Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Four graduating seniors at John O’Connell High School were surprised to find out during their May 25 graduation ceremony that they had been chosen as the recipients of a scholarship totaling $10,000.

The money came from local business and community institutions and was part of a fundraising effort on behalf of the Mission Promise Neighborhood, a citywide community partnership that supports children and families living and working in the Mission District. It was distributed among the recipients according to need.

“I had no idea that they chose me, I was about to cry up there,” said 17-year-old Karen Guzman. “This money really means a lot to me — so many other people applied for it, I didn’t think I would get it.”

Guzman has plans of attending Holy Names University in Oakland, where she will be studying Human Communications and Business. For some of the other recipients of the scholarship, the money could be the deciding factor in whether or not they will be enrolling in college this year.

“Honestly, without the scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to go to college,” said John O’Connell graduate Anahi Velazquez, adding that she will be enrolling in San Francisco State University’s nursing program in the Fall. “The tuition is almost $7,000 at SF State. This is a huge relief for me because its  paying for [a large part of] my tuition.”

For Ivonne Villanueva, the Mission Promise Neighborhood scholarship was the first she has received, and will enable to her to focus on her schoolwork during her first year of college.

“I was planning on working two jobs, so this really helps me,” she said.

Amelia Martinez, Mission Promise Neighborhood’s Family Success Coach Manager,  coordinated the scholarships and said that the money was raised in less than two months. Local businesses and community members were enlisted in the fundraising effort, and Martinez said she was surprised when the organization exceeded its first goal.

“We ended up asking our friends, people in the community, and held fundraisers at local businesses like Cease & Desist and Cha Cha Cha,” said Martinez. San Francisco Board of Education President Matt Haney acted as a bartender to help get the necessary money raised, she said. The community effort was so successful that Martinez applied for a grant with the First Republic Bank that rounded the available scholarship fund to $10,000. “At the end of the day, we raised more than our goal and were able to give out four scholarships.”

“[Mission Promise Neighborhood] is about collaboration and the community coming together and supporting [its members] all the way,” said Martinez. “This effort was a true example of that.”

John O’Connell Counselor Amy Abero assisted Martinez in choosing the students from dozens of applicants — all of whom were deserving of the money, she said.

“It was a difficult decision because I honestly felt that all of the students who applied should receive a scholarship, but the money was limited,” said Abero. “We looked at kids who worked really hard and were just short of having the money to cover their tuitions, and AB540 [undocumented] students who we knew needed more help.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez
Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The high school’s principal, Mark Alvarado, praised the effort in terms of providing additional opportunity for some his disadvantaged students. Altogether, the school’s 2016 graduating class has received $250,000 in scholarships — but not all of the 70 seniors that graduated on Wednesday have equal access to applying for free college tuition.

Alvarado said that the school’s student body is more than 55 percent Latino and that some are undocumented students who are limited in applying for tuition assistance because of their status.

“It’s really about ensuring that all of the students have opportunities for scholarships, including students going into four-year universities as well as City College and those who are going right into the workforce,” said Alvarado. “Are we covering all of our students and is the level of support there for all of them?”

Patricia Barraza, John O’Connell’s After School program coordinator, also had a hand in the decision making, and broke down in tears as she recounted the scholarship students’ application stories, some of which she has witnessed personally over the past four years.

“These kids are from the Mission and have each had their own experiences that shaped them,” said Barraza. One of the four scholarship recipients, Elwood Mac Murray, experienced tragedy when his 14-year-old cousin, Sacred Heart Preparatory student Rashawn Williams, was stabbed by a classmate in front of a Mission District grocery store in 2014.

“There’s violence in this community, there are ICE raids, there are families that are being evicted. To remain focused on school throughout all of this is truly incredible and deserving [of this scholarship],” said Barraza.

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