In August 2019, just as she was about to face the excitement and terror of becoming a high school freshman, Melani Sotelo-Leon learned she was going to meet someone who could change her life.
“I didn’t really understand what they were,” Melani told the Lake Oconee News recently. “I was thinking ‘I’m going to meet a new person. What if I don’t like them? What if they don’t like me?”
About 18 months earlier, Jenny Santee and her husband, Drew, had moved to Greene County from Missouri. Retired after a 30-year career as a teacher, she was looking for a way to continue to work with students as a volunteer. Someone told her that Greene County High School was struggling but the new Greene College and Career Academy (GCCA) was helping.
“Being from St. Louis,” she said, “I taught in a district that over the years experienced more and more challenges. I felt I was familiar with challenges. Then I realized that Greene County is up against a lot more than I really understood.”
At the time, Jenny became one of 55 community volunteers who, each year, have made a four-year commitment to provide career coaching from the time students enter ninth grade until they graduate from Greene County High School. Every ninth grader gets a career coach to help them prepare for a realistic career.
Coaches work with three to four students, meeting together each month to develop career plans and action steps. Jenny now coaches five students, including Melani.
“I liked her the first day,” says Melani, who is now a 16-year-old junior.
“I started wanting to go into interior design. And then it changed to what it is now, International Business,” she said. “At the beginning with Interior designing, she would give me a lot of magazines to look at. With international businesses, she brought in a friend, and she was explaining to me about her daughter-in-law who was in banking.”
She feels the pull of International Business.
“I started researching it,” she added. “I have the qualities they like, it's better when you’re bilingual and I’m bilingual.”
Melani’s family is from Mexico, but she was born in Dublin, Georgia. She lives in Greensboro with her mother.
“She’s a very confident young lady,” Santee says. “Very goal-oriented. She wants to go to a four-year college.”
And that’s what they were talking about the day of the interview for this article.
“A lot of them are looking for your community service,” Jenny told Melani. “So, we need to start focusing on that and most of them require an essay, which I think you won’t have any trouble doing that.”
“I hope not,” said Melani.
“When you’re applying for these scholarships,” Jenny said, “I would love to be the one to read them but the more people you have read your essay, the better it gets.”
Jenny attended Melani’s quinceañera, a Mexican traditional party signaling when a girl becomes a woman. Melani also made a presentation at Jenny’s home for a fundraiser.
For this, Melani earned $100. It was not real U.S. currency. They were “Dave Dollars.”
Local resident Dave Thillen developed a career coaching concept for children living in Greene County Habitat for Humanity homes. He later collaborated with GCCA to bring the unique program to the high school.
In 2020, Dave and his wife Elaine founded the Thillen Education Foundation, which he says has raised close to $1 million in donations.
Upon graduation from Greene County High School, Dave Dollars earned over four years by every student can be converted to U.S. Dollars. They’re for college tuition or expenses. For students who go directly into business or the military, the money can be used for those careers. Money will be paid directly to the institutions or organizations.
Students at every grade level earn Dave Dollars in a variety of ways, from participation in the freshman transition class to showing progress on their career plan. Dave Dollars are awarded by coaches, teachers and, well, Dave, for grades, good attitude and being on time for appointments and improvement in any categories.
As an incentive to graduate, Seniors can get many more Dave Dollars for performance in academics and four other categories.
“Then we go into other categories like community service,” Dave Thillen told the Lake Oconee News. “How many hours did you spend? Another is for students that are in lab. Change oil in the teacher’s car, $200. Write a poem, $200. So, it’s five categories that are appropriate for all kids and they can add what they get for their senior challenges to what they have at that point. And then we’re going to do some high-level scholarships.”
The 2022 graduating class will be the first to have benefited from all four years with a career coach. Thillen expects to be able to convert all that class’ Dave Dollars into $100,000 in scholarships and financial assistance.
Student and Coach
Melani Sotelo-Leon doesn’t graduate until May 2023 and Jenny has committed to be with her all the way.
Melani is looking at Mercer Universtiy and the University of Georgia as places to pursue International Business. Recently, she surprised Jenny by announcing she’s looking at earning a Spanish-English interpreter certificate at UGA, maybe this year.
“If I can get it at a young age, the better”
And, she added, she wants to learn to speak Mandarin.
Jenny Santee is a career coach for four other GCHS students and says when they all graduage, she’ll do it agaion.
Each year, the Greene County College and Career Academy is looking for community volunteers who will receive training to be career coaches for the new ninth graders entering the school.
This article originally appeared on Lake Oconee News.