Caleb Bernardo sat alone and kept to himself when he first entered Albemarle County Public Schools.
Bernardo, a Monticello High School senior who immigrated to the United States at age 3, spoke no English and did not interact with his peers for fear of ridicule.
Pearl Outlaw, a senior at Tandem Friends School, has to rely on her mother or her friends to get around. Outlaw, an avid rower with a scholarship offer from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, is losing her sight to a degenerative retina condition and has trouble getting around.
Precious Minor lost her mother and father to gangs, has spent time in group homes and is trying to get back on her feet.
Thea Louis works two jobs after a full class schedule at The Miller School of Albemarle to pay for college applications and testing fees.
These four area teenagers from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds highlighted their unique challenges Tuesday at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s annual luncheon.
In a video presentation to the foundation’s supporters and grantees, the teenagers took turns explaining their daily struggles.
Bernardo said he tries to hide that he lives in Southwood Mobile Home Park for fear of being judged.
“Only one of my friends knows where I live, and that’s just because, for me, people might think of me differently,” he said. “That’s really just what it comes with, how other people are going to respect you.”
Now taking five Advanced Placement classes, Bernardo learned English by practicing daily after school and watching “Sesame Street.” With the right mentoring, he said, there are other students in Southwood who would stand out.
“There is so much potential here, but I don’t think a lot of people see that in this type of community,” he said. “They want to succeed, but the problem is that no one is there to guide them and show them the proper steps.”
Minor, a senior at Charlottesville High School, said she witnessed stabbings and shootings as a child, and she fears that little will change in her community.
“I just feel like it’s never going to stop,” she said. “And it’s never going to stop because you have some parents and adults who are not into it, and then you have some parents and adults who just don’t care and then you have some parents and adults who think that it’s cool to, like, they influence it, they want it to happen.”
Minor, who wants to pursue a nursing certificate, spent time in a group home after myriad behavior problems at school, she said.
“I hate to see other kids and other young people have to grow up and go through things that I went through,” she said. “There has to be a better support system for all the schools, for people actually going to the schools and talking. Opening their voices and letting kids know that life is really what you make it.”
The students’ stories serve to focus CACF’s mission, said Anne Scott, foundation president and CEO.
“A thriving community is not a perfect one. There are always places in its fabric that are worn, or torn all together,” she said. “Precious lost her parents to gangs, Caleb doesn’t like to tell people where he lives. So as our youths tell it, we have huge opportunities here today to keep our children safe and away from gang violence, or to help them feel deeply included in our community.”
Outlaw — who at 9 years old was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that erodes a sufferer’s vision — advocated for expanded public transportation.
“Being a senior in high school, I want to go places and do things with my friends and stuff like that,” she said. “If they improve the distance that the buses would go and improve the range, it would make it a lot easier and more accessible for people like me who maybe can’t get to where they need to go all the time.”
The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation supports Charlottesville Tomorrow’s coverage of education.