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  • Writer's pictureTori Leto

Gratitude in Action: How Countless Mentors Shaped My Journey from Childhood to Community Leader

Updated: Jan 10

A statement I tend to use a lot when expressing my identity, and role within society, I explain, “I could not and would not be where I am or who I am today if it was not for the countless people who went beyond expectations to invest in me”. This emphasizes the invaluable role that countless individuals have played in my life in shaping me into who I am today. 

I believe childhood to be the most defining period for an individual in the story of who they are as it primes them for development and into adulthood. From birth I grew up in a rich environment. Rich relating to wealth of love, support, knowledge, guidance, opportunity, freedom. Due to my parents being civilian contractors at MacDill Air Force base, I was able to attend their child care services on the installation. After school I attended Child Developmental Centers, the School Age Program, and the Youth Center, throughout my childhood spent on base. I was a part of the step team, drama group, and art club. These facilities had an abundance of resources that enriched my learning and personal growth. Leaders such as Mrs. Tanya (office administrator), Mrs. Mendenhall (2nd grade teacher), Mrs. Miller (3rd grade teacher), Miss Whitcomb (3rd grade teacher), Miss Felicia (step team coach), Miss Melina (drama teacher), Mr. Sean (football coach), and countless others directly influenced my early relationships with adults. They all motivated and empowered me to feel confident in my identity, be powerful in my pursuits, and that no dream is ‘too big’. As a primary experience in my development these individuals had a starring role in who I became- as I spent more hours with them than my own parents at times. 

*Middle school was not very eventful in the story of my life*

High school was also extremely pivotal for my development into the young woman I am today. If it was not for the attendance woman at my public high school I would not have graduated, as she was patient and understanding with my mental health challenges that prohibited a ‘normal’ attendance to school. Mr. Herrmann and Dennis, my band family, served a prudent role in my life. Although our relationship was tumultuous they taught me invaluable lessons. Most importantly they showed me how to be resilient. In high school when struggling with my diagnosis, having them in my corner as they never gave up on me -no matter how hard I fought for them to do so- reinstated my sense of leadership and redefined my identity into a young woman with empathy, passion, and purpose. My drive and tenacity stems from their demand for excellence and ruthless pursuit of building that within myself as a person and player (trumpet). 

My undergrad was also a defining period of my life. I had graduated into the pandemic, leading me into an online college experience. When I did attempt to pursue in person courses I was awarded the title of Miss Tampa with the Miss America organization. Immediately, I moved my in person pre-med psychology schedule to a fully online minor in leadership and bachelors in psychology. This change would grant me the opportunity to fully engulf myself into the role.

Being in this new environment sitting at tables with community power houses demanded a level of maturity I did not have prior. Despite being twenty I was having in depth political discourse with ‘adults' (yes, I was an adult too… but I didn't feel this way in comparison); I gave a keynote address in front of 500 people sharing my mental health story; I was at networking events full time while completing my degree. I ended my year of service as Miss Tampa in March of 2023, and graduated that May having completed my undergrad in three years entirely virtually. This experience knocked me down, and required me to have a certainty in my identity and values that most thirty year olds have yet to define. This level of experience so young gifted me with wisdom and knowledge beyond my years. It is because of leaders I met along the way such as Bob Clark, Rita Lowman, and Dr. Monica Miranda, who invested time, energy, and love, into my metamorphosis who I attribute my current career path to. Prior to Miss Tampa I had thought I would be a clinical psychiatrist, after, I founded my own non-profit and I am dedicated to preventative youth resilience education to proactively combat the youth mental health epidemic. 

These are strictly non-family related environments and leaders; however, the role my ‘village’ (family) has played is equally as detrimental to this story, but I am already over word count. 

All of these individuals believed in me well before I was able to believe in myself. Now, since I have healed, and fostered my own self-assurance, I am confidently moving through the world serving others in the same way they had served me. These social environments have prepared me to motivate, inspire, and empower others in a way that no class ever could have taught. I am eager to continue to invest back into the community that shaped me. Thank you Tampa and all of those along the way. 

These experiences have shown what privilege I have had in this lifetime; therefore using this privilege as an opportunity to transform society in the ways that CSWE 2015 Educational Policy of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (p. 5). Expresses, "The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being… The purpose of social work is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons.". I am only me because of those who have given parts of themselves to my story, and I want to change the world by giving my all in this lifetime to others. 

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