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Welcome

Welcome to the Step Up For Students blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.” We’re excited to have you join us as we debut a new forum for our parents, teachers, students and advocates to connect with one another and share their personal experiences with the (income-based) Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

We hope to be informative, sharing news about Step Up For Students, our scholarship application periods, participating schools and services, among other topics. We also aim to intrigue you with profiles about our scholarship recipients and their families, our partner schools, our program donors and partners.

In addition, we’d like to help answer your questions and provide a network of support for you as you navigate your child’s educational path. Which private schools accept the scholarships in your community? What combinations of therapies have helped your child with special needs? Is there a homeschool curriculum that really brings results? In the months ahead, we will feature guest bloggers, including parents and educators. We’ll also publish various series, such as a behind- the-scenes look at all things Step Up. We invite you, our readers, to become active participants.

We look forward to growing our blog, and taking this adventure with you. Thank you for reading.

Your friends at Step Up.

CDW Helps Provide Technology Resources and Digital Equity to Step Up For Students

CDW has partnered with Step Up For Students to help provide technology resources and digital equity for recipients of Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, and the Reading Scholarship program.

“At CDW, we understand how important it is for students to have access to the technology resources they need to be successful in school,” said Taylor Amerman, CDW Global Social Impact. “Our partnership with Step Up For Students, in support of Florida school children, is just one of the many ways we are committed to digital equity, and we are thrilled to see all the amazing work this organization has accomplished through our collaboration. CDW’s global social impact strategy is focused on empowering learners to reach their unlimited potential through technology, and our purpose is to make technology work so people – just like these amazing students – can do great things.” 

Through this partnership with CDW, families throughout Florida have been able to access technology resources, including devices and educational apps, that are necessary for their children to thrive in school.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities and the Reading Scholarship are managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarships allow students to pursue and access educational support designed to help them achieve their academic goals.

The Reading Scholarship was created to help young public school students who have difficulty reading. The causes of reading challenges are often varied and complex, but many times digital tools can provide alternative teaching methods that can help students overcome their struggles.

Samantha’s reading scores have improved, and her love of reading has increased
with the help of the Reading Scholarship and access to digital resources.

Students like Samantha, who is just one of many young scholars who have learned to love reading because of the Reading Scholarship. Samantha grew up being read to by her mom, Lindsey, so it was surprising when Samantha didn’t enjoy reading.

When she was in the third grade Samantha received a low score on the English Language Arts section of the Florida Standards Assessments, which made her eligible for the Reading Scholarship. With this scholarship, Lindsey purchased an iPad and downloaded the Epic! app.

Epic! provides digital books and videos for children 12 and under. It suggests books based on what the child is reading and tracks their progress for the parents. It also has educational features.

“Epic! makes it easier for me to read, because if I don’t know what a word is, I can tap on it, and the app will sound it out,” said Samantha, now a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Imagine School Lakewood Ranch, a charter school in Manatee County.

As a result of CDW’s support, even more students like Samantha will continue to have access to the digital resources they need to help them achieve academic success. In addition to this partnership, CDW also provides Step Up For Students with philanthropic contributions.

“We are grateful to have CDW as a partner,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Technology has become a critical tool in supporting our students, and CDW’s investment in our school community means that even more of these young children will have access to the resources they need as they advance and learn.”

New autism center in Florida Keys offers education, therapy, resources – and hope

For 23 years, the Carrie Brazer Center for Autism in Miami has served students on the autism spectrum and others with neurodiverse conditions. During that time, Brazer, a Florida-certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in special education, noticed that families from the Florida Keys were driving as much as three hours to come to the area for therapies and other services.

To better serve those families, Brazer opened a small office in Tavernier, an unincorporated area in Key Largo with a population of 2,530. When a charter school campus across the street became available, Brazer seized the opportunity to open the school’s second campus on the half-acre lot.

The new campus opened last year with six large classrooms in a 5,000-square-foot building. The school has a large indoor play area with lots of swings. The weather usually is pleasant enough for the students to eat lunch outdoors.

“It’s just gorgeous,” Brazer said. “It’s very beachy and homey and airy and spacious.”

Click here to continue reading.

Earthquake survivor uses education choice scholarship to become a ‘Rising Star’

BY ROGER MOONEY

MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.

