Hosting a stay-in-school event just three weeks after the start of the fall semester in Hillsborough County seems like an odd bit of timing.
Yet Tomas Pizaña, pastor of Latin American Ministries at Bell Shoals Baptist Church, believes it was precisely the right time to launch the church's Jóvenes con Visión (Youth with Vision) group.
"This is about the time of year when kids who are struggling in school start thinking about dropping out," Pizaña said. "The idea behind this group is to provide support because, without clear direction and without a clear vision, there can be discouragement."
The first Jóvenes con Visión gathering targeted at Hispanic youth in grades 6-12 was Sept. 14 at Bell Shoals Baptist. Pizaña, along with a group of adult volunteers and church staff members, are serving as mentors for the students.
About 30 to 40 kids attended the inaugural meeting, which featured musical performances from members of the congregation, a talk from Pizaña and free pizza. Pizaña and his team are presently working with about 10 of the kids. All of those kids are from the congregation, but the group is open to students who don't attend the church.
One of those kids is 17-year-old David Muniz of Valrico, who was most recently enrolled at Burns Middle School last year.
"I didn't even worry about it because my friends told me I could drop out of school when I turned 16," Muniz said.
Though Florida's school leaving age is 18, the state's compulsory education law allows 16-year-olds to drop out with parental consent.
Pizaña first connected with Muniz about a year ago, shortly after meeting his mom at one of the church's Wednesday night English as a Second Language classes. The two met regularly for counseling sessions, and Pizaña helped Muniz enroll at the South County Career Center in Ruskin, which gives students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma while learning a trade.
"They gave me some choices, but I like cars, so I'm going to study to be a mechanic," said Muniz, who was scheduled to begin class in this month.
Pizaña said he hopes to host monthly meetings — with the next one tentatively scheduled for Oct. 19 — that will serve as a way for students to catch up with their mentors.
For information, call (813) 689-4229, ext. 275.