Last month I had the pleasure of attending a very special birthday party: the quinceañera for a girl who has become a dear part of my world.
The party celebrated the 15th birthday of Roxana (who like me also goes by “Roxie”), a person I met when she was just six years old, shortly after she and her family arrived in the United States as immigrants from Cuba. The family, fleeing communism and a way of life that offered no future for them, first set foot on American soil on Valentine’s Day 2014 with little more than a dream. They knew virtually no English and were hardly equipped to make a successful life in this new land, but the world they left behind offered no hope.
Upon arrival, little Roxana was enrolled in pre-K at Tuttle Elementary, but the waning months of the school year were not enough to familiarize her with the language. A school guidance counselor recommended the Summer Learning Academy through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties to help prepare her for kindergarten.
It was at The Club that I met Roxana, and that’s where our friendship began. When I introduced myself and she heard my name, her eyes flickered with recognition and excitement. I asked the girl her name, to which she replied “Roxana Cuba.” I, too, was excited about our shared name. I asked her what school she attends. Her reply: “Roxana Cuba.” A few more questions led to the same response: “Roxana Cuba.” In this simple exchange, this yearning for connection from an innocent child whose life had been dramatically transformed, my heart was captured.
In the years since, little Roxie has been a constant in my life. Watching her blossom into a confident young woman, make friends, and continue to succeed has been heartwarming.
Over the years her family has welcomed me into their home and lives. Her mother, also named Roxana, arrived in the U.S. with 13 years of nursing experience in Cuba, but no documentation of her life and merits there. The Community Foundation was fortunate to be able to assist Roxana in acquiring critical documents so she could attain her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license and continue in the field of medicine.
Roxana, the daughter of medical professionals, has expectations of herself to excel in the medical field in her new country. She aspired to achieve higher credentials in nursing so she could provide a better life for her family. The first step, she knew, would be learning English. She attended Families Together, a program designed to teach English and life skills to first-generation immigrant parents. Funded by our Community Foundation and administered through UnidosNow, Families Together was borne out of the recognition that for immigrant children to succeed, their parents must participate in their lives fully, an action requiring language fluency that provides parents with tools they need to navigate our education and workforce systems.
Roxana became fluent in English, as were by then her three children. This was key in her next endeavor. In August of 2022, she earned her Licensed Nurse Practitioner (LPN) license with help from our 2Gen approach to whole-family success, a credential that opened new earning opportunities. She now has a job at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a job she loves at a place she describes as “magical.” She told me that for years, she would drive by SMH with her husband and stare longingly at the pristine white buildings, telling him he’d better believe she would work there one day.
That day has arrived.
Witnessing their journey and hearing Roxana’s enthusiasm for the United States reminds me of our good fortune to live in a land of opportunity. “This place is a gift,” she says, and you can hear the gratitude in her voice.
She, too, is a gift. Roxana shares her skills, talents, and compassion at the hospital, where she helps people heal every day; her husband, Arturo, also contributes to our community and economy through his work at a local manufacturing company. Her older sons have earned professional licenses, with one heading back to college to pursue a career in physical therapy, continuing on the family’s medical lineage.
In our work at our Community Foundation, we naturally rely on solid data and numbers. Numbers can tell us that we are making an impact, providing us with proof points that guide our work. It’s important to know, for instance, that parental educational level is the single strongest correlation of children’s success in school and later in life. It was through learning about this whole family approach, innovated by the Ascend at the Aspen Institute, that our foundation accumulated enough evidence to confidently invest in our 2Gen programs with community partners.
But what numbers can’t capture is the feeling you get when you see a 15-year-old girl emerge in her sparkling dress, to the immense delight and pride of her family and loved ones as they celebrate this important rite of passage. Numbers can’t replace the joy you feel in talking to this lovely teenager, who will enroll this fall in Sarasota High School’s Cambridge AICE program for promising scholars, remembering that just nine years ago, she didn’t know a word of English. Numbers can’t supplant the elation you feel when her mom tells you that she is living her dream.
The warmth that comes over you when you know that her daughter will be able to pursue her own dream is immeasurable.
As for me, I’m excited to watch Roxie pursue her dreams with the real potential to achieve them. I look forward to witnessing her grow her talents and then share them, as her parents have before her. And I’m excited to live in a nation where this is possible, where anything’s possible when we unite to lift up the people who live here.
This Fourth of July, I will reflect on how living in the United States has been a gift for me and other citizens who have dreams, with renewed realization that in this land, dreams can come true.
I’m curious: what is a goal you’ve pursued successfully? How did it feel for you to be able to achieve what was in your mind’s eye?