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A private school off the beaten path was the key to a major turnaround

By JEFF BARLIS

Kelly Perkins was in a full-blown panic when she woke up at 5:15 a.m. and her son Ross wasn’t there. For three days he wasn’t at school, which was nothing new, but he wasn’t answering his phone. She drove the streets of Cape Coral looking for him day and night.

“I come home on the third day and he was sitting on the porch,” Kelly said. “He was hiding with his friends in a golf country club bathroom.”

Kelly Perkins and her son Ross are all smiles these days now that he’s using a Step Up For Students scholarship at Gator Wilderness Camp School.

Kelly was at the end of her rope. Ross, 15, had gone off the rails, and his therapist suggested an out-of-home placement – Gator Wilderness Camp School, an hour north in rural Punta Gorda. That’s what spurred Ross to run away.

Kelly didn’t want to send Ross away, but now Ross needed help.

Problem was, even if Ross agreed to camp, Kelly had to figure out how to pay for it.

Luckily, she learned, about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students that made tuition manageable.

“Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Probably in much more trouble.”

Ross was a good student when he was younger. Kelly spoiled him. He had every game system he ever wanted, always had name-brand clothes and shoes.

His hair was a playground. Kelly, a cosmetology teacher with short blond hair and kind eyes, loved to help Ross change his look – hair spikes in preschool, a mohawk in kindergarten. He got his ear pierced on his 10th birthday.

“I went with the mohawk forever,” Ross said with the same Chicago accent as his mother. “I’d wear it up or down in my eyes. I’d dye it crazy colors and shave the sides and wear skinny jeans. I had really great grades, A’s and B’s. So I could do whatever I wanted.”

Things changed dramatically, though, after Ross finished eighth grade. His zoned high school had such a bad rep, Kelly decided to move to Florida, thinking she was giving Ross a better life.

But the move upset Ross deeply. Friends meant a lot to him, and he left them all behind. He wasn’t too discerning about the new ones he made at his neighborhood school in Cape Coral.

“They were just the bad kids,” he said. “I always liked being the leader, and I’m kind of an entertainer, so I would do whatever I could to up the game.”

The game was skipping school, hanging out, stealing. One day, Kelly’s brother-in-law found thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen clothes, shoes and electronics in Ross’ closet.

In the spring, he was caught stealing at the mall, kicked out of school and sent to a youth shelter he described as more of a detention center. They shaved his head. He ran away. He was placed in a public alternative school, but he didn’t show.

When confronted, Ross wouldn’t make eye contact. “I dunno” was his answer for everything.

At the end of his freshman year, he had a grand total of a half credit.

That’s when Gator Camp emerged as the answer. Ross eventually agreed to go. They shaved his head when he arrived.

Ross feeling right at home at Gator Wilderness Camp School.

The camp sits on 250 wooded acres surrounded by citrus farms and ranches. There are horses, cows, a lake – and an overwhelming feeling of tranquility. There are no cell phones or video games.

The camp serves boys ages 10-15. They typically come from troubled backgrounds, most with special needs or disabilities, and agree to attend 15 to 18 months. They live, work and learn outdoors, 24-7.

Camp director Greg Kanagy, a short, powerfully built man with sky blue eyes, remembers Ross was loud and obnoxious early on. He made friends easily, but they were disruptive. He was a leader, but sometimes led his group literally in the wrong direction.

“He didn’t take responsibility very seriously,” Kanagy said. “And he was pretty distrustful in relationships.”

At first, Ross didn’t see the point of being there. He didn’t like the chores and structure, didn’t participate in his group’s daily talks and plans. When a conflict arose, the group would talk it out until it was handled. But Ross made everything into a joke.

“I just had no hope,” he said.

In time, though, with help from his counselors and peers, something happened. He participated. He opened up to his group. He stopped thinking he was better than them.

After the fourth month, he could feel his life turning around. Kelly saw the difference. He talked more, made eye contact. Even his posture changed.

At camp, Ross became a positive force. The trust that formed allowed the campers to share their worst experiences. Their bonds become impenetrable.

