MANATEE -- The young man stood before a packed school boardroom and told a crowd of school officials, community leaders and state legislators why the odds were stacked against him.
His parents? Mexican immigrants who dreamed of a better life and moved their family to America in 1992 to find it. His two older brothers? Incarcerated, then deported, after losing sight of that dream. One brother would commit suicide in Mexico. His mother, distraught and depressed over the loss of two of her sons, would later take her life, too.
But with the help of the Take Stock in Children scholarship and mentoring program, Ricardo Centeno, 19, said the adversity in his life never foiled his plan for higher education.
Take Stock in Children guarantees low-income and at-risk students a four-year college education at a Florida public school if they sign a contract promising to maintain good grades, stay drug- and crime-free and meet with a mentor on a regular basis.
On Monday, community leaders involved with the program officially announced that they have formed their own nonprofit organization in the hopes that they can raise more money to sponsor more students.
"Take Stock turns down 90 percent of qualified applications because we don't have money," said former Manatee County educator Elaine Graham, who will chair the new nonprofit. "We can do better."
Other community leaders spoke of the program's success -- 96 percent of participants graduate from high school. They stressed that this isn't a free gift. Students must comply with the program's requirements or risk losing their scholarship.
"When a child enters into that contract, they are putting skin in the game," said state Senate candidate Bill Galvano, who will serve as an honorary chair for the organization. "It's not just us throwing dollars at an issue. It's a partnership where we work together for a specific outcome."
The program, formed first in Florida in 1995, has been in Manatee County for 17 years. It previously was part of the Manatee Education Foundation.
The money for a student's tuition must be acquired before a student is accepted, so donations and fundraising events are crucial to the program's success.
Graham said last week that the organization will still rely on donors who have paidstudents' entire tuitions inthe past, but also will focus on increasing smaller donations by spreading the word about the program. The groupwill hold a Strides for Education 5K walk in December
and a 10K race this spring.
About 250 students and mentors for grades 6-12 are in the program today. Another 250 have graduated from the program and are in college.
That includes Centeno, who attends State Col-lege of Florida and is getting ready to transfer to theUniversity of Central Florida.
He has decided to major in international business and finance.
He credits his success to the program, and hopes it can provide education to the rest of his siblings.
His younger sister, Juanita, has just been accepted. He expects his youngest sister to apply soon.
"It seemed too good to be true," Centeno said in a short speech Monday morning.
"The opportunity togo to school and receive guidance that I desperately needed was something that I could not pass up."