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Bronx Teen Struggles to Raise Money for Trip to Presidential Inauguration

By Patrick Wall | December 20, 2012 7:21am

CLAREMONT — Marcela Pinos, a Bronx high school student, and Barack Obama share some similarities.

Both have a parent born outside the United States. Both have excelled in school. And both have followed, sometimes over difficult terrain, the path of leadership.

That is one reason why Pinos, 16, hopes to join other top students for an educational conference centered on the president’s January inauguration.

“Remember when President Obama got reelected and gave his inaugural address?” Pinos said she longs to tell her friends and maybe one day her children. “Well, I was there.”

But because Pinos and her mother, who decorates cakes at a supermarket, can’t afford the event’s $3,195 price tag, the teen has launched her own fundraising campaign by writing letters to celebrities, selling cupcakes and, most recently, joining a crowd-funding site.

“I don’t want to put this burden on my family,” she said, “because I know they don’t have the means to pay for it.”

Pinos secured an invitation to the selective five-day High School Presidential Inaugural Conference — where students study government and leadership, listen to speakers such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and watch the inauguration on the National Mall — through her membership in the National Society of High School Scholars.

But she didn't get invited to the conference until after the deadline had already passed to apply for a scholarship, so now she is trying to raise the money herself.

The conference is particularly important to Pinos because even though she has maintained a 91 average, been invited into the National Honor Society and earned spots in competitive enrichment programs, she fears that she will have trouble getting into college because of the challenges she faces at the Bronx High School of Medical Science, where she is a junior.

The school did not offer any math or English classes this semester to some students, including Pinos. Many students worried their test scores and college prospects would slip as they waited until later semesters to take those core classes.

So Pinos and a few friends met with teachers and administrators about the matter and finally, in desperation, spoke to the media. This month, they formed a group, Academics for All, to organize fellow students to push for classes they believe are their right.

“I’m trying to fight for everyone’s education in that school,” said Pinos, who added that leadership roles can be intimidating for someone who was once shy and not well known by her peers — as is waging a campaign against school officials.

“You don’t know what might happen to you,” she said. “Sometimes it gets scary.”

Pinos has made a splash beyond her Claremont-area school as well as she sought to create opportunities for herself and build her resume, most noticeably this past summer through a whirlwind of activities for outstanding students.

First, she won a scholarship for a leadership-building summer camp in the British Virgin Islands, where she shared a houseboat with teens from Alaska, China and the United Kingdom.

Then, she attended a NASDAQ closing bell ceremony as a member of the National Society of High School Scholars.

And, finally, she took part in an invite-only summer neuroscience course at Rockefeller University, where Pinos, who hopes to become a scientist or doctor, extracted mosquito DNA.

Now, she said, she is eager to attend inaugural conference, run by Envision EMI, an education company. 

Pinos first raised some money to pay the $3,195 tuition — which covers admission, a hotel room and meals, but not transportation — by selling cupcakes during her lunch period, but she said she was told she couldn’t sell goods in school.

So she wrote about 50 letters to everyone from Oprah and the CEO of Amazon to local TV stations, politicians and even President Obama. She received only one reply, from Congressman Charles Rangel.

“It is amazing to see a high school student of your academic status given the opportunity to experience an unforgettable event that will change your life,” Rangel wrote in a letter dated Nov. 16.

But, he added in the next line, “Ms. Pinos, at this time, I regret to inform you that I am not able to contribute to this inspiring fundraiser.”

So this week she created a page on the website GoFundMe, which allows users to collect online donations for a personal cause.

Her page has yet to attract any donors.

Marcela's mother, Mariela Torres, is asking friends and her coworkers at the supermarket to contribute. Torres studied economics in her native Ecuador, but has struggled to find professional work in the United States while she is still mastering English.

Her main concern now, she said, is to make sure that nothing — from missing classes to pricey tuition — stops her daughter from achieving her dreams.

“She has to do better than me,” Torres said. “To me, my daughter is everything.”

To help fund Pinos' trip to the High School Presidential Inaugural Conference, visit her donation page.