Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Juan Avitia presents Dulce Ortega with an Alternative Education Scholarship during the Madera Dollars for Scholars ceremony.
Juan Avitia remembers the struggles he faced as a high school student. He remembers being an immigrant from Mexico and feeling helpless because he couldn’t get the scholarships, which were only available to his American classmates.
Today, Avitia is helping students who are facing their own hurdles in school.
Avitia, a teacher at Mountain Vista High School, is helping provide the Dollars for Scholars Scholarship.
Avitia said the scholarship is given to Madera students in alternative education, particularly high school seniors.
“When I was little, we came from Mexico and I remember going through the same struggles they went through. We didn’t have these scholarships available to us when I was in high school,” Avitia said. “We would have to compete with the rest of the high school students, which made it difficult.”
The Dollars for Scholars Scholarship program continued 30 years of tradition May 29, hosting a dinner ceremony in Madera to award scholarships to students who have found success in academics while overcoming various obstacles.
“We look at their life, their ability to overcome obstacles and also what it is that they’re striving for,” Avitia said.
While some of the students have overcome immigration issues, others have overcome challenges such as homelessness, teen pregnancy and gun violence.
“They just persevere. They don’t stop trying,” Avitia said. “The vast majority are very intelligent and outspoken, but then there’s some who are not and yet they just stay strong when it comes to doing their work, when it comes to getting their tasks done.”
Jean Howard was a new teacher at Furman High School when she helped establish the scholarship 30 years ago as a dedication to one of her former students. That student was Brian Gendron, who joined the Navy and died in an explosion on the United States Navy battleship USS Iowa in 1989.
“I was shocked and devastated by this tragic news, as was the entire staff at Furman High School,” Howard said. “In the midst of our sorrow, we wanted to do something to honor the memory of Brian. The staff decided to raise money for a scholarship and that was the start of the scholarship foundation.”
Howard said Gendron concentrated on finishing all of his classes with A’s because his real passion was to join the Navy.
“This was his dream since he was in elementary school,” Howard said.
At the scholarship dinner on May 29, the organization honored Gail Beyer, the first president of the foundation. Rachel Donatelli, the second president who helped expand the foundation to reach out to more donors and students, also received recognition.
“Recognizing our first and second presidents and the current members is important because it takes a lot of time and commitment to bring about this night,” Howard said. “All of these positions are voluntary, but each member works diligently to create opportunities for a real future for our students.”
Outgoing president David Hernandez, who has been with the Dollars for Scholars foundation for 23 years, was another honoree at the scholarship dinner.
“He has been a great president, guiding and expanding the foundation to reach out to other organizations and touch the lives of so many alternative education students,” Howard said. “[Hernandez] leaves a legacy of commitment and hard work, always providing reliable, resourceful and talented leadership.”
Avitia said he has been involved with the scholarship for the past year, reading essays and helping with interpretation.
“Oftentimes you have a lot of parents who only speak Spanish, so we do a lot of interpreting,” Avitia said.
Howard said the alternative education program has continued to grow through the years and now includes Furman High School and Mountain Vista High School, schools providing rigorous curriculum in accordance with Madera Unified School District.
“It is heartwarming that out of such a sad event an organization grew that improves the lives of so many students,” Howard said. “It is an honor to be a part of this organization that serves the educational needs of the alternative education students in Madera Unified School District.”