Ten years ago, I didn’t even believe I’d make it to college, much less be up here receiving this award. It was really rough growing up, just trying to make ends meet. I am the youngest of four sisters, so I relied a lot on my sisters. Both of my parents were unstable and my sisters basically raised me, even though they were teenagers themselves and single parents.

That’s why Breakthrough has been my salvation. I was first introduced to the program in sixth grade. In my neighborhood, education never comes first. A commitment to your future often feels like an indulgence you can’t afford when you’re worried about money and your family. So, I was hesitant to learn more about Breakthrough. I was convinced that college just wasn’t for me. Fortunately, my teacher, Ms. King, took notice of me and pushed me to not only challenge myself in school but to apply to this program.

I remember the day I entered the Breakthrough program on the University of Texas campus, for the first time. I was spellbound by the energy that radiated from the community. Even though it was challenging and we had homework every night, Breakthrough made the experience fun. It felt like the summer camp my family could never afford.

Breakthrough quickly became my second home. For the first time in my life, there was always somebody asking me about my first day of school or if I’ve done my homework. Sure, at times it was a little irritating, the constant calling and checking-in. However, Breakthrough has always cared about and believed in my future. They encouraged me to set higher expectations for myself and my education, and they were willing to do whatever it takes to help me achieve my dreams. In middle school, my grades plummeted because I was unable to see the board to keep up in class. Breakthrough figured this out and helped me get glasses. During high school, they found a way to waive all my college application fees. If they hadn’t, my dreams of college might have ended there. I remember when my college recommendations were due and I realized that I didn’t have any stamps, let alone the money or a car to go buy them. I called Breakthrough and my advisor Andrea rushed stamps over to my house in the middle of a rain storm.

My senior year, Breakthrough partnered me with a wonderful volunteer named Susan to be my college application coach. She became much more that – she became my friend (and she’s here tonight!) Susan always gave me her full attention by helping me with all my college and scholarship applications. She didn’t mind meeting at the library close to my house, never complained that I asked for too much of her time or that I always had to bring my young niece with me to our meetings. We didn’t have heating or AC growing up. Over the winter, Susan heard my niece complaining that she didn’t want to go home because it was so cold. The next time we met, Susan gave me a space heater. Somehow, like the rest of the Breakthrough staff, she made it okay to accept her generosity without feeling embarrassed.

It wasn’t until I got my first college acceptance letter that I began to believe that I might actually be good enough for college – that I DESERVED to go to college.

Unfortunately, getting admitted was just half the battle. I worked two jobs to pay my way. Academically, I was ready. Breakthrough helped me get into the Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy, one of the best high schools in the country. What I wasn’t prepared for was the social isolation of going to college, being away from family and the lingering insecurities that I was good enough to be there. I couldn’t talk to my family…..I didn’t want to worry them. My family always tried to support my dreams, but sometimes they just didn’t understand. With Breakthrough, I could be honest. They helped me navigate the college system, to connect me with scholarships and financial aid, keep up with my grades, and make sense of my schedule so that I could graduate as soon as possible.

With Breakthrough’s support, last spring I was the first in my family to walk across the stage to accept my college degree. I graduated from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a minor in Psychology.  I always knew that I wanted to work with young people, but Breakthrough has ignited a passion for education within me. I plan to go back to school to earn my Master’s degree in education or counseling.

While in college, I was selected to be a summer teacher for Breakthrough’s middle school summer program, and this year I am proudly serving as a full-time AmeriCorps member, advising students of my own, a few of them who are here today. The opportunity to connect with and inspire the next generation lifts my heart a little higher each day. I want to help kids like me who just need someone to show them that it’s okay to want to be successful and that Breakthrough will be there to support their dreams.

I am often asked why I work for Breakthrough or why Breakthrough is important to me. It’s simple. I believe in this program. I’m an example of how this program works. No matter how tough it was at home, or how many times we moved, Breakthrough was always my constant – they were there for the long haul. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Breakthrough has transformed my life. I am a professional educator with a long career ahead of me and a passion for helping others. Now my nieces Sierra, and Faithly, who is here today are in Breakthrough and have the same boundless opportunity ahead of them.

I can tell you that our future will be without worry of having heat in the winter, glasses in the classroom, or stamps for a college recommendation.

Faithly and Sierra, I’m so proud of you. There is no limit to what we can do now.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to each of you for supporting this program- a program that has changed my life and the lives of my family forever.