Manatee County's Just for Girls celebrates 2012 commencement

BRADENTON -- Murrie Bumpers wouldn't seem to have much in common with the eighth-grade graduates of the Just for Girls' Jane B. Pratt Alternative School for Girls.

When she was their age she couldn't eat in certain restaurants, rode in the back of the bus and had to go through a back door to see the doctor.

The Just for Girls grads face different challenges -- academics, drugs, gangs and teenage pregnancy.

Yet as the 67-year-old woman addressed the teens during Tuesday's commencement it was evident they had something important in common after all.

It was courage, the theme for the school's 2012 graduation ceremony.

The courage to do what one must to change their lives for the better and those who will follow them.

Bumpers marched with Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrated for civil rights and went to jail for it.

"I wanted to be free and make it better for my children, too," said the Mobile, Ala., native and Just for Girls board member. "Dealing with all those things, it gave me the strength to want to make life better."

Bumpers went on to college, raised a family and was a longtime Lockheed-Martin executive.

Among the things, she told the girls to keep God in their lives, respect themselves, read more books, avoid drugs and understand that school is about education, not popularity contests.

"These girls face challenges I didn't have to face when I was coming up, but they have to have the courage to say no to them until they reach their goals," Bumpers said.

Her words resonated with Noemi Diaz-Ramirez.

"She'll always be a role model in my eyes, because of her courage, the way she's done things," the 14-year-old said.

A former runaway with anger issues, the future Southeast High School freshman has improved as a student and matured as young lady after three years with Just for Girls.

"I've changed for the better," she said.

School director Dee Ralph said Bumpers should inspire each graduate to do likewise.

"Life is not always going to be easy," she said. "Murrie didn't have an easy life but look where she got. We can have opportunities, but we have to see the people to believe we can do it as well."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter:@vinmannix