13th Annual Breakthrough Champions Celebration

My name is Rhiannon Aleman and it is such an honor to be here tonight. I am a recent graduate from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and a proud Breakthrough alumna. My story is about the power of kindness. In fact, I’m here to tell you I think I’ve found the secret to success, but more on that later.

I first heard about Breakthrough as a 6th  grader at Martin Middle School, deep in the heart of the East Side, before gentrification hit.

I was aware of just how tough my neighborhood was. As much as people cared for each other there were real challenges with violence and drugs. Certainly, education was not the primary focus of life. My mom, though, always supported and pushed me and I saw the struggles she faced, working long hours with a 10th grade education to provide for her family. One day I brought home a flyer about a program that promised to help me for up to 12 years until I graduate college. Guess who was the biggest Breakthrough fan in the world in 2008? Yep, my mom!

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure. I was a very self-conscious, timid girl. I showed up for my first middle school summer program on the University of Texas campus. Students and teachers were cheering, going crazy, really insistent that they were glad I was there. Honestly, it was too much. And, it felt like it went on for infinity! Why couldn’t I just relax at home all summer? That’s what my friends were doing. I warmed up though. I was surrounded by caring staff and other students of color that all had the same goals. I didn’t know it at the time but my protective shell of shyness was starting to crack, and of course it was helping me be a better student.

I even felt confident enough to go Anderson High for the challenging International Baccalaureate program. That transition was rough. I’ll never forget my freshman year pre-AP Geometry class.  It nearly killed me!  I was so grateful to have my Breakthrough advisor, Michael, there to help me every week. He got a tutor for me and every Tuesday we’d be there with other Breakthrough students plugging along at our work. And good thing too, because the classes just got harder and harder each year. I thought to myself, maybe I’m not good enough? Maybe I’m not meant to go to college?  Michael and my next advisor Caitlin were just always there, kindly pushing me and reminding me of how far I came. To be honest I was like, “Why are these staff members and teachers at Breakthrough so darn nice?” I decided maybe they were on to something.

The summer before my junior year of high school Breakthrough offered a workshop called Summer Options. I was encouraged to apply to be a counselor at an overnight summer camp, called camp CAMP for individuals living with special needs. I fell in love with the work of helping others. I ended up going every summer and eventually became part of the camp CAMP staff.  With Breakthrough’s help, I finished high school and completed all the steps to get into college. Throughout college I came out of my shell and got more involved. I became an orientation leader, yoga instructor, and resident assistant.  I also received the presidential award for community service. I was soaring.

Then, I received the most devastating news of my life. My little sister Davynn was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer at stage 3. Her 12-year-old life was turned upside down. She was ravaged by the sickness, prone to regular seizures, and hurting all the time. I was sick with worry and came so close to quitting college so I could be with her and get a job to help with my family’s expenses. Of course, Breakthrough was there for me then too. My advisor, Constance, and I talked through all of the options. Knowing she was there no matter what I decided was so meaningful to me in the most challenging moment of my life. I decided to keep going so I could be a role model for my sister when she needed it. I am proud to say that I graduated last December with my Bachelors in Kinesiology from Our Lady of the Lake University.  And, though my sister is still recovering from her illness, she is doing so much better.  In fact, she’s now a 9th grader at Anderson High School and is a Breakthrough student as well. You had the chance to meet her yourself tonight. She prefers going by the name DJ and was one of the students who kicked off tonight’s event. My youngest brother Jakob is starting with Breakthrough this summer too.

I don’t think I would have graduated college without Breakthrough. Even more importantly, I don’t think I’d know who I was meant to be. Their unwavering kindness has helped me find my calling. This spring, I am applying to graduate programs to become an Occupational Therapist so I can give back and help others who have been devastated by disabilities and illness. A Breakthrough board member, Ricky Green who happens to be our Emcee tonight – even helped donate his airline miles so I could apply to an outstanding program in New England. Breakthrough’s kindness never ends.

Just a few months ago, my mom hung my college diploma on the wall in her living room. I can’t wait to see DJ’s and Jakob’s hanging right next to it. And, I can’t wait to launch my career as a therapist and to watch my siblings grow up to figure out what they can do as first-generation college graduates. I’ve told them what I think is the secret to a successful life: be kind to everyone and doors will open. That certainly is what Breakthrough did for me. I am only one of hundreds and hundreds of Breakthrough students who are finding their way to a college degree surrounded by this loving community. Thank you for your help to make it all possible.