All Posts by Roger Mooney

Step Up For Students among best places to work in Tampa Bay

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students has been recognized as one of the best places to work by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, placing eighth in the large business category.

“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

Step Up employees celebrate the TBBJ’s announcement April 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).

Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.

“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office is a finalist in the Jacksonville Business Journal’s 2019 Best Places to Work. Those results will be announced later this spring.

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

Recession crushed family business but not the dream of quality education for their boys

With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.

Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?

What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?

Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.

 “We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.

It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.

“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.

Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.

“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.

Yes, private school.

The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.

The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.

Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.

“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”

Their world

Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.

Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.

“I just love to argue,” he said.

Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.

Jonas, who volunteers for Bugles Across America, plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans.

In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.

He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.

His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.

In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”

Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.

When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.

“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

Jack also plays the piano and violin.

While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.

“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.

‘You’re going to law school’

Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.

Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.

“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”

“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”

Jack works on the engine of the Mustang he plans to race next year in the National Auto Sports Association.

The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.

The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.

“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”

He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.

“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”

Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.

“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”

 “It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”

The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.

“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.

About Westwood Christian School

Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

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

Skyler Goeb didn’t let a rough start to life prevent her from soaring

By ROGER MOONEY

ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his 8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of) the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard worker.”

He used another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.

Skylar Goeb wears some of the 60 medals she has earned for gymnastics.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to life.

She was born addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.

“She doesn’t write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.

But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.

Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,  

Last fall, she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool, one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.

According to Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar was nominated because she met the following criteria:

  • Strives for academic excellence.
  • Leadership qualities in the classroom.
  • Participation in their community.
  • Having an attitude in harmony with the goals and spirit of our school.

“We’re very proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.

When asked one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”

Skylar is also shy.

“She doesn’t say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”

Math, and learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.

When Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.

“If I ask if someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing spirit to learn.”

Balance beams and parallel bars

Skylar also is certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last year at the state championships.

On the walls of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll find Skylar’s favorite room.

With walls painted light blue, the  room is empty but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip as she swings around the bar.

It is here that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.

Skylar is a blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.

The Hills enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.

“She loves competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”

Her idol is American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“She’s great,” Skylar said.

Skylar Goeb competing at a 2018 meet.

Like every girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the Olympics.

In early January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program, especially for girls her age.

Skylar is also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.

“Skylar is very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”

As Skylar ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes first?”

“School,” Skylar said.

“We’re always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”

Skylar has been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book sound.

She enjoys history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.

“When we get in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”

“She has a great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”

George Hill said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.

“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”

The rough start

George Hill, 64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63, retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.

The Hills raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.

Skylar’s father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon Springs.

“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”

Skylar’s mom tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”

“If that went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”

Skylar’s mom did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her mother’s last name.

Her parents went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft, according to court records.

Skylar’s mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.

“We’ll see how that goes,” George Hill said.

What the Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so profoundly change their lives.

When it comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.

“I think it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you young.”

About Heritage Academy

Founded in 1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8 school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500 for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care and tutoring are available for a fee.

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

Step Up honors memory of family with The Baker Perseverance Award

By ROGER MOONEY

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Baker family name was synonymous with Temple Christian School for nearly two decades, and it was a name that automatically spread warmth.

Dawn Baker was the principal at the private school and played the piano at church. Her husband, Chet, taught third through sixth grade and was the choir’s song director. Their son, Jamison was in VPK.

Chet, Jamison and Dawn Baker take in Times Square during a trip to New York City.

They were a beautiful family who led with their faith.

“Their spiritual walk, it goes with the talk,” said Wanda Chirila, who has taught at Temple Christian for 29 years and called Dawn her closest friend.

Dawn and Chet worked at Temple Christian for 18 years. To many, they were Temple Christian.

“This was their home away from home,” said John Edwards, the pastor of the adjourning Temple Baptist Church.

On the night of Oct. 18, 2018, the tightknit school and church community came to a tearful standstill as word spread that the Bakers were involved in a horrific two-car accident.

Chet, 51, died at the scene. Jamison, 4, died later that night at a Lee County hospital. Dawn, 47, passed the next day.

“Everyone is still grieving,” said Krystal Bruce, the school’s office manager.

To honor the memory and the spirit of the Bakers, Step Up For Students will present The Baker Perseverance Award this month at several Rising Star events around the state, honoring Step Up scholars, their family members and educators who have gone above and beyond. This new award goes to school leaders who emulate the Baker’s spirit of perseverance and dedication. The awards begin Tuesday night.

“I am very happy for it,” Krystal said. “It’s really great how (people) don’t want to just forget. They led lives like we should all strive to live. They were willing and able to give at any moment for anything, and they were huge supporters in the school and the church, and if I could be half of that, I would be so blessed.”

