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Joaquin Perez was raised in Mascotte, two blocks away from RCMA’s Mascotte Child Development Center. The youngest child of citrus harvesters, Perez began attending the center when he was 2. He still remembers the two kind ladies who took care of him there and let him play with his favorite toy, a Lego-style puzzle set. “I was really happy there,” Perez says. Today, Perez has come a long way. He is the first person to attend an RCMA child care center, then grow up to serve on RCMA’s Board of Directors.
Mascotte still holds him. He is raising his own family two miles away from his former child care center, and heads the human resources department at Groveland’s Cherry Lake Tree Farms. Started in 1985, Cherry Lake Tree Farm produces ornamental trees, palms and shrubs. It has 1,800 acres under production and more than 1 million trees in inventory at any given time.
There, he refers workers to the Mascotte center. Perez remembers it as a child’s “safe haven” in an otherwise rugged life. “It gives parents the opportunity to be able to work and provide for their children,” he says. After preschool, Perez matriculated through Mascotte Elementary School and Groveland Middle School. (A summer program at the University of South Florida allowed him to skip the eighth grade.) He graduated from South Lake High School with a 3.99 grade-point average. Perez earned a management degree at USF and was a member of the Golden Key Honor Society.
He is married with two young children. His wife Angelica also attended the Mascotte Child Development Center.
Ilda Martinez, 18, was born in Plant City, a farm community east of Tampa. Yet a big piece of her soul is in her extended family’s hometown in southern Mexico, where Martinez was taken in infancy. Her parents returned to the U.S. where they harvested crops and sent money home. Little Ilda stayed in Oaxaca with her grandmother, and learned to speak the indigenous Mixteco language. When she was two, Martinez returned to the Plant City area to her parents. They enrolled her in RCMA’s Dover Child Development Center, where she learned her second language, Spanish, and her third, English. She is fluent in all three today.
Her father, a middle-school dropout, made sure that his first child knew the value of getting an education – and the consequences of lacking one. From age 8 to age 15, Ilda spent summers in the fields in Michigan and North Carolina. She remembers carrying buckets, heavy with blueberries; rising at 4:30 on cold mornings to prepare lunches; and working until 10 p.m. as the summer sun lingered on the horizon. “If you don’t want to wind up where we are,” warned her father, “then you need to study.” “I’ve always been a good student,” Martinez said.
She graduated from Polk State Collegiate High School with a grade-point average of 3.9. Along the way, Martinez balanced a dizzying array of activities. She played on the soccer team, performed with the orchestra and sang in the chorus. She helped migrant families and served on a United Way education group that studied problems among students who, like Martinez, were handicapped by low-income lives.
Martinez has accomplished all this while functioning as a surrogate mother to a younger sister and brother. Her family returned to Mexico when Martinez was 14 because her grandmother had become gravely ill. Soon, Martinez’ parents decided that their three oldest children would return to the U.S., to live with an aunt and uncle and their five children. The rest of the family would remain in Oaxaca. As her father bid the three children goodbye, his last words for Ilda were: “Always remember, you are the only thing they will have now.” From her school USF, she Skypes and texts them nearly every day.
The successes have made her ambitions more tangible, accessible and concrete. Martinez wants to help children, especially those separated from their parents by the turmoil of immigration. Last winter, she decided to test her dreams against first-hand experience. She took a part-time job teaching 2-year-olds at RCMA’s Mulberry Child Development Center. She loved it, and shed tears as the children left for the summer.
Now, she is a Gates Millennial Scholar which means extensive study, and few other obstacles, stand between Martinez and a PhD in early-childhood education and child psychology. Martinez can maintain a good academic record and simply renew the scholarship from year to year.
After four years away, Martinez’ father, Jose Martinez, returned to Florida soon after his daughter received her life-changing news of the scholarship. He arrived in time to see her graduate from both high school and Polk State College.