Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Pam Ruben 

Taking stock in children's lives


August 17, 2018

Attending Michele Velez's graduation from Winter Springs High School, where she transferred to from Lyman High School are (l-r)), Amalia Velez, Michele Velez and Vicky Countess.

When Longwood's Vicky Countess sent her third and youngest son off to college in 2013, the full-time mom and part-time educator/office manager felt she had more to give. Fortunately, her husband, Ken, was an avid volunteer with Take Stock in Children, a nonprofit Florida organization that provides deserving low-income students with opportunities for success. Countess learned the program, which offers students college scholarships and volunteer mentors, was recruiting volunteers to mentor freshmen students for just one hour per week.

Countess realized that her background as a committed parent and community volunteer made her a perfect candidate for mentorship. She knew the layout of Lyman High School, her youngest son's alma mater, as well as a good number of the teaching as well as guidance staff. As an involved mother, Countess was familiar with the college preparatory process, including when to sign up for the PSATs, as well as when to start preparing college registration forms.

Ensuring she had the ability to commit the time was Countess' only hesitancy in joining the program. Then she took stock in the three sons she and Ken raised together. There never had been a doubt that university life was in their future. Without further hesitation, Countess picked up the phone and got in touch with a TSIC supervisor who helped match her with a student from Lyman High. The mentor-student couple was paired based on similar interests, geographical convenience and familiarity. Countess attended an orientation program that gave her additional readiness for addressing the general needs of her student: improving grades, preparing for college, career planning, and developing life skills.

Not long after her training, Countess was paired with Michele Velez, who was being raised by a single mom, and would be the first generation in her family to attend college. Countess recalled the first meeting as being 'somewhat awkward.' Though Velez was respectful, she was extremely shy and hesitant to open up. "It was almost a full school year before a natural rapport was built," commented Countess. "I realized that relationship building was a process, and that good relationships take work. I just kept showing up, and eventually the walls came down. Four years later, Michele and I regularly text, phone and even video conference to keep in touch."

Velez agreed that though some moments were slow going, each time the pair met, a connection was formed. In a heartwarming letter to Countess, Velez penned, "I remember, since the first day we met, you welcomed me with open arms and I always felt comfortable sharing how my day had gone and never hesitated in asking you for help with something. You helped ease my transition into high school, making sure I was on track since the very first day."

Countess describes her role as guiding hand, with a dose of "Jewish mom" sprinkled in. While Velez had a loving mother, Amalia Velez, mentorship made room for an additional listening ear, as well as 'personalized guidance counseling.' With English spoken as a second language at home, Countess helped make sure that necessary information didn't slip through the cracks. "In the first few years of our relationship, we would regularly review her grades online," Countess commented. "I helped monitor her progress and attendance, and together we made sure Michele was gaining the criteria necessary for the (TSIC) program requirements as well as for college acceptance."

Understanding that Velez would need volunteer hours to qualify for the Florida's Bright Futures Scholarship, Countess encouraged her to spend her community service hours in a place where she might have career interest. Florida Hospital Altamonte accepted Velez's application to volunteer, and after donating her time over several years, the high schooler decided she would like to become a registered nurse.

Countess continued to encourage Velez by introducing her to additional opportunities offered by TSIC. With stellar grades, membership in the National Honor Society, and a strong volunteer background, Countess encouraged her to apply for a scholarship through Leaders for Life, a fellowship program that enables highly motivated TSIC scholars to excel in a university environment with scholarships and other awards.

"After a very selective process which included the making of a personalized video and submitting an original essay, I was so proud when Michele was chosen for this prestigious award," Countess shared. "Sponsored by the Asofsky Family Foundation in partnership with Take Stock in Children, the Leaders for Life program will help Michele leave college unburdened by debt."

The young winner was also awarded a computer, as well as an opportunity to attend a three-day workshop each year. Of course, Countess was there when Velez received the award in Tallahassee. She added, "Michele was grinning from ear to ear when she had an opportunity to meet the governor. The opportunities available to these kids from Take Stock in Children are amazing." Through the Leaders for Life scholarship, the TSIC scholarship, Bright Futures program, and other funds, Velez will leave college with no outstanding debt.

Countess' proudest moments were being with Velez when she learned of her college acceptances during her senior year. After four years together, the pair and Velez's mom, Amalia, had grown close, and developed a familial-like bond. With a 3.96 GPA and host of high school activities, Velez was accepted to each college to which she applied. As Velez learned of each acceptance, screams and hugs rang through the corridors as mentor and student celebrated four years of commitment to one another, as well as the teamwork that helped create a college bound success story. Ultimately, Velez chose to attend FIU in South Florida because of their strong nursing program and international flavor.

"Over the years the word 'mentor' has gained a new meaning for me," said Velez. "After knowing Vicky, I connect it to friendship, laughter, success, and guidance. Vicky reflects all the values of Take Stock in Children and I have never been gladder in my life to be assigned to a program with her as my mentor."

This fall the mentor-student relation between the Countess and Velez families will carry on, this time through the next generation. Vicky's eldest son, Julian, lives nearby FIU's campus, and along with his girlfriend, Ada, who is a nurse anesthetist, has promised to lend a guiding hand to Velez.

Vicky Countess (l) celebrates Michele Velez's induction into the National Honor Society.

Take Stock in Children is looking for mentors for the Class of 2022. Mentor recruiting is well under way for 25 incoming scholars. If you know someone who would make a great TSIC mentor, Beth Arrigo would love the opportunity to tell them about Take Stock. Referrals for the next great mentor can be sent to Beth Arrigo at arigobz@scps.k12.fl.us.

Take Stock in Children of Florida was established in 1995 as a nonprofit organization in Florida that provides a unique opportunity for deserving low-income youth/students, many from minority families, to escape the cycle of poverty through education. TSIC offers students college scholarships, caring volunteer mentors and hope for a better life. Comprehensive services start in middle school, continue through high school and include the transition into college. For more information visit http://www.takestockinchildren.org/.

Pamela Ruben is managing director of "Ruben Writes," a specialist on aging in the media, a grant writer, teacher, college essay specialist, and author. Contact Pam at PamelaWritingTeacher@gmail.com.


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