“Once you get that out, you just feel so much more secure,” he said. “It’s a big focus to talk about how you’re feeling instead of acting things out.”

After he graduated camp, Ross went home and to a non-traditional public high school where he set his own pace doing courses on a computer. A school official asked if he’d like to do afternoon or evening sessions. He asked if he could do both. No one had ever done that.

Kelly felt like she was looking at a different person, but just in case, she moved while Ross was away to make sure he didn’t fall back in with his old friends. He never did.

He missed camp and planned trips with his camp friends.

During a canoe trip in the Everglades, a former counselor offered him a job at camp – assistant maintenance and grounds crew. He jumped at it and decided to finish school even faster. He earned his diploma in less than a year and a half.

“I just binged high school,” he said.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@suf.org.

Step Up For Students’ team member Nina Gregory shares a personal story

By GEOFF FOX

For many people, March is a time to enjoy college basketball, reset clocks and bask in the coming of spring.

Camille Gregory, Step Up team member Nina Gregory’s daughter, celebrates her niece Caroline’s first birthday.

It is also Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month – a time to raise understanding about the group of neurological disorders that permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination. In the United States, about 764,000 people have at least one symptom of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is one of the qualifying diagnoses for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, managed by Step Up For Students, whose scholarship recipients you support.

Nina Gregory, who works in Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, recently spoke about her daughter Camille, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby. Doctors told Nina her daughter would probably never walk or talk, but Camille eclipsed those expectations long ago. 

They have a beautiful story of love and perseverance. Please watch Nina share her story. 

 

Please listen to Nina read a book she wrote about her daughter. Flip the pages below.

Monin donates $70,000 to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

Monin, Inc., producer of premium syrups, gourmet sauces, fruit purées and fruit smoothie mixes for coffees, iced teas, lemonades, cocktails and more, announced today a contribution of $70,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida. The donation will fund 11 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

Monin CEO Bill Lombardo (forth from right) presents Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill (middle) with at $70,000 check to provide scholarships for underserved Florida schoolchildren at an event at Guardian Angels Catholic School in Clearwater. Joining them are Guardian Angels Prinicipal Mary Stalzer and several Step Up scholars benefiting from the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

Bill Lombardo, CEO of Monin, announced the donation at a scholarship celebration event at Guardian Angels Catholic School in Clearwater, where 57 students use the tax-credit scholarship.

Following the scholarship donation announcement, the fifth-grade students at Guardian Angels participated in an activity making a school-themed lemonade and handcrafted soda with flavors provided by Monin.

This is the second consecutive year Monin has partnered with Step Up For Students, bringing the company’s total contribution to $130,000.

“Monin embraces the meaning of generosity and giving back to our community. Our partnership with Step Up For Students allows us to support and improve the lives of people in our Tampa Bay community through K-12 educational scholarships,” said Lombardo. “We are proud of our support of helping develop future leaders.”

Step Up scholars at Guardian Angels Catholic School participated in an event on Wednesday with Monin and Step Up For Students. Students made Guardian Angels inspired lemonade and handcrafted soda using premium syrup flavors from Monin. The event was part of a celebration recognizing Monin for their $70,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. The contribution will provide 11 scholarships allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district school. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.

“Providing access to educational options and finding the right learning environment for all students is vitally important today. We’re grateful that Monin joins us in our mission to provide these opportunities to families that otherwise would not be able to access them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Monin for your continued support.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving about 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.

KAR Auction Services makes $1 million contribution to scholarship program

 

By PAUL SOOST

KAR Auction Services, Inc. (NYSE: KAR), a global vehicle remarketing and technology solutions provider, on Feb. 26 made a $1 million contribution to Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, which administers scholarships for lower-income schoolchildren.

KAR’s financial commitment will fund scholarships for 153 Florida children — giving them more educational options and opportunities.

