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Palm Beach Student Overcomes Grief

  • When Jasmine Calderon took the stage recently to give her valedictorian speech at Pahokee Middle-Senior High School, a school in Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County, her happiness was marred by that one empty seat in the auditorium.  

    Calderon’s father died of complications from COVID-19 four days after Father’s Day in 2020. This tragic loss overshadowed much of the joy that senior year and being at the top of her class was expected to bring.  

    “I told my mom that if I had not already been on a good path since eighth grade, I would not have had the motivation to do well my senior year,” Calderon said. “There were way too many times that I just wanted to give up.” 

    The challenge of her studies in the International Baccalaureate program at her school was compounded by the overall stress of the pandemic, fear over losing someone else, and the responsibility she had of caring for her family in the absence of her beloved father.  

    “Not only was he my dad, but I have to admit he was the main source of income for my family. His loss was a huge hit for my family, mom, and sisters,” Calderon said.  Credit: Palm Beach Post

    Calderon’s father was a migrant worker, who immigrated from Mexico and endured long hours in the Glades Region’s sugarcane fields. His job was to harvest and process sugar in Pahokee, which borders the Florida Everglades. Pahokee is a tight-knit, impoverished community in which the median income is under $18,000. 

    Since his death, Calderon’s mother has picked up odd jobs serving at parties as well as cleaning homes. In addition to juggling her own studies, Calderon was also charged with keeping her 13-year-old sister on track in distance learning in addition to helping her deaf 24-year-old sister navigate a world in which Calderon serves as her interpreter.  

    Despite everything her family was facing, Calderon remained steadfast in her schoolwork, dual-enrolled at Palm Beach State College and was a member of the National Honor Society. “I had a reputation to uphold. I have this GPA to uphold, so I need to do better or at least be consistent,” she said.  

    The dedication of her mentors and teachers kept her on track to complete this ever-challenging school year and she was named the valedictorian of her 2021 senior class.   

    Her perseverance also paid dividends as she was nominated for, and won a $40,000 scholarship as a Take Stock in Children Fellow, one of only six fellows selected in the state of Florida. A teacher who recognized her potential encouraged Calderon to apply, earning her a full scholarship to Emory University in Atlanta.   

    “If it wasn’t for this teacher, who wasn’t even my teacher to begin with, I wouldn’t have gotten this amazing opportunity,” Calderon said. “I am so blessed to have amazing mentors and teachers to keep me going.” 

    Calderon plans to study environmental law and return to the Glades area of Florida to work for the neighbors in her small community. 

    “I want to give back to the Glades community. I want to make sure families have better educational opportunities, better working conditions, better job opportunities, and opportunities outside of agriculture,” she said.  

    Despite her admirable accomplishments during this challenging year, Calderon says she’d trade it all if it were possible to fill that one empty seat at graduation; the one that would have been occupied by her proud father.  

    “I’d do anything to be one of those kids who may not get a scholarship, but have their whole family,” Calderon says. “But all of my dad’s sacrifices are what got me here.”