All Posts by Lisa Davis

Behind the Scenes with a Donor: Frontline Insurance Blog Interviews


Editor’s Note: This post kicks off our semi-regular feature: Behind the Scenes, where we give you an inside look at Step Up For Students. We hope you enjoy it!

By Ashley Foster, Guest Blogger

Flash back to September 2014.

CaptureBehindthescenesAt Step Up For Students, we are involved in a lot more than processing scholarships. As many of you know, the income-based (or Florida Tax Credit Scholarships) are funded by corporations whose leaders believe in our mission to help families choose the best learning environment for their children. One donor company was so interested in Step Up, their marketing team wanted to interview some families.

Frontline Insurance, a new donor to Step Up and an insurance company based in Lake Mary, arranged to meet families face-to-face and hear their stories in their own words about benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. So in September, the Frontline marketing team, accompanied by one of our Step Up employees and two professional photographers, arrived at the Tobar family’s home in Apopka to learn about their experience with the scholarship program.

Before we started the interview, Mario, then a high school senior, showed us his football awards and talked about his favorite players as his mom, standing in the kitchen, smiled with pride. Once we got started, Kiara Sanchez-Mora and Kristin Hunkiar, members of Frontline Insurance’s marketing team, sat on the living room sofa with a laptop and asked Mario, his little sister Gabby and their parents, Kenia Palacios and Victor Tobar, about Step Up and why it was a good fit for the family.

Kenia explained, with tears in her eyes, how thankful she was Mario had the chance to experience such a dramatic turn-around at his Orlando high school, Bishop Moore Catholic High School, and how proud she was of Gabby who attends Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic School, adjacent to Mario’s high school. Both use Step Up’s income-based scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.

Frontline Portrait-

From left to right: Victor Tobar, Gabby and Mario Tobar, and their mother, Kenia Palacios.

Once the interview was over, the Tobar family stood at their kitchen counter while the photographers adjusted the lighting on their flash, checked their computer monitors and snapped away. As we were saying our goodbyes, Kiara and Kristen made friends with the Tobars’ then-puppy, named Tebow, who had been patiently waiting in his crate.

It’s all in a day’s work, and we couldn’t do it without our awesome families who share their inspiring stories, and our donors who make the whole program possible.

In less than a couple of weeks, Mario is on his way to the University of West Florida in Pensacola where he will study engineering and play football. He has been working two jobs on the weekends to save a little bit of money to take with him.

You can read Frontline’s story here, along with the story of another amazing Step Up family in Ormond Beach, whose children have also benefited from Step Up For Students scholarships. Also, reach Step Up’s story about Mario here and about Faith Manuel and her eldest child, Davion Manuel-McKenney of Ormond Beach here.

Ashley Foster is Step Up’s former Marketing Manager, who recently moved with her husband, Gary, to North Carolina for his job. They live in Raleigh with their new puppy Lady Mae. Ashley currently teaches yoga at a local studio and is searching for the next step in her marketing career.


Meet The Team

Hello Step Up family and supporters,

We’re pleased to meet you or get reacquainted with you! We will be providing content to you on our new blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.”  With a team of our talented writers we are thrilled to be part of this new journey, and where it might take us. This is Step Up For Students’ story, which means it’s YOUR story. Whether you have a question, a comment or a story idea, we’d love to hear from you. Our emails are below. Working together we can make this a great community in the blogosphere. Thanks for coming along in this new adventure. #WeAreStepUp4Students

Alissa Randall 

Alissa Randall


Alissa is a Jersey girl who loves living in Florida and enjoys exploring, antiquing and finding that rare gem.

Alissa leads two departments at Step Up For Students, Marketing and Advancement.

Marketing is responsible for promotion, community outreach, content development, branding and donor events. Additionally, the department creates marketing programs and recruits scholarship applicants. Advancement is responsible for raising unrestricted funds to help families get the most from their scholarships.

Prior to joining Step Up, Alissa spent 10 years in key account strategy and development, most recently as a director at Cox Target Media, a division of Cox Enterprises, Inc. She also served as a senior account manager at ORB Interactive, an interactive advertising agency offering proprietary media tools exclusively to major corporations for online marketing. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Roger Williams University, a master’s in media from The New School for Social Research and a master’s in computer animation from William Paterson University.

Fun fact: Many years ago, Alissa worked at Digital Domain as a coordinator on the movie, “The Fifth Element.’’

Reach her at

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Sherri and Annabelle

Sherri Ackerman 

A former newspaper reporter, Sherri covered social services and education, among other news beats, most recently as a staff writer for The Tampa Tribune. She also happily worked on stories on travel and eating, two other favorite topics.