Step Up For Students scholars from several areas Catholic schools on Monday celebrated KAR Auction Services Inc.’s $1 million contribution to Step Up for the 2017-18 school year which will fund 153 lower-income students to attend schools of their choice. The students are joined by, from left to right, Ross Bubolz, principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High School, Desire Gideos, Dealer Sales Manager, Automotive Finance Corporation (Subsidiary of KAR), Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, Mike Mulvaney, assistant general manager, ADESA Tampa (subsidiary of KAR), Craig Morris, VP Tax, KAR Auction Services, Brad Yeager, regional sales director, TradeRev (subsidiary of KAR, Becky Doemland, director of community relations, KAR Auction Services, Chris Pastura, superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of St. Petersburg and Keith Galley, Principal of St. Patrick Catholic School.

Step Up For Students scholars from several areas Catholic schools on Monday celebrated KAR Auction Services Inc.’s $1 million contribution to Step Up for the 2017-18 school year which will fund 153 lower-income students to attend schools of their choice. The students are joined by, from left to right, Ross Bubolz, principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High School, Desire Gideos, Dealer Sales Manager, Automotive Finance Corporation (Subsidiary of KAR), Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, Mike Mulvaney, assistant general manager, ADESA Tampa (subsidiary of KAR), Craig Morris, VP Tax, KAR Auction Services, Brad Yeager, regional sales director, TradeRev (subsidiary of KAR, Becky Doemland, director of community relations, KAR Auction Services, Chris Pastura, superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of St. Petersburg and Keith Galley, principal of St. Patrick Catholic School.

“We believe in second chances for cars, people and communities — that includes partnering to provide students with quality educational options,” said Jim Hallett, chairman and CEO of KAR. “The state of Florida is home to more than 650 KAR employees as well as countless valued business partners and customers. And we are committed to supporting the communities in which we work and live.”

This is KAR’s first time partnering with Step Up For Students, which helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida children. The corporate-funded program gives children assistance with private school tuition or transportation costs for out-of-county public schools. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the program serving nearly 102,000 students during the 2017-18 school year.

“We are excited KAR Auction Services has joined us in our mission to empower Florida families by helping them find the best learning environment for their children,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Your contribution to the Step Up scholarship program will make a lasting difference in the communities you serve. On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank KAR.”

KAR owns and operates 15 whole-car and salvage auctions in Florida, and provides wholesale automotive services to auto dealers throughout the state.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org. 

 

 

Choice scholarship saved life of bullying victim

By JEFF BARLIS

The note was written on a torn piece of paper slipped through a slot in Hannah Waibel’s locker. When she opened the door, it fell to the floor.

You should just kill yourself. You’re not wanted here.

Hannah cried as she retreated to the bathroom to call her mom. The bullying at her neighborhood middle school in Arcadia had been relentless, but this crossed a red line and triggered Hannah’s darkest moment.

“Maybe they’re right,” she thought, warm tears staining the crumpled note.

Jennifer Gross and daughter Hannah Waibel are all smiles these days at Faith Community Christian Academy in Arcadia, Florida.

She contemplated suicide for a second and it scared the heck out of her. But the next emotion she felt was anger. Minutes before she found the note, Hannah had left a two-hour meeting with her parents and the school resource officer. He had assured them he would fix the situation.

Hannah’s mom, Jennifer Gross, stormed back to the school to withdraw her daughter. Hannah was already in the office filling out her 25th incident report in the first month of her seventh-grade year.

More than 47,000 public school students in Florida were bullied or assaulted in some way in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the most recent state statistics. Spurred by those numbers, state lawmakers are considering a new type of scholarship, the Hope Scholarship, to give victims a way out.

In Hannah’s case, a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students scholarship saved her.

It allowed her to enroll in Faith Community Christian Academy, one of two private schools in Arcadia, a small town at the heart of Desoto County.

“I couldn’t stay,” said Hannah, chin quivering, voice cracking as she recounted her story. “Suicide is scary. You can never take it back.”

She and her mom share the same dirty blond hair, dark brown eyes and wary smile. They were determined to find safety above all else. Hannah’s grades in elementary school were excellent, but middle school was about survival. She got C’s and D’s.

