Residents of The Villages Start “Learning Lounge” to Help Local Students
Jacquari Hurst is a 19-year-old high school senior. She has a beautiful singing voice, which she shares weekly in her church choir. She plays three different instruments in the marching band and competes on her school volleyball team. She now has her sights set on college, eagerly awaiting her freshman year at Valdosta State University. But the road to this point wasn’t easy. It was a difficult journey that required the help of others.
“I lost my sister. Last Friday made it officially one year that she passed away. She died young, 24, so it’s hurt me a lot,” Hurst told Growing Bolder’s Secily Wilson. “I never grew up with my dad around. It was just me and my mom. So, not being able to be as close as I’m supposed to be with my sister anymore, that just did it right there. I was always taught to hide my feelings, because I don’t want to feel like I’m a burden on anybody else.”
But now, Jacquari does have someone to share those feelings with. She is a beneficiary of the Florida nonprofit Take Stock in Children, which pairs at-risk, financially challenged students with adult mentors: a person to listen and help guide them through their struggles to stay on track at school, enroute to earning college scholarships.
To date, Take Stock in Children has served more than 40,000 students in Florida. Their mission is to “end the cycle of poverty through education.” It was through this program, at the age of 13, that Jacquari met Chris Baldwin, a resident of The Villages, FL who became her mentor and changed her life.
“The first time we met, I felt like that was the first time someone was taking the time to ask about her,” Baldwin, 66, said. “I just wanted to show her that I cared, and that I was very sincere and wanted to meet her where she was in life.”
“It always just feels like ‘Oh, she really cares!’” Hurst said while reflecting on her mentoring sessions with Baldwin. “She’s always going to be by my side, no matter what.”
This pair has formed a special bond, meeting weekly for the past six years to talk about the ups and downs of Hurst’s teenage life.
“It’s been a great transition from the first time I’ve met her until now,” Baldwin said. “She’s just always in there, trying. She wants to do good. I’m so proud of her.”
Chris, and her husband Gregg, who is also a mentor, took it upon themselves to expand Take Stock in Children’s efforts. They collaborated with a local organization interested in giving back, Parady Financial Group, to create a special gathering place in The Villages called the ‘Learning Lounge’ — a place where mentors and students can meet with one another, have dinner, and gain more real-life knowledge from guest speakers.
“The mission is to help the kids navigate the real world after high school in a positive way. We like to do that through programs that talk about core values and life skills, and we want to do it with fun. We want them to be part of the solution in the world, not part of the problem,” Chris said.
“It’s just so wonderful to see these kids working hard and trying to get ahead, and being appreciative of the opportunity,” Gregg Baldwin, 70, explained.
The Baldwins have a long track record of giving back to children in need. Prior to moving to Florida, they created a non-profit in Pittsburgh, PA. Having raised a son with special needs, the Baldwins wanted to pass on knowledge and help other parents navigate the education system for their own children facing disabilities. They also started a scholarship program that has been helping high school students go to college for 15 years and counting.
Upon moving to The Villages in 2017, this passion flourished once again with the Learning Lounge, where topics range from Finance 101 to restaurant etiquette and interviewing skills to conflict resolution, how to make a great first impression, and more.
More than 20 pairs of mentors and mentees chatted over prime rib, potatoes, steamed vegetables and salads on a calm Thursday afternoon at The Villages Rohan Recreation Center. Guest speaker Karen Stange, a therapist and mental health counselor, engaged the crowd, encouraging the students and mentors alike to share their heroes, discuss their fears, reflect on their past and dream about their futures. It was an unlikely mix of backgrounds, cultures and ages brought together because of the Baldwins’ passion for empowering students.
“Throughout the Take Stock in Children program and the Learning Lounge dinners, you meet a bunch of different people,” high school senior Matthew Frisbie, 18, said. “You see people that it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’d ever meet up with you in person otherwise.’ But this program, it brought all these people together. It helped open me up and be more susceptible to other ideas.”
“If I wasn’t in this program, I probably wouldn’t have this many opportunities,” Hurst said. “It’s just that motivation. I have something to fight for at this. There’s nothing that is going to stop me. I know I have people that want me to continue and see me continue to grow.”
This article is featured in the Spring 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.