Growing up, school choice for Sherri and her sister meant moving frequently with their mother and grandmother. Sherri attended nine public schools in three states before graduating from Brandon High in Florida. College followed, paid for with a small grant and loan, and jobs as an oyster shucker, bank teller, bartender and waiter before — finally! — landing a writing job at a community newspaper. Sherri has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The mother of two children who attend a charter elementary school, Sherri enjoys family road trips with husband Steve traveling to the annual cousin reunion in her home state of Indiana, camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and searching for vintage junk and the best she-crab chowder along the East Coast.

As a public relations manager at Step Up For Students, she works with media across the country, promoting scholarship programs and Step Up’s public service announcements. She also writes stories about the families Step Up serves to help make more parents aware of their educational options.

Have a great story for Sherri? Reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @SherriAckerman1

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Lisa and Olivia

Lisa A. Davis

Lisa is a longtime storyteller whose first-grade public school teacher in Massachusetts kick-started her love of writing by encouraging students to choose a sticker for the top of their lined paper and crafting a story about the picture. Lisa couldn’t get enough stickers. Her love affair with writing led her to a career in news reporting that spanned two decades and two states, with her cutting her journalistic teeth at The Boston Globe while a student at Northeastern University.

When Lisa could no longer afford college in Boston, she moved to the Tampa Bay area where college was more affordable, earning her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa. After spending more than a decade at The Tampa Tribune, she joined Step Up For Students in 2012, and traded in writing about the mostly bad in society to writing stories about what’s good, and has loved telling Step Up For Students’ stories ever since.

During her downtime, she and her husband are often involved in some sort of do-it-yourself project, and spending time with their daughter. Lisa loves her family and friends, the Red Sox, U2, making old things pretty again, antiquing, thrifting and traveling so her daughter can experience amazing things like fireflies in the mountains of North Carolina and singing “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park in Boston. Lisa adores all thing vintage, and she and her family of three are renovating a 1972 Shasta trailer, their future cottage on wheels. She, her hubby and their daughter live in 1920’s bungalow in Tampa, and their only child attends a Hillsborough County charter school. Lisa is also pretty handy with a glue gun.

As Step Up’s Public Relations and Social Media Manager, she oversees the company social media, the Step Up For Students blog, annual report, newsletter and produced the company’s first PSA. She also assists with media, securing and working with event speakers, and otherwise spreading the word about Step Up’s scholarship programs.

She enjoys hearing a good story. Reach her at


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Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady 

Estefania (her friends call her Nia) is a world traveler, a baseball lover and a political junkie. When she’s not working, she is canoeing on Tampa Bay with her husband, playing with her dog, Boogers or enjoying a sporting event.

Estefania  was raised in Colombia with her two parents and brother. Thanks to an approved political asylum, she and her family moved to the United States in 1999.  She made Miami her home for 15 years, where she went to many public schools, graduated from Miami-Dade College and Florida International University with double major in Political Science and English. Later, she completed her Master’s Degree in Conflict Analysis & Resolution from NOVA Southeastern University.

She moved to the Tampa Bay area at the end of 2014, married her lifelong best friend and strives to make her mixed-breed rescued dog’s life the best she can.

Before joining Step Up For Students, Estefania worked for the Board of County Commissioners in Miami-Dade as a communications and media specialist and as a marketing director for the Ultimate Titan.

As a Digital Marketing Specialist, Estefania works to promote Step Up For Students through newsletters, earned media, public service announcements and more. She is also responsible for updating the website, sharing student and school stories and much more.

You can reach Estefania at



Paul Soost 

“Following his dream” is what brought Paul to the sunny state of Florida. Born and raised in the Midwest – Minnesota and Illinois to be exact – cruise ships were not a common sight except for on television. But at an early age, Paul decided he wanted to work on a cruise ship.

College courses at Illinois State University (Go Redbirds!) were chosen with this in mind, leading Paul to bachelor’s degrees in Public Relations and Recreation & Park Administration. An internship, followed by a full-time job with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, helped pave the path to Florida. But he was still 60 miles from the nearest port.

Paul was elated when Disney announced they were launching two cruise ships, thus allowing Paul to realize a dream as he became part of the marketing team for Disney Cruise Line! Adventures onboard and to Caribbean islands and other exotic destinations were finally a reality.

After stepping back on land, Paul has worked with Children’s Home Society of Florida and Massey Services, a pest control service.

