COVID-19 changed everyone’s plans this summer, including high school students.
Many teenagers typically spend June and July working part-time jobs, taking a family vacation, hanging out with friends and touring college campuses. None of that happened this year.
Facing the prospect of sitting at home all summer, bored with nothing to do, Jennifer Santos-Martinez dedicated her summer to helping neighbors in need.
“People really do appreciate everything that they are given,” said Santos-Martinez, a 2020 graduate of Immokalee High School and incoming freshman at Augustana College.
Two to three days each week this summer, Tutor Corps students have been logging long shifts, sometimes more than six hours, in the blazing heat to distribute fresh vegetables, fruits, cheese, proteins and essential supplies to Immokalee residents in a drive-thru line. When vehicles roll up, four at a time, students already have items boxed and ready for residents to place inside their vehicles. Once they leave, another set of cars pulls up, and the process repeats itself for six hours or whenever they run out of food – whichever comes first.
Per capita, Immokalee has one of Florida’s highest COVID-19 infection rates, an alarming statistic that has generated statewide and national media attention, but also has brought relief groups and support to town. The community traditionally faces higher unemployment rates during summer months as the agricultural industry slows, but COVID-19 also impacted adults working in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, salons, tourist attractions and other sectors of Southwest Florida’s economy. As a result, families who never relied on assistance now find themselves struggling to put food on the table.
Frank Rincon, director of the Benison Center, said the nonprofit is serving about 300 families weekly thanks to help from Guadalupe Center students and staff, as well as volunteers from other organizations. The Benison Center was founded in 2017, shortly after Hurricane Irma devastated the rural community, and has helped fulfill the needs of numerous charitable groups. After coronavirus began sparking economic devastation, though, the Benison Center transitioned to begin distributing food and supplies directly to Immokalee families.
“Without Guadalupe Center and Dawn Montecalvo, I could dare to say that the Benison Center would not exist,” Rincon said. “She had the foresight to see what this could become and made one of the first seeds that allowed this to come into fruition. The beautiful thing about what’s going on here behind me is that it is Immokalee serving Immokalee. All of these young people are from the community. They’re invested in the community.”
That’s exactly why Jesus Vasquez wanted to help.
“There are a lot of parents who cannot work right now and cannot afford food,” said Vasquez, a rising junior at Immokalee High School and a Tutor Corps student. “We’re blessing someone’s life. It warms my heart to know we’re feeding other families who might not be able to get food during the pandemic.”
Guadalupe Center’s Tutor Corps Program offers guidance in college and career readiness, ACT and SAT test prep, mentorships, financial literacy and scholarship assistance. Students also have opportunities to earn wages by tutoring younger students, but COVID-19 forced Guadalupe Center to cancel its Summer Enrichment Program, thus leaving downtime for students that turned out to be extremely productive.
“They didn’t only step up,” Rincon said of Tutor Corps students. “They came in and filled a gap. Without all of these young people here, this would be impossible.”
– By Ellie Ramirez, programs assistant