When Joy Hall’s parents first signed her up to Breakthrough Miami in the fifth grade, she would go in with her head down, upset that she had to go to school in the summer.
Her unhappiness didn’t last long.
This summer, Joy delivered a speech to her peers this summer as outgoing eighth-grade class president, sharing her experience.
“You see, I didn’t come like the Joy you see today. In fact, I didn’t come joyful at all,” said Joy, 13. “But one day, I decided to change things. I made a choice to do and to be better because on that day, I believed in myself.”
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Like many students before her, Joy thanks Breakthrough Miami, which provides tuition-free academic enrichment programs in the summer and throughout the school year, for empowering her to have ambition.
Breakthrough Miami serves 1,000 middle- and high-school students from under-served communities in Miami-Dade County. The program operates in five campuses: Miami Country Day, Ransom Everglades School, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart (an all-girls’ program), Palmer Trinity School and the University of Miami (for college-bound students). This summer, the program at Carrollton was temporarily relocated to Gulliver Schools’ Miller Drive campus due to construction at Carrollton.
In the program, high school and college students are hired as teaching fellows and pass on the knowledge to the younger students.
Shanava Saintolien, who recently graduated from the School of Advanced Studies at Miami Dade College, was a Breakthrough Scholar at the Ransom Everglades site all through middle school and started working as a teaching fellow in the Miami Country Day site last summer.
For Saintolien, 18, the model of students teaching students has a lasting impact because it cements a unique mentorship between the students.
“It’s not some 30-year-old teacher in charge,” she said. “It’s people not too close to their age, but a good enough age difference where they feel they can talk to you and open up.”
In science class, Saintolein likes to think outside the box with her lesson plans to help students understand more abstract concepts. This summer, her students learned about the layers of the Earth by comparing each layer to tangible items, like a brownie, ice cream, Graham crackers and hot fudge.
Saintolien, who will attend Florida State University this fall, was one of 14 students in Miami-Dade County to earn the Gates Millennium Scholarship award this year. Only 1,000 students out of 57,000 applicants nationally receive the Gates award, which provides funding for both undergraduate and graduate studies. This year, 60 Florida applicants won the prestigious award.
“Half of the time, I wasn’t sure because I kept thinking a lot of people are applying for this,” she said. “I thought, ‘What makes me so special?’”
Saintolien pushed through the eight essays required for the Gates award, along with her college application essays, with the help of Breakthrough staff and a mentor she was paired with in the college-bound program. Breakthrough staff also helped her find out about volunteer opportunities, scholarships and leadership seminars.
“Without that kind of guidance, I wouldn’t have known what to write about,” she said. “The people at Breakthrough are always checking in.”
Michael Samblas, another Breakthrough alum, has been working as a teaching fellow for three summers at Carrollton, teaching English literature and other electives.
In his time as a fellow, Samblas learned that the ultimate goal in Breakthrough is not to strive for academic success, but to get the kids excited about learning overall.
“The first thing is to get them excited and get them to understand the importance of why we are studying this,” said Samblas, 21. “My goal is to inspire more than to educate.”
In his English poetry class this summer, he opened up a dialogue about real-world problems that stemmed from the themes in the literature or poetry they read in class. He also helped his student, Joy, prepare her Sisterhood speech for the final day of the summer program.
In the upcoming school year, Joy is moving on from the Carrollton site to join the college-bound program, and as a parting gift, she shared some life lessons with her Breakthrough peers.
“Remember that you were not put into this world to be depressed, to be a quitter and an underachiever,” she said. “Make plans and goals for yourself — because if you expect the best, you have to work.”