At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Dory Li was already working up a sweat to the sounds of Shakira, Marc Anthony and other Latino artists.
Li, 15, wasn’t dancing, but leading a group of Enloe High School students known as Jóvenes Para Ayudar as they planned a fiesta at Bond Park in Cary to benefit the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals. The group helps Hispanic students advance their academic careers. Its name means, roughly, “teens who help.”
Music speakers were plugged in and working. But some picnic tables under JPA’s shelter needed to be moved and covered with cloths. Someone needed to tape up signs and tape down numbers for a cake walk. And members had it covered.
The fiesta – organized entirely by students – was the group’s first fundraiser since its inception last summer. JPA charged $10 for tickets to the party, which featured music, Mexican food, raffles and other activities.
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None of the students involved with JPA are Hispanic, and the group of 115 people who showed up to the fiesta were mostly white and Asian.
Li and Heeya Sen, another 15-year-old Enloe sophomore, calmly directed dozens of volunteers, led activities and accepted cash donations for about three hours.
The group hoped to raise at least $1,000 for the society. By 12:30 p.m., they had collected more than $1,700.
“It’s so great to see students come out and support events like this,” Li said.
Li presented an oversized check in that amount to Marco Zárate, president and co-founder of the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals. Zárate thanked the students, saying the society will likely award the money to a Hispanic student seeking to go to college next year.
The society, a nonprofit that Zárate co-founded in 1999, has given more than $250,000 to Hispanic students over the years, he said. The fiesta marked the first time the society was on the receiving end of a donation from students, he added.
“They have seen some of their peers struggling,” Zárate said, referring to JPA members who tutor Hispanic students. “They’ve shown that they care about them, and it’s really good to see.”
Li, whose family is Chinese, has few ties to Hispanic culture except through her Spanish class. But she finds Hispanic culture “deeply rich,” and said she started JPA because she wanted to put her Spanish abilities to good use by helping Hispanics in the community.
“I thought it would be the best use of my (Spanish) skills,” she said.
Most JPA leaders have similar stories. Sen, a vice president for the student group, comes from an Indian family. Though Sen also has taken a couple Spanish classes, she isn’t fluent in the language yet. But she hasn’t let her limitations stop her from helping Hispanic kids her age, many of whom come from underprivileged families.
Given the state’s increasing Hispanic population, “It’s almost irresponsible to not be educated in the culture and language,” Sen said.
Members of JPA tutor Hispanic students at other schools in the area once a week – an act that Zárate considers as valuable as money.
Many Hispanics lack resources to send their kids to college, he said, but some students don’t stay in school long enough to consider it an option.
Hispanics in North Carolina tend to have a high drop-out rate, Zárate said. A third of Hispanic students who entered a Wake County high school in 2009 failed to graduate within four years, according to stats provided by the county in 2014.
Hispanic students who participated in a survey conducted by Zárate’s society cited difficulties with English and family pressure to quit school for a job as the top reasons they might drop out, he said.
Students who volunteer to tutor are especially valuable because the Hispanic students “may not have the role models at home,” Zárate said.
Li anticipates that her group will soon be able to help even more Hispanic students. JPA, now primarily based at Enloe High, plans to launch chapters at Green Hope High, Raleigh Charter High and the N.C. School of Science next school year.
Rikki Deshaies, a Spanish teacher at Enloe, sat at a picnic table and marveled at the maturity of her school’s teens as they organized the lunch line and simultaneously counted large sums of ticket cash.
“They’ve had everything planned out and didn’t need help from me at all,” Deshaies said, noting that most of the leaders aren’t old enough to drive.
“Let’s hope they know how to write a check,” she said, joking.