Manatee migrant students, families honored at 29th annual award ceremony

PALMETTO -- They plan to be teachers, nurses, social workers, computer engineers, architects and more. One even has the goal of curing cancer.

Many claim their greatest achievement is reaching high school graduation.

Whatever their goals, the 29 students honored Tuesday night at Palmetto High School had one key factor in common: They were part of the Florida Migrant Education Program. And they'll be graduating from various Manatee County high schools, side by side with their peers, many of whom couldn't even dream of some of the difficult situations the migrant program students have been through.

The national program helps migrant students access education and support services. Graduates and families were honored Tuesday at the 29th annual ceremony, including the Beltran family.

Marcos Beltran Jr., a 19-year-old

senior, will graduate from Palmetto High School next week. Beltran, who has lived in Michigan, Virginia and Florida, said making new friends have been the biggest struggle for him after moving from place to place. Finishing high school was an important goal so he could work steady hours at a job, unlike what he watched his father do.

"It was a struggle to see my dad working day to day, always on call," he said.

Beltran said after watching his father and mother, Marcos Beltran Sr. and Maria Beltran, he wanted to do better for himself. His parents also wanted that for him, he said.

"They support my every decision," Beltran said.

Beltran wants to become a doctor or physical therapist. He began working toward his goal by dual-enrolling at Manatee Technical College in the patient care technician program.

"I want to help other people and give back to my community," he said.

Junior students were also in attendance as the graduating senior challenged them to complete their final year and graduate next year, with a special candle ceremony. Parents and families heard from speakers in English and Spanish.

Interim Superintendent Don Hall, who grow up in a single-parent home in rural Kentucky, said his story wasn't much different from those of the students gathered in the auditorium.

"Education was the way out for me," Hall said.

Speaker Henry Lawrence, a retired NFL player and graduate of Manatee High School, grew up picking tomatoes and potatoes -- or "maters" and "taters" as he called them -- up and down the eastern seaboard.

"For me, it was not an option," he told the students. "I had to go to work."

Lawrence counseled the students not to be afraid to try. Lawrence's mother, father and grandmother never made it past elementary school, he said, which motivated Lawrence.

"I always prided myself on being on of the top students in my class," he said.

Life is a lot like sports, Lawrence said, drawing a football analogy.

"Football, like life, requires a game plan," he said.

He then turned to the students seated on stage and asked them to raise their hand if they had a game plan. Most hands went out.

"If you don't have a game plan, then get one," he said.

He advised students to be flexible in their game plan, and when they came to a fork in the road, to choose one and follow it wholeheartedly.

"You can do anything," he said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.