Voices of Florida. Made possible through the generous support of the Gidel Family Foundation.

Valeria Lento: Seizing the American Dream

Valeria Lento believes all children should have a chance at success

Valeria Lento was one of those children that society so often seems ready to write off — the immigrant children who struggle with English, the disabled children who struggle to keep up, the academically challenged children who struggle to make the grade, the poor children whose families struggle to survive. All over Florida, there are children on the edge of failure. The proof is in the numbers: one out of every four Florida students never graduates high school.

Valeria Lento might have been one of them, but for her it was different. She had a family, teachers and a community behind her. And that made all the difference.

Lento was a shy second-grader who spoke not a word of English when her parents moved the family to Miami Beach from Argentina in 1993. Although they were legal immigrants, her parents were unsure about whether their children would be welcome in the public school system. So, they mustered their modest financial resources to enroll Valeria at St. Joseph’s Elementary, where she was the first child admitted to the private Catholic school as a non-English speaker.

She might have failed, but she did not.

Soon, she began to feel at home among these people who now called her Valerie. “It was always Valerie… something about Valeria simply knotted their tongue,” she recalls. “I found it endearing that they had embraced me with an American name.”

After months and months of silence, insecurity and shyness, Lento one day volunteered to go up to the chalkboard, write a word in English, and say it in front of her second-grade classmates.

“I’ll never forget the feeling — a sense of pride and accomplishment, mixed with slight embarrassment, that marked this pivotal point in my life,” Lento says. “I was smiling. I was crying. I was standing before a classroom of 22 8-year-olds, who were clapping, for me. My teacher, Mrs. Feldman, was beaming as she said, ‘See, Valerie? We knew you could do it!’ Yes, I had done it. It was a courageous feat for my non-English-speaking self.”

Lento blossomed, and by eighth grade she was at the top of her class, graduating as the school’s valedictorian before moving on to Miami Beach Senior High. Along the way, she had learned a love of writing. After she became the first person in her family to earn a high school diploma, she moved on to the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Journalism and Communications. Today, at 27, she holds down a full-time job as she works toward her master’s degree in communications.

Lento may not have children yet, but she supports the Children’s Movement of Florida. She remembers what a big difference supportive adults made in her life. “They took the time to get to know me, to counsel me, to encourage me, and to believe in me,” she says. Every child should have that, she says. And the belief and investment in their future should come not only from the adults in their life, but from government leaders who, through their actions and decisions, put children first.

“As I build my future and give thought to my American Dream, I am touched by stories like those I’ve read on the Children’s Movement website. They are a testament to what fostering a child’s wellbeing and education can do,” she says. “These stories remind me so much of the teachers who took a chance on me early on, of my parents who invested their hopes and dreams into me, and who today have allowed me to pass on the hope. Now, no longer with a trace of a strong or broken accent, I‘d like to say, thank you.” And the best way she can do that is by giving the next generation the same chance for success — or even a better chance — than she had.

About the Author:
KiKi Bochi is the managing editor of Broward Family Life magazine and an award-winning journalist. She wrote this article for the Children’s Movement of Florida.