While there are countless ways that my job is fulfilling, sometimes, there are stories that really take the cake. My job is to help youth gain the skills they need to become successful members of their communities. Success will, of course, look different for each of them as they plan their futures and set their own goals. If I have been successful at my own job, they will all have the confidence and support to pursue whatever “success” looks like to them.
I’ve learned over the last seven years that there is often a lot of potential hiding behind a seemingly quiet student. Norma Puente is my favorite example of this. When I first started working with her at Margaret Long Wisdom High School, she largely kept to herself but would always participate when it was asked of her. Her sweet demeanor and the kindness she always showed to her classmates (and her ability to avoid joining in when all the students around her started to get rowdy) lead me to invite her to our annual Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program Conference in Washington D.C. that summer. Never having been on a plane, she was equal parts excited and nervous, but ultimately so proud of being considered for the opportunity and representing Houston.
When we arrived in D.C., there were students from RAMP sites around the country and without a hint of nerves or trepidation, they all became fast friends. I’ve heard so many stories over the years from these students that making friends was hard for them, but at this conference, you’d absolutely never know it. There is an immediate sense of camaraderie and any walls that they had up fall with breakneck fervor. I’ve never left this annual conference without crying at least once. These kids are truly inspiring…and putting them all together in one room? It’s something to behold.
Part of being invited to the conference is that each student has to deliver a presentation about their future career goals or projects they’ve worked on at their respective RAMP sites that school year. Norma chose to present on Criminology which would soon be her college major. The previously reserved student lit up with apparent passion when she got to talk about her future. She would be the first member of her family to go to college. She would help people who needed her. She would make something of herself – and she couldn’t wait to do any of it.
Norma was then given the opportunity to join local students at the Teen and Police Service Academy; an important and amazing partnership between the Houston Police Department and the University of Houston Clear Lake designed for at-risk youth and police officer mentors. She said it made her feel like a leader and made her confident in speaking in front of groups all while giving her more insight into the future she was carefully preparing for herself. The next summer, I asked her to return to Washington D.C. with me. She was the leader of the pack; guiding all the students who attended and offering encouragement to nervous students giving their presentations for the first time. During a long silence where a student couldn’t bring himself to speak from fear, she stood up, told us all to cheer him on, and got us all clapping. After that, he gave a great presentation. And I really looked at Norma in awe.
She graduated high school in 2019 and has gotten right to work since then. She is working at Care Optical where she deals with prescriptions and sealing glasses and she is enrolled at Houston Community College in their Criminology Program – yep, the first one in her family to go to college. When she graduates, she plans to attend the police academy and go for her Bachelor’s degree in Criminology.
I keep in touch with Norma and when I recently asked her if she thinks RAMP helped her, she responded:
“RAMP helped me in so many ways. This program helped me get on track with my career path and to think ahead to the future. It helped me to grow and allowed me to come out of my bubble and interact with other people with no problem. It made me a leader and because of this program I can say I have grown as a person and am doing better. It made me want to keep up with my studies and to become someone.”
I’m proud to be a part of her story and I am so proud to know her and all the incredible students I meet through Easter Seals Greater Houston’s RAMP and Transition Programs. If you’re wondering, being a mentor will never waste a single minute of your time.