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Karina Lopez-Hernandez and Maria De La Cruz: Leading Bonners to Beauty

Some of us live in a world where a new school year means new clothes, fresh notebooks and an excitement fueled by high hopes for a great semester. Each September, bright, clean hallways welcome us back and we are surrounded by an environment that fosters academic success.

But for others, this is not the case. Beyond our beautiful TCNJ campus there are high school students welcomed back by lockers plagued with graffiti. Scribbled profanity and belongings left behind by previous owners are found inside — a sweatshirt, old books, a pocket knife…

Enter Karina Lopez-Hernandez and Maria De La Cruz. On Aug. 24 they led their fellow Bonner Scholars down the hallways of Trenton Central High School in a service effort aimed at bringing some light back to a place where dark clouds hovered too long.

The two organized a beautification project to make TCHS a place conducive to learning. The project marked the Bonner Program’s third annual Serve-A-Thon.

“A Serve-A-Thon is like a Walk-A-Thon, except instead of a walk or a 5K run, we do service within the community,” Maria said. “The money raised goes towards Bonner student scholarships, other service projects and supplies.”
                                                                                                                                    Trenton Central High School

Maria is a TCNJ alumni. She graduated in 2008 and was a Bonner Scholar throughout her time at TCNJ. While she was a student, the Business and Marketing major thought she was on her way to Wall Street, heading towards New York to put her degree to work in the Financial District.

However, in between studying business principles and marketing techniques, Maria was out doing service for the community as a Bonner Scholar. While she was making a positive impact on the world around her, the Bonner Program in turn was making an impact on her own life, changing the course of her path to the city and leading her back to TCNJ. Last year marked her return to the TCNJ Bonner program, handling their budget, finance and grants.

This year, Bonner plans to centralize their service projects around education, Maria added. Plans include fixing up buildings, painting murals and working with high school students.

Over the summer, Maria managed the team of Bonners in charge of this year’s Serve-A-Thon. She worked directly with Karina throughout the three-month process that started in May. Maria knew Karina while she was a student at TCNJ, and notes how their relationship aided in making the day a success.

“It was great to be in a position to empower students. Karina did a lot with the position.”

                                                                                                               Maria and Karina in front of TCHS

Karina’s own personal investment in the project was clear in the way she overcame challenges in planning the event. She was determined to build a relationship with Trenton Central High School, despite the difficulty in connecting with its staff members.

“We didn’t get the OK from TCHS until a week before the Serve-A-Thon,” she recalls. “There was a lot of last minute running around to get supplies and scope out the school.”

On the day of the Serve-A-Thon, the Bonner Scholars took on tedious tasks like cleaning out lockers and removing graffiti. However, the difference Karina, Maria and the rest of the Bonners made at TCHS was evident in how their enthusiasm spread to the students of the high school. As the day came to an end, students wanted to finish the work they started. Other commitments pulled the high schoolers away from the school for the evening, but many returned the next day to complete their work. This, Karina said, was her favorite part of the experience.

    Maria and Karina with fellow Bonner, Evan Bernat

Karina saw the beautification project as an opportunity to truly make a difference. In an email sent out to all the students in the Bonner program, Karina explained that, “in dedicating a day of service to a school that is not a part of our immediate community, we take kinship over it and its inhabitants. We indirectly say we are here, we believe in you, and we see all that you can be even when you can’t.”

Karina and Maria organized an event that spread beauty, inspired action and above all gave hope to a school that, according to the Marc Larkins, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Development Authority Board, wasn’t “an environment conducive to learning.” The Bonner Program represents a group of individuals dedicated to changing the communities we are a part of, paving the way for future collegiettes™ to join our own community here at TCNJ.

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