They didn’t make it.

Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.

Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.

Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.

Emmanuel and Gema before the Rising Stars Award ceremony April 27 at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate.

Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.

“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.

Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.

To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.

To an Ivy League college.

To medical school.

To a life helping those who need help.

She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.

“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.

Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.

Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.

“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”

Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.

Gema introduces herself at the Rising Stars Award event.

Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.

“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”

A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.

He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.

“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.

Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”

“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.

“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”

Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.

Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.

Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.

“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.

It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old

After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.

“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Cancer doesn’t interrupt path to med school for alumni of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

BY ROGER MOONEY

It was the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and Luke Desclefs was smoothly sailing toward graduating Jacksonville’s Bishop Snyder High School that spring. His course load wasn’t heavy. His grades were in order. His plans for college were in place.

Then in October, he noticed a lump on his neck.

Cancer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

His reaction? “It stinks.”

Luke was more upset with the intrusion in the plans for his final year of high school than the disease.

“Everyone faces something,” he said.

Luke understood that all too well.

Five years earlier, his mother Kathy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And in August, two months before Luke’s diagnosis, his dad Benoit was found to have an inoperable malignant brain tumor.

“We never asked, ‘Why us?’” Luke said. “Complaining about it isn’t going to help.”

Luke Desclefs

Life continued as best as it could for the Desclefs. Kathy ran The Magnificat Café, the French-American restaurant they owned in downtown Jacksonville, while Benoit underwent treatment. Luke endured three months of chemotherapy. His teachers at Snyder, which he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, adjusted his class schedule to accommodate his treatments.

“It’s not that enjoyable to have cancer,” Luke said. “Sometimes you’re tired of it, and you want to take off this jacket that’s cancer, breathe for a little bit and just put it on later. You can’t do that.

“But it could have been so much worse. You begin to feel blessed. It really changes your perspective on life.”

Luke, 20, is currently a sophomore at Florida State University. He is majoring in both exercise physiology and French. The first is part of a pre-med track. The latter is so he can converse with his family in France, where his dad was born, and possibly study abroad.

His coursework is demanding. He navigates that with the discipline to learn and study he acquired while attending private schools, first Christ the King Catholic School then Snyder.

“It’s incredible that I was able to do that,” Luke said. “But as I got older, I did begin to wonder how my parents paid for my education.”

The answer was the tax credit scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Step Up is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing education choice to families of Florida schoolchildren. Last year, it awarded its 1 millionth scholarship.

How Luke came to receive an FTC Scholarship is an example of the sacrifice a father is willing to make for his family.

Family time is important for Benoit. His father had been in the restaurant business and worked nights and weekends. Benoit, who was born in a town outside of Paris and studied at a culinary school in Bordeaux, dreamed of owning his own restaurant. He also wanted to be home for dinner. He wanted to spend the weekends with Kathy and the kids.

Hours like that don’t exist in that line of work. Unless you own the restaurant. And you only serve lunch.

In September 2003, Benoit opened The Magnificat Café. The restaurant was surrounded by office buildings that supplied the lunch crowd. Benoit had his wish. He was doing what he loved while spending time with those he loved.

Benoit and Kathy Desclefs.

“It worked out for our kids. It worked out for us,” Benoit said. “I spent time with my kids at night. I watched them grow. I was with my wife at night and on the weekends.”

But it came with a price. Lunch hours are just that. Most patrons had little time for appetizers or dessert. The big money comes at dinner, when people order several courses and maybe mix in a bottle of wine.

 “Your profit margin at night is much higher,” Benoit said.

“Hence,” Kathy added, “that’s why we were on Step Up For Students. We worked hard, but we didn’t make the income.”

Kathy and Benoit wanted a Catholic education for Luke.

“This scholarship really afforded him a great education, and he was in an environment that was conducive to studying and had great teachers and all the discipline that comes with parochial school,” Kathy said. “It helped provide him with the hunger and thirst to learn, and he did very well as a result, obviously.”

Kathy, who put her treatments on hold when Benoit and Luke became sick, recently returned to work. But not at The Magnificat Café. They had to sell it in August 2020, a casualty of COVID-19 as much as Benoit’s inability to work.

The brain tumor forced Benoit into an early retirement. Kathy, who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 30, recently began working at the Women’s Help Center in Jacksonville.

