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A Virtual Pomp and Circumstance: Step Up celebrates Class of 2020

By LISA A. DAVIS

Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.

“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”

Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”

Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.

“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.

“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”

Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.

“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”

“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.

“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Adopting special needs children turned the Cogan family into a Krewe

By ROGER MOONEY

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There were more children like Karwen back in her native China, born with clubfoot and unable to walk. Some who would never take a first step.

At the orphanage where she had lived from an infant on, Karwen was surrounded by other children with special needs, covering the spectrum from mild to severe. Most of them did not get the attention they needed and deserved. But Karwen was one of the lucky ones.

In 2012 when she was 8, Karwen was adopted by an American couple, Keely and Nick Cogan. Her new life was transformative. In addition to having loving parents, she now had two sisters and a brother. With their help, she quickly learned to speak English. Her medical needs were promptly addressed. Eventually, she learned to walk.

The transition, said her father, Nick, “was atypically easy for her.”

The Cogan Krewe

But, as Karwen blended into her new family, she couldn’t shake memories of the children left behind, those who were headed for lives as outcasts. In her homeland, those with special needs are alienated.

Orphans may never know the love of a mother’s hug. May never roll their eyes at a dad’s joke. May never share a secret with a sister.

“After I came home it was nice, and I wanted to go and help bring somebody else home,” said Karwen, now 15.

So, while helping with the dishes one night, six months after her adoption, Karwen asked her parents if they could adopt again.

“I think we can be a family for at least one more,” she told her parents.

One more? Keely and Nick knew before they came home with Karwen they would return to China to adopt another child with special needs. But “one more” child became two when the Cogans adopted sons Kai and Kade. Three years later, daughter Kassi joined the family. They also have special needs and all four children use the Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Today, the Cogans are a family of nine that’s soon to be a family of 11 when the adoptions of two children from the Ukraine are completed this spring.

Karwen Cogan

“It’s easier than you would imagine,” Nick said of his growing family.

The daily workings of the Cogan family can be a grind at times, he said, just as they are for any large family. But the emotional part?

“Connecting to them as a family and trying to understand the struggles they have, I found that the easiest part,” Nick said.

Added Keely, “People say, ‘Oh you guys are so great,’ or, ‘What an amazing thing to do.’ The downright truth of it is we probably get the better end of the bargain because we look at the world so much different.

“My kids learned that it doesn’t matter where your brothers and sister come from. Someone can just come into your family and be a brother and sister and the world just got so much smaller.”

How one became four

Keely and Nick had three biological children– daughters Kenley and Kolya and son Kellin – when they decided to adopt. They learned of children in China who were left at orphanages because they were born with a special need.

Love Without Boundaries, an international charity that aids in the adoption of orphans, estimates that 750,000 Chinese children live in orphanages, with 98% of them having a special need.

“In China, physical differences are a major barrier, especially (for) children in orphanages,” Nick said.

Kade and Kai.

“(Special needs are) considered unlucky,” Keely said. “Unlucky to the point of being contagious.”

Keely, a pediatric nurse, said she was not intimidated by the thought of adopting a child with special needs.

“It didn’t worry me,” she said.

Nick, a math professor at Florida State University, and Keely knew their biological children would be accepting and patient with their new siblings.

Karwen was first. She has arthrogryposis, the condition that results in a congenital joint contracture of two joints. She did have surgery in China but used a wheelchair. She had more surgeries after her adoption and can now walk on her own.

“I can do a lot more things now than I would have been able to do (in China),” Karwen said.

And about that request made shortly after joining the family? Keely and Nick already knew about Kai, who has cerebral palsy, and began the adoption process in 2013. That’s when they learned about Kade, who also has arthrogryposis. His condition is limb immobilization. He cannot bend his knees.

So, Keely thought, what’s one more child?

The transition for the boys was not as smooth as it was for their sister.

Kade didn’t know how to be held, because contact with adults in Chinese orphanages is limited to prevent the formation of a bond that might someday be broken if the child is adopted.

Kassi before the procedures to correct her clubfoot.

Kade would stiffen when Keely tried to hold him. He also cried himself to sleep each night, sometimes for as long as five hours. Keely said it took nearly six months for Kade to accept being in his mother’s arms.

It wasn’t long after adopting the first three when Keely and Nick found themselves working as advocates for orphans in China. That’s how they met Kassi in 2016.

Kassi, who has cerebral palsy, was nearing her 14th birthday, the deadline for a child in China to be adopted. Once they turn 14, those who are employable are given jobs. Those who are not, continue to live in institutions, Nick said.

“We felt like we were set up for this need,” Keely said. “It wouldn’t be a hardship for us, so we stepped forward and home she came three days before she aged out. If we got there three days later there would be nothing we could do.”

Kassi, now 17, was also born with clubfoot, which is a complication associated with CP. She actually learned to walk on her ankle bones, though mostly moved around on her knees. After her adoption, she underwent a series of castings that stretched the muscles in her feet and ankles. She walks today with the aid of her forearm crutches. Though she has a walker, she rarely uses it.

The Gardiner Scholarship at work

All the children are currently homeschooled, but over the years some have received physical, occupational and speech therapy, and some have used tuition assistance. Each child had unique needs.

Kai with the cigar box guitar that he built and is learning to play.

For instance, Karwen, her hands are locked in a downward position because of her arthrogryposis, has a custom keyboard for her computer and special grips to hold pencils and pens.

Kade, 8, attended a small private school for two years. He stopped this year because construction at the school made it tough for him to walk around the campus. He plans on returning next year.

The children came to America with not much of a formal education.

That posed a problem. The district schools didn’t know where to place them.

Keely said the district wanted to put Kai in middle school. That would not be fair to a student without the foundation of an elementary school educational who is also trying to learn English.

The answer was homeschooling. This way Keely and Nick could place their children in education-appropriate settings.

An adoption advocate

Kenley, the Cogan’s eldest biological child and a student at Tallahassee Community College who is pursuing a career in art therapy, works for two nonprofits that advocate for international adoption. She has traveled to China and Ukraine to assist families during the adoption process. She is conversational in Mandarin and is learning to speak Russian.

