Retiring mentor keeps students on path to success during COVID-19

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As the pandemic worsened last year, and with a growing awareness that quarantines would go on indefinitely, Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County Director of Program Services Marilyn Schiavo sprung into action.

With nearly 35 years of experience in working with area youth, the Boynton Beach resident knew a real psychological and emotional crisis was unfolding.

So she requested a meeting of the minds with Nancy Stellway, the executive director of the independent Palm Beach County affiliate of the national Take Stock in Children nonprofit organization, to voice her concerns.

“When Marilyn came to me and said she was worried about the kids’ mental health during COVID, I knew we needed to develop a plan and quickly,” Stellway said. “She wanted us to think outside the box in terms of what we could do to help the kids keep a positive attitude during very challenging times.”

Schiavo, a longtime advocate for student achievement, said she was fearful of the adverse impact the pandemic was having on the lives of those primarily of high-school-age within not only the Take Stock community but also throughout the School District of Palm Beach County

Already impacted by economic and social inequities within their households, hundreds of scholarship award recipients involved in the Take Stock mission were at a tipping point.

“We needed to create an environment for them where they could be involved in the outside world without being in the outside world,” Schiavo said.

Through numerous planning sessions and with the cooperation of area businesses, the students were afforded the virtual opportunity to hear and learn from company officials through community showcases via Google Meet sessions every Thursday afternoon.

It proved, along with numerous Zoom interactions, to be a game-changer and kept the students on the straight and narrow path toward their collegiate aspirations.

“Along with increasing our virtual workshops, this proved to be a great way for the kids to learn about what these professionals do and gain an insight into the business world,” Stellway said. “Marilyn was a big part of bringing that to fruition.”

Director of Program Services Marilyn Schiavo, center, joins Executive Director Nancy Stellway and Director of Development Lidia Vargas during a leadership session at Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County headquarters.

Director of Program Services Marilyn Schiavo, center, joins Executive Director Nancy Stellway and Director of Development Lidia Vargas during a leadership session at Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County headquarters. (Take Stock in Children PBC / Courtesy)

After spending most of her adult life in the educational system with the School District of Palm Beach County, and with no children of her own, Schiavo joined the Take Stock affiliate in 2011 as a member of the volunteer mentor team.

Roughly four years later, she was tasked to lead mentors, students, alumni and a team of volunteers through her directorship role.

With retirement now on the horizon, Schiavo remains laser-focused on continuing to guide the hundreds of youth with whom she has been associated over the years.

“I’m currently mentoring a young lady who has come from a life of total disfunction and I feel like I’ve become a surrogate grandmother to her,” said Schiavo, who primarily works with those in grades 9 to 11. “She appears to have (immersed) herself in academics to block out the dysfunction that’s going on around her.”

Through Schiavo’s support and encouragement, that student has achieved National Honor Society recognition.

“She’s an amazing young woman and I see great things for her because she’s a survivor,” Schiavo said. “With a lot of our (Taking Stock) kids who come from these types of households, we are finding that through our programs they now have resilience and are determined to break the cycles. It’s really an amazing process to watch.”

Amazing is an adjective used by Wanda Kirby to describe Schiavo, her longtime friend and associate. The two long knew each other through the county school district years before they became involved in the Take Stock organization.

Kirby serves as the coordinator of Take Stock in Children Palm Beach’s scholarship program.

“I have great admiration for Marilyn,” she said. “I can’t say enough about her ability to connect with kids and care about them.”

Kirby has witnessed firsthand the dedication Schiavo has shown toward those she mentors, as well as her resolve to make sure they reach the finish line in the pursuit of their collegiate aspirations.

“She’s like a dog with a bone; she will not let go of what a kid needs. She’s a real workhorse,” she said. “I cannot say enough good things about her.”

Stellway has also had a front-row seat to watch Schiavo work her magic.

The Take Stock blueprint, first established in 1995, calls for deserving low-income youth from inner-city and impoverished neighborhoods to receive scholarships with matching dollar-for-dollar funds provided by the Florida Prepaid College Foundation.

“The whole idea is that if you can bring a student even as early as middle school into our organization, match them with a mentor and give them college readiness, the possibilities then become very real,” said Stellway, who noted that Take Stock started as a high school dropout prevention program.

The responsibilities don’t end, however, with their admission into college.

“I get asked all the time if I can be there for them if they need me while they are adjusting to college life and the answer is always yes,” said Schiavo, who worked with special-needs students in the School District of Palm Beach County and was instrumental in having those with disabilities included in regular education classes.

“Every student is so different and so complex, but they all want that village of support as they make their way onto college and university campuses,” Schiavo said. “Ninety percent of Take Stock kids become first-generation collegiate students and don’t have support systems at home to help navigate the system.”

Marilyn Schiavo and former Take Stock student and alumni Ashly Calderon reminisce during a recent lunch outing.

Marilyn Schiavo and former Take Stock student and alumni Ashly Calderon reminisce during a recent lunch outing. (Take Stock in Children PBC / Courtesy)

Schiavo’s resume includes her work with youth as a professor at Nova Southeastern University.

“She knows how to coach these kids and best prepare them for life in college,” Stellway said. “She’s been such a huge part of our organization and I couldn’t be more proud. It’s been really special to watch her build the bonds with these kids over the years.”

Along with providing all kinds of virtual support for the students during the pandemic, Schiavo was also heavily involved in the creation of a platform that allowed low-income families to find all the resources necessary to keep them afloat.

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“We knew all the urgent needs out there, and so we found a way to be the dispenser of resources during COVID,” Schiavo said. “We helped them find their local food bank, unemployment assistance, rental assistance, things like that, which are so important in these difficult times.”

Schiavo’s influence on her students has paid huge dividends in that many come back to serve in volunteer positions.

“We have so many alumni who return year after year to stay in touch and lend skills,” Stellway said. “We have people like Marilyn to thank for that since she has touched so many of their lives.”

Schiavo has dramatically grown the mentoring program by enlisting college graduates through the AmeriCorps program from which members commit to serve vital roles within nonprofit community organizations such as Take Stock.

“There is always an urgent need for mentors, especially now,” Schiavo said. “Our mentors get so much out of the experience, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize how greatly they are impacting the lives of the future leaders of Palm Beach County.”

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