© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Charlotte Area

Against The Odds, 5 Young Latinas Graduate High School And 'Circle de Luz'

Nick de la Canal/WFAE

Six years ago, a group of young women were picked to take part in a special program. The girls were all in the seventh grade, all were Latinas, and all were deemed to be at risk of dropping out of school or becoming pregnant. The program is run by a volunteer group called Circle de Luz. And last week the group – and the young women they mentored – had reason to celebrate

It’s about an hour before the Circle de Luz graduation ceremony, and Gabby, one of the girls graduating today, is frantically writing a speech on the back of a crumpled envelope. She knew she had to address the audience; her plan was to improvise.

“I come here and everybody has their papers ready and they have speeches written and I’m like, woah," she says, "I thought it was just a really spontaneous thing." She laughs. "I don’t know what’s going on.”

Gabby, whose last name isn't being used at the program's request, has a smile that glistens with braces, and her cheeks are sprinkled with freckles. She’s one of the first five young women to graduate from the Circle de Luz program. But more importantly, she’s graduated from high school. That was the main goal of the program.

“Circle de Luz was founded in 2008 and it was really founded in response to some challenges at the time that a group of woman saw that young Latina girls were facing,” says Rosie Molinary, Circle de Luz's board chair.

Government statistics show that in 2008 – the year this program began – more than 10 percent of Latina teens became pregnant nationwide, and 22 percent dropped out of high school. 

Credit Nick de la Canal/WFAE
Circle de Luz graduate Mayra holds a bouquet of flowers after the ceremony on June 19.

“Looking at those statistics," Molinary says, "we decided that we wanted to do something to have a positive impact on resource distribution and access.”

So the program recruited a group of donors and, through teacher evaluations and interviews, selected five girls from James Martin Middle School to be in the first Circle de Luz class.

That was six years ago, and what happened next was a blur of group outings, life coaching, and community involvement. The class went to financial literacy workshops, career readiness programs, and community service projects. They went on outdoor hikes, practiced yoga, and went to the theater.

Jocelyn Negron-Rios is one of the mentors for Gabby’s class. In addition to taking the girls out in the community, she mentors them on life as a young Latina. Most the girls are first or second generation Americans.

“One of the concerns may be how do I explain to my family that I want something more than having children and getting married or that I want to go to college or that I want to live outside the home,” says Negron-Rios.

Gabby, in particular, needed help understanding the college application process. Her parents did go to university, but not in the U.S.

“They had no clue about SATs, like what is that?" she says, "They had no clue about how transcripts work, anything. It’s completely different in other countries.”

Program mentors took Gabby and her class on college visits and helped the families learn how to apply and look for scholarships. Against the odds, Gabby and her four other classmates are all headed to college, and last Thursday they walked across the stage at the Mint Museum Randolph for their graduation from the Circle de Luz program.

Gabby will attend Queens University in the fall, where she plans to major in international business and music therapy. Circle de Luz is providing her and the rest of class with more than $7,000 each in scholarships.

Now that they’ve graduated, the young women say they too will become sponsors for the 30 plus younger girls in Circle de Luz, in a way, completing the circle.