Friday, December 2, 2011

Meet Another of the Pearson Prize National Fellows

Meet the Pearson Prize National Fellows
The Pearson Prize is a student leadership award that recognizes and provides support to exemplary students who are distinguishing themselves by leading public service efforts in their local communities. This post is part of a series of blog entries highlighting Pearson Prize National Fellows. Recently, we asked Maria Vertkin, a Pearson Prize National Fellow for 2010, what issues or initiatives she is passionate about, how she’s acted on her passion, and the most rewarding experience she’s had in her work.

Maria, what cause(s) are you passionate about, and why?

I believe that adolescence is a critical life stage during which one determines a trajectory for the rest of one’s life, and I am passionate about giving young people the support and the tools that they need to succeed. In the world we live in, high school graduation is a very crucial step toward leading a successful and productive life.

But the reality is that we are not all given an equal chance at this. For example, if a student is homeless, unsure where she will spend the night or what and when she will eat next, it will be difficult for her to focus on academics. If a student is forced to find money for rent, he will face a tough choice between dropping out of school in order to work and finding other ways to survive while attempting to finish high school without a place to call home. It is no wonder that the drop-out rate for high school students who experience homelessness is about 75% according to the DOE.

How have you acted on that passion?

I work at a non-profit called Rediscovery, where in pursuit of my passion I helped to develop an innovative school-based homelessness prevention/intervention program called YouthHarbors. As the Program Manager of YouthHarbors, I work with high school students who are unaccompanied (not in the care of an adult) and facing homelessness. We work to house and stabilize youth in their own communities, thus preventing further disruptions to their education and slashing drop-out rates. We help students to find permanent, safe, and affordable housing, connect them with supportive host families, and can provide as much as 100% rental subsidy to students while they search for a job.

What is the most rewarding experience you've had in your work?

The work that I do is often the difference between a young person sleeping on a bed and sleeping on a bench, the difference between being able to take a hot shower and walking the streets in the rain, the difference between being a graduate and being a drop-out.

Can you guess what our YouthHarbors’ drop-out rate is? The first year we ran the program, 96% of students graduated or remained on track to graduate. In the second year, 100% of students graduated or remained on track to graduate. Not a single drop-out. It is incredibly rewarding to be a part of what I believe to be the most effective drop-out prevention model for this population.

But what is even more rewarding is watching the students that I’ve worked with walk across that stage, shake the principal’s hand, and receive a diploma. Finishing high school is no small feat – but for a student who just months ago had been sleeping on a friend’s porch and carrying all her belongings in a trash bag, such an accomplishment is truly remarkable. This past June, I had the privilege of watching16 YouthHarbors students walk across the stage.

The work that I do is so meaningful and so intrinsically rewarding that sometimes I cannot believe I also get paid to do it! But don’t tell my boss that.

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