HOMESTEAD -- After watching all those nursing school commercials on TV, Emily Corona pictures herself in a uniform, working in a hospital some day.
“I want to study to be a registered nurse,” she said recently during an interview at her family’s rented home with a picnic table in the front yard. “I like giving, and checking on people, and making them feel good. I really like helping kids.”
Emily just turned 17, and is a junior at Homestead Senior High School.
It’s an age when many students look forward to going to college and making their mark in the world. But while Emily has big dreams for herself, the shy, soft-spoken teenager says she has a difficult time envisioning how she can make them come true.
She is the second youngest in a family of 13 children. Two of her siblings have died, she says, one as a child and another of cancer in her late 20s, leaving behind five small children.
Only one has graduated from high school – her older sister who now works at a Dairy Queen.
Nobody in the family has gone to college and Emily would like to be the first. But she doesn’t know how she will come up with the money. Her mother, Juana Cortez, 58, struggles to simply pay the household bills.
The little money she makes working part time at a Mexican restaurant help with the always late household bills.
“I keep like $5,” she said.
Emily wish is to have a laptop computer - the family’s old computer doesn’t work – and to be able to go into her bedroom – away from the chaos of the living areas where many of her young nieces and nephews play, to study in peace and quiet.
New clothes also would help boost her self-esteem.
Money has been especially tight the past three years, ever since Emily’s dad, Raul Cortez, was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2011 and given six months to live.
Emily’s parents had been married for nearly 40 years and the family had been living in Homestead for about 20 years. But her parents moved to California where her dad had grown up so he could spend his dying days near his mother and other family members .
He passed away five days before Christmas in 2011. Emily helped ease her pain by drawing a picture of him. She remembers the small things about her dad, like the way he would sneeze: “It sounded like he would say a name: Rafa.”
Three months later, Emily’s adult sister Rebecca found out she had cancer, too. The family moved back to South Florida to be with her. Rebecca died in November 2012.
It all was almost too much to bear for Emily’s mother, who also took in two of Rebecca’s five children.
“One time my younger sister said she slept with my mom because she didn’t want my mom to be by herself,” Emily said. “When she woke up around 3 in the morning, my mom was crying. She hadn’t slept in like 2 or 3 days.”
It also was a tough time for Emily. Her grades suffered from the uprooting, turmoil and pain. But she began to find solace in schoolwork. She loves geometry, because she likes to solve problems, and she likes English 3, because “it just gets you ready to take the FCAT, so you can score higher averages than you did before. I just took it. I think I did good.”
Grades that had sunk to Cs and Ds have now rebounded back to As and Bs with the occasional C, she said.
She also has been accepted into a program called School to Work, sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sister of Greater Miami, for students in low-performing schools.
She has been paired with a speech pathologist at Homestead Hospital as her mentor. Once a month, Emily will go to the hospital and shadow her mentor for the day. The program includes workshops that teach skills such as resume writing and dressing for success.
“One of Emily’s concerns when we interviewed her is that she had nothing nice to wear to dress professionally,” said Andrea Tabilo, relationship development specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami. “We got her some scrubs and some of my co-workers gave her some clothes.”
The organization nominated Emily for Wish Book because “she stood out the most to us,” Tabilo said. “There’s need. She works and gives her paycheck to her mom.”
Tabilo said part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is helping Emily learn about scholarships and other opportunities to help pay for college.
Life is beginning to look a little brighter for the Coronas.
After being unable to find a job for months, mom Juana Cortez finally found a job at a nursery. Her priority is simply trying to provide the basics for the family.
But, in Spanish, she says about her daughter, Emily: “She’s more calm, not loud like the other ones.” She was too tired to go into more detail.
She added, “I would be proud if she becomes a nurse.”