Kade playing his ukulele.

Kenley said it is “agonizing” to visit a Chinese orphanage and see rooms filled with children lying in rows of cribs, devoid of human contact and staring aimlessly.

“It just kills you to look at them and wonder what their potential could be if they had a family,” she said. “You want to hug them and take them home.”

Kenley said she knew when Karwen came home that adoption would be a major part of her life. She expects someday to adopt a child with special needs from China or Ukraine.

“That’s where my heart is,” she said.

Big and getting bigger

They refer to themselves as the Cogan Krewe.

They drive around in a 15-passenger Ford Transit Van, which they have nicknamed “Moby” because it is large and white.

It is a sight to see the family file out of the van.

“Like an airport shuttle bus,” Nick said.

“It’s a spectacle,” Kenley said.

Even when loaded with the full Krewe, there is room for a few more passengers. That’s good, because they expect to soon finalize the adoption of Sasha, 16, and Vova, 14, a brother and sister from Ukraine, who do not have special needs.

What? No ‘K’ names?

They will have that option, Keely said.

What began with the biological children has continued to those who were adopted.

Karwen and Kassi.

When Karwen joined the family, she was given the choice of keeping her Chinese name or choosing and American name. She picked American.

“And she wanted it to begin with K to be inclusive,” Keely said.

The next three were given the same option. Obviously, they opted for a name beginning with the letter K.

The kids joke that Nick should spell his name “Knick.” He even signs Knick on the family Christmas cards.

“Wouldn’t want to leave anyone out,” Keely said.

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

The many puzzle pieces that tell the story of Ryan Sleboda

By ROGER MOONEY

If it were any other spring but this one, Ryan Sleboda would stand in front of the graduates at the Pace Brantley School and, as valedictorian, would deliver his speech.

Ryan would tell the room filled with students and their families, teachers and administrators about living on the autism spectrum and how it shaped his life.

To illustrate his points, Ryan would hold a piece from a puzzle – the autism symbol.

One puzzle piece for his family. One for his friends. One for his teachers. Put them together and you see a picture forming of Ryan Sleboda.

“It’s going to bring people to tears,” Ryan, 19, said.

Ryan Sleboda breaks three concrete tiles to earn his third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

He hopes the visual has the same impact when viewed remotely. Since this is the age of the coronavirus, Pace Brantley’s 2020 graduation will be held virtually.

Disappointing, for sure, but not enough to damper Ryan’s enthusiasm for his graduation. Nothing really dampers his enthusiasm for anything.

“Ryan simply has a zest for life,” his mother, Susan, said.

That zest began to emerge when Ryan was 13. He joined a taekwondo class and developed self-confidence and a knack for leadership. It exploded two years later when Ryan attended Pace Brantley in Longwood, Florida as a ninth grader with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship, including 8,097 who are on the autism spectrum. 

Susan and her husband Bill, who live in nearby Sanford, wanted to send Ryan to Pace Brantley for high school. Brantley is a grade 1 through 12 private school that specializes in teaching students who need individualized attention.

Susan said she knew the school would challenge Ryan both academically and socially. With the Gardiner Scholarship covering most of the cost of tuition, Susan said she and Bill could use other funds to pay for Ryan’s medical expenses and social activities, like taekwondo and a dance program.

Those are also pieces to the Ryan Sleboda puzzle. There are more. Many more.

You can add his attempts at playing soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming as a youngster, because Ryan’s inability to take to those sports is what led him to taekwondo.

And it was in taekwondo where Ryan began to find Ryan.

“It was,” Susan said. “Ryan had had many difficulties behaviorally and socially. Ryan had a lot of difficulty regulating his behavior. He didn’t speak until he was 7.

“He had a very difficult time. Kids could be mean, and some kids knew which buttons to push to get Ryan to explode, and he could be very explosive back then.”

Yet Ryan found a calmness in taekwondo, a martial art that emphasizes jumping, spinning and kicking.

Susan and Bill took him to Breaking Barriers Martial Arts in Sanford, which trains children with special needs.

“It was kids with disabilities helping others with disabilities,” Susan said. “Ryan took to it quickly.”

Why?

“I got more energy,” he said, “being more active and communicating with others, being around other people, and definitely the ability to be a leader.”

And confidence?

“Lots of confidence,” he said.

Ryan has earned a third-degree black belt and is a certified taekwondo instructor, teaching other special needs children on Saturday mornings.

“It makes me feel like a leader when I get that opportunity,” he said.

Ryan holds the trophy he received for being named the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019 for the documentary he made on the Pace Brantley School.

Ryan always wanted to be a leader, even when he was struggling to find himself on the baseball field or a basketball court. Society was telling Ryan what he couldn’t do, as it often does to children on the spectrum. His classmates and teammates were mean, as they often are to classmates and teammates who are perceived to be different. But Ryan felt it didn’t have to be that way, and he said he knew someday it wouldn’t.

He had weaknesses, sure. But Ryan also knew he had strengths.

Those strengths began to surface when Susan and Bill enrolled Ryan in Bridges Academy, a private K-12 school for children with autism and other special needs.

In an instant, Ryan was no longer different from his classmates.

“He was one of the students, and that’s what started him on the path to building self-confidence,” Susan said.

Ryan moved to Pace Brantley as a high school freshman. He was challenged, both inside and outside of the classroom. And he embraced those challenges.

“Ryan has grown up so much and truly wants to make a difference for others,” said Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley principal.

Not only will Ryan graduate as the class valedictorian, he is school president, an anchor of the school’s TV channel and a member of the running club.

He also gave a prerecorded speech online for Step Up For Students Class of 2020 Senior Celebration.

Ryan’s term project for the television class he took as a junior was a documentary on the history of Pace Brantley. He received an A for the assignment, and the video was voted the documentary of the year at the school.

The documentary also earned Ryan the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019.

“The end product was wonderful, and he worked so hard on it to make it represent the history of our wonderful school,” Tapley said.

In collaboration with Chance 2 Dance, a program that works with students of all abilities, Ryan starred in a music video shot in the halls of Pace Brantley.

The song is “Waving Through a Window,” from the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.

Once, that was Ryan’s life.

Not anymore.

That puzzle piece has been tossed aside by others, including ones that are yet to come.

Through his vocational rehab program, Ryan scored an internship with the Central Florida Zoo’s conservation education department. He is fascinated with wolves and tigers.

“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.

In the fall, he will begin classes at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

The college serves students with learning disabilities. Ryan will major in anthrozoology. He hopes to someday work at an animal shelter or a zoo.

“I’d like to build a really good facility with a lot of animals,” he said. “I could have a training program of some kind.”

That’s another puzzle piece – his future.

Ryan holds his acceptance letter to Beacon College.

Ryan could stand in front of a packed room or stare into his laptop for a virtual graduation ceremony and his message will be the same.

Yes, he is autistic.

No, it does not define him.

The puzzle pieces, they define him.

His family and friends. His school and teachers. Taekwondo. Dance. TV production. His love of animals. His desire for a career working with animals.

“Pretty much all the other stuff I’ve managed and done throughout my life,” he said.

Together, those pieces help build the picture of Ryan Sleboda. But it is far from complete, because there are still more pieces to come.

“I’m going to the next part of life,” Ryan said. “That will be extra hard, but I like challenges, and I am excited to see what comes next.”

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

Adults on the autism spectrum are asking employers for one thing: A chance

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.

By Roger Mooney

Six years ago, Joseph Show stood in front of then Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature and talked about his life on the autism spectrum. He was not nervous.

Quite the opposite, he said.

Joseph Show before his 2014 speech at the Florida Capitol with lawmakers.

It was March 2014, a little more than a week before the April 1 start of Autism Awareness Month, and Show was eager to create awareness for some of the state’s most influential people.

“Hey,” he told the lawmakers,” we exist.”

That was a great way for Show to begin.

More than 3.5 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, and the advocacy organization Autism Speaks estimates 707,000 to 1.1 million teens will age out of school-related services each year during this decade.

The Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, which ever happens first.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on the autism spectrum.

What happens to those students after they age out of a school-based service? That’s what Show wanted to discuss at the Capitol with lawmakers.

Wearing a blue suit he bought the week before at Dillard’s for the occasion, Show explained that people with autism can accomplish many wonderful things. Sure, some may need more time or use methods that are different than those in the neurotypical population, but is that so bad?

Show finished with this plea, one made by far too many adults on the spectrum.

“Please,” he said, “don’t be afraid to hire us.”

Exact figures are hard to pin down, but the estimate of adults with autism who are unemployed nationwide is believed to be between 80% and 85%. Certainly, those numbers are even higher with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Show, 29, a web app developer for a software company in Tallahassee, Florida, finds those numbers difficult to digest even prior to the pandemic. He turned his degree in information technology from Florida State University into a career. He knows of others on the spectrum who experienced similar success.

“I have trouble reconciling that with these unemployment rates,” he said. “There are clearly people like me who did get jobs and are doing fairly well at them, so shouldn’t this rate be going down?”

Under-tapped talent pool

A 2018 story in the University of Washington Magazine said studies have found the biggest roadblock to employment among adults with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities is not a lack of ability but a lack of understanding social skills.

Few things derail a job interview quicker than an inability to make eye contact, too much information in answers or an increased anxiety from communicating with strangers in an unfamiliar setting – all traits common among those with autism.

Generally speaking, the traditional interview process is challenging for those on the spectrum.

Then there is the perception that employees with autism are difficult to manage, are prone to angry outbursts and take more sick days than their neurotypical co-workers.

Allison Leatzow, a consultant at the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), said the exact opposite is true.

“A lot of them are so into wanting to follow the directions, their work is their social life, that they’re actually more inclined to want to be there and do their best,” she said.

Those adults on the spectrum who are employed are generally found in two areas: the service industry and high-tech companies.

Some possess an extraordinary attention to detail that makes them ideal employees in jobs that require repetitive tasks. For others, their ability to detect patterns and knowledge of computers serves them well at software companies.

SAP, a German software maker, and Microsoft were among the pioneers in the high-tech world in targeting adults on the spectrum. Both created a hiring process to better evaluate autistic talent. The standard interview process was scrapped and replaced with team-building settings, where applicants worked together to accomplish a task. This is a better way to demonstrate an applicant’s talents and thought process.

SAP began this process in 2013. Within five years, it had hired 128 adults on the spectrum to fill roles in graphic design, software testing, data analysis, IT program management, quality assurance, human resources and finance administration.

“We don’t pigeonhole our candidates on the spectrum. We aren’t going to say, ‘Well, you’re only going to be good at certain things,’ because everyone has different interests and unique talents,” Jose Velasco, who oversees the Autism at Works Program at SAP, told CIO.com.

Not a function issue

Rising Tide Car Wash sits on a busy thoroughfare in Parkland, Florida. Purchased in 2013 by the D’Eri family, it is among the growing number of small business designed to employ a family member who is on the spectrum.

Andrew D’Eri vacuums the interior of an SUV at Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida.

In this case, it is Andrew, 29. His father, John, looked for a business that he and his son, Tom, could run that would not only employ Andrew but other adults with autism. Tom said they wanted a business that was well-structed, detail-oriented and offered entry-level type work. After a year of research, they settled on a car wash.

“We wanted a business that could employ enough people to create a community and hopefully something that could really have an impact on the perception of adults with autism in the workforce,” Tom D’Eri said. “After preliminary research, it was pretty clear that a lot of people with autism have wonderful skills that are perfect for the workforce, but we, as a society, look at autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a really valuable diversity, and that perception issue is really why there is (a high) unemployment among adults with autism.”

Today, Rising Tide has two locations and employs 78 adults with autism, which makes up 80% of the workforce.

Tom D’Eri said the Parkland location averaged 3,000 vehicles a month in the year before his family bought the business. It now averages close to 17,000 a month.

The D’Eris also started Rising Tide U, a program to promote the benefits of hiring autistic workers and provide guidance to those who want to start similar businesses to help cut into that high unemployment rate.

