They come bearing gifts.
At United Way Suncoast’s North Greenwood Resource Center, former Operation Graduate students often return with their hearts wrapped in gratitude. Their words come adorned with decorative ribbons of appreciation and their smiles serve as bows.
It’s all for senior manager Paula Kay, or “Ms. Paula,” as they affectionately refer to her, and the partners that have made Operation Graduate a transformative initiative.
They realize their lives, their joys and their academic and professional achievements are rooted in the help they received from this special youth development program, a collaborative effort between United Way Suncoast, the Clearwater Police Department, Pinellas County School District, and St. Petersburg College.
Javante Scott, now enrolled at St. Petersburg College, boasts about how an Operation Graduate college tour helped him crystalize his future. Jasmine, a Johnson & Wales student, shares how the program has propelled her towards a career in sports broadcasting. Keenan Murray, another St. Petersburg College student, explains how Operation Graduate’s dual enrollment initiative gave him a head start on his eventual plan to earn a business degree at Florida A&M.
Nia George, who earned a criminal justice degree from Virginia State University graduate, says Ms. Paula helped her overcome a learning disability. Now she’s preparing for law school.
Alicia Smith beams with praise because she knows walking into the three-room Operation Graduate resource center helped her walk onto the University of South Florida campus this fall.
“(Operation Graduate) has taught me how to take those next steps in life and what I’m going to take after those,” said Alicia, who was awarded a $10,000 Clearwater For Youth Scholarship upon graduation. “It’s helped me realize anything I want to do in life is possible.”
Smith, who was raised by her dad in a single-parent household, earned her Associate degree from St. Petersburg College and her high school diploma in the same year.
Paula said Operation Graduate is composed of three distinct elements: an afterschool tutoring/mentoring focus; a summer bridge program that fosters credit recovery for students who have fallen behind; and a collegiate dual enrollment program that elevates those who possess higher education goals.
The program, formed in 2011, seeks to help the students graduate on time, receive an introduction to the rigor of collegiate courses and solidify their futures, whether it’s at a two-year or four-year college or a trade school. Of the students who have spent at least two years in the program, 100 percent have graduated from high school on time.
Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter says such success inspires his officers, many of whom mentor the students.
“Clearwater Police Officers are like proud parents when they see students get a passing grade in a difficult subject, attain a high school diploma, or emerge from Operation Graduate college-bound with an identified professional goal,” Slaughter said.
Yet the program also develops a bond with the students, who view the resource center as a safe space to share the challenges they’re enduring as teens. That bond brings them back to North Greenwood long after they’ve graduated, and they’re excited to share their latest news with Ms. Paula. She can’t help but be touched by the sincerity.
“Naturally, it’s exciting to know that what you do is having an impact,” Paula said.
Alicia and Keenan are just two of the Operation Graduate students who recognize the advantages they and their families have gained from United Way.
“She knows how to connect with the kids while still being a leader and a teacher, too,” Keenan said. “I’ve made it no secret that I want to be a motivational speaker. That’s my ultimate dream career. Because I shared that with her, she’s gone out of her way to find endless opportunities to expand as a motivational speaker.
“It’s little moments like that that I can never really repay.”
Clearly, Operation Graduate succeeds in changing the trajectory of hundreds of promising young kids, but as Keenan says, this isn’t the end of their stories, it’s just the beginning.