Luke sees that as a return to some normalcy for the family.

“It’s not really normal when your parents don’t work for reasons of health,” Luke said.

Luke’s cancer is two years in remission. He hasn’t decided on what he will specialize in, but he knows he will bring a unique perspective to the profession.

“The blessings that come from having cancer far surpass the suffering,” he said. “I can understand my patients more, and because of that, I can work with them in ways that other physicians can’t. The patient-physician relationship will be better. It’s more real. It’s more honest. I can respond to their needs better.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Education savings account allows Dylan to gain independence one step at a time

BY ROGER MOONEY

SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.

It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.

Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).

“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”

Dylan has “gained a lot of independence” during his seven years at LiFT Academy.

Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.

Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.

“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”

And they were, one arduous step at a time.

Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.

It took nearly half an hour.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”

Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.

“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.


LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.

The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.

Dylan said his mom’s blunt honestly about his physical limitations has allowed him to overcome a number of obstacles.

“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.

“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.

“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.

When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.

In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.

“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.

A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.

“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.

How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.

“About seven,” he said.

Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.

On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.

What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.

“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”

Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.

“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”

Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.

The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:

“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”


Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.

“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”

Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.

“One hundred percent,” he said.

Dylan shows off his muscles.

Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.

“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”

Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.

“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.

He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.

“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.

A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.

He also wants a Chevy Silverado.

“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company donates $5 million to help Florida students

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– Step Up For Students announced April 28 a $5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program fromUniversal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), helping more than 655 Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since 2017, UPCIC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. has generously funded more than 2,620 scholarships through contributions totaling $18.5 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.

UPCIC announced a $5 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Parkridge Christian Academy Assistant Principal Jolie Eldridge, UPCIC Regional VP of Marketing Derek Heard, Step Up For Students Development Officer Diana Allan, UPCIC Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Parkridge Christian Academy Principal Joshua Halulko, UPCIC Chief Executive Officer Steve Donaghy, UPCIC Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko. They are joined by Parkridge Christian Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

“Universal is committed to giving back to our community,” said Steve Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. (UIH). “We are proud to support hundreds of schoolchildren through our partnership with Step Up For Students.”

UPCIC celebrated this incredible donation at Parkridge Christian Academy in Coral Springs, where nearly 30% of the students use a scholarship through Step Up For Students. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback, made a special appearance and met with students benefitting from the scholarship.

“We are honored to have UPCIC as a partner in our mission to help Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is producing measurable results, companies like UPCIC are helping to transform the lives of deserving schoolchildren in our community.”

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12

scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

Podcast: Florida mom looks forward to additional benefits of education savings account

Karen and David Prewitt with their son, Caleb.

reimaginED Senior Writer Lisa Buie talks with Karen Prewitt, whose son, Caleb, 15, is benefitting from a change in Florida law that is merging the McKay Scholarship program into the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.


Click here to listen to the podcast.


Born with Down Syndrome, Caleb attends North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, his parents’ school of choice for him since kindergarten.

While the McKay Scholarship made it possible for Caleb to have the best possible educational environment, it covered tuition only, leaving the family with out-of-pocket costs for physical, occupational and speech therapies that help children with Down Syndrome learn to be as independent as possible.

The new scholarship program is an education savings account, which allows parents the flexibility to spend their money not only on tuition and fees but also on necessities such as private tutoring, devices and therapies not covered by insurance.

Podcast: Young, energetic and eager to enlighten a new audience about Education Choice

Nate Cunneen and Walter Blanks Jr. take a selfie with students who attended their talk on education choice at the Iowa State Capitol.

On this podcast, Walter Blanks Jr. and Nathan Cunneen talk about their new endeavor, the School Choice Boyz podcast with Roger Mooney, manager, communications, at Step Up For Students.

Both Walter and Nate are products of school choice. Nate attended Bradenton Christian School in Florida on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Walter attended private schools in Ohio.

They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nate is a communications associate. They have teamed up for the School Choice Boyz podcast to bring the value of education choice to a new audience.

EPISODE DETAILS:

  • Meet Walter and Nate.
  • Education is the core of everything.
  • The podcast’s aim is to engage a younger audience.
  • Searching for new ways to share the education choice message.

Northeast Florida Catholic school lauded for outreach efforts to immigrant families

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh poses with students who are participating in the school’s rural education program.