“What is so amazing, sad, interesting – whatever word you want to use – is that this is almost completely a perception issue and not a function issue,” Tom D’Eri said.

Overcoming obstacles

Haley Moss was 3 when she was diagnosed with autism. Her parents were told she might never be able to hold a job or live on her own. A frightening forecast, for sure, but one her parents never believed.

Society placed obstacles in front of Moss, her parents helped her knock them down.

“When everyone else said no, they were the ones who said yes to at least give me the opportunity to try or keep pushing forward when other people didn’t have that faith,” Moss said.

Haley Moss on graduation day from the
University of Miami School of Law.

Moss, 25, is an autism advocate with psychology and criminology degrees from the University of Florida, and a law degree from the University of Miami. She is believed to be the first openly autistic person to pass the Florida bar exam.

Moss has her own apartment. She wrote two books about growing up on the spectrum and has contributed to a number of publications and websites, including the Huffington Post and Teen vogue. She is an artist.

She has not, however, overcome autism.

“That’s something I feel very strongly about, because I haven’t and that’s not something that’s going to exist,” she said. “I’m very proud to be on the spectrum.

“I have overcome the obstacles that society has in my way, the bias, the discrimination. People who don’t believe in you or think that you’re not capable of things, all that I’ve really overcome.”

Moss founded her own company to advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace and consult with companies on the benefits of an inclusive workforce. Her message is adults on the spectrum have strengths and weaknesses just like neurotypical adults. And, like neurotypical adults, those on the spectrum want the same thing: to be treated with respect.

“It’s being treated as a whole person is what we keep fighting for,” Moss said.

While it is encouraging to see companies reach into the autistic population, Moss would like to see more opportunities than those in the retail and STEM fields.

“I like to explain it like a grocery store,” she said. “We all see young adults working as cashiers or the deli counter. You know they probably are people with disabilities, and it makes you feel good. You love it. But are those same companies hiring people like me to work in their general counsel’s office?”

Working through the diagnosis

Mark Fleming believes that if he walked into a gym and applied for a job as a trainer he would not be hired because he is on the spectrum. That is interesting because Fleming has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.

So, Fleming, 31, opened his own gym, Equally Fit, in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

Mark Fleming stretches at Equally Fit, the gym he owns in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

He said some parents first view an autism diagnosis as a death knell for their child’s future. Fleming believes it should be the opposite.

“Once you get a diagnosis, you can understand more about yourself,” he said. “I may not be good at this, but it doesn’t limit me from owning a business or doing whatever I want to do. You might have some limitations, but it should never be, ‘My kid can never do this,’ or, ‘I won’t be able to do this because of this.’ It should be, ‘I’m able to do this because of this. I’m able to do other things, because I know myself more, I know that I might need help and that’s OK.’”

Joseph Show, Tom D’Eri, Haley Moss and Mark Fleming each used some variation of the word “frustrated” when asked about the 80% to 85% unemployment rate among adults on the spectrum.

Each feels that number can and will be lowered with education for the employees, the employers and even neurotypical co-workers.

Stereotypes must be erased.

In some instances, accommodations need to be made for an autistic employee. Yet, D’Eri said, that has a positive ripple effect.

“When we design systems that work for them, they work for everyone,” he said. “So not only do you get access to this wonderful talent pool, they help you build a better organization.”

How low can the unemployment rate go is, ultimately, up to employers.

“It’s good for everybody to have a neurodiverse workforce,” Moss said. “You have innovation. You have people that have different experiences working together. It’s about understanding, accommodating, and being accepted.”

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

The world is watching and sweating along with the students in Father Lopez virtual gym class

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, Larissa Maloney, standing on a mat in the corner of her garage, presses the record button on her phone and what might be the largest physical education class in the world is under way.

Beginning with a simple warmup exercise – butt kicks – Maloney leads her virtual students that sometimes number in the thousands through a 30-minute workout. Depending on the day, the class includes burpees, heel touches, kick boxing, basketball jump shots, volleyball overhand smashes and digs, and yes, even swimming.

Maloney is physical education teacher at Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Many of the students attend the private school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. She began the virtual class in late March after schools in Florida were closed because of COVID-19.

Maloney named the class Active Kids 2.0 and started a YouTube channel so her students could participate.

Yet, four weeks later, Active Kids 2.0 has nearly 1,500 subscribers on YouTube. Some days, a session receives as many as 6,000 clicks.

“It’s just blown up,” Maloney said. “I just thought originally it was going to be for my students, then I had a friend ask if her students could do it too. I said, ‘Of course. Why not?’”

The success of the virtual gym class does not surprise Father Lopez Principal Leigh Svajko. Maloney changes the workouts daily to keep them fresh and goes through the workouts herself, keeping the class as close to real for her students as can be excepted during the pandemic.

“I think her willingness to get out there to be live every day, especially with our students that she interacts with, just shows her level of investment to them,” Svajko said. “It’s how plugged in she is to it.”

Like every teacher in the state, Maloney needed a way to continue teaching her 75 students. But how do you teach PE without the use of a gym or athletic fields?

“This whole distance learning thing, there was no preparation for teachers,” Maloney said. “I know a lot of teachers didn’t have a lesson plan in their back pocket, especially for physical education.”

She began by writing daily lesson plans – run a mile on Monday, push-ups and sit-ups on Tuesday, arms and abdominal exercises on Wednesday and so on. Her plan was to send them to her students each day and have them reply with what they did and how long it took to complete.

“After I wrote that, I said, ‘How boring.’ I’m boring myself just sitting here reading it,” Maloney said. “I have 14- through 18-year-olds. That’s not going to cut it. I said, ‘You know what? They’re used to seeing me every day, so let’s press record and do it like they’re used to seeing me do it in class.’ Have them see me, see me doing it, see me enjoying it and have them follow along and they can enjoy it, not only by themselves but with their families, as well.”

Father Lopez students are used to seeing Maloney in action. She was a three-sport athlete in high school who earned a volleyball scholarship to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. After that, she spent five years on the professional beach volleyball circuit. She now coaches the girls’ varsity volleyball team at Father Lopez.

