It’s been said that the right people come into our lives at the exact moment we need them most.
Just ask Imani Smith.
“The story of my life has been meeting the right people who are kind, compassionate and just want to see me do well,” she said.
Smith, whose job with Regions Bank is to help businesses in the Tampa Bay area reach their financial goals, has strong feelings about the roles of mentors. To understand why, you must first know her story.
During fourth grade, she came home from school and found her family’s car packed with boxes. Her parents told Imani and her sisters they were moving out because her dad recently had been laid off and the family was struggling financially.
The news was tough to hear, but, as a smart 11-year-old, Smith wasn’t surprised. She had known her family was in a difficult financial situation.
“I knew there was tension with my parents,” Smith said, adding that they moved from Bradenton to Tampa to be closer to extended family and get a fresh start.
That start was found at Metropolitan Ministries, a refuge for poor and homeless families. There, Smith and her family lived together in one room. They had their love for each other – and their desire for a brighter future.
While her parents worked on their finances, prepared resumes and searched for jobs, Imani and her sisters attended school at the facility.
“I wasn’t happy with how things were going with my family, and I had a difficult time acclimating to everything,” Smith said.
It wasn’t hard for Smith to know what was going on. Her family was homeless.
“I wanted to be encouraging and support my parents through a difficult time, but I was so frustrated, angry and resentful. Those emotions came out in school,” she said.
Smith was a good student, but she was going through a tough time. She let others know it.
“I was a little terrorizer,” she said, laughing. “There was nothing else to do other than be a jerk.”
But the people at Metropolitan Ministries know how to help, even during hard times. An advisor recognized Smith’s potential and connected her with Academy Prep.
That was life-changing.
Academy Prep is a middle school that serves economically disadvantaged students in fifth through eighth grades around Tampa Bay by providing an academically challenging, enriching and structured environment. This is followed by eight years of support and guidance through high school and college.
Students attend Academy Prep on scholarship, and through its year-round programs, the school helps with intellectual, athletic and social development.
That’s what Smith needed.
“I had never seen anything like Academy Prep when I stepped on campus the first time. It was beautiful, and I knew that I wanted to be there,” she said.
Smith received the highest score on the school’s entrance exam, and she was invited to be a fifth-grade student in 2004. There, she excelled in academics as well as extracurricular activities like karate and drama. She also found a mentor – Lincoln Tamayo, who serves as Head of School at Academy Prep.
“Mr. Tamayo was always in my corner, encouraging me, lifting me up and pushing me to be the best that I could be. For someone like me, who had so much going on at home, it was nice to have an adult at the school who I could confide in,” Smith said.
Regions works with Academy Prep at its Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses. Bank personnel connect with students beginning in the fifth grade and deliver coursework on topics such managing money, growing savings over time and making strategic decisions. They follow students from fifth grade all the way through eighth, when they graduate.
Smith graduated from Academy Prep, received a full-merit scholarship to attend the prestigious Berkeley Preparatory School and later graduated from Bard College in upstate New York.
Now working for Regions Bank and pursuing a graduate degree from the University of Florida, Smith gives back through passionate volunteerism on behalf of Academy Prep and its students. She’s on campus as often as possible – because she knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without Academy Prep and the mentors she had.
Her second chance has come full circle.
Bibiana Gomez is Smith’s manager at Regions. She says Smith’s passion is at the heart of how she serves others.
“Imani doesn’t forget where she came from, and is always the first one on my team to volunteer for an effort to support and help others. She is a positive role model for students at Academy Prep, showing them that she has been through what they are going through and survived,” Gomez said.
Today, Smith uses mentorship to encourage students to dream big and stay focused, just like Lincoln Tamayo encouraged her years ago.
“You never know how you can impact someone if you just spend time with them,” she concluded.
Tamayo agrees and points to Smith as a shining example of how students can persevere – and succeed.
“At the core of our mission is the empowerment and inspiration of our students to become future community leaders,” he said. “I don’t know how much better we could do to provide inspiration and empowerment to our current students than having an outstanding person and graduate like Imani engage with them regularly in the financial literacy classes. If they want to envision how an Academy Prep graduate develops into a community leader in her own right down the road, they need look no further than Imani Smith. She’s such an inspiring powerhouse.”