In its three years in existence, 94 percent of the students who graduated from high school and were in the POPS program went to college. That’s 33 of 35 students from Bartow and Lake Wales High Schools.
These are at-risk students are in a program that is designed to mold them for future success and is to reduce the at-risk factors through mentoring, counseling, character education, money management and workforce development training.
“Motivation and advancement,” said Gloria Hatch, who hosted the induction Saturday of 53 members – 42 new students and 11 returning students – to the 2014 class at the Carver Recreation Center. She said these students may not have ever gotten the opportunity to advance themselves without this program.
And how does this program rate rate with the students who have done it?
“Be like a sponge and soak it all in,” said Joslyn DeRiso, a POPS alumni who spoke Saturday. “In the long run you’ll love it.”
DeRiso graduated from high school and is now at Keiser University studying criminal justice. She has a 3.9 grade point average and when she was asked to speak Saturday as a successful alum she said, “There’s so much to talk about I didn’t know know what to say,” she said. But finally she decided to talk about the result of the program.
She entered POPS planning to become a teacher, but with her mentor attorney Larry Hardaway, she changed that goal.
“I found I wanted to teach the young people about the ins and outs of the law,” she said. “People would say this (program) wouldn’t help, but they were wrong. He’s opened so much for me … take as much as you can from this program.”
DeRiso said with a younger mother who taught her many things growing up, this program taught her what her mother may not have known.
“POPS taught me to act like a lady,” she said.
Created in 2001 by Florida Sen. Gary Siplin, it had five students. It is now in nine counties and has about 600 students, said Chief Executive Officer Barbara B. Newton. It works with community leaders and their goal is to be a program in all 67 counties, she said. In Polk County it works with students in Lake Wales and Bartow High Schools.
Siplin noticed that as the need for jobs increased the graduation rate of students was decreasing in his hometown of Orlando. By 2008, POPS got a grant from the Department of Education for the program that included mentorship, life skills workshops, community service and paid internships to 200 students in Orlando.
Saturday the 53 students got pins to be inducted into the new class and following that, their parents came forward to be pinned.
“This program I call a miracle,” Newton said. It’s more than an organization. It’s a family.”
Though DeRiso was scheduled to be the only graduate to speak, Bartow/Lake Wales Executive Director Joyce Bentley had more to show the approximately 300 people who showed up Saturday.
Shauna Simpkins, who graduated from Bartow High School, worked with the late Dr. Victor Wright who when she was a senior told her he didn’t like her choice of classes, she recalled.
“He went to Mr. (Ron) Pritchard (BHS principal) and helped change my classes,” she said.
She said she wanted to become a pediatrician but he told her being a pharmacist or podiatrist was a better choice.
He not only guided her, she said, he helped her make the right choices for her future, she said through tears remembering how a member of the community showed that he cared.
She is now attending Florida A&M University and plans to major in pharmacology.
“I just recently went to a spring preview and went to the pharmacology school and this is something I really want to do,” she said.
“I tell my sister (who entered the ninth grade this year) don’t fool around, you don’t want to have to catch up in your 12th grade year.”
Deandra Williams, who is in her first year at FAMU, said all the hard work POPS put her through was tough, but it was worth it.
“The hard thing is all workshops and classes, but when I got out in the real world I can see how it helped,” she said.
The induction of the new students and the testimonials brought glee and smiles to the adults responsible for the program. That was evident. In relating how her nephew just graduated high school and he can legally fly because of an aeronautical program in the public schools.
“I want to one day be in a plane with a POPS graduate flying my plane because I have that kind of confidence in all of you,” she said.