“My name is Xiomara Hernandez. It means ready for battle. And I am. Every day.”

That is quite a declaration, not to mention introduction, really. Especially amid a bevy of political and civic luminaries, business leaders and legal minds all gathered on this very special evening to raise money on behalf of the Mitchell Institute in an effort to create opportunities for people just like her.

“Being a Mitchell Scholar changed my life,” declared Hernandez, a 2002 Mitchell Scholar and graduate of Southern Maine Community College. “I was able to go to school – the first in my family to graduate both high school and college. Without the Mitchell Institute, I wouldn’t have been able to go. Now, I have five degrees, I’ve been able to study cooking in both Italy and Austria, and I can ice carve.”

The Mitchell Institute’s 2013 Fall Gala, which raised more than $200,000 this year, was held at the Marriott Sable Oaks in South Portland on Nov. 1. There were some 100 scholars in attendance. Young people with ambition, intellect, confidence and grace who may have been overlooked in life were it not for the vision, determination and generosity of Maine’s much beloved Sen. George J. Mitchell and his belief that higher education is paramount to individual – and indeed the state of Maine’s – success.

“It’s a wonderful organization,” said Merle Nelson, who sits on the institute’s board of advisors. Joined by her husband, Leonard, and host committee and board member Marjorie Bride, she spoke earnestly about its importance and impact on peoples’ lives. “One graduate from every public high school in the state of Maine has the opportunity to be a Mitchell Scholar. The scholarship isn’t just the money, it allows them to connect with people in the financial and professional worlds…”

With a mission to “increase the likelihood that young people from every community in Maine will aspire to, pursue and achieve a college education,” the Mitchell Institute awards one graduating senior from every public high school in Maine a $6,000 scholarship. It is based on academic promise, financial need and history of community service. Since 1995, more than $9 million dollars in financial assistance has been given out to some 2,000 Maine students.

“George said that of all the things he’s done in his life, this is what he wants to be remembered for,” Nelson went on to say, clearly moved. “…for every person to have the opportunity. This is the opportunity to succeed. And they do it.”

“We’ve had a Mitchell Scholar working at Garrand,” explained Brenda Garrand, owner of the marketing communications company based in Portland that bears her name. “…I’m always amazed and thrilled at their range and quality. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the state to be exposed to the depth of excellence that is here.” Garrand was joined by her husband, attorney David Pierson.

“It’s meaningful, which is something you don’t realize until after,” explained Brandy Egan, a Mitchell Institute alumna who graduated from Fort Fairfield High School and went on to study business at the University of New England. “At first, it was just a check, and now, it’s a life.”

Mitchell joined several guests at a cocktail reception before sitting down to dinner with well over 500 ardent supporters of the institute. Meg Baxter, president and CEO of the Mitchell Institute, joined keynote speaker Sen. Susan Collins for a warm hello. Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and Congressman and democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud mingled with guests that included Mike Boyson, chair of Portland Ovations and a sponsor of the Mitchell Institute, board member and attorney Cathy Lee of Yarmouth and Harold Pachios, partner at PretiFlaherty.

After moving reflections by Mitchell Scholars, the wonderful welcome address and mc’ing from Mary Mitchell Friedman, past president of the institute’s board of directors, and an inspiring keynote address by Collins, it was finally Sen. Mitchell’s turn to take the stage.

“We know what we are doing is right… for our students, our families, our state, our economy… really, our country,” said Mitchell, thanking the many people involved in making not only this fundraiser, but his Mitchell Institute, a tremendous success. “We are fortunate to be Americans…the most free, open, just society in all of human history. Our challenge really is a microcosm of the challenge that faces our country, and the greater beneficiaries of giving every child the chance to success will be ours.”

For more information about the Mitchell Institute, please visit www.mitchellinstitute.org.

Margaret Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough. She can be contacted at: