The 2019 winners are Fidela Curiel and Jamie Sekoch, both of Santa Cruz and Nicole Banuelos of Aptos.
“These women overcame significant challenges to achieve their educational goals in order to provide for themselves and their children and be productive members of society,” said SI of Capitola president, Paige Rexrode.
“We’re extremely proud of all of them and encourage them to continue to pursue their dreams.”
The awards are given to women who are enrolled in a vocational/skills training program, or an undergraduate degree program, and are the primary financial support of their families. The winners each received a $2,000 cash award as well as certificates of achievement and letters of congratulation from their local elected officials.
Soroptimist, a coined Latin phrase meaning Best for Women, is a global volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.
Fidela grew up in the foster care system and, unfortunately, was not given the support she was promised or needed. That eventually led to homelessness and life on the street. But when she learned that she was to become a mother she began doing everything she could to leave her past life behind and work toward the one that she wants for herself and her son. Winning this award has increased her sense of self-worth. Knowing there are people who care about her and are willing to assist her in achieving her goal of becoming a nurse means everything.
“I want to work in the hospital because I know that with a proper degree in nursing I can work at the hospital with great hours and still have time to be a mom to my little one,” she wrote in her application. “I also know that with a nursing degree my son and I will never be homeless again, and I will be able to provide him with everything he needs as well as deserves.”
Nicole Banuelos was born into a poor family of drug addicts and abusers and only remembers visiting her father, who was eventually murdered in prison, in jails and prisons. Banuelos was subjected to sexual, physical and verbal abuse throughout her childhood, all of which replaced her self-confidence with self-hatred and despair.
In spite of that, she excelled in math and science, graduated from high school and enrolled in college and was on her path to fulfill her dream of attending medical school. Her past pain and suffering were not over, however. A classmate she encountered turned out to be a serial sexual predator, who kidnapped, assaulted and raped her. During the horrible ordeal, however, she had the wherewithal to coax him to tell her about his past victims and details about those crimes while she secretly recorded them on her phone. Eventually, she was rescued when a witness saw her being dragged into an RV and alerted the police. More than a year later, with the help of the recorded confessions, the man was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Not surprisingly, those events resulted in significant PTSD, but she persevered and went back to school to continue her studies. By that time, she also had an infant son and was pregnant with her second child.
“I am motivated to live out my dreams and go to medical school,” she wrote. “I want to show my children that anything is possible, and nothing can stop them from living their dreams.”
Going to jail for 45 days for minor offenses and failure to appear in court to answer those charges was Jamie Sekoch’s chance to start over. In jail, she was able to safely flee a very abusive relationship and leave other dangerous and life-threatening experiences and people behind. Additionally, she safely detoxed, got clean and sober for the first time in five years and learned that she was six months pregnant.
Within four days of being released from jail, she learned about a shelter, and 24 hours later was in a safe, warm bed. But her trials were not over as she was required to move four different times in a year to stay safe. Undeterred, she enrolled in classes at Cabrillo College when her son was two months old, and is now preparing to transfer to UCSC to major in Community Studies. Having gone through her own struggles with trafficking, her ultimate dream is to open a safe house for child sex trafficking victims.
“I know exactly what these victims need and I want to help heal their lives and show them it is possible to become beautiful successful people, and live the life they deserve,” she wrote in her application essay.