Take a handful of startling statistics, add a dynamic Colombian immigrant with a vision of helping young women fulfill their dreams, and you’ve got Latinas on the Verge of Excellence, a.k.a. L.O.V.E. mentoring program. Founded in fall, 2012 by Claudia Espinosa, this NYWF-funded organization partners with New York City schools to address the specific challenges that high school girls face as Latinas.

A native of Colombia, Claudia moved to New York City in her early twenties with a limited knowledge of English. She took a job as an intake counselor at Life Is Precious, a nonprofit that treats young women from Brooklyn and the Bronx who had just been released from hospitals after trying to take their lives – often after a second attempt. She was shocked to learn that, in New York City, 39 percent of Latinas become pregnant as teenagers, 37 percent drop out of school, and 23 percent attempt suicide.

“I heard about the challenges of each of these girls.  They came to the program to vent, but I had no medium for venting myself.” Six months into the program, Claudia decided to someday get more proactive support. “I didn’t know how or where, but I began a degree in nonprofit management.”

Adolescent Latinas face similar obstacles: they may not speak English, are often undocumented and may have been separated from their parents. In families where parents are working two to three jobs to make ends meet, young women are encouraged to become caregivers, wives and mothers rather to than to study, graduate high school or attend college.

While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forensic psychology from CUNY, Claudia mulled over the problem. She saw how easy it was for young women to be sidetracked and abandon their educations – and she wanted to support them while they were still in school. “If you don’t start with a young population, there’s only so much difference you can make.”

Finally, as a graduate student in public administration from at NYU, she was ready to try out new mentoring model, which would pair Latina high school students with college students from similar backgrounds — active, relatable role models — from freshman year all through high school.

Officially launched in the spring of 2012 at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, L.O.V.E. now offers programs to eight public high schools in four boroughs, serving 150 mentees each academic year. Participating schools also include the International Network for Public Schools and Urban Assembly.

Using a series of structured mentoring and group activities, L.O.V.E mentors model how young Latinas can succeed personally and academically.  First and foremost, even before academics, is building self-esteem. “They need a space where they can be themselves, express their feelings and emotions and be supported rather than judged.”

That’s just the way it’s supposed to work. “My goal was if the student can see herself in her mentor, if the mentor looks like her, has a similar makeup and cultural background, it makes a big difference,” says Claudia. “They see that she did it, and I can do it, too.”

Read more on womensenews.org.