Christina Belotti knows a thing or two about dreams.
The Marathon Middle High School seventh-grade teacher grew up, with two siblings, in a single-parent family, where the desire to succeed academically was tempered by the reality of tight household budgets.
"My mother went back to school when she was 40, so we've always placed a huge value on education," Belotti said. "I knew from an early age that I wanted to go to college, but I had no idea how I was going to pay for it."
Enter Take Stock in Children.
"When I was in the ninth-grade we found out about this Florida-wide program that was starting up down here where you sign a contract promising to maintain good grades, in exchange for mentorship, and an eventual college scholarship," said Belotti, who was recently named Marathon High's Teacher of the Year, and also volunteers as the Education Coordinator at the Educational Coalition for Monroe County. "I applied, and was accepted, and ended up being in the first graduating class of Take Stock students, in 2001. It was a huge relief for me, and helped me to achieve my dreams."
Now, 12 years later, stories like Belotti's are coming to life as part of a photography exhibit by Key Wester Michael Marrero.
"Visions and Dreams," opens with a reception at 6 p.m. tonight at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St. The show comprises 20 large, black-and-white portraits of Take Stock pupils, and their stories.
The show is the brainchild of Monroe County Education Foundation President John Padget, who got the idea from a program in Jacksonville.
"About a year ago, as a member of the state board of education, I saw an initiative that involved Take Stock students, as well as some other students, where they were trying to draw attention to improving their public schools," said Padget, whose organization oversees Take Stock in the Keys. "We don't mind stealing other people's good ideas. With this exhibit, we're trying to show the public the kinds of kids who are impacted by Take Stock, and the difference it's helped to make in their lives."
Not long after seeing the Jacksonville exhibit, Padget approached Marrero to enlist his help in creating a show that would focus on local Take Stock students, as well as graduates of the program, such as Belotti.
"After I agreed to participate, we immediately started interviewing the kids, who live all the way up and down the Keys," Marrero said. "Then we selected the finals, and started talking to them and getting to know them and their stories. The shooting took about three weeks."
Marrero said the experience left him with a greater appreciation of Take Stock, and the help it's provided to its many graduates.
Take Stock in Children provides college scholarships to low-income students as long as they hold up their end of a contract they sign in middle school to maintain good grades and stay out of trouble. The program pays for two years of community college, then two years at a state university.
"It's incredible.... It definitely made a huge difference in these kids' lives," Marrero said.
The artist's photographs have been baked onto sheets of aluminum, and can be cleaned with Windex. The accompanying scripts tell the students' stories of hope and hard work.
Jed Dodds, the executive director of The Studios of Key West, is excited about providing a venue for the exhibit.
"Take Stock is not a big, splashy program," Dodds said. "You have these pairs of individuals, the student and the mentor, working out of the public eye, so to speak. This art will help shine a spotlight on the students and all that they've been able to achieve, and bring their stories to a broader audience."
Dodds called Marerro's contribution inspirational.
"He's really a natural fit for this," Dodds went on. "Because Michael did such a fantastic job with the MARC House exhibition, I think people saw his ability to use an image to tell a story, and that's what made him such an excellent choice to shoot these portraits."
"Visions and Dreams" will hang at TSKW for the next month. In June, the exhibit will be shown in the Middle and Upper Keys.
Also during tonight's opening, the Key West High School Advanced Placement Art Show will be held, from 6 to 9 p.m., upstairs at The Studios.
For more information, call 305-296-0458.