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Fifth Amer-I-Can graduate class takes center stage

EAST MANATEE — During the first part of this year’s school semester, Harllee Middle School student Mauricio Blanco visited the principal’s office daily, was constantly suspended and carried a 1.0 GPA.

But thanks to help he got during the end of the semester from the Amer-I-Can program, he’s turned over a new leaf. He’s joined the basketball team, hasn’t been suspended once and now boasts a 3.0 GPA.

Blanco was among 118 fellow graduates who received certificates at Braden River High School on Tuesday for completing the 60-hour national character building program, Amer-I-Can, founded by pro football Hall of Fame member Jim Brown.

“Amer-I-Can has opened my eyes,” said Blanco, one of four middle school students who stood at a podium in the school auditorium and told stories of trouble, frustration and low self-esteem.

“I was so ashamed of myself,” said Blanco. But the program, he said, encouraged him to start fresh. “I don’t want to be seen as a bad person.”

Lincoln Middle School student Lonnitra Jefferson told classmates that Amer-I-Can helped her cope with the recent loss of her father and her mother, who died of cancer.

“I can now face every obstacle and challenge head on,” she said, with her head held high.

The Amer-I-Can students from Harllee, Johnson, Lincoln and Sugg middle schools who graduated are the fifth group to do so in Manatee County since the program began in late 2007 — when local lawmakers pushed for it in the wake of the gang-related shooting death of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III.

This year, it is funded by the Manatee County School District. It cost the district $296,500 to run it during the 2009-10 school year.

Keynote Speaker and former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells commended the students on their accomplishments. He also saluted teachers and educators for their leadership.

Wells explained he lost his 19-year-old daughter in a car crash so he understands how tragedies like that can tear families apart and make it hard to focus.

“This world has so much hate built up,” he said. “Love your families, your teachers and one another. Try to get along and cultivate good relationships.”

Of the 41,000 people who went to prison in Florida last year, 25 percent were younger than 24 years old, Wells told students. Of the same 41,000 inmates, almost 90 percent did not graduate from high school, he added.

“The best way to avoid prison is obey the law and get an education,” Wells said. “Live everyday, enjoy your life and don’t lose your freedom.”

Following his speech, one-by-one the graduating class walked onto the stage and shook hands with program supporters including schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal, district principals and county commissioners John Chappie and Carol Whitmore,

When Johnson Middle School student Terrance Bridges Jr. took center stage, his mother and audience member Rosanne Bridges stood to her feet and clapped.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Bridges, of Bradenton.

Thanks to the program, she said, she is confident her 14-year-old son will be a good example and leader to his peers next year in high school.