Two months after his father was arrested again, Leo Jenkins and his grandmother drove past the Stardust skating rink in Sarasota. Leo’s grandmother asked if he wanted to try roller skating and soon his six-year-old grandmother helped lace up a pair of rental skates.
Leo loved it around the rink and came back the next week. That day, he saw a member of the club doing exercises, rising in the air like an ice skater, landing, and rolling gracefully. Leo began imitating an older girl who noticed her interest and encouraged her to sign up for lessons. Since then, roller skating has been competitive.
Although Stardust is closing in 2018, Leo, a senior at Sarasota High School and recipient of the INTENT Award, is still skating — now at Astro Skate, in Bradenton. She still choreographs and practices new routines and still competes. “It’s a home game for me,” Leo said. “Nothing like being in the rink.”
When the world seems too much, he goes skating.
For Leo, the world was regularly too much. His father was in prison and about all his life. This year he completed a 12-year sentence, and for many years months passed before he could talk to him.
Leo’s mother worked with the studio a lot in Leo’s life. As a child, until he became a bird, Leo was a caretaker.
“I grew up very quickly, and yet I carry it with me. I had to look for my passion,” said Leo. It was not easy, and Leo suffered from depression.
In the sixth grade, with acute depression, and Leo almost institutionalized by the Baker Act, Leo found his grandmother to help him, and he was able to navigate the difficult middle school years.
When he started high school, Leo found two new outlets that helped him persevere – theater and JROTC. Her mother’s love of “Grease” and her interest in musicals such as “Heathers” and “Hamilton” led her to the theater, although she had no intention of acting. The theater program welcomed her, and she found the opportunity to create worlds that bring the actors in the plays to life. For Leo, the so-called “technical geek”, it seemed best to control and monitor the tables in the house.
She also finds support and inspiration through JROTC and appreciates the structure it provides. They developed skills and relationships that helped them get off to a strong high school start.
During the spring of his sophomore year, however, Leo experienced another concussion. His grandmother was alone in the backyard when she suffered a stroke. When her grandfather found her, they rushed her to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her brain. When he had a few weeks to live, his grandmother was moved to the hospital for care.
Although her grandmother had put on a strong face in her final days and was, as Leo said, “a hat and a holler,” her grandmother struggled. In late April, her grandmother passed away peacefully in her sleep. Leo did not know how to grieve and spread his sadness.
Unfocused and confused, he began to earn Ds and Fs instead of As and Bs. He soon began to leave the Advanced International Certification of Education (AICE) program. Even with roller skating, theater, and JROTC, he didn’t see himself going anywhere.
In May 2011, she met Leo Luca, who soon became her friend and later her lover. Now a psychology major at Murray State University in Kentucky, he was, as Lee said, “my absolute savior.”
“He helped me get everything going,” Leo said of Luca. He provided firm support and helped her refocus on her studies and begin planning her career after high school.
Leo began visiting her Student Success Center at Sarasota High School and working with the college and career counselors there. A first-generation college student applying to college was full of strangers. “They’re amazing,” Leo said of his counselors. They kept her focused and provided hope. As he noted, “College wasn’t even an option until about six months ago.”
In the spring, Leo will do something that no one in his immediate family has done – graduate high school. She has been accepted to Murray State University, where she plans to major in criminal history or psychology. He is now busy with his studies so that he can pay his school fees and reach the second milestone: a college degree. And although it’s unlikely she’ll have to compete in roller skating while away at college, she hopes she can find a rink somewhere that feels close to home.
Riley’s advice to incoming freshmen: “Stay on top of your work and love your mental health and yourself above all else.”
For more than 30 years Education Foundation of Sarasota County He supported students and teachers that education transforms lives. As a champion for lifelong readiness, The Education Foundation provides personalized, comprehensive resources and relationships so that students can find their purpose and progress enthusiastically throughout their K-12 education. Its mission is to increase student potential, promote excellence in teaching, stimulate innovation in education, and lead strategic philanthropy.
Of the Awards
The awards competition was born out of H. Jack Hunkele’s vision to recognize students who have overcome great challenges to succeed in life. Through a charitable foundation and other generous gifts, the Sarasota County Education Foundation, in partnership with Sarasota County Schools, emphasizes the resilience and drive of students across our county. During their high school ceremonies, Award recipients receive monetary gifts for post-high school education and recognition. They are invited to become student leaders to promote resilience and perseverance, and connect with educational foundation resources such as student success coaching, mentoring, workshops and more.
Learn more about the award winners and this year’s notable recipients; EdFoundationSRQ.org/STRIV2023.