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In 2015, Paola Berrios encountered discouraging news. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As a student at Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA), Paola was able to attend many of her mother’s doctor appointments in order to familiarize herself with her mother’s condition and provide her with the necessary support.

“Coping with her newfound diagnosis was a struggle. Early on, I found that no one quite understands your circumstances unless they’ve been there too,” shares Paola. “Primarily, I dealt with the situation myself.”

The following spring, Paola’s mom was pronounced cancer free. The experience made Paola want to give back. She wanted teens to have a place to turn to for comfort and information so that they wouldn’t have to feel so alone. She created the Shoulder to Lean on Project (STLO) as a resource for teens who are undergoing the same struggle.

Paola dedicated well over 600 hours over the course of one summer to the STLO project. The website has over thirty pages for viewers to scroll through and learn from, including stories from other teens, educational resources and even recipes.. Its goal is to educate teenagers effected by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, and make them feel less alone.

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For her work on this incredible initiative, Paola was nominated for the Girl Scout’s highest honor, the Gold Award.  According to Paola, the project has had a large impact on her life. “Quite honestly, I am not the same girl I was prior to the creation of the Shoulder to Lean on Project. I had no real sense of direction when it came to long-term goals. I struggled to dedicate myself to projects – as any teenager does – and I paled at the thought of speaking in front of even a small audience.”

Now that Paola has graduated from GCA, she’s moving on to an even bigger project – becoming an oncologist! She started at Georgia State University this year as a sophomore and is on the path to graduate in four years with a masters and bachelors in neuroscience. Her next goal is to attend University of California, Davis as her final step towards becoming a doctor.

Not everyone gets used to college life easily, but Paola credits some of her success to GCA. “Online school, and the ability to dual enroll while attending GCA, made the transition significantly easier for me. I’ve also found that it’s much easier to approach professors, as GCA teachers were really approachable and willing to help.” She says the school laid a foundation for her. “In all, I think I was well-prepared for my future, and I look forward to seeing what it holds.”

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