Alyssa Hooper: The Phone Call That Changed Her Life
October 9, 2023 | Jeffrey Good
Alyssa Hooper had always been a gifted student, earning good grades in advanced courses and delighting in discussing the fine points of history and other subjects with teachers and classmates alike.
Then, in the final semester of her senior year in 2020, the Covid pandemic changed everything, she recalls. “We went out on spring break and never came back.”
At first, she dutifully logged on every day to participate in online courses. But she missed walking into school each day and calling out “good morning” to friends and educators, missed the stimulating conversations in class, missed the opportunity to seek out a teacher for one-on-one guidance when needed.
Although just months away from graduating with her Class of 2020, Alyssa dropped out. She had a good job as a line cook at a Southwest Florida restaurant, bought herself a car and knew she had found her career path as a chef. But still, one thing nagged at her — what about that diploma?
Then, one day, the phone rang. It was a representative of Lee County Acceleration Academies (LCAA), which opened in January 2023 in Fort Myers, FL, and offers a flexible, personalized alternative path to graduation.
“Two years go by and then I get a phone call,” recalls Alyssa. “I was really excited by that phone call. I didn’t just want to settle for a GED. I wanted to get my diploma.”
That excitement only grew when she enrolled as one of LCAA’s first graduation candidates. Registrar Omelia Johnson, Graduation Candidate Advocate Jonathan Pauyo and Director Shelley Markgraf welcomed her with warm smiles and steady encouragement.
“They were so nice, so open, so welcoming,” Alsyssa says. “I just had to give it a shot.”
In March, barely two months into her studies, Alyssa suffered another setback — a serious car accident that required her to go to the doctor’s several times a week and made it hard for her to make it to campus every day. But just as her momentum began to sag, the LCAA team stepped up. They told her she could work over Zoom when she couldn’t make it onsite, and they urged her to reach for her dreams.
“They believed in me. They said, ‘Hooper, you can do this,’ ” she says. “I like support and they really gave me the support.”
Alyssa works full-time in the evenings at Fathoms Restaurant in Cape Coral, and she said LCAA’s scheduling flexibility meant she could work with educators before her shift and then log on to do more coursework afterwards.
“That’s what made it hard for me to go back to traditional school,” she says. ““I had already started my career choice, started making money, started my life.”
She has plans to go to culinary school, to be head chef in a restaurant and someday to own her own place. But first, she got the chance to savor her walk across the stage to collect her diploma wearing a bow tie she and her brother — who also graduated this year, from another school — shared.
“It felt magical,” she says. “My grandmother said, ‘You had the biggest smile in the world. Don’t trade it for anything else,’ ” she recalls.
And to think, it might not have happened. “If it weren’t for that phone call, I would still be wondering how I could get my diploma,” marvels Alyssa. “I find it unbelievable still that Acceleration Academies contacted me. It was like fate.”