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Gulf Coast Community Foundation Supports Education Preparation for DeSoto County Students

Learn how one 10-year-old nonprofit is transforming students’ lives in DeSoto County.

Presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation January 20, 2023

ACT Prep Workshops: Students learn test-taking strategies and other tips from JoAnn Hillman.

Hurricane Ian left DeSoto County schools closed and families in turmoil. Students who were already behind academically lost out on important school time and families huddled together to deal with hurricane damage.

In November, Gulf Coast Community Foundation awarded a $15,000 grant to Links2Success from its Hurricane Ian Recovery Initiative to assist DeSoto County students and their families in recovering from the storm. Ashley Coone, former DeSoto county commissioner and DeSoto county native, is the co-founder and executive director of Links2Success. Coone led the grassroots efforts to renovate the Smith-Brown gym and turn it into the first Boys & Girls Club in DeSoto County. She was thrilled to receive this grant during such a critical time for DeSoto County students. The grant will help students reach their full potential with more resources and support.

Students in the College & Career Prep program had the opportunity to learn from local inspiring professionals about their different careers.

“Our students were out of school for a few weeks after Hurricane Ian. Some were already behind in the college and career planning process. With this funding from Gulf Coast Community Foundation, we will be able to provide a thorough spring break program for our students. Whereas they would’ve probably been home, they will have experience in workshops like food prep, college and career, and skills to help them be better leaders and assist them emotionally and behaviorally. This is for the whole person, not just college or career preparation,” said Coone.

Doing More

Links2Success is a 10-year-old, DeSoto County nonprofit that provides free college coaching programs to students. Twenty-five high school students receive year-round mentoring and support, and they also offer a summer program for middle school students. Their College Success Program provides resources for students that completed the College Prep Academy to help them reach graduation in college or technical school. They’ve helped hundreds of students over the years. Links2Success enrolls high school students from households living below the poverty line and who do not have a guardian who has attended a college or a trade school. The activities are provided free of charge to students. Skill development activities include test preparation workshops, financial literacy, preparing and budgeting healthy meals, time management skills, and teaching students about the impact of their everyday choices. “Ashley Coone and the team she has trained are an inspiration. They exemplify giving a hand up to the next generation. We are grateful for the transformational work this nonprofit is accomplishing,” said the Director of Community Leadership for Gulf Coast Community Foundation Jennifer Johnston.

FAFSA Night: Twenty-five DeSoto families were assisted with the FAFSA application and learned other information about the college application process including scholarships.

 

Links2Success matches volunteers with students. In fact, two lead volunteers are alums of the program. Twelve volunteers in total are doing the college coaching. Parents are now invited to the programs. 40 percent of participants’ parents did not graduate high school. The nonprofit hosts Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) nights open to all students and they work with partners like United Way Suncoast and All Faiths Food Bank to assist families. A whopping 93% of the students in the programs enroll in post-secondary education. 85 percent of those students have earned a certificate or degree. Due to student learning loss after the pandemic and now school days missed due to Hurricane Ian, students need additional workshops to ensure they graduate high school and make a post-secondary plan. Links2Success recently held an ACT test prep workshop and the teacher said their test scores were the lowest she’s seen in five years. Additionally, the need is great as they have a waiting list. Half of the students who applied in 2022 had to be turned away as there was not enough capacity to assist them all.

We sat down with Executive Director, Ashley Coone to learn more.

Q: What inspired you to create this nonprofit?

Coone: I worked with Take Stock in Children while earning my master’s degree. My parents made me go to college. I didn’t know I had a choice. I just thought I was supposed to go. My mom did the best she could to help us prepare. She earned her associate’s degree while she was pregnant with me. Our program is similar to Take Stock in Children and is built on the work I did with them. When I left Take Stock, I went to work for Florida Gulf Coast University in the Office of Retention with students who needed resources to get their grade point average back up and keep them in college. I thought, “Why is no one doing this in DeSoto?” If we just had a program like this in DeSoto that holds these kids’ hands and helps get them prepared before graduation, we could change the trajectory of their lives. One of our helping hands, Edith, was in the very first class. She was a senior who had no idea what she was doing after high school. We pulled this program together quickly to start helping her. Edith is now a college graduate and working with our students one on one. She really cares. I’m motivated because this is my hometown, I know these families, and I care about their future. I think we can turn things around for our students just by giving them resources. It hasn’t been easy over the 10 years raising funds and sustaining the program. Every year there are students who come to me and need help with things. My sister, Maria Coone, is also a co-founder and oversees our summer programming.

Q: How has this organization impacted students?

Coone: We have so many unique students, some working on technical degrees in nursing and now one student enrolled at law school at Howard. These are students that probably wouldn’t have gone to college. We have so many now that are actually working in their careers who give back, including giving back to our organization by mentoring. They encourage their siblings to be in our program. We want to do more with the parents. I’ve had people come up to me at the grocery store crying, telling me how we’ve helped change lives. It’s been a lot of sacrifices. We are just now getting enough funding. The first five years I volunteered and we had volunteers help us.

Q: February is African American History Month. What was is it like growing up in DeSoto County and being a minority?

Coone: In DeSoto County, we have challenges. We are very different from Sarasota and Manatee. Our resources are quite limited here. The work that we are doing is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need support. In terms of leadership, I feel like I am doing the work God put me on earth to do. The goal is to help people. I’m glad I was a DeSoto County Commissioner because it allowed me to really meet and talk to people. I’m grateful I can be a vessel to get things done. People who care and are serious about helping our community come to me and we translate that into something good. This hasn’t been easy. There have been challenges and obstacles. A mentor helped me. These students have changed my life. As a minority, I am able to relate to a lot of experiences our students face. I’m happy that they have someone relatable in their lives. My background allows me to better serve our students.

“While we are helping our 25 students, there are still hundreds of students who need this programming and aren’t receiving it. Our goal is to either continue to bring on staff to enroll more students or train the students to take it back to the schools and help their classrooms and peers. We like to train our students and reach even more kids,” said Coone.

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