By Sky Wilson, contributor
A local non-profit that creates college opportunities for high school scholars of Latino descent, has found an innovative way to host its annual fundraising event: drive-thru style.
On Oct. 24, guests for the Scholars Latino Initiative fundraising event called Salsa de Noche will drive through the Steven Toyota service building. They’ll received takeout from Salgado’s Pupuseria y Taqueria while live dancers from Salsaburg and the Friendly City Dance Room perform nearby.
Scholars Latino Initiative has served the Valley since 2012. Students join the organization in their sophomore year of high school and are encouraged to take more rigorous classes while the organization provides them with leadership and service opportunities, mentorship and resources.
Program Director Carlos Alemán describes many of the students they help as “under resourced and overlooked.” Through the program, they are given the tools to be “recruited, sought after and looked for because of their leadership,” Aleman says.
Scholars Latino Initiative’s approach is a holistic one that engages students in their education and in their community so that they are attractive to college recruiters, gain self confidence and understand their place in the world.
“The students from SLI that we support will return to their communities and become advocates for the next generation,” said SLI Vice-Chair Karina Kline-Gabel.
The program’s alumni have gone on to attend Harvard University, Eastern Mennonite University, James Madison University, University of Virginia, Blue Ridge Community College and George Mason University, among others.
Each year, the group throws its Salsa de Noche party to celebrate the significant and positive impacts SLI and its donors have made on the scholars.
The evening usually includes dancing, locally-made Latinx food, and the chance for scholars and SLI supporters to meet. Their 2020 event was originally scheduled for April, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, organizers began to rethink everything.
“We had to take a pause, take a step back and wait and see what was going to happen,” said Christopher Clymer Kurtz, SLI’s director of development.
Still, the team wanted to convey their gratitude to donors and supporters somehow.
“Well, why don’t we do a drive-through meal that supports a local restaurant?” suggested a member of the SLI committee. With the help of Ryan Sodikoff, general manager at Steven Toyota and member of the SLI board, they decided the spacious service area of his auto dealership would be perfect.
Kurtz said although this is not how they usually celebrate, it will “give people a taste.”
Attendees will drive through the service station entrance, pick up their order from Salgado’s Pupuseria y Taqueria, pause for a moment to watch the live salsa dancing, and receive a “diploma of gratitude” from SLI that showcases their appreciation for the community’s support. Guests will also be invited to make scholarship donations in addition to their tickets, which are still available. The deadline is Oct. 18.
The goal is to sell at least 250 tickets to Salsa de Noche. Anyone is welcome to attend but meals must be reserved in advance.
Through the event, Scholars Latino Initiative leaders are hoping to raise $25,000 from sponsorships, ticket sales and additional donations.
The money will benefit student scholarships. And some of it will go toward the organization’s annual computer awards. At the end of each school year, senior SLI students receive $1,000 to help purchase a laptop computer for college.
This year, SLI’s board decided to award this money to seniors early so they could adapt to the hybrid schooling model. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and so does online schooling, the group would like to make that money available to more than just the seniors.
Though the event is about thanking teachers, donors and the Harrisonburg community for their support, Alemán — the program director — said this year, even more than past years, it’s also about thanking the students.
“It’s very rewarding to be a part of their lives and to realize that the struggle, the sort of things they’re working through, are ten times what everyone else is working through,” Alemán said. “I want to thank the students for being brilliant and strong or for being leaders.”
Alemán said students work, on average, 35 hours per week at part-time jobs while many also have families who depend on them to translate for them — especially in healthcare and legal situations, which have become even more important during COVID-19. The scholars handle all of this while maintaining high grades and participating in extracurricular activities so they can one day apply for college.
“[These students] have our respect in so many ways,” Kurtz said. “We want to support that and welcome the community in joining us.”
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