Tears rolled down Krystal’s cheeks as she spoke. Krystal cried often on a recent morning as she talked for half an hour about the Bakers.

Their legacy?

“Love,” Krystal said. “They had such a love for their students, and they genuinely cared about everyone. They took the time. They’d go visit the kids at their houses. They’d get to know the parents.”

Tougher than Hurricane Irma

Why is Step Up honoring the Bakers with what will be a yearly award?

Easy.

“Our staff has worked with the Bakers for several years,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, Office of Student Learning. “The couple was always the most positive, ‘can do,’ child focused administrators we had the pleasure of working with. They always wanted to do what was needed for their students.

Kathleen Hardcastle (right), headmaster at Trinity Christian Academy in Miami, received The Baker Perserverance Award for her dedication to the school despite caring for her husband while he lost his battle to cancer. (Roger Mooney photo)

“My team came up with the award as a way to memorialize the Bakers and what they stood for. We have many leaders and teachers that are very much like the Bakers in many of our schools across the state, and we want to honor them with this award.”

That the school and church still stand is a credit to the Bakers.

Dawn spearheaded the reconstruction of the building in the fall and winter of 2017 after Hurricane Irma did her best to smash it, raising funds to repair the $240,000 in damages caused by the storm. Chet grabbed his tools and repaired what he could.

It was Dawn who rallied the school community, telling parents, “This is the plan. This is what we’re going to do. Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”

“And she made it work,” Krystal said. “It was wild and crazy, but if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think the school would have held together.”

Dawn begin her nearly 20-year career at Temple Christian as a teacher. She eventually became the assistant principal and then principal. The Bakers’ older children, Kara and Chet Jr. both graduated from the school. Kara works as a missionary in France. Chet Jr. is in the U.S Air Force.

The Dash

Hundreds turned out the night after the accident for a candlelight vigil. The tiny flames illuminated the darkness at the small school and church located on a remote stretch of State Road 31, out near a C & C Feed Store and a Shell gas station.

“It was amazing,” Krystal said. “There was just so many people coming, offering condolences. They were giving testimonies. We had people who graduated here 10 years ago talking about how they touched their lives, set them on a certain track and just how they cared for them, so that was really special.”

In her 1996 poem, “The Dash,” Linda Ellis talked about life.

It begins:

“I read of a man who stood to speak

At the funeral of a friend.

He referred to the dates on her tombstone

From the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth

And spoke of the following date with tears,

But he said what mattered most of all

Was the dash between those years”

“They did a lot with that dash,” Edwards said. “It was a nice dash. It was God honoring.”

Dawn hummed or whistled Christian songs and Disney tunes as she walked the halls of the school. She was full of compassion and yet could be stern. She once expelled one of Chirila’s foster children.

Chet could be found on weekends pulling weeds around the school or the church. He was handy with tools, could fix anything. And if you were moving on the weekend and needed an extra hand, Chet was available. Always.

Jamison was all boy, said those who knew him. He was full of laughter and so much life.

In an instance, they were gone. What remains?

“The impact they had on many lives in this community,” Edwards said. “A profound impact.”

Life does go on, though. Teachers adjusted their schedule to cover Chet’s classes. And there is a new principal, Brittany Lohmeier, who possesses many of the same traits as Dawn.

Lohmeier visited the area over Christmas, saw Temple Christian’s ad for a new principal and applied. Chirila doesn’t believe that is a coincidence.

“She just fits right in,” Chirila said.

The Speech

The Bakers’ deaths are looked upon as a divine appointment in the Baptist community. Edwards recalled the speech Dawn made the day before the accident during a staff meeting.

“She said, ‘Let’s stop dinking around with Christianity,’ and then she made a confession and prayer to the Lord. She said, ‘Lord, whatever it takes to use me for your glory and honor, to further the Kingdom, I’m in,’ and that next day she died. That was a real shaking moment to reflect upon,” Edwards said. “People think, ‘Man, was that her farewell speech.’”

Edwards noted a number of people who attend Temple Baptist recommitted to their faith after the Baker’s accident.

Sitting in the school’s library, Chirila recalled Dawn’s speech.

“It hit my heart,” she said.

Chirila and her husband have seven foster children at home, ages 4 to 14.

“It’s chaos,” Chirila said. “Dawn always said, ‘I’ll take one. I’ll take them all. I will help you. I will go through that ringer with you.’ She truly meant it. You know how people say, ‘If you need me call me,’ and they’re nowhere to be found? She was always to be found.”

Reminders of the Bakers dot the school and church. Notes written to the Bakers by the student after the accident still hang from the walls of classrooms. Chet’s tools still sit where he left them.

