Age 18.
Graduate of Sandalwood High School.

Mercedes can point to the precise moment when it all turned around: It was the day that her teacher, Mrs. Kirk, told her she was going to make it.

Growing up, Mercedes lived with her single father and siblings, and because money was tight, they often lived in hotel rooms or even the family car for long stretches of time. Until sophomore year of high school, Mercedes had always used her smarts and sunny disposition to overcome the many obstacles she had faced.

But in tenth grade, she got pregnant.

“I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t have anybody to turn to,” Mercedes said.

That is, until she confided in her teacher, Jessie Kirk, at Sandalwood High.

“She was always there for me,” Mercedes said. “I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for her.”

The loss of that unplanned pregnancy hit Mercedes even harder. Support from her extended family had always been scant. As a biracial child, she often felt that she wasn’t accepted by either side of her family.

In Mrs. Kirk, she found a teacher who believed in her. A teacher who knew that underneath it all, Mercedes was still the same girl who classmates used to beg for homework answers.

She got Mercedes involved in AVID, a college readiness program that helped Mercedes bring her grades—and her self-esteem—up.

“She was the first person to tell me I’ll make it,” Mercedes said. “That day, everything just turned around. Even though there was negative stuff, I pushed myself to keep going.”