There are many future opportunities for the teenagers and preteens who spend their afternoons at the Gargiulo Education Center in North Naples, but most of them had no idea. Until recent years, the center focused solely on homework help for the children of migrant workers, along with some enrichment education.
Then Mary Asta came along.
“I found that they are not exposed to any elements of trades besides field work or factory work,” the executive director says. “And their confidence level was low. I want them to have confidence.”
She started with the simple things, like teaching them how to politely greet people. She moved on to making them comfortable with things beyond their experience.
“They didn’t know what a dishwasher was,” Mary says.
When she invited a group of students to her home to prepare a turkey dinner, she was surprised to discover they had never seen a dishwasher. The first time they tried to clean up, they piled the dishes one on top of the other.
“I showed them how to load a dishwasher,” Mary describes. “They said they will never have one, and I said, ‘Yes you will.’ These are simple things, just to make them feel comfortable in all environments.”
Now Mary aims to show them future job opportunities. She has taken students to the Cypress Woods County Club to learn about hospitality. They are working with a chef at Juniper Village at Naples to learn about food services. They visited The Ritz-Carlton to learn about being a pastry chef.
“I have taken them to the recycling plant and the landfill, so they learned about recycling as well as the jobs there and what is entailed to get the jobs,” she says. “I want them to see what business is about and how much money you can make and what it takes to do each job.”
The students met the activities director of Juniper Village to learn about her job, too.
“I want them to see you can do whatever you want to do,” Donna Silva says. “There are so many opportunities out there. When you go home, you know each day you made an impact on someone’s life.”
Recently Mary took the students to Florida Gulf Coast University.
“We had a tour of the school, and we learned the buildings and the departments and the careers,” says Evelyn Martinez, 15. “They were just telling us what is expected in college and how life is in college.”
Evelyn says all these real-life tours and trainings have helped broaden her outlook of the future.
“I think it will help us, because it will give us an idea of what we might want to do,” she says.
Yuliana Cruz, 15, wants to be a dentist, so Mary plans to arrange a tour and informational session with a local dentist.
“We get to learn new things and that can give us ideas of what we would like to do in the future,” Yuliana says.
The teens are also getting a taste of the working world. They are part of an entrepreneur apprenticeship program that prepares students for careers.
“They had to go through a very strenuous application process, drug testing and training,” Mary says. Now several of the students have after-school jobs at the migrant education center where they earn $10.50 an hour.
Mary is also giving life experiences to the preteens.
“I started the junior committee,” Mary says. “It was initially started when I saw four girls, who were incredibly bright, getting into mischief. I wanted to turn it into a positive. So I started a committee.”
The committee at Gargiulo organizes events such as a Mother’s Day luncheon, end of school year celebration, field trips and other activities.
“They planned a massive Mother’s Day party,” Mary says. “From start to finish, they budgeted, came up with ideas, had to raise the money, request food from Mediterra. They planned all the decorations, Googled everything to find out what everything cost, did comparative shopping. The junior committee is tremendously committed.”
The older teens, like Elver Alonso, 15, help runthe committee.
“I help with the voting of who will be on the committee,” he says. “I look for people who work hard.”
Mary has more grand ideas for future adventures to showcase different careers. She plans to work with the Young Eagles, a program by the U.S. Experimental Aircraft Association, to show the students careers in aviation. She just started working with Everglades Wonder Gardens to explore careers in animal and plant care, and she is always looking for more ways to show her students the possibilities for the future.
“We want them to know they are deserving and they have choices, and there are a lot of choices,” Mary says.