Maloney participates in her PE classes along with her students, whether it’s learning a new sport or completing the stations of circuit training – jumping rope, abdominal station, core station and free weights.

“I knew I wanted to do something to bring that excitement, that intensity and fire within my videos, so they still know I’m still with them,” she said. “I think it’s important for the students to know that I’m doing it with them, I’m working with them and I’m cheering them on. They know that I’m their biggest fan. So, these videos are probably no surprise to my kids.”

Judging by the feedback left on Maloney’s Facebook page by her students, Active Kids 2.0 is as successful as a class held in Father Lopez’s gym.

  • “I’m so surprised by how good the online workouts are!”
  • “The online workouts are great especially since I’m stuck at home all day. It’s a motivational way to get me going in the morning!”
  • “Seeing my coach like I normally would on a school day feels like she’s there with me!”
  • “I try to push as hard as I can because she knows we can complete these workouts and that’s the incentive for me to do my best.”
  • “I love doing these workouts! I really miss seeing everyone, but these are the next best thing.”

What is a surprise to Maloney is how popular her videos have become. She draws viewers from across the United States, Canada, England, Australia and Africa.

Father Lopez Assistant Principal Marie Gallo-Lethcoe said the Coach Maloney those who tune in around the world see every morning is the same Coach Maloney those at the school see every day.

“They’re getting the real deal,” she said.

Before beginning, Maloney posted her idea for the videos, which run Monday through Friday, on several forums for PE teachers.

The reaction?

“This is amazing! Can I use it.”

“This is awesome. I would love to use it.”

Maloney replied to each, “Absolutely! Use it.”

The first video was recorded on the final Monday in March. It drew 100 clicks. The video recorded the following day drew 500 clicks. That quickly jumped to 1,000 the next day and climbed to 6,000 by the end of the week.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s something here,’” Maloney said.

The increase can be attributed to the stay at home orders in most states during this pandemic. Maloney knows a lot of her students are joined by brothers and sisters and parents. She has heard from viewers across North America who complete the sessions during family time, something that can take place at any time of the day since they are recorded.

“Four weeks ago, thinking I would bring families closer together was not even on my radar,” she said.

Maloney said before it was announced that schools in Florida will not reopen this school year that she does not plan on ending Active Kids 2.0.

“I’ve gotten so much – and it’s weird to say this – but fan mail, and I’ve gotten so many families on board and so much love from the videos that people have committed to doing them every day, so I will keep doing them until I don’t have any viewers,” Maloney said. “I’ll do them as long as I can.”

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

How 9 Gardiner students and their teacher opened the world to Audible

By ROGER MOONEY

Nine Gardiner Scholarship students on the autism spectrum wrote an essay and gave the world a gift in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: free downloadable children’s books and literary classics from Audible.

“It’s definitely the coolest thing I have ever done, honestly,” said Sheryl Bo, who runs Brain Lab Tutoring in Palm Bay, Florida and worked with her students on the essay.

The students, grades three through six, and includes Bo’s son Ethan, a fourth grader, all use the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Sheryl and Ethan Bo

The students’ essay (read it here) was emailed on March 13 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking that Audible books be made available to everyone while schools are closed during the pandemic. It was forwarded to Don Katz, founder of Audible.

After a few emails between Katz’s assistant and Bo, Audible created stories.audible.com, where hundreds of books in six languages are available for streaming worldwide.

“They really stepped up. This was definitely way more than I asked for,” said Bo, who originally asked for credits for those who couldn’t afford the service.

With schools and libraries closed indefinitely, Bo knows many schoolchildren are without access to free books.

“What are these kids going to do? Where are they going to get books? How are they going to keep their reading skills up?” she asked.

She had an idea.

“I’m teaching (my students) the persuasive essay with the punch at the end,” she said. “We have to challenge them. We need a call to action at the end. Will you step up? Will you be a positive influence to other corporations in this crises?”

Her students brainstormed and wrote the essay on Friday, March 13, the first day schools were closed.

The essay began: “Did you know that students with disabilities, like us, need audiobooks for most subjects? It’s true. We are a group of high-functioning autistic students in Florida. We have a private tutor that helps us learn. A lot of us learn best when we can hear the book read aloud because some of us have dyslexia as well.”

It concluded with, “Students like us need Audible to help us learn. … Students who miss reading for weeks at a time will lose out on learning.”

They attached the essay to this email to Bezos:

“Dear Mr. Bezos,

We are practicing writing an essay today with our teacher. We hope that you will read it, because we think that you could really help teachers and kids during this crisis. It’s five paragraphs, so please don’t skip anything. We hope you like our essay!”

On the subject line, Bo wrote, “Will you help kids and schools during this pandemic?”

“I honestly didn’t think I would get a reply,” Bo said. “We were just doing it as a cool assignment.”

But on Monday, Bo got a reply:  an email from Maureen Muenster, Katz’s assistant.

“Happy to help!” she wrote.

Bo was thrilled.

Bo wrote back saying the request was for students who are now home, teachers who are planning assignments and curriculum, and parents who need a break during this trying time.

A day later, a new email from Muenster came with a link to Audible’s new free streaming website.

 “I hope this helps,” Muenster wrote.

“With all the chaos, we felt we made a difference,” Bo said.

“Our intent,” Katz explained in the companywide email, “is that Stories will offer parents, educators, and caregivers – anyone helping kids as daily routines are disrupted – a screen-free experience to look forward to each day, while keeping young minds engaged.”

Bo taught at both private and district schools for eight years before beginning Brain Lab Tutoring in 2017 to help Ethan become acclimated to being around other students. The class usually meets at Bo’s house. Right now, she reaches her students through Zoom, a virtual meeting service.

The students used the new Audible site they helped spur to download Jack London’s “White Fang.”

At first, Bo said, her students weren’t thrilled with the essay writing assignments. Now, they want to know who they will write to next.

“You have to know how to write, and you have to know how to compose something so that people will listen to you and have reasons and have details to back up what you’re saying,” Bo said. “Have that call to action. Ask something. Ask for something to change. Ask them to provide something. I think it was a good lesson for them.”

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

Busy 48 hours includes trip to State Capitol, trophies for Piney Grove Boys Academy

By ROGER MOONEY

Alton Bolden, principal at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, has a new name for Feb. 5.

“Championship Wednesday,” he said.

It began that morning when a quartet of middle schoolers won in dominated fashion the 13th annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl. (Click here to watch the competition.)  Later that afternoon, students cliched another   victory in the elementary school basketball championship game.

“We were winning every which way we looked,” Bolden said.

Piney Grove is a private K-12 school with 75 of its 98 students attending on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

What made their accomplishments that Wednesday more impressive is the fact about 35 students, including the Brian Bowl winners and several members of the basketball team, spent almost 20 hours the day before traveling to and from the State Capitol in Tallahassee. They were there to support Step Up and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship during a media event for the program at the Capitol Rotunda.

From bottom left: Nathan Smith, Alex Day, Julian Day and Shaun Scott-Richards with the HP Chromebooks they won for finishing first in the 13th Annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl.

“Although it was a lot of time on the bus, I feel it was worth it,” said eighth grader Alex Day, captain of the Brain Bowl team. “It is amazing when all the people from different backgrounds – high-income, low-income, no matter the differences – can come together and solve one problem.”

The students toured the state senate and met a number of the black and Hispanic pastors from across the state who also traveled to Tallahassee for the event.

“I got to meet new people and knowing that people care about our education and are willing to pay for us to go to school, that’s what I took away from the trip,” said eighth grader Shaun Scott-Richards.

Bolden quizzed the Brian Bowl team and went over plays with the basketball team during the bus rides.

“They were well-prepared,” he said.

It showed during the finals when Alex, Shaun and teammates Julian Day (seventh grade) and Nathan Smith (sixth) rolled to a 300-60 victory against Lauderhill 6-12 STEM MED School.  All four students receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

The win was a by-product of preparation. Bolden said the students studied daily for a month.

“I learned more about my history,” Nathan said.

Julian admitted he and his teammates were a little nervous about the competition for several reasons: Lauderhill 6-12 won it last year while it was Piney Grove’s first time in the event, and it was being recorded by the Broward Educational Community Network. There were video cameras, bright lights and BEACON TV host, Lisa Lee.

“But if you get a chance, don’t give up,” Julian said. “Take another chance, another chance. Don’t give it up.”

The boys jumped to an early lead and never looked back. The topic was Black History Month and several times they provided correct answers before the host finished asking the questions.

Rosa Parks.

Muhammad Ali.

The Tuskegee Airmen.

The answers flowed and so did some tears.

“I don’t cry easily but they had me in tears because they were answering questions before they were finished asking the questions,” Bolden said. “They were committed.”

Alex, Shaun, Nathan and Julian each received an HP Chromebook for their efforts. Bolden was presented with the trophy.

After the awards ceremony, Bolden had to hustle back to campus, so he could drive the bus carrying the basketball team to its championship game at West Broward Prep. School, Piney Grove took home the second trophy of the day, courtesy of a 38-32 victory.

“They definitely made a statement about the school,” Bolden said. “We don’t have just athletes. People think this is a behavioral-change school, and we tell them it’s not a behavioral-change school. We are a school offering inner-city youth a college preparatory education in the inner city.

“That was a very busy 48 hours, and successful, too. I was very proud of them for that.”

ABOUT PINEY GROVE BOYS ACADEMY

The school’s mission is to provide a “harmonious, educational environment that enhances the physical, mental and spiritual talents” for the K-12 students. The school’s Primary curriculum is A Beka. High School and Middle school students take Advance & AP classes through Florida Virtual School. High school students are also offered duel enrollment at Broward College and Bethune-Cookman University. Tuition including fees: kindergarten $6,669; grades 1-4 $6,619; 5th grade $6,669; grades 6-7 $6,915; 8th grade $6,990; grades 9-11 $7,211 and 12th grade $7,286.

Young violinists bring joy to audiences and teachers

By ROGER MOONEY

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manny Perez used to stand in the back of the violin ensemble, hoping to shield himself from those in the audience with discerning ears who would know when he missed a note or, in his words, messed up.

“I thought I messed up most of the time,” Manny said.

Funny thing, though. No one ever approached Manny after a performance and told him he had messed up. Instead, those who listened to the group perform said things like, “You were amazing!” and “Great job!” and “I wish I could play the violin.”

They say that to Manny, a fifth grader, and the rest of the members of Strings of Joy, the violin ensemble made up of fourth and fifth graders from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.

The blossoming musicians found themselves the object of attention and some envy last spring when they played in the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg before a performance by the Florida Orchestra.

They were nervous beforehand.

“I had goosebumps,” Manny said.

They were thrilled afterward.

“It was my first time (playing) at a real theater, playing for so many people,” fourth grader Caden Wehrli said. “And seeing their faces, it was like, ‘Wow!’”

Strings of Joy is 17 strong with more than half its members, including those interviewed for this story, attending the private K-8 school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The ensemble consists of those who demonstrate an aptitude for playing the instrument and a love of performing.

Caden Wehrli

In the two years since it was formed, Strings of Joy has grown from playing during services at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and at nearby senior centers and senior homes, to playing the Mahaffey Theater.

The students have also played at the Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World and at the Catholic Foundation Gala in Tampa.

They have a gig lined up this spring to play in the lobby of Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater before another performance by the Florida Orchestra. They have been invited to play the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.

“Isn’t that amazing?” asked Mary Rehm, the school’s interim principal. “We’re incredible proud of what we do here.”

All-around students

There are a number of studies on the link between playing a musical instrument and academic performance. Albert Einstein played the violin. Thomas Jefferson, too.

The motor, visual and auditory parts of the brain are all engaged when Manny or Caden are playing their violin. One study referred to it as the brain receiving a full body workout. And like any workout, this ability becomes stronger over time and is eventually applied to other tasks, such as learning.

Jackson Smudde

Jackson Smudde, a fifth grader in the ensemble, said that is true in his case.

“I didn’t always pay attention in class that well. I was just kind of looking off,” he said. “Now I actually focus on what my teacher is saying.”

Father Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, agreed.

“I think we’ve seen potential in children that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It certainly unleased a lot of their gifts and talents and their potential outside of playing the violin.”

Caden’s mom, Kelly Wehrli, said she wasn’t sure if her son had the discipline needed to learn the violin. Turns out, he was. And that discipline carried over to the classroom.

“He has done so much better academically and musically than I could have ever expected,” she said. “I see a huge change. He gets straight A’s, which I’m really proud of.”

Kristy Bates, whose daughter Alivia is a fourth grader in the ensemble, played the clarinet and bagpipes when she was in middle school. She felt a change in the way she learned after she began playing those instruments.

“I noticed that it just kind of puts your brain in a different way of learning to where you just start thinking outside of the box,” Bates said. “And then reading notes is almost like a second language, so it’s a completely different method of learning, and it does help you in your other areas of schooling, as well.”

Life-long violinists

Our Lady of Lourdes has, historically, been big on the arts. Music and drama teacher Lisa Suarez estimated at least half of the school’s 210 students are involved in either the choir, the school play or Strings of Joy.

This year’s play will be “Fiddler on the Roof,” a nod to the young violinists.

Suarez said she was curious to see the response from the third-grade class when they began learning the violin.

“To see the kids gravitate towards it, that really surprised me, how much they love it,” she said.

Caden said the violin class was fun.

“I thought it was going to be hard, but actually it wasn’t,” he said. “Each time I heard the song once, I would play it once, and I would get it correct.”

Kate Francis, who oversees the Strings of Joy, said what is unique about the violin program is while some schools offer an instrument as an elective or extracurricular activity, Our Lady of Lourdes includes it among the third-grade courses. So, students who might not have any interest or might be intimidated are uncovering a hidden talent.

Manny Perez

“Manny loves the violin, and that’s going to be a part of him for his whole life and he learned it here,” Francis said. “That’s so cool.”

Ana Flores, Manny’s mother, remembered covering her ears when her son first started practicing at home. And now?

“He makes me feel like a proud mom,” she said. “He said he’s going to do it for the rest of his life. I’m going to have a violinist at home.”

Jackson said he wants to play for a long time.

“Probably ’til the end of my life,” he said.

And Caden? “Until I get about 30-something,” he said.

“He has two goals,” said Caden’s mom. “He wants to be a professional musician now, and a professional baseball player, so, I’ll hit the lottery either way.”

Manny, the boy who once tried to remain unnoticed when he played, now plays solos. He was upset last May when the school year ended, and he had to return his violin.

He said he wants to play the violin for “a very long time.”

Why?

“Because,” he said, “I can bring joy to people without singing or without talking, just with moving my hand with the bow and making gestures with my hands and the violin strings.”

About Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School

Founded in 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes sits in a 34-acre campus in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin and is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. More than 70 of the 210 K-8 students attend the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The school incorporates the Catholic tradition in its curriculum, though accepts students from all faiths. Tuition for parishioners for the 2019-20 school year begins at $7,435 for the first student and increases by $6835 per additional child. For non-parishioners, tuition is $9,305 for the first students and increases by $8,705 for each additional child.

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

The fire still burns for Rev. H.K. Matthews as he fights for education choice

By ROGER MOONEY

JACKSONVILLE, FL – Leaning his 92-year-old body on a wooden cane as he walked, the Rev. H.K. Matthews slowly made his way to the lectern Tuesday afternoon inside the assembly room at the Duval Charter School at Westside.

The stick is not a concession to his age, he said. It’s a crutch for the left knee injury suffered nearly 55 years ago on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

“I come as one of those who really came through the fire,” he told the students attending the Black History Month program.

Matthews was a civil rights activist who led sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters in Pensacola, Florida to protest inequality and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, he is an activist for education choice, which he sees as an extension of the civil rights movement.

“I am in this for the long haul,” he said.

A longtime supporter of Step Up For Students’ work, Matthews was invited to speak by Terry Fields, the former state representative who was the first Democrat to support what would become the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. Fields is a teacher at the K-8 Duval Charter School at Westside.

The students received copies of Matthews’ autobiography, “Victory After the Fall.

Matthews said he was honored to meet the students and “share some of his horror stories” so they could have a better understanding of why their parents now have the choice over their education.

“Your parents chose to send you to this school because they have been given an opportunity to put their best foot forward and not let anybody stop your progress,” he said.

That, Matthews said, was all King wanted.

“That was his focus,” Matthews said. “Black, white, whatever, everybody have equal access to whatever they needed. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”

H.K. Matthews reads the essays about his life written by the students at Duval Charter School at Westside in Jacksonville.

For his efforts in the civil rights movement, Matthews was arrested 35 times. The windows of his home were broken with rocks and bullets. He endured death threats and was blackballed from getting jobs.

He learned there were a total of eight hits placed on his life.

“I’m truly blessed,” he told the students, “because I am not supposed to be here.”

Born in Brewton, Alabama, Matthews was living in Pensacola in the early 1960s when the civil rights movement was gaining steam.

He helped organize the sit-ins and watched as some of the black protesters were burned with cigarettes. He saw some police offers take items off the stores’ shelves, shove them in the pockets of protesters then arrest the protesters for shoplifting.

While he shakes his head over those memories, nothing compares to what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 – a Sunday that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“A haunting memory,” he called it.

Hundreds of blacks tried to cross the Alabama River that day on their march to the state Capitol in Montgomery.

It was on that bridge where Matthews and the other marchers encountered police and state troopers, some on horseback. There were tear gas and billy clubs. Many of the unarmed marchers, including Matthews, were beaten.

“We had no idea we were going to encounter what we did,” Matthews said. “Can you imagine one group of human beings beating another group of human beings because they didn’t matter?

“I was in the middle. I got a few blows.”

He held up his cane to the school assembly.

“That’s something that not many people go through, but for him to survive that and try to get our freedom, that’s very good,” said Ashton Long, a sixth grader, spoke at a luncheon held prior to the assembly.

There, Ashton thanked King and Matthews for their sacrifices.

“I am intelligent,” he added.

That made Matthews smile.

“You are on the road to being somebody,” Matthews told those at the luncheon, members of the school’s Gentlemen of DCWS, a group of student leaders picked by Fields.

Matthews told students about  his school. It was located 13 miles from his home, and the only way to get there was by foot. Matthews said he walked past three schools for white children. He was all too familiar with the laws of the segregated South, yet Matthews said he never fully understood why he was forced to attend school at a dilapidated building with hand-me-down books and “raggedy desks.”

Lucky for him, the teachers didn’t care what the school looked like from the outside. They only cared about the education inside.

“I wouldn’t change anything from my experiences in there, because had I not had those experiences, I couldn’t appreciate the fact that kids now are able to attend schools of their choice, like this one, where they have people who are interested in their learning.”

H.K. Matthews described himself as “young and angry” when this photo was taken back in the 1960s.

Earlier during his visit to the school, Matthews came across a photo of himself taken when he was in his late-30s.

“I was young and angry,” he said while pointing to the photo.

He is older now and slowed by age and an injury, but sharp. Matthews said he tries to be as pleasant as possible but conceded he can still get angry if it’s for a worthy cause.

Education choice is his choice of causes.

He wants the students of the Duval Charter School Westside and all the students he talks to – and the parents he meets – to know he is still fighting for their rights.

“I want them to know why I’m so, I guess, dogmatic about school choice,” he said. “We got too many kids who fall through the cracks. They’re stuck in a school and they can’t do anything about it, because they are made to go there based on their ZIP code. The message is that you ought to have the right, the parents ought to have the right to send their children where they want to.”

After his talk to the students, Matthews opened the floor to questions.

The first came from a sixth-grade boy sitting near the back.

“Can I take a picture with you?”

Matthews laughed.

“You certainly may,” he said.

The student raced to the front of the room and took a selfie with the Rev. H.K. Matthews, one of the many who conquered the fire.

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

Mount Zion students show they care with supplies sent to hurricane survivors

By ROGER MOONEY

St. PETERSBURG, FL – The plastic boxes, originally meant to hold school supplies like pencils and markers and glue and tape, were stuffed with necessities like toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant and underwear.

Each box contained a note written by a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy.

“Hello, friend. I hope this brings you some happiness and joy,” wrote Tavaris Jones Jr., 6, a first grader at the K-5 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida.

E’Monie Cooper, 8, a second grader, stuffed socks, soap, a toothbrush, rubber bands, baby wipes, pens and a hand towel into a box.

“Love you and be safe,” she wrote on her note.

The boxes were then taped shut and shipped to the Bahamas, where they were intended to ease the burden of children living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 hurricane that made landfall on Sept. 1 and cut a destructive path across the group of islands.

“I was sad that that happened, and it was sad for them, because some people got hurt,” said Keizyon Taylor, 10, a fourth grader. “I had feelings for them.”

Keizyon’s box contained socks, underwear, soap, hand sanitizer and tissues.

“It made me feel good because I was helping somebody,” he said.

(Back row from left) Principal Franca Sheehy, E’Monie Cooper, Angelica Strong and Keizyon Taylor and (front row from left) Aubreanna Clements, Taliyah Jones, Alexander James and Tavaris Jones Jr., of Mount Zion Christian Academy helped pack 120 care boxes for children in the Bahamas living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

Mount Zion’s 90 students plus teachers and staff packed 120 of those care packages and delivered them to a hurricane relief collection center.

“It was going to the kids who did not have the stuff we have,” said kindergartener Aubreanna Clements, 5.

All but one of Mount Zion’s students attend the school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarships are managed by Step Up For Students.

“This project, I felt, would let them feel like they were doing something for someone in need. Even something as small as a little note is golden to the victims,” Mount Zion Principal Franca Sheehy said.

Sheehy said the project fit in well with her theme for this school year: “Acts of Kindness.”

“Every week they focus on different behaviors,” she said. “Welcoming a person. How to listen. Empathy. Especially empathy. It was part of this project, emphasizing feeling how another person would feel in this situation.”

The idea for the care packages came to Sheehy a few days after Hurricane Dorian’s 185 mph winds left thousands homeless and caused $3.4 billion in damage to the Bahamas.

Inside her office were more than 100 plastic pencil boxes that had been donated to her school the previous month. She and the staff were discussing ways the boxes could be used. Several of the civic groups she belongs to were already organizing hurricane relief projects. Sheehy looked at the empty boxes and said, “We can do this, too.”

Letters were sent to the parents and guardians of her students asking them to donate children’s supplies, if they could, with emphasis placed on “if they could.”

Sheehy, along with combined donations from the teachers and staff members, bought washcloths, underwear, wipes, toothbrushes and socks. 

The items were lined up, along with those donated by the parents and others, on tables in a classroom. Each student chose items to fill their pink or blue box. The students wrote notes intended to lift the spirits of the child who would receive it.

“I hope you like these gifts we sent from Mount Zion,” wrote second grader Angelica Strong, 7.

She put soap, towels, underwear and socks in her care package.

“It was raining bad (in the Bahamas), and on the news they were checking on the kids, seeing if anything happened to them,” Angelica said. “That made me feel sad.”

Sheehy was pleased with how her school was able to make a small dent in the relief effort and how her students responded to the project.

“Our students need to learn that they can give and help others. This was a time where it wasn’t about them and their needs, but about someone else’s needs,” she said. “I think the project was a success, and they got something from it.”

Aubreanna, the kindergartener who recognized the need to help those less fortunate, remembered seeing the devastating images on TV – families that lost their homes and parents searching for their children. She did not write a note. Instead, she drew a picture of children playing at the beach.

“It was a happy picture,” Aubreanna said.

About Mount Zion Christian Academy

The Mount Zion Christian Academy opened in August 2012 under the leadership of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Enrollment at the K-5 school increased since 2014 by 95% with a 90% retention rate. All teachers have a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree and all teacher assistants have an Associate’s Degree minimum. Half of faculty/staff have Orton Gillingham Reading Approach (multi-sensory) training. All students receive breakfast/lunch assistance. Tuition with fees for K-3 is $6,993. Tuition with fees for grades 4-5 is $6,519.

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