Based on their efforts in the Morris Innovative High School Translation Academy, Leydi Ballesteros, Jose Reynoso and Evelyn Zuniga were selected for a conference on mindsets in Orlando this past summer, and, since returning to Dalton, they've continued to build on that "Live to Give" mentality.
Students taking the Translation Academy series of classes at the school already pitch in at parent-teacher conferences, health fairs and family nights, among other responsibilities, but this trio "goes above and beyond, helping and volunteering," said Paige Watts, director of the Translation Academy. "They make an impact wherever they go."
They had all displayed leadership tendencies, and "I wanted to keep that momentum going" by sending them to this conference, Watts said. Ballesteros, Reynoso and Zuniga "have an authenticity about them, and they are willing to listen and learn."
Through a grant from the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership, the triumvirate — as well as an adult chaperone from Dalton State College who stood in for Watts while she was at a different conference — were able to spend a week in Orlando for the "7 Mindsets" conference in July, Watts said. After they returned, they created a "Live to Give" video detailing efforts to deliver treats to local law enforcement officers and firefighters, a multimedia submission deemed by organizers to be "top five" among all students who made videos.
"That felt really good, (because) a lot of people were doing" the video contest, said Reynoso, 16. They rallied their school classmates and teachers to contribute cookies and brownies, and received numerous desserts.
First responders like police officers and firefighters "always live to give," Reynoso added. "They help us without us even knowing it."
Ballesteros, now a freshman at Dalton State College, spent several years with Watts at the Translation Academy prior to her graduation from Morris last year, and "she started giving back even when her English was still limited," Watts said. "She's very people-oriented, kind and loving, so she was a great fit" for the Orlando conference.
This trip was also Ballesteros' first time away from home, so "I was scared, at first," she said. However, "I was also excited, because I knew I was going to learn a lot."
Reynoso started at the Dalton Public Schools Newcomer Academy for English Language Learners as a sixth-grader, then went to Dalton Middle School for grades seven and eight before joining the Translation Academy as a freshman, Watts said. "He's missed three days of school in three years, so he's always here, he's dual-enrolled (at Georgia Northwestern Technical College), and he came in knowing exactly what he needed to do to be successful."
This is Zuniga's "second year with me, and she's had a different journey" than Ballesteros or Reynoso, because she was "born and raised in Dalton," Watts said. Zuniga, 17, was named the "most improved" student at the Translation Academy last year, "she's a natural-born leader, and she understands the value of helping others."
The Orlando trip was the first time Zuniga was separated from her mother, so "I was really terrified, and my little sister, (who is) 5, is attached to me, so I thought about her, too," she said. However, positive self-talk helped remind her "I got this, I can do this, and then I started talking to more people."
In fact, she remains in contact with members of her cluster from the conference, she said. They established a group chat to keep in touch, and Zuniga's group leader even visited her house while on a trip to Atlanta.
Ballesteros, who is studying communications but may switch to nursing, has done the same with her group, she said. "When one of us has something good happen, we tell them, and we (congratulate) them."
Zuniga's experiences at the conference have "helped me grow," she said. "I was never quiet, but I didn't talk to a lot of people, and now I'm more social."
Others, including Watts, have even commented to her that "I'm showing more of myself, (instead of) being reserved," she added. "I feel more out there."
Much of the conference was devoted to various speakers, meetings and team-building, Reynoso said. "We learned a different mindset each day."
Many guest speakers had "hit rock bottom but gone on to success, which shows you really can achieve it," said Zuniga, who is dual-enrolled at GNTC. "Everything is possible."
"When something would get in my way, I used to say, 'That's as far as I can get,'" she added. Now, however, "I know I can go around the wall," over it, under it, or through it, and "keep going."
For Ballesteros, the most important lesson was that "we are all connected, and we all need someone else," she said. "You can't be successful by yourself."
Ballesteros, 19, also learned the value of advocating for herself, a skill that's been paramount as she began college this year.
"In high school, you're more connected with teachers, but in college, you have to help yourself," she said. Professors will assist, but "you have to ask for it if you need something."
Through the conference, Reynoso came to understand it isn't weak to ask for help.
"I used to want to do everything myself," and, when someone would offer to help, he'd wonder what they wanted from him, but the conference showed him "we can do more — we can do better — with the help of others," he said. "That opened my eyes."
The "100% accountability mindset" was also highly impactful for Reynoso, he said. "If you say 'Yes' to someone, you have to do it, or they will lose trust in you and won't want to help you. I try to be reliable so they can trust me."
Reynoso still has shirts representing each of the seven mindsets, and he wears them on "special occasions," he said. "I have my bad days, and if I need that (particular) mindset, I wear that shirt to remind me."
The conference only reaffirmed what students have already been taught by Watts, Ballesteros said. "What we learned (in Orlando) is what we do every day at the Translation Academy."
Her favorite outreach activity is working with elementary students on Fridays at City Park and Blue Ridge.
Many are new to America, and "they are scared, but with me, they feel like they're at home," she said. "They learn so quickly."
Zuniga prefers assisting Newcomer Academy students.
"I don't want them to feel aside from us, so I take time to talk to them and (befriend) them," she said. "I want them to want to be" at school.
Reynoso finds motivation for himself in helping adults learn English.
"They are still willing to learn, even at that age, and they want to better themselves," he said. "I want to do the same for myself."