“She really didn’t care anymore,” Jennifer said. “Didn’t want to be there.”

What started in sixth grade with adolescent dramas between on-and-off friends, turned into excommunication and worse in seventh grade.

Hannah isn’t sure why she became a target of girls she once called friends. She wasn’t born and raised in Arcadia, which made her an outsider. She was also pretty and well dressed, which seemed to explain why they shouted “slut” and “whore” at her.

“I was an outcast,” Hannah said.

Having no friends made things worse. The isolation was devastating.

Harassment came in the form of shouts in the hallway, mutterings in the classroom, text messages from random phone numbers, messages on social media. Hannah was repeatedly threatened for filing incident reports. Usually the gist of it was: “You’re no good” and “Why are you here?”

It didn’t get too physical – a shoulder here, a shove there, a stack of books knocked to the ground – but it still hurt. Yet nothing ever happened to her bullies. The note in the locker was the final straw.

Jennifer, a former chef at a nursing home and later a stay-at-home mom who married a fire sprinkler installer, knew about Faith Community and the Step Up scholarship. She had looked it up years before, when her oldest daughter, Chelsea, suffered through the same kind of bullying at the same school.

Back then, Chelsea was unable to attend because of transportation issues – the family had just one vehicle. This time, when Jennifer called principal Joni Stephens to enroll Hannah, the school was full.

Jennifer detailed Hannah’s ordeal. She begged. Tears fell on both ends of the phone. It was too late in the school year to get a scholarship, but Stephens had never turned anyone away.

“I knew I was going to make room,” she said. “It’s not about the money. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.”

The school is only a few short blocks from the district school, but it felt like a new universe to Hannah.

“She was very quiet, very shy,” Stephens recalled. “She wouldn’t look at you in the face. You could tell she had been emotionally damaged. She didn’t trust anybody.”

In her first two weeks, the unthinkable happened.

Hannah was sitting on a stage in the cafeteria when a bigger, older girl started punching her and dragged her off the stage by her hair. She tried to defend herself, but school officials quickly intervened.

As she sat shaking in the front office, waiting for her mom to arrive, she also saw how Stephens handled the issue on the spot. Two lunch ladies came in and described what happened, confirming Hannah did nothing to provoke the fight.

It turned out the attack wasn’t random. The older girl was a cousin of one of Hannah’s old bullies. She was suspended for a week and later transferred.

After what she had been through at her previous school, Hannah was amazed by the response. Slowly but surely, her frayed nerves recovered. Her confidence returned.

With a Step Up scholarship starting in eighth grade, Hannah soared to the honor roll. Now 16, she has accelerated her learning to combine 10th and 11th grades in the current school year, and is on track to graduate next year as valedictorian or salutatorian.

She’s also thinking about college and an apartment.

“It makes me feel grown up,” she said. “From everything I went through to graduating early, it makes me proud.”

Hannah still runs into her bullies at Walmart or the restaurant where she works part-time as a hostess. They still lob insults and threats, but now Hannah brushes them off and walks away smiling.

Her secret? She uses it as motivation now.

“I just want to show everyone that did me wrong that I’m better than that,” she said.

About First Assembly Christian Academy

The school opened in 2010 with 12 students. It now has 125, including 73 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses a self-paced curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), and all high school graduates earn an accredited diploma through dual-enrollment at Lighthouse Christian Academy. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is administered annually. Tuition is $7,000 a year.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

No limits: Gardiner Scholarships fuel big dreams for the Alexander family

By GEOFF FOX

Abby Alexander is a 9-year-old entrepreneur who has developed – and hit the local market with – her own line of skin-care products. She recently sold her Gifts by Abby Lane merchandise during an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Her brother, Christopher, 13, loves acting and wants to eventually write and direct movies. In his spare time, he reads Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

A young entrepreneur, Abby Alexander recently displayed her own skin-care products, Gifts by Abby Lane, during an expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Abby and Christopher are biological siblings who were adopted at a young age by Kelli Alexander and Nicholas Alexander of Spring Hill, Florida, about 50 miles north of Tampa.

