Inspiration. That theme was at the forefront at a recent luncheon saluting the more than 600 disadvantaged students participating in the Avenue Scholars program.
That initiative, which began with an initial group of 174 students in the fall of 2009, has become one of Omaha’s most impressive tools for helping young people overcome obstacles in their lives to gain confidence and academic success.
“It is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” Melvin Ramirez, an Avenue Scholar since 2010 and South Omaha resident, told the audience to open the event.
“You have potential,” he told his fellow scholars. “Don’t throw it away. Prepare yourself for the Avenue Scholar experience and the amazing life you’re going to have.”
The Avenue Scholars program places mentors in seven Omaha-area high schools to work daily with students. The results have been striking.
“Nearly 99 percent of Avenue Scholars graduate high school, nearly all attend college,” says Jef Johnson, chief operating officer for the Avenue Scholars program, “and so far the college retention rates are double that of their peer group.”
The mentoring continues into the students’ college experience, providing a path to guide students into the workplace.
Another key component is the collaboration by Metropolitan Community College (whose Institute for the Culinary Arts hosted the luncheon) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha in support of the program.
During the luncheon, Gov. Dave Heineman underscored how local philanthropic support and vision have made Avenue Scholars possible. Omaha, the governor said, benefits greatly from the “remarkable, unique and extraordinary” amount of civic involvement by Omaha’s private sector.
Business involvement, too, is critical to the program’s success, speakers said. The Hilton Omaha was praised, for example, for giving a group of Avenue Scholars the opportunity to work in the hotel’s kitchen alongside the head chef, and the hotel has offered to host a five-week workshop for students interested in pursuing opportunities in the hospitality and culinary careers.
“I was allowed to dream, to have a vision,” Thomas Wilkins, the luncheon’s keynote speaker and music director of the Omaha Symphony, told the Avenue Scholars in describing how he was raised in an impoverished household in Virginia but was given important opportunities for personal growth.
Providing that opportunity in Omaha is what Avenue Scholars is all about. How inspiring that it is succeeding so well.