BY LISA BUIE

A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.

The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.

The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.

“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

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Two families, football and education choice helps Junior realize his dreams of a college scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:

  • His father died when he was 3.
  • He has a heart murmur that was detected when he was in the seventh grade and threatened to end his athletic career.
  • The grim memories of the day his father passed away surfaced when Junior was in the 10th grade and caused anxiety attacks.

Blessed?

“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.

Mary Lou Lopez, Junior Vandeross and Nina Vandeross. (Photo courtesy of Jesuit High School.)

Junior, 18, is a senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa. He has a football scholarship to the University of Toledo. As the leading receiver on Jesuit’s football team last fall, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a state championship.

After the season, Junior received the Bill Minahan Award, presented annually to a football player in Hillsborough County who best demonstrated “extraordinary perseverance as well as leadership, selflessness, passion, loyalty, excellence on the field and service to others.”

“He keeps pushing,” said Nina Vandeross, Junior’s mom. “He never gives up. That’s what I love about him.”

Junior attends the private Catholic high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by corporate contributions to Step Up For Students.

“The Step Up scholarship helped him tremendously. I really appreciate that they have that for children,” Nina said. “Everybody is not fortunate, but the Step Up program makes it possible for people to have a better education and a better future.

“I love it. It makes your kid better. It makes them feel like they can do what they want to do. I am so grateful for it.”

Nina is also grateful for Denis Lopez and his family, who entered Junior’s life at a time when he needed a strong male role model.

“They are angels on earth,” she said.

Lopez is an officer with the Tampa Police Department. He was serving as the athletic director and football coach at the Police Athletic League when he met Junior, who was 7 at the time. Lopez was impressed not only with Junior’s talent on the field but his demeanor away from it. He volunteered to drive Junior home from practice because Nina didn’t have a car. Lopez took more of an interest in Junior when he learned his father had died and that Nina often worked nights at her job as an IHOP waitress.

Lopez asked Nina if Junior could spend some nights at his house with his wife, Mary Lou, and their sons, Xavier, who is a year older than Junior, and Xander, who is a year younger. Nina willingly agreed.

“Nina is the star of the show,” Lopez said, “because she made the biggest sacrifice of everyone, giving up time with her son.”

Junior has his own bedroom at the Lopez house and a closet filled with clothes. He also has his own set of chores.

“We’re all one family now,” Nina said.

A routine physical when Junior was 12 uncovered a heart murmur, placing his football future in jeopardy. After a battery of tests, Junior was cleared to play, and the murmur has never been an issue.

With the help of a tax credit scholarship, Junior followed Xavier to Jesuit.

Junior struggled in class as a sophomore, the result of a series of anxiety attacks. It seems he could no longer suppress the memories of his father’s death.

Junior had gone to the store with Nina that day. When they returned, Junior ran into his parents’ bedroom and began climbing on his dad, who had been napping. Nina was surprised her husband didn’t wake up. Jessie Vandeross Jr. (Junior is actually Jessie Vandeross III) had died of a heart attack. He was 29.

“When you’re that age, you can see it, but you can’t understand it,” Junior said. “But when I got older, I can remember everything, how the whole entire day went. Seeing him in bed. Seeing him being taken away in an ambulance.”

Junior sometimes wonders what life would be like with his father.

“Everything I do is for him, because he would want me to do the same thing if he were here,” he said.

As they did with their sons, Denis and Mary Lou Lopez hammered the importance of education into Junior.

“Education, it changes everything for you,” Lopez said. “That’s what breaks cycles.”

Junior found Jesuit’s academic rigors to be challenging at times, but he applies to the classroom the same focus and drive that carries him on the football field.

“It doesn’t come easy for him, but he works hard, and I think that will benefit him at the next level,” said Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions. “He doesn’t realize it yet how prepared he’s going to be once he gets to Toledo.”

Like a lot of high school football players, especially those who were top players on state championship teams in Florida, Junior dreams of playing in the NFL. But he wants to major in business at Toledo, because he’s also eying a career in real estate.

With her son nearing high school graduation with a college scholarship in hand, Nina says she can finally breathe.

“Life is so much better when you see your children are living their dreams,” Nina said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do, because some kids don’t get the opportunity to do what they want to do.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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