In his free time, Paul enjoys playing softball and singing in the church choir, but not at the same time! He loves to travel and plans to fill up the pages of his second Passport. He volunteers for IDignity and the Adult Literacy League. Paul’s ideal afternoon? Taking in a baseball game at a MLB stadium.

Paul joined Step Up For Students in May 2015 as Marketing Manager, where he’s excited to be developing marketing programs and donor events. He’s thrilled by the opportunity to work for a tremendous organization that helps Florida students “follow their dreams.”

Reach Paul at


2015 Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday in Florida Starts Friday

By Lisa A. Davis

back_to_school_blackboardIt’s that time of year again. Summer fun is winding down and back-to-school preparation is upon us and over the next few weeks schools will open their doors to the 2015-16 school year. Most parents have their children’s school supply list in hand. And it’s long. So long. Binders, pencils and glue sticks. Oh my! And let’s not forget lunch boxes, backpacks, school uniform, shoes and so much more. We cringe at what it will cost, but we look forward to that one important reprieve we get during this season: Florida’s 10-day Sales Tax Holiday.

This year’s holiday begins at 12:-01 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 7 and runs through 11:59 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 16. And for this we are thankful. The lists of tax-free purchases includes most clothing priced under $100 per item such as fitness clothes, baseball cleats, blouses, book bags, barrettes, construction paper, calculators, highlighters and so much more.

Don’t forget this isn’t only available for students, adults can take advantage of it too from everything from work uniforms, hunting vest to pantyhose and diapers.

For a complete list of tax-exempt items, please visit Sales Tax Holiday list.

Or scan this QR code to bring the link up on your mobile device:

QR code Sale Tax Holiday


Happy Shopping!

Layla and Jeremiah Cirino


Layla and Jeremiah Cirino

By Lisa A. Davis

Meet Layla and Jeremiah Cirino of Kissimmee. They began their academic life attending their neighborhood school, but as the years went by, the school became overcrowded and the environment made learning a challenge for the siblings.

Jeremiah was bullied. Layla faced violence in the classroom. Their mom, Adrienne Cirino, was desperate to find an alternative school for her children, but as a single mother private school seemed out of reach. Then she heard about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and applied through Step Up For Students. Soon, Layla’s grades were back to her usual A’s and B’s and Jeremiah was doing better than ever.

“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids,’’ Adrienne said. “They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.” Read their full story here.

A message from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeWelcome to Step Up For Students’ newest way to connect to you: our families, donors and community partners. We’re excited about this new blog and we hope you will join the conversation. We want this blog to be an interactive place for you to learn, become engaged, and yes, maybe even be entertained. doug-tuthill

Here you’ll find important information about scholarship news, legislative and program updates, and we’ll give you a closer look at what we do, how we do it and why. We will share stories about our scholars and their families, the schools that are improving our scholars’ lives, and the occupational therapists and others who are working with our unique needs scholars. We will give you behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Step Up organization, the people who make it tick, how we do our work, and why we enjoy it so much. We feel blessed to do work that is so rewarding and enriching.

We will show you how our Public Service Announcements come to life, and what goes into organizing a donor event. We will share advice about how students can be most successful, and spotlight teachers who are helping transform the lives of the children they teach. We’ll introduce you to the folks in our Office of Student Learning who are going into schools and helping educators and parents bridge the gap between home and school in hopes of giving all students a better chance to succeed. We want to get to know you better, and you us. We’re excited to kick this blog off and deepen our relationship with those who have joined us in our quest to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed.

As we prepare to start yet another school year, from where I sit the future is bright. This fall about 78,000 students will be using Step Up tax credit scholarships and about 5,000 will be using Step Up Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA).  We’ll pay out approximately $465 million in scholarships during the 2015-16 school year, and we’ve rebuilt our online payment system for our PLSA families to help make that process more effective, efficient and easier to use.

I started teaching in Florida in 1977 and I’ve never been more optimistic about the long-term future of education. Parents are becoming more empowered and engaged in their children’s education, and teachers and schools are becoming more sophisticated in meeting the unique needs of each child.  We’re also getting better at using technology to help us meet each child’s needs.  The days of one-size-fits-all education are ending and we’re moving toward a time when all children will have access to an education that is customized to meet their needs.  But while the future is bright, getting there will remain a struggle, which is why we need to stay united in our efforts to help all children.  Our intent is to use this blog as one tool to help us work more closely together as we build a better future for all children.

Please join us.

Have a successful and happy 2015-16 school year,

Doug Tuthill

Step Up For Students President



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