Friday, November 16, 2018
The Philanthropist

Mercedes Sorensen: A Sense of Panther Pride

Paws For Panthers


Counting three siblings and three children as Palmetto students and alum, Mercedes Sorensen was no stranger to the halls of Palmetto Senior High School (PHS). But even after years of volunteering, and six as a PTSA Board member, she was surprised to learn that the school (as well as PMS and Palmetto Elementary) employed a full-time social worker. It was because of that social worker Ana Garces, that Paws for Panthers was born when Garces alerted Sorensen and then-PTSA President Diana Reeves about a student in dire need. After losing his only living family members, the student was alone and distraught, with not much government help as he had already turned 18. Garces had fixed his living arrangements and helped him find a job, but it was not enough to cover his costs. “She told us that if we could help him for the rest of the school year, then she would be able to keep him in school,” says Sorensen. The PTSA was able to fundraise the money in addition to new clothing and other items. With this, the student was able to graduate and go on to the army. “I asked how many [other cases like this there were] and she told me that there were anywhere from 12 to 40 cases any given year just at Palmetto High,” says Sorensen. “I told her to give me her email and phone and that during the summer I was going to organize something to start helping these kids. That was the beginning of Paws for Panthers.”

About Paws for Panthers

Now a line item in the PTSA accounting system, Paws for Panthers (PfP) fundraises separately from the rest of the PTSA efforts to be sure the money is solely used for the program. This also allows PfP to bypass the usual need for a majority vote as the children’s needs are often immediate and cannot wait for a PTSA meeting. Sorensen (and now-program head Helen Garcia, who took over from Sorensen) finds out about possible needs for at-risk students via the PTSA as well as keeps an eye on all important school dates and events to calculate fees and expenses that may come up. “Then, I keep an eye on all the needs of my own children at school (in order to understand what any other student might need) and maintain constant communication with the social worker,” she says. “It works likes a team; sometimes the social worker tells me of a need and other times I tell her of an event that is upcoming so that she can find out if these kids need any help.”

Dedication and Donations

Donation come via students, parents, alumni, local businesses and a small group of “angels” who are contacted whenever a request is made. The donations also come in various forms. “When a request is made which requires an immediate response -or can only be done with cash such as school fees, we use our monetary funds,” says Sorensen. “If clothing, shoes, feminine products, school supplies and books are needed, then we try to first locate the material donations through our donors.” And with a cost per graduating student of about $350-$450 (including prom, an Orlando trip and class picnic) it can add up quickly. “Last year we had 27 students in our program. We received about $8000 dollars in cash and goods,” says Sorensen who has collected everything from school supplies to Thanksgiving baskets and field trip fees. “This was the difference needed to keep 27 students in school and through graduation.”

A Neighborhood Cause

Most of the children affected have lived in and around the Palmetto feeder neighborhoods, with circumstances forcing them to move into shelters or with friends and/or family members but remain at PHS. For Sorensen it was seeing such financial need in her own backyard that struck a chord… and has, in turn, literally changed lives. “One of our students won a full scholarship to a great university but couldn’t afford the acceptance fee,” she says. “He was going to lose a $200,000+ scholarship over a $200 admission fee if PfP wasn’t able to cover this fee…which we did thanks to our generous supporters.”

If you would like to participate in “Paws for Panthers,” or to be informed when a need arises, please contact Helen Garcia at or Mercedes Sorensen at

Andrea Carneiro
the authorAndrea Carneiro