The church sanctuary was recently renamed The Baker Auditorium.

And then there is the school and church building. It remains standing because of the dedication and perseverance, the love and faith of the Bakers.

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

Forbes ranks Step Up For Students 19th in list of America’s top 100 charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to climb the charts of America’s leading nonprofits, breaking into the top 25 at 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018.

The latest ranking was released in December, moving the Florida-based charity up six notches from Forbes’ list in 2017.

“This ranking is a hat tip to our donors who have embraced our mission of providing educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Jillian Metz, vice president of development for Step Up For Students. “My gratitude is echoed by more than 100,000 students throughout the state who have been afforded the opportunity to fulfill their educational potential through a Step Up scholarship.”

This was the second time Step Up jumped in a national ranking of top charities. In November, it moved up 11 spots from 42 to 31 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s Favorite Charities.

Forbes writer William P. Barrett, who covers nonprofits for the publication, compiled the rankings by evaluating financial-efficiency metrics during the fiscal year.

The Forbes ranking was based on the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, during which Step Up had $708 million in total revenue.

Step Up’s ranking puts it among other well-known, national charities such as Goodwill Industries International (No. 14), American Cancer Society (No. 17) and the American Red Cross (No. 21). The United Way Worldwide is in the No. 1 slot.

The nonprofits that comprised the top 100 received $49 billion in contributions, according to Barrett. That accounted for 12 percent of the $410 billion received by the more than 1.4 million nonprofits in the United States.

In addition to these notable rankings, Step Up received recognition in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

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

WellCare Health Plans contribute $3 million to fund 446 FTC scholarships

BY ASHLEY ZARLE

WellCare Health Plans, Inc., a leading provider of government-sponsored managed care services, recently announced a $3 million contribution to Step Up For Students (SUFS) Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

WellCare’s contribution will fund 446 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships that allow lower-income children in K-12 the opportunity to attend schools that best meet their learning needs.

WellCare Health Plans, Inc. Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Drew Asher, is joined by several students who are benefitting from the scholarship.

“At WellCare, our mission is to help our members live better, healthier lives,” said Ken Burdick, WellCare’s CEO. “We do this by making connections to critical programs such as Step Up For Students to help ensure Florida schoolchildren have access to the educational opportunities they need for successful futures and healthy adulthoods.”

Since 2004, WellCare has generously funded nearly 3,560 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $16.5 million to SUFS.

“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of SUFS. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

During this school year, SUFS is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade.

More than 1,750 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

About WellCare Health Plans, Inc.

Headquartered in Tampa, Fla., WellCare Health Plans, Inc. (NYSE: WCG) focuses primarily on providing government-sponsored managed care services to families, children, seniors and individuals with complex medical needs primarily through Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans, as well as individuals in the Health Insurance Marketplace. WellCare serves approximately 5.5 million members nationwide as of September 30, 2018. For more information about WellCare, please visit the company’s website at www.wellcare.com.

About the WellCare Community Foundation

The WellCare Community Foundation was established in 2010 and is a nonprofit, private foundation. Its mission is to foster and promote the health, well-being and quality of life for the poor, distressed and other medically underserved populations – including those who are elderly, young and indigent – and the communities in which they live. The WellCare Community Foundation carries out this mission by supporting work that helps people live healthy, safe and productive lives, and by assisting groups with serious and neglected health needs. Underscoring this mission is the WellCare Community Foundation’s goal to serve as a national resource that fosters an environment where there is a continuum of education, access and quality health care, all of which improve the overall health, well-being and quality of life of targeted beneficiaries.

 

Raymond James a partner with Step Up from the start

By ROGER MOONEY

The partnership between Raymond James Financial and Step Up For Students goes back to the earliest days of the Step Up scholarship program.

It was 2001 and Tom James, then CEO of Raymond James, listened as Tampa businessman and Step Up founder John Kirtley laid out his vision for a means to provide low-income students in Florida with educational opportunities through corporate tax credit scholarships.

This struck a chord with James, whose wealth management and investment banking firm had long been an active investor in the communities it served, especially in the area of education.

“Listening to John, his message resonated with me,” said Tom James, who now serves as chairman emeritus at Raymond James Financial. “I knew he was passionate about helping underprivileged children, and this was an opportunity for Raymond James to invest in our community.”

Soon after, Raymond James Financial became a founding donor to Step Up For Students through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the partnership has grown ever since. To date, Raymond James has funded 7,996 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $38 million.

“I am extremely grateful for the longstanding relationship with Raymond James,” Kirtley said. “Our partnership has allowed thousands of Florida schoolchildren to have access to the school that is most appropriate for their needs, which will allow them to be successful in life.”

