When Juan Lopez was four years old, his family immigrated from Mexico to Bonita Springs and struggled to acclimate into a culture and language they had few resources to comprehend.
Coming from the Oaxaca region, with its own unique dialect, Juan’s family spoke neither English nor standard Spanish, making Juan’s start at school rough. Without academic support at home, learning to read proved difficult. Thankfully, the same year Juan turned seven, an Estero schoolteacher and her boat captain husband were forming an organization which would steer his life toward new horizons.
As a teacher at Pinewoods Elementary, Ellen Nichols saw how poverty and language barriers were keeping many of her students from reaching their full potential.
“As kids aged through elementary school, the gaps for children who lived in poverty and for whom English is their second language got wider and wider the older they got, and I saw they needed additional support,” Ellen recalls.
That was 2002. Since then, more than 1,000 children have been mentored and tutored through New Horizons of Southwest Florida as part of after school Super Kids and Super Teens clubs. Many learn to sail with Ellen’s husband, Captain Bob. The couple has taken teens on a mission trip to Haiti and the Bahamas and a hiking adventure on Machu Picchu in Peru.
“It’s called New Horizons because we wanted to help young people who are trapped or surrounded by circumstances that put them at a disadvantage and give them the ability to see beyond where they are,” Ellen says. “We’re always seeking out new opportunities in life they would not have otherwise. From sailing to Haiti to climbing Machu Picchu, we’re exposing them to new horizons.”
The organization also seeks to provide a moral compass, teaching Christian values to help avoid life’s pitfalls. Concepts like honesty, integrity and personal responsibility are taught alongside the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
“We talk a lot about making wise choices and being responsible for the decisions you’re making,” Ellen says.
Lopez was among the first group of students to go through the Super Kids and Super Teens programs from elementary school to graduation. Thanks to New Horizons, he’s headed to Florida Southwestern State College (formerly Edison State College) to study architecture and construction. He received fours scholarships and credits his involvement in Super Teens with helping him through family moves, health struggles and peer pressure situations.
“Without New Horizons, I don’t think I’d be as successful as I am today,” says Lopez, who was keynote speaker for the organization’s annual luncheon. “I’ve learned that life can be very hard, but we can overcome anything by trusting God and not giving up.”
Local teachers also believe in the effectiveness of New Horizons. A recent survey of teachers with students in New Horizons programs showed 100 percent agree the organization is providing a service which is very important to the success of at-risk students at their schools. Data shows an average improvement of 35 percent in reading skills after children join the Super Kids Club.
Pinewoods Elementary School Teacher Irma Benejan noted marked improvement in one of her second grade students: “Please keep doing what you are doing with these children. It works!”
New Horizons volunteers provide more than 40,000 hours of individualized tutoring and mentoring each year. This month, New Horizons will open a Super Teens Club at Estero United Methodist Church, adding to the Super Kids Club there.
“The kids are in a vulnerable stage when they go to middle school and high school,” says Executive Director Debra Haley. “They need a Super Teens Club to continue getting the tutoring and mentoring and help with peer pressure and making good choices.”
New Horizons also operates summer camps, girls clubs and Super Kids Church locations in Estero, Bonita Springs and Naples. Sue Berg started volunteering as a Super Kids Club tutor in Estero and then moved to the Super Girls Club, designed to help 8-12 year olds develop self respect, along with skills like sewing and cooking.
“They really do take the messages very seriously, and they’re very interested in manners,” Berg says. “We teach them to stand proud, not just slink around, but develop respect for themselves.”
She urges others to volunteer as mentors: “I guarantee you’ll be hooked.”
From the smiles on their faces, the Super Kids also enjoy their time with caring tutors and mentors.
“It’s a place where they get support, they feel safe, they belong, and they know they can be successful,” Ellen says.
Volunteers and donations are always welcome at New Horizons as the organization seeks to reach more children. There is a waiting list for the Super Kids Club in Estero. For information on specific needs, sponsorship opportunities and volunteering, visit www.newhorizonsofswfl.org.