she recalls in particular. In September of last year, a Haitian sophomore student who struggled with his English had to introduce himself in a speech to the class. He shook with nerves as he faced his peers, palms sweaty, voice cracking here and there. He finished his speech with a whisper, but felt a wave of relief as the audience clapped and cheered for him. Now, Midney says, “he’s a social butterfly.” The boy recently gave another presentation. He wore new trousers and spoke loud and with confidence, welcoming the attention he previously shied away from. And in those moments, she knows she’s helped make a difference.