Thursday, November 28, 2019
Food Brings Hope Helps Mainland Students Excel
Program helps academically gifted children whose families struggle financially
By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
DAYTONA BEACH — Malana Jackson, whose stellar grades have her ranked second in her junior class at Mainland High School, is skyrocketing toward one day being a pediatrician.
Nina Samuel, in the top 20 of that same junior class of around 450 students at Mainland, sees a fascinating future for herself as a forensic pathologist.
And Jakyra McCloud, a senior at Mainland whose superior grade point average has landed her at the No. 10 spot in her 40 0-plus-student class, wants to be a heart surgeon.
The three teenagers don't believe they arrived at the cusp of their dreams only through hard work and natural ability. They don't think it would have happened if they hadn't been handpicked in elementary school to become part of a program that places academically gifted students from low-income families under the wings of teachers and advisers.
They're not the kids who head for two-story homes with swimming pools after school. They're the offspring of families ensnared in cycles of poverty, families that seldom send their children off to college.
The Food Brings Hope Honors Program that adopted Jackson, Samuel and McCloud in 2011 has ensured for the past eight years that they have had enough to eat, a stable roof over their heads, and rock solid guidance to help them soar academically.
And now, Food Brings Hope founder Forough Hosseini is going to help make sure they get to college, and through college. Hosseini, executive vice president of information systems for ICI Homes, is offering to help pay for their tuition and books if scholarships and grants don't cover their costs.
The realization of what McCloud's life would have been without Food Brings Hope fills her with a shudder of fear, and tears of gratitude.
"For me Food Brings Hope is everything," the 18-year-old said. "I've been in it for more than half my life. I can't imagine how different my life would be without the program and all the opportunities I got from it."
'A chance to excel' When the nonprofit Food Brings Hope was founded in 2007, McCloud was 6 years old and Jackson and Samuel were 5. The program was started that year at their school, Westside Elementary, by then principal Judi Winch and Hosseini, who was shocked when her twin daughters befriended a little girl whose toys were sold for gas money and didn't always have enough to eat.
It became an afterschool program that provides kids free meals after classes are done for the day as well as grocery bags of food to take home. It also provides tutoring and fun activities in the hours after the dismissal bell rings each afternoon.
Food Brings Hope has mushroomed to include programs in 27 schools in Volusia County and two in Flagler County, said Winch, the program's executive director for the past five years. There are eight honors programs spread across those schools, said Winch, who was the principal at Westside Elementary School for 12 years and assistant principal for four years prior to that.
More than 1,700 students are currently enrolled in Food Brings Hope programs, and close to 130 kids are in the honors program. More than 350 families receive the free bags of food that go home with kids every week.
The program even has a house, called Hope House, where homeless students can live.
It was in 2011 that the honors program was added for children who show exceptional abilities. McCloud, Jackson and Samuel were among a group of six students at Westside who were the first to be chosen for that elite group.
Samuel and Jackson were in fourth grade at the time, and McCloud was in fifth grade. It's an age when little girls often prefer to spend the hours after school riding their bikes around the neighborhood or playing video games. But the three committed to buckling down for more learning when everyone else ran out into the sunshine.
"I kept them at school until 5:45 p.m.," Winch said.
When they all went to Campbell Middle School, the three stayed with the Food Brings Hope program. When they arrived at Mainland High School as teenagers, they could have let jobs, sports and clubs fill their time outside class. But they stuck with Food Brings Hope, and with each other as their friendship deepened.
Their after-school honors program is held five days a week, and it has taught them discipline.
Jackson said she studies eight hours a day while juggling playing the clarinet in Mainland's band, the student government association, her church youth group and working at a Panera Bread restaurant.
"I want to have a job because it relieves my mom," she said.
McCloud works at both a Cracker Barrel restaurant and Rue 21 clothing store to ease her mother's financial burden. She crams in about five hours of studying most days while also taking part in the student government association and a few clubs.
Samuel studies five to seven hours a day while also playing on Mainland's girls varsity softball team, being a member of a school sign language club, taking three advanced placement classes and working at the Five Below discount store. Until this year she was also a drummer in the school band.
"Sundays I spend my whole day doing homework," Samuel said, noting she does take a break on Friday nights and Saturdays to have fun with friends.
"It's a chance to excel and go beyond all expectations anyone ever had for them," Winch said. "You'd hope they would still have been successful (without the program), but I've seen time and time again without the support they just don't make it."
'More than being the teacher' In exchange for their hard work, they've received a lot of tutoring, mentoring and nurturing from Winch, Hosseini and the teachers who make the program possible.
It's not all books and studying. Winch and other program leaders take the kids out to dinner, give them rides when they need to get somewhere, and help them explore potential colleges.
"It's important to have adults who are making education a priority," Winch said. "When we take them out to dinner we talk. We say let me see your grades."
Mainland High School chemistry and agricultural science teacher Kristie Long has taught and mentored McCloud, Jackson and Samuel in the Food Brings Hope program since they were in middle school. Long, a 1997 graduate of Mainland, has led them through science, technology, engineering and math enrichment activities and watched them grow.
"Their engagement and their excitement to study science was at a peak," Long said. "They always wanted to know more. That three girls wanted to spend three hours after school to study was remarkable."
"We did it in a fun way," said Samuel, who wants to go to medical school at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The trio was also accelerated in math, so accelerated that they all took a geometry class in eighth grade, normally a high school sophomore course.
Long has also been a friend to them, sometimes offering advice. She drives them home from time to time, she has written college recommendation letters, and she has taken them to visit colleges.
"A lot of the time it's more than being the teacher," Long said. "So many days you're an ear to listen."
As McCloud considers going to a college out of state next year, she's feeling shaky about leaving the protection and guidance of the program leaders and the kids in the program who have become close friends.
"It's hard to navigate by myself," McCloud said. "No one in my family has really gone to college."
But the program's leaders are equipping her for the journey she'll begin next year, including helping her go to a medical conference in Boston. And through their guidance she's already taking classes at Daytona State College.
"They're always there guiding me to the right places and helping me in ways that I could not imagine doing on my own," McCloud said.
Jackson, who's also taking classes at Daytona State College, said learning has always been easy for her. But the program still pushed her to academic heights she might not have reached on her own.
"It's always challenged me to be better academically," the 16-year-old said. "It's been a lot of fun. You get to interact with other smart kids and learn from them."
Jackson knew from a young age she wanted to be a doctor. She remembers watching a nurse take care of her bedridden grandmother, and being excited when the nurse gave her a stethoscope for her seventh birthday.
Samuel said her parents "love the program."
"They say it's a good way to learn about myself and it has offered a lot of opportunities," she said. "I think I wouldn't have tried as hard without Food Brings Hope. It made me set my goals higher. It grew me as a person."
The 17-year-old said she'll carry the wisdom she gained in Food Brings Hope when she walks out of Mainland High School for the last time and travels into her adulthood.
"Ms. Hosseini and Ms. Winch taught me to never give up," Samuel said, "because the day you give up is the day you basically throw away your dreams."