Daisy Zendejas, an 18-year-old senior at Gainesville High School, found StandUp for Kids at the right time.
Or, perhaps, the mentoring program found her. Either way, it came when she needed it the most.
“I’m really happy I got chosen for this,” she said.
Zendejas has had to grow up fast.
Her mother passed away while in high school, just before Zendejas became a mother herself to a boy.
But Zendejas isn’t jaded or overwhelmed. It shows in her steady demeanor and positive spirit.
“She has the maturity of a 20-something-year-old,” said Sue Levine, Zendejas’ mentor. “A lot of hard times … that’s not easy to juggle all of that. Daisy’s just come through it.”
Levine is the director of mentoring for StandUp for Kids in Hall County. The nonprofit organization works in 18 cities across 11 states and is headquartered in Decatur.
Levine has volunteered for nearly 20 years “in lots of different roles,” she said, beginning in Fulton County before moving to Gainesville and launching the program locally.
Levine said eight students at Gainesville High are currently in the mentoring program with varying challenges in their lives.
“One of the areas we wanted to focus on is kids who are in school who are homeless,” Levine said. “These kids have never had anybody who's there just for them.”
And with the sizable Latino demographic in Gainesville City Schools, Levine said StandUp has “really wanted to deal with that segment of the population.”
Students have to maintain a C-grade average, 80 percent attendance rate and meet regularly while working part-time, with the exception of young mothers like Zendejas.
“A student said to me, I‘ve been waiting on a mentor,” Levine said. “Nobody’s ever there for them.”
Every month, students in the program can earn a stipend as well as gift cards by meeting relevant and timely goals.
“They are expected to use it for basic needs,” Levine said.
There are also potential scholarship opportunities available.
Cathy Bissoondial, a mentor in the program, said StandUp provides an avenue for students to better themselves without facing a grade or an evaluation.
Bissoondial described the program as “somebody that’s there just for them.”
“We really focus a lot on goals in this program,” she added, including setting academic expectations, learning how to handle adversity, and how to develop healthy friendships.
Providing encouragement and working through problems with students allows Bissoondial to “be that sounding board but also be that adult influence.”
It also makes the relationship more than superficial or transactional.
“The mentoring is really about the student and what the student wants with that relationship,” Levine said.
Zendejas said when she first was told about StandUp, she immediately liked the idea.
“I was excited for it,” she said.
And sticking with it has paid off, literally and figuratively.
“It has helped me a lot, to this point.”
Zendejas is on track to graduate this spring and she hopes to attend Lanier Technical College to study dental hygiene.
A child of Mexican immigrants, Zendejas has the potential to be the first in her family to graduate college.
That’s motivation in itself, Zendejas said.
“I still try my best because I know that’s what (my mother) would want for me,” she added.
Attending college also gives Zendejas an opportunity to be a role model for two little brothers and her own boy, she said.
“Daisy’s a beautiful young lady, a great example of success,” Levine said.