Paul Shoukry

In 2018, Raymond James’ partnership with Step Up grew even stronger with the addition of Paul Shoukry, senior vice president of finance, treasurer and head of investor relations, to Step Up’s Advisory Board.

Impacting the direction of a student’s life is what attracted Shoukry to join Step Up’s Advisory Board.

The Advisory Board is comprised of business leaders who strategically advise and assist Step Up, giving their personal time to help ensure the success of Step Up.

“Education has always been an area that I would say is of significant importance to our community, because that is where you can change the trajectory of people’s lives, of children’s lives, as they become adults and make a long-lasting impact to the community,” Shoukry said.

Shoukry has seen this impact firsthand at Step Up events where he’s met scholarship students.

At one event, Shoukry met a high schooler with a familiar story: The young man had struggled in his previous school. His grades were poor. He was ineligible to play sports.

“Step Up enabled him to go to another school where everything turned around for him in his life,” Shoukry said. “He went from what was likely a story of another high school dropout to someone who is in college now.”

The 2001 vision for how the tax credit scholarship program could change lives has been realized. Through the support of Raymond James and other donor companies, Step Up is providing K-12 scholarships to nearly 100,000 lower-income students across Florida this year.

“Our biggest challenge now is to continue the momentum we’ve built through the years so that we can reach more students,” says Kirtley.

That’s what Shoukry is trying to help.

“Tom paved the way in creating this partnership,” said Shoukry. “I’m honored to represent Raymond James on the Advisory Board, and I’d like to help other companies see the value that Step Up is giving to children in Florida.”

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Gardiner scholar’s high school experience the stuff of his mom’s dreams

By ROGER MOONEY

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista is a senior at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens with a 4.5 GPA and an armful of academic awards. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and is headed to Broward College to study environmental science.

He recently played Sigmund Freud in the school’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”  He has participated in other plays and also dressed as a cheerleader for the Girls Powder Puff football game during Homecoming week. You will find him at all the school dances.

“I (am) part of all sorts of things,” Nicolas said. “It’s a great high school experience.”

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista, a senior, has won more academic awards than he can carry during his four years at Monsignor Edward Pace High School

A parent’s dream, right?

“Exactly,” said Phyllis Ratliff, Nicolas’ mom. “The same as every parent would want for their child whether they have learning differences or not, and we are blessed to have found it at Pace and to be a recipient of the Gardiner Scholarship.”

***

Four years ago, thoughts of Nicolas attending high school was a nightmare for Phyllis.

Diagnosed as high-functioning autism at age 3, Nicolas was able to navigate his way from kindergarten through eighth grade in a familiar setting. Same school. Same classmates. Same teachers. Same administrators.

Because the school near their Miami Lakes home was only K-8, Phyllis had to find a high school for her son.

“I stressed more that year than I ever had,” Phyllis said. “Trying to find a high school for him that we could afford and offered academic options. A high school that would tell a child with learning differences that we can work with you.”

There are two public schools near their home, but Phyllis did not view either as viable options for her son.

She thought he would be overwhelmed by the large class sizes and an easy target for bullies.

Phyllis, a single mother, looked into several private schools. They were either too expensive or she did not see them as a good fit for Nicolas.

Several of her friends mentioned Monsignor Edward Pace High School (Pace) which is located less than 10 miles away in Miami Gardens.  At first, Phyllis was not interested, because she and Nicolas are not Catholic. She was told that would not be an issue.

So, Phyllis met with Pace administrators and that is where she learned about the Gardiner Scholarship provided by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs.

She liked everything about the school and it’s a 1-to-14 teacher-student ratio. Nicolas would be placed in mainstream classes and the teachers would work with him as needed to ensure he would not fall behind.

Nicolas qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship and was accepted to Pace.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

***

Phyllis, like most parents, was a little apprehensive about her only child beginning high school.

Nicolas? He strode right in.

“The first time I felt so excited, but also a tiny bit nervous,” Nicolas said. “But after a few days I got used to it.”

It helped, Nicolas said, that he had Dr. Enrique Dominguez for freshman science.

Known as “Poppa D” to his students, Dominguez has a special skill for connecting with students. He and Nicolas connected instantly.

“I saw that beauty inside of him of being absolutely lovable, absolutely showing you that in the face of adversity he was going to do what he needed to do without any complaints,” Dominguez said.

Nicolas aced the class, and Poppa D nominated him for Student of the Year in Science.

“Dr. Dominguez always tells Nicolas how great he can be, and Nicolas comes home every day saying how great he feels,” Phyllis said. “As a mother, you’re grasping at straws to find the right school and then you find one