Christopher was 4 when the Alexanders adopted him, and he soon began attending a neighborhood school. Around third grade, he started having some difficulties.

“In school, the teachers started to notice that he was getting distracted by little things, like the temperature of the classroom or his friend was wearing new shoes,” Kelli Alexander said. “He couldn’t focus on what the teacher was teaching and his (learning style) is very one-step-at-a-time. He couldn’t focus. He’d get instructions and would get lost in multiple-step instructions.”

He often struggled with reading and math, and would come home frustrated and discouraged.

The Alexanders had adopted Abby when she was 19 months old. When Abby started school, she had different challenges.

“Abby struggled with not being in control of things,” Kelli said. “Anytime the teacher would deviate from a schedule, she couldn’t focus. If they were five minutes late for art class, it would throw off the rest of her day. She was done.”

It didn’t help that Abby also had attachment and anxiety issues, as did her brother.

Now in seventh grade, Christopher was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age 9. Abby, a fourth-grader, was 7 when she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum; the Alexanders also were told she is gifted.

Christopher Alexander is a voracious reader who wants to someday become a professional actor.

Through her own research, Kelli Alexander learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Thanks to the scholarship, Kelli has been able to afford to home school Christopher for the past four years, while husband Nicholas works at a Walmart distribution center. Abby started home schooling this year. Kelli Alexander said she is pleased with her children’s progress, and both kids said they are

 

happier learning at home, where they are also close to their 3-year-old brother William.

“Our family is always on a tight budget,” Kelli said. “The scholarship has allowed us to choose high-quality curricula, quality technology and supplies to cater to their special needs. The scholarship allows us to decide what, where and how we teach our children. We can design a curriculum that plays off of their strengths and passions. Since being home-schooled, both have shown remarkable improvements not just academically, but emotionally as well.”

Kelli, Abby and Christopher Alexander recently acted in a production of “Annie” at the Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, Florida.

The family, including Kelli, regularly participates in community theater productions at Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, which has Christopher dreaming of a career on the stage or in a director’s chair – or both. He said his overall outlook on life has changed since he started home schooling.

“Home-school is so much better,” he said. “My other school was so stressful and fake. The kids and students were crazy and stressful – naïve.”

He has acted in community productions of “Around the World In 80 Days,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Annie” and “Peter Pan.” He is currently auditioning for the part of Quee, a dwarf in the medieval comedy, “ReUnKnighted.”

“I really want to be an actor,” he said. “That’s my dream. I look to do any roles that sound good.”

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

“Right now, I’m on ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio,” he said.

In the fall, Abby decided she wanted to earn her own money. Her strong interest in science and math led to the idea of starting her own line of skin-care products.

“With the scholarship, we were able to find resources to help her learn about small businesses and in a very short time she created a business plan,” Kelli Alexander said. “Gifts by Abby Lane was born at our kitchen table. She makes specialty items that don’t have any added perfumes or dyes. In the past few months, she has expanded from selling to friends and family to setting up booths at large markets and she has many more planned for the coming months.  This business venture has been the greatest hands-on lesson for her in business, economics and customer service.”

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

“At first, we gave them as presents to some of our friends, then I thought it would be cool to make products that almost everybody can use,” she said.

Her interests are not bound to beauty products. The family has two kittens – Genie and Bobby – which has sparked her enthusiasm for the veterinary field.

Abby, described by her mother as “very analytical and practical,” has such a keen interest in national security that she has also considered a career as a border patrol agent.

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

“The Gardiner Scholarship has given us the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Cigar City Brewing gives back by donating $30,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 TAMPA, FL – Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa-area brewery, announced on Feb. 2 a $30,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year.

