Immokalee teens Zoom toward dreams of college, careers


John Mayer retired in 2016 as vice president of U.S. retail sales for J.M. Smucker, a company known for iconic brands like Smucker’s jelly and Jif peanut butter. The part-time Naples resident has traveled extensively and dined on cuisine from around the world, yet offered a surprising anecdote about his meal of choice.

“One of my favorite sandwiches is still a peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread,” he said.

Mayer was the keynote presenter at Guadalupe Center’s Leadership Day on April 21. Unlike a career day, where speakers discuss their industry, a dozen professionals instead shared insights, experiences and lessons learned with dozens of Immokalee teenagers. One of Mayer’s tips was to be passionate about your job and love what you do. He parlayed his love for peanut butter and jelly into a successful 35-year career with Smucker, making him a better salesman as he approached distribution partners and a better executive who understood consumer trends and demands.

Although Mayer’s example is a unique one, other Leadership Day presenters shared similar advice.

“There is not anybody in the world that can take your dream away from you,” said Sgt. Natalie Ashby, the only female SWAT member in the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. “Nothing comes easy in life. Stick with it, and you’ll get what you want.”

Guadalupe Center created Leadership Day in 2019 as an opportunity for Immokalee High School students to not just hear from successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, but to engage in dialogue with them. This year’s Leadership Day was virtual, putting groups of three to five students into Zoom breakout rooms for 10 minutes each. The students, upperclassmen in Guadalupe Center’s college-preparatory Tutor Corps Program, were able to ask about how presenters settled on a career choice, what inspires them, how they overcome challenges and other topics.

This year’s panelists included Regine Cooper (construction), Sheri Oganowski (nursing), Sgt. Natalie Ashby (law enforcement), Tom Costello (advertising/motivational coach), Christi Finger (graphic design), Mark Nagan (engineering), Dan Miller (musician), Kellie Burns (journalism), James Ragusa (education), Jane Sussman (social work), Kasimir Oganowski (physician) and Margie White (attorney).

Just six years after graduating from Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Cooper is Suffolk Construction’s project engineer managing a $98 million construction project at Gateway High School in Fort Myers. The youngest of the 12 presenters, Cooper’s background is similar to many students served by Guadalupe Center. Her advice to the college-bound students was simple: “Don’t go to parties. Spend your time in career services.”

Guadalupe Center’s Tutor Corps Program provides college and career readiness, ACT and SAT test prep, mentorships, financial literacy and scholarship assistance, as well as wages for tutoring younger students. Two years ago, Leadership Day emerged as another opportunity to better prepare students for the challenges ahead.

“We are so thankful for each presenter who shared his or her time, talents and wisdom with students, as well as our staff,” said Guadalupe Center President Dawn Montecalvo. “It’s incredibly important for students to recognize that you don’t just learn in the classroom; you also learn by watching, listening and talking to others.”

– By Sheila Oxx, Director of the Tutor Corps Program.