LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Alejandrina Rios sat patiently in the back of the auditorium Tuesday evening at Lakewood Ranch High School. Two balloons with congratulatory messages were tucked in the 49-year-old's hands. So was a bouquet and in the seat beside her a small pot bursting with bright pink flowers.
They were all for her niece, Ariana Alvarado -- one of many Manatee County School District seniors honored at the 28th Annual Migrant Education Awards ceremony. The celebration at 1550 Lakewood Ranch Blvd. honored migrant students and their families who participated in the district migrant academic programs. Migrant Education is a national program that provides children of migrant farm workers with support services and access to education.
"I wish her the best. I want her to progress," Rios said in Spanish of the 18-year-old who is graduating from Lakewood Ranch High School this week. Alvarado was raised by her grandparents. The teen's grandfather works at Falkner Farms in Myakka City.
Rios, now a stay-at-home mom, cut cucumbers in the fields for 12 years. She said migrant farm workers work
hard to get ahead.
"What we want most is for our children to progress -- to not end up like us," she said.
Kate Hoffman, coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages, Migrant and Immigrant Academic Services, led the ceremony with co-master of ceremonies Edmundo Delgado, who translated into Spanish for people more proficient in their native language.
The night began with a welcome from Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills and followed by an investiture where high school seniors passed lit candles to upcoming seniors of 2015 while reciting a promise ending with the words: "I will graduate."
A handful of the 20 migrant program students were also awarded scholarships.
"They've taught me that what I had to work through is nothing," Hoffman said of the migrant students. "Their strength and their resolve and determination humbles me."
With a migrant grant and federal government funds, Hoffman said the Migrant Education program pays for homeschool liaisons who help students stay on track with their grades.
"We also coordinate with Michigan and other states where the families move (due to the crop seasons) so if we know a family is moving, we can make sure that their work goes with them," she said.
After the ceremony, Ariana Alvarado left the auditorium, balloons in hand.
"I feel excited and I'm happy that I accomplished my dream. I'm proud of myself because I already have a kid," she said. Alvarado gave birth to a son in February.
Alvarado, the youngest of four, is the first in her family to be honored at the Migrant Education Awards. She's also the first to graduate from high school and said she plans to attend Manatee Technical Institute to pursue a career as a nurse assistant.
"I think they're proud," she said of her grandparents. "I think they feel that they didn't come here for nothing. I think it was one of their dreams, too -- for us to have a better future."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.