PALMETTO — During the seventh grade, Katya Rodriguez and her mom just could not get along. So the young girl spent three weeks at a local runaway shelter.
It was there that Katya’s counselor told her mother about the Just for Girls Alternative Education Program, an organization that aims to keep girls safe, promote drug-free living and motivate them to succeed.
“My mom switched my school without me even knowing it,” said Katya, who had been enrolled at Haile Middle School at the time. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to all my friends.”
Little did they know the move would change Katya’s life forever.
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On Tuesday, Katya stood before a crowd of about 100 people and told her success story during her eighth grade graduation at the Just For Girls’ center in Palmetto.
During the ceremony, she and 13 classmates celebrated their move onto traditional high school.
“At first when I came to Just For Girls, I was very upset,” Katya told the audience. “I had a bad attitude. ... Just For Girls has helped change me in a lot of ways. I’m not just learning lessons from a book, I’m also learning to be a better person.”
During the program, parents and Just For Girls teachers, staff and supporters applauded as each graduate was handed a silver necklace and a diploma.
“This is a great day of celebration,” said Dee Ralph, Just For Girls alternative education program director. “Ladies, we are so proud of you.”
The afternoon’s keynote speaker, Jim Long, reminded the graduates that when they first transferred to the school many of them were angry and upset.
“Now look at you today. You are confident, you are sure of yourself, you have come a long way,” said Long, who is retiring from teaching at Just For Girls. “You have learned to become a young adult.”
In their move to high school, Long encouraged graduates to use their energy for positive things.
“You all have learned a lot more than what we give you in books,” said Long.
Following his speech, Just For Girls Executive Director Becky Canesse thanked Long for his work at the school and presented him with a shining star award.
The Just for Girls’ Palmetto center is one of three in Manatee County.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, the Palmetto center was dedicated in honor of Jane Pratt, who Canesse called an inspirational leader of the program. Pratt, a past president of Just For Girls, now serves on the Manatee County Girls Club Foundation Board.
“She helped make this building a reality ... went out in the community and helped raise money for (it),” Canesse said.
For her years of effort, Pratt received a standing ovation.
“It is much appreciated,” Pratt said as she stood before the crowd. “Just For Girls has been a passion of mine for many years.”
After Tuesday’s graduation, Katya hugged her parents and silently cried tears of joy.
“It’s been awesome,” said Katya, who plans to attend Braden River High School this fall. Katya’s farewell advice to her fellow graduates: “Make high school the best it can be!”