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Circle de Luz helps Latina girls aim toward college

Anna Freuler, the Circle de Luz College 101/Alumni Programming chairwoman, with three 2014 graduates, Gabby, Ariadna and Cynthia, before the annual 5K run.
Anna Freuler, the Circle de Luz College 101/Alumni Programming chairwoman, with three 2014 graduates, Gabby, Ariadna and Cynthia, before the annual 5K run. COURTESY OF MARY KATHRYN ELKINS

As a 1996 graduate of Davidson College, Rosie Molinary knows most Latina girls in the U.S. do not have the same access to education that she enjoyed.

According to statistics gathered by the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a staggering 41 percent of Latina students drop out of high school, for reasons both related and unrelated to school.

Molinary, a Puerto Rican who grew up in Columbia, S.C., is chipping away at those odds. In 2008, she formed Circle de Luz, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local Latina girls through mentoring programs and scholarship.

The program launched with five Latina students at James Martin Middle School. Circle de Luz has grown to four classes of active girls at schools throughout Mecklenburg County, along with one class of graduates.

The program has an operating budget of $82,000, aided by individual donors. A separate group of donors contributes to a scholarship fund that guarantees each participating girl a $5,000 scholarship upon graduation.

Each year, Circle de Luz initiates the program with a group of girls at a middle school, then continues mentoring them throughout high school, regardless of which high school they attend.

The selected middle schools must have a Communities in Schools program, be at least 70 percent free-and-reduced lunch and have at least 15 percent Latina students.

There currently are two classes in the program from James Martin Middle School and one each from McClintock Middle School, Albemarle Road Middle School, Martin Luther King Middle School and Ranson Middle School.

Mary Kathryn Elkins, 36, a Davidson graduate, met Molinary when both worked for Davidson’s Community Service Office.

Elkins serves as the program manager for Circle de Luz and is its sole part-time staff member, overseeing a monthly out-of-school program for all the girls and two monthly in-school programs for the middle school participants.

The programs and activities take many forms, from art and outdoor activities to educational enrichment, but they all share a goal Elkins says exposes the girls “to lots of different types of people and experiences.”

For the arts programs, girls are taken to performances such as “The Nutcracker,” “Wicked” or The Indigo Girls.

One participant, Elkins said, sat next to her at a symphony concert and squeezed her arm with excitement throughout the concert. “She is now studying music therapy” at Queens University of Charlotte, Elkins said.

The monthly programs also focus on life skills such as cooking, financial literacy, health and wellness or the outdoors, including training for a 5K run. Team-building programs feature activities like the high-ropes course at Davidson College.

The programs also offer academic support and career inspirations, and some focus on the Circle de Luz mission and values, including a graduation ceremony and a back-to-school meeting.

Elkins said there also is an emphasis on community engagement. “No matter what your resources are personally, you can always give back,” Elkins said.

Circle de Luz also focuses on college preparation. Elkins said that “all of the girls are first-generation college students.”

The girls are all paired with two adult mentors, one from the Junior League and a volunteer. The mentors guide the girls through the college application process, from campus visits to filling out applications.

Elkins said it is a six-year process that begins with “teaching (the girls) what college is and then having them believe it can be a part of their future.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@mindspring.com.

Learn more:

For information about Circle de Luz visit www.circledeluz.org.

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