Middle school mentoring program develops life-long relationship

Middle school mentoring program develops life-long relationship
NeeCee Lee and Karen Morales-Diaz

Karen Morales-Diaz thought she was in trouble one day in 2010 when she was called to the principal’s office at Julia Landon College Preparatory and Leadership Development School, where was a seventh-grader, but she couldn’t figure out why. It turns out she wasn’t in trouble at all. She had been chosen for a mentoring program and the woman waiting to meet her in the principal’s office would become her new BFF.

The mentoring program is a partnership between Landon and Southside Baptist Church, where NeeCee Lee is a member. “The program puts people with students who need someone to come alongside, to encourage them,” Lee said. “We’re not to be a parent substitute or do homework. It’s about relationship-building.”

Morales-Diaz was chosen for the program because she was doing very well in school even though she and her family had only been in the United States a couple of years. The family arrived from Guatemala in 2009 and moved to Jacksonville where her an aunt lives.

“I didn’t know any English,” Morales-Diaz said. Her teachers at Landon thought a mentor might help her get more comfortable with English and her new life in Jacksonville. Morales-Diaz said she didn’t know what a mentor was but she decided to try it out.

Mentors and Landon students meet twice a month for lunch. Morales-Diaz still remembers that first lunch. Lee arrived with sandwiches from Subway. In the ensuing months, Morales-Diaz and Lee got acquainted. “I wasn’t shy,” Morales-Diaz said. “I could tell her anything.”

Lee heard about Morales-Diaz’s family. Her father owns a painting business; her mother has a cleaning business. She has a sister, Linda, who is two years older, and a little brother, Byron, six years younger. Morales-Diaz heard about Lee’s family. Her husband, Tom, who owns Lee & Cates Glass, their son, Thomas, and daughter, Stacy, who at the time was living in South Korea with her husband and their new baby.

Lee said she and Morales-Diaz clicked. They began to get together outside of school. “Karen’s family is very supportive,” Lee said. “They’re a Christian family so we connected on a lot of levels.”

They took Lee’s grandson and Morales-Diaz’s little brother to see “Toy Story on Ice.” Morales-Diaz helped Lee decorate birthday cakes. Lee taught Morales-Diaz how to sew, quilt and “arm” knit and crochet, using their arms instead of needles.

When Lee bought Easter chicks for her grandchildren, Morales-Diaz and her family shared their experience of raising chickens in Guatemala, where Morales-Diaz’s grandmother sells eggs at a flea market.

Lee, who has been playing tennis all her life, bought Morales-Diaz a racquet and showed her how to play the game. When Morales-Diaz showed an interest in track, Lee bought her a pair of running shoes at First Place Sports in San Marco. Morales-Diaz made the Landon track team.

The mentoring program ends at eighth grade, but Morales-Diaz and Lee decided to continue their relationship.

Moving from mentor to friend

At Atlantic Coast High School, Morales-Diaz became a mentor through Special Olympics. She shared her love of sports with her Special Olympics partner, Tina. They ran in the 26.6 With Donna Marathon. But they really excelled in tennis.

Morales-Diaz and Tina won the Duval County Special Olympics competition, which sent them to the state finals in Orlando, where they came in third. “It was a three-day weekend at ESPN that was really fun,” Morales-Diaz said.

Morales-Diaz also got involved in the leadership of the Special Olympics program, planning parties and the annual field day in the spring. She was named Special Olympics Partner of the Year this spring.

And then there was the big event – Morales-Diaz’s quinceañera, the Hispanic coming-out party for 15-year-old girls.

About 300 people turned out for the party at Maggiano’s. In many ways, it’s like a wedding with formal dress, a big cake, a father-daughter dance, a blessing from the pastor and lots of gifts. Lee’s nephew, Ryan Garner, was Morales-Diaz’s escort. A limo took her to the beach for a professional photo shoot.

The quinceañera party is great practice for planning a wedding. And now Lee is helping Morales-Diaz plan her winter wedding to Gabriel Fisher. He proposed at Disney World, in front of the castle.

Morales-Diaz, who graduated from Atlantic Coast this year, is enrolled at Florida State College at Jacksonville, majoring in business management. Fisher is at FSCJ, too, majoring in construction management. They have started a business together doing lawn care and cleaning newly-built houses.

And the best part is that Morales-Diaz got a scholarship to pay for her education. She received $3,000 from the Jared Bynum Scholarship at Southside Baptist Church.

Bynum, a member of the church, was killed in a cycling accident in 2012. He and his wife, Kelli, were Landon mentors, and the scholarship is awarded to a Landon graduate. The Mount Acosta Classic, a bike ride in the spring over the Acosta Bridge, benefits the scholarship.

“I really wanted Karen to win that scholarship,” Lee said. “Getting her to focus on community involvement, keeping her grades up, grooming her for this scholarship.”

The relationship will continue, of course, but now that Morales-Diaz has graduated Lee is thinking that maybe it’s time for a new mentee.

“I am so proud of Karen,” Lee said. “She has turned into such a beautiful young woman. I am so proud of her. I’m proud of her whole gang.”

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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