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Awards Honor Fulfillment of Student Dreams

June 15, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

When Xiomara Iraheta was 13, she saw college as nothing more than a hazy possibility far off in the future. The daughter of Salvadoran immigrants struggling to get by in downtown Los Angeles, Xiomara grew up unsure of herself or her potential for academic success.

On Saturday, the 17-year-old, set to attend Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in the fall, told nearly 1,800 in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre how her view of her potential changed because of the Fulfillment Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring and college counseling to disadvantaged youths.

"I can see possibilities for my life now that I never would have seen before," she said.

Xiomara is one of 3,000 Los Angeles students the Fulfillment Fund has helped. The group held its 17th annual achievement awards ceremony Saturday, honoring current and former students helped by the fund and the teachers who inspired them.

"It's an opportunity for us to really recognize the tremendous accomplishments students have made," said Phaizon R. Wood, the fund's vice president of programs.

On hand were celebrity supporters Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier, Brendan Fraser and Tony Danza, among others.

"If you lose the child by the time they're 10 or 12 years old, it's difficult to get them back," said Poitier. "You have to build on their capacity for learning and sense of who they are."

Fifteen teachers, nominated by students helped by the fund, were given awards of $2,000 each. Three students from the Los Angeles Unified School District received awards for their community service contributions.

The Fulfillment Fund begins targeting students in the eighth grade and tries to follow them through high school and college. Programs include a college fair that attracts schools from across the country and workshops for students and parents to help prepare for the SAT tests and other college requirements.

"We're trying to be a partner to make sure students feel support all the way," said Wood. "We want to show all of the kids and their families that they're not alone in this process. Many of the students come from families with tremendous economic challenges, and many are the first ones in their family to go to college."

The students, Wood said, are characterized in school as "middle-performing," those who are not in the bottom of the pack academically, but who need help making the leap from high school to college.

"The vast middle areas are not being attended to in any specific way," said Wood. "They are the ones who are at the greatest risk of falling through the cracks."

The Fulfillment Fund has teachers and counselors in the LAUSD who find students who could benefit from a mentor. The mentors meet with them and their families to make sure everyone is happy with the match. Then, the mentors meet and talk with their students regularly, taking them on educational trips and helping them chart a course for their academic future.

Xiomara's mentor, Janet Schulman, CEO of Southern California's Special Olympics, took her on trips to museums and the theater and spoke with her every week about her future.

"It helps shape their life and open up the possibilities," said Schulman.

Xiomara, who hopes to become either a writer or a chemist, said she now sees a bright academic future ahead, thanks in part to the Fulfillment Fund.

"I have more confidence now," she said. " ... I'm excited to go across the country to school."

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