This is the first time that Cigar City Brewing has partnered with Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund four K-12 scholarships so financially disadvantaged Florida children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

Cigar City Brewing Chief Operating Officer Justin Clark , right, presents Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant ,left, with a check for $30,000. The donation will provide K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida families to attend the school that best meets their child’s learning needs through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

“Cigar City Brewing is proud to support our community, and even more proud to make a difference in the life of a child through providing educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City Brewing’s chief operating officer. “We admire the work of Step Up For Students and are pleased to join in this partnership.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income children throughout the state. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are honored to welcome Cigar City Brewing as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for kinergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

Born drug-addicted and poor, a Step Up graduate’s story set for a happy ending

By LISA A. DAVIS

If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.

“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”

Ashley Elliott, a freshman at Valencia College, says if it wasn’t for Step Up For Students, she likely wouldn’t be in college now and on a path to become a teacher.

Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”

At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.

By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.

After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.

“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.

When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.

“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”

She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”

When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.

She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.

“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”

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

 

Republic National Distributing Company takes center stage and donates $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest wine and spirits wholesaler, announced on Feb. 6 a contribution of $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a $65 million contribution as Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera looks on. RNDC’s contribution will fund more than 9,940 scholarships for lower-income students to attend a school that best meets their learning needs. Rivera is a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with plans to become a commercial airline pilot.

The donation was announced during RNDC’s state sales meeting, held on a soundstage at Universal Studios Orlando.

RNDC’s donation will allow more than 9,940 K-12 students to attend the school of their choice through Florida Tax Credit scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

“Making a difference in the life of a student, their family and our community makes us very proud. For many students, having the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their learning needs can propel them on a path toward a better future,” said RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. “We’re proud to support Florida schoolchildren through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.”

This is the sixth consecutive year RNDC has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Step Up For Students allows lower-income families the opportunity to attend schools they might not otherwise be able to afford. But we couldn’t do this without the support and generosity of our donors,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since 2012, RNDC has contributed $180 million, providing more than 30,665 scholarships. On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank you for your continued commitment and generosity.”

Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera and his mother Deborah DeJesus attended the event to share their story with the RNDC associates. During his junior year of high school, Orlando’s grades had dropped to nearly failing. With help from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Orlando was able to change schools and attend Heritage Christian School in Kissimmee.

“Going to Heritage turned my life around,” said Orlando. “Today, I’m a freshman at Embry-Riddle, studying aeronautical science on the airline pilot specialty track. I’d like to thank Step Up For Students and donors like RNDC for making this possible.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org

Seaside Engineering and Surveying announces $20,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

BAKER, FL – Seaside Engineering and Surveying, LLC., a provider of professional surveying and civil engineering services, on Feb. 5 announced a $20,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year, bringing the company’s total to $35,000 since 2016.

This marks the second year Seaside Engineering and Surveying has supported the scholarship program.

Seaside Engineering and Surveying partners Tim Bowden, center left, and Kent Stewart , center right, present Step Up For Students development officer Karen Cordy with a $35,000 check which will provide K-12 scholarships through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. They are joined by a few administrators from Rocky Bayou Christian School, a Step Up participating school, as well as several students and their parents benefiting from the scholarship program

“Seaside Engineering and Surveying is proud to partner with Step Up For Students, and know that our contributions are helping local families send their children to schools that best fit their children’s learning needs,” said Seaside President John Gustin. “We’re excited to welcome Denise Bowers, Crestview Campus Principal from Rocky Bayou Christian School today. Rocky Bayou is a local private school that participates in the Step Up scholarship program.”

Rocky Bayou Christian School is one of more than 1,700 private schools participating in the scholarship program statewide. Rocky Bayou has been listed as the fourth best private elementary school in the U.S. by TheBestSchools.org.

“At Rocky Bayou, we encourage our students to conduct every aspect of their life with integrity, honesty, humility and love, traits consistent with the team members of Seaside,” said Bowers. “On behalf of Rocky Bayou Christian School, we’d like to thank Seaside Engineering and Surveying, as well as Step Up For Students, for their commitment to creating educational opportunities and for helping families in our community.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Thanks to the generosity of companies like Seaside Engineering and Surveying, more Florida families have the opportunity to choose schools befitting of their child’s learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful to Seaside for their contribution, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org

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