– United Foundation of Central Florida –
– By Terry Godbey –
A decade ago, after more than 17 years in banking, Sandra Fatmi-Hall was ready for a change. She started a talent agency for performing artists but became seriously ill with a blood disorder and was unable to work. She spent years in and out of hospitals, undergoing 10 surgeries and numerous treatments in chemotherapy rooms, even though she didn’t have cancer.
The illness brought out her nurturing nature and helped her realize what she wanted to do with her life. “I took that time to encourage the cancer patients and nurses, so I don’t see it as a bad time. It was an opportunity to be encouraging and liven up the room. I realized that in the second half of my life, I needed to find my passion and fulfill my purpose, which was to work with young people.”
So in 2014, with her health improved, Fatmi-Hall started the nonprofit United Foundation of Central Florida to make life better in her Pine Hills neighborhood west of downtown Orlando. “I wanted to be the change I wanted to see,” she said. “The foundation was formed to empower our community one family at a time, with a holistic approach. We were going to develop programs to reduce the high school dropout rate as well as crime and bring about positive changes.”
The foundation has done just that. It’s no exaggeration to say that the community activist, who is the foundation’s executive director, has touched the lives of 450 young people through the mentoring and scholarship programs she set up.
Fatmi-Hall began mentoring freshmen at Evans High School in 2015, and over the years her Future Leaders United After-School Enrichment and Mentoring Program has grown.
Ninety-nine Evans High students have graduated from high school and the mentoring program, but that calculation is misleading because Fatmi-Hall mentors hundreds of young people outside Evans High. They include Meadowbrook and Robinswood middle school students as well as teens referred to her by juvenile justice judges and attorneys. Some students she mentors transfer to other schools so aren’t counted as program graduates. But by any measure, the program seems to be working, with many of its young people going on to chase their dreams in higher education, trades or the military.
Since 2015, the graduation rate at Evans High has increased from 53% to 88%, according to state records and U.S. News & World Report. In addition, in January 2019, Orange County Sheriff John Mina told community members that crime in Pine Hills was down 38% since 2015.
During the past four years, the foundation has awarded scholarships totaling $72,250 to 94 students, with another $15,000 for college expenses.
“Several teens have told me that because of the mentoring program, they no longer want to commit suicide,” Fatmi-Hall said. “You cannot put a price on that. Many of these young people are having difficulties at home, so I am a mouthpiece for them, but we need more people to invest in us. We need a building and a van to transport the kids.” For now, Fatmi-Hall mentors in a variety of places including schools, her house and students’ homes.
Perhaps no one exemplifies the foundation’s success more than Julien Serrano-O’Neil, who graduated from Evans High in 2017 despite being homeless and attends Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta.
“Julien is the program,” Fatmi-Hall said. “He was accepted into several colleges, but his dream school was Morehouse, so I helped him make it happen.” He will graduate in May 2021 with a degree in political science, and he is second vice president at the foundation. “Everyone in this town knows Julien,” Fatmi-Hall said. “He has political aspirations. I guarantee you’re going to be hearing his name for a very long time.
“The foundation has done a lot with very little, and I want to keep up the work because I see the hope in these young people’s eyes. I see the vision they have for their future.”
“I live by this Martin Luther King Jr. quote: ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”’ We have a responsibility to use our time in the best way possible. It gives me joy to see other people happy and to give them hope.”
— Sandra Fatmi-Hall
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in November/December 2020 i4 Business Magazine