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Syndia Nazario-Cardona: Loving Mentor Inspires Young Hispanics


October 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 


SUPPORTIVE: Syndia Nazario-Cardona leads the Broward division of ASPIRA, which encourages Hispanic students to do well in school.



Syndia Nazario-Cardona is a single mom with more than 300 kids -- one blood daughter and a sea of aspirantes.

Her aspirantes belong to the Broward division of ASPIRA, which means ''to aspire'' in Spanish. The national nonprofit group guides elementary, middle and high school kids along the tricky path to adulthood.

Nazario-Cardona, 34, has emerged as a leader among Broward Hispanics in her decade at the county's division of ASPIRA, where she is the executive director, although to her kids, she is just ''Cindy'' or ``Mom.''

''I call them my kids,'' said Nazario-Cardona, who is Puerto Rican. ``I don't see ASPIRA as a job but rather as a mission in life. I have it in me. It comes natural.''

Since Nazario-Cardona joined ASPIRA, the group -- which is 80 percent Hispanic -- has boomed, along with Broward's Hispanic population.

Student participation tripled in the past three years, as did funding. Last year, 100 percent of Broward's high school senior aspirantes graduated and 96 percent went on to college.

The job that comes naturally to Nazario-Cardona is a round-the-clock frenzy. On paper, Nazario-Cardona manages a $430,000 annual budget -- which she helps raise -- and runs seven ASPIRA programs, ranging from leadership development to an anti-drug project. She also oversees youth groups at 12 schools and one park (for kids whose schools don't offer the program).

But, day-to-day, Nazario-Cardona has injected herself into the lives of her kids, counseling their parents, taking late-night calls and, in several cases, leading runaways back home. She trailed one boy for hours in her car.

''He needed his time to think,'' said Nazario-Cardona, who took turns with a counselor driving and walking with the boy. ``We didn't want to pressure him, but we wanted to be with him.''

The boy finally agreed to talk to his parents and they reconciled, she said.

''Cindy's very hands-on,'' said Maria Monzon, a program manager for ASPIRA at Miramar and McArthur high schools. ``She's not the kind of person who thrives off the administration end of what she's doing. It's the students who keep her going.''

ASPIRA was founded in New York 40 years ago as an initiative to keep Latino kids from dropping out of school. The Miami-Dade division opened in 1986, and the Broward division in 1990 -- the same year Nazario-Cardona left Puerto Rico for Pompano Beach.

''I've always been adventurous,'' said Nazario-Cardona, who moved here with her then-husband and began working as a preschool teacher. ``I came looking for my identity.''

She joined Broward's ASPIRA as a counselor in 1992, the same year she gave birth to daughter Yimalisse, which means ''my precious little girl'' in Arabic (''Though I spelled it the way I wanted to,'' she laughs).

Two years later, Nazario-Cardona's marriage ended and Yimalisse became a constant presence at ASPIRA meetings.

''I'm on my own with her,'' Nazario-Cardona said. ``She's been strong for Mommy.''

Nazario-Cardona was chosen to head the Broward division in 1995 and completed a master's degree in child care and youth care administration at Nova Southeastern University in December.

A proven leader, Nazario-Cardona has fielded lucrative job offers from local universities but has no plans to leave.

''The fact that I am happy going to work . . . I wouldn't change that for any amount of money,'' she said.

ASPIRA's youth groups meet weekly with one of six full-time counselors to discuss topics ranging from drug awareness and teen pregnancy to post-secondary education.

Nazario-Cardona added programs in five more schools this year, mostly because lower- and middle-school aspirantes found that the program did not exist at the high schools they now attend.

''They come back,'' said Nazario-Cardona, who has followed some students for the 10 years she has been with the program. One former student, Jacquelyn Rodriguez, now works full time with Nazario-Cardona as her administrative assistant while attending Broward Community College.

''She's a great boss, a great friend. . . . She's like a second mother for me,'' said Rodriguez, who is Nazario-Cardona's right-hand aspirante, always by her side at fundraisers and awards ceremonies. ``She impacted a lot of our lives when we were younger.

Nazario-Cardona says she learns as much as she teaches her kids.

When she met 15-year-old Manuela Londoño in March 2001, Nazario-Cardona noticed the girl had been crying.

Manuela, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Hallandale Beach, told Nazario-Cardona that the problem was her mother. She had divorced Manuela father and, in the anger of the separation, would sometimes put him down.

''Don't ever do this to your daughter,'' Manuela told Nazario-Cardona.

The words resonated. Nazario-Cardona's ex-husband visits Yimalisse every Sunday.

She thanked Manuela for the advice and, in the two years since, has become a ''second mom'' to the girl.

Manuela learned to admire Nazario-Cardona's juggling act as a single mom and saw similarities in her own mother, who this year started a company involved in international pharmaceutical sales.

''When I see Cindy and how hard she works, I admire my mom,'' Manuela said.

Nazario-Cardona urged Manuela to become a leader herself. The high school junior's list of achievements is dizzying: She's now a straight-A student who ranks 12th in a class of 300-plus students. Her all-advanced placement classes include chemistry, French, European history, and a class called the ``theory of knowledge.''

The varsity volleyball captain learned Portuguese in Brazil last summer and is vice president of her school's and the county's ASPIRA chapters, as well as ASPIRA's state-wide student secretary.

Her next aspiration? To become an actress -- but not before she graduates from Harvard or Columbia in ``something like microbiology.''

Manuela's success feels to Nazario-Cardona like her own. She is as proud as a mom.

''I have a passion for what I do,'' Nazario-Cardona said. ``Knowing that I put un granito de arena [a grain of sand] in their lives . . . I love being a part of their lives.''

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