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Program helps students graduate from high school

July 17, 2019
By MEGHAN BRADBURY ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Last week 136 students graduated from the CareerSource Southwest Florida Destination Graduation program, many of whom attended East Lee County High School.

"It's very heartwarming to see and hear the stories and the barriers they have overcome," Executive Director Joe Paterno said in a prepared statement. "For many years they are the first family member to graduate and act as a role model to their other siblings and friends."

Those students who graduated from Destination Graduation, spanned 15 schools across Southwest Florida. They gathered at First Christian Church in Fort Myers for a special celebration last week.

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Many students from East Lee County High School were among the 136 students who graduated as part of the Destination Graduation program.


"We love these kids and celebrate these kids," CareerSource Southwest Florida spokesperson Janeth Castrejon said.

During the celebration each student was given the chance to share their experience within a minute or two.

"It's about them sharing," she said. "There are great things happening in Southwest Florida."

Destiney Olivera first heard of Destination Graduation while she was high school freshman through a friend who was part of the program. She said she would help tutor her friend, which eventually turned into meeting Ms. Liz Jauregui, the Destination Graduation mentor, halfway through her sophomore year.

"Destination Graduation is a really good program," the recent graduate of East Lee County High School said. "I highly recommend it to anyone I know. It's about changing your life. Without the program I probably wouldn't have graduated, or got into college. Ms. Liz is a miracle worker. I got exempt from all my final exams because I almost had straight A's. She is the greatest."

Olivera said she would visit Jauregui almost every day during her lunch, or free period, to do school work, or ask questions.

"She helped with all of my classes," she said, adding that whenever she needed anything she was always the first person she asked. "She was always willing to help me, even if she was busy."

Destination Graduation was a great fit for Olivera, especially after losing her mom in 2015 and moving to Lee County. She said when she moved to the area her grades were not terrible, but they were not good either.

"Before her program I didn't have anyone as a backbone to support me with school... Ms. Liz was always happy when I went to school. She would help me," she said. "She was a very good role model."

With the support from Jauregui, the thought of going to college flourished and the desire to become a social worker and paralegal became her dream.

"When I did live with my mom before she passed away, we didn't live in the best areas. We never had a mentor, or social worker help us," Olivera said. "When I came here, she (Jauregui) was just the best. Out of everyone I ever met since I came to Florida, Ms. Liz is the most influential person I have ever met. She made me want to be there for other kids to have the opportunity that I have. I told her my plan on how to help kids and mentor all of these kids to finish school and go far in life."

She was accepted to Florida SouthWestern State College for a two-year program, which she will begin in the spring as she recently enlisted into the National Guard. After graduating from FSW, Olivera wants to finish her degree at Florida State University.

"I am actually in the National Guard to be a paralegal specialist. It's definitely a life-changing experience. It's not something most people do. There was only one other girl there. It definitely made me realize a lot of girls don't want to do it. I just want to help people and change the way people see the world," she said.

Olivera said she already goes out and helps people when a natural disaster happens.

"For me being a part of the National Guard, it's my job now. This is what I am here to do," she said.

Destination Graduation, which is going into its ninth year, started off in two schools and since has expanded to 15 high schools in the counties of Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades. The program has seen a 94 percent graduation rate for those exposed to early intervention with a Destination Graduation mentor.

There is a Destination Graduation mentor from CareerSource Southwest Florida who goes to the high school, where they have an office.

"The mentor will spend half the time in the high school and other areas promoting the program," Castrejon said. "Because the program has been so successful over the years, there are referrals from other students, (which) is the biggest part of the growth for the program."

Most of the students who participate in the Destination Graduation program are dealing with barriers and challenges on their own, which often times are difficult for them to overcome. The Destination Graduation program provides a mentor that has experience and can provide guidance for the students.

Castrejon said the students go to their mentors to open up and share their difficulties they are experiencing while being themselves. She said the mentors help in keeping the students accountable while reaching their goals.

The program also includes many incentives to keep the students on track earning good grades. They also receive a helping hand in landing part-time work to help them get an idea of what the real world is all about.

"Through the summer we work with them and look for employers in the area looking to give the students an opportunity to gain that work experience," Castrejon said.

One of those students was Emely Santos, a graduate from East Lee County High School. She said she worked for the School District of Lee County for two summers in the records department where she learned work skills and being on time.

Santos learned about Destination Graduation from her sister and became involved in the program her sophomore year of high school.

"I loved it. It helped me a lot with growing up, the work industry and with school," she said.

Santos saw her mentor, Jauregui, at least three or four times a week, where she helped her with tutoring and keeping her focused on her school work.

"It gave me a chance to practice my reading skills when I was lacking on my reading score," she said of her time with her mentor. "Ms. Liz is the greatest."

In the fall, Santos will begin her first semester at FSW where she will pursue a degree in dental hygiene. She also started working July 15 with Lee Health Systems as a patient access specialist, a position that will have her working with patients and doctors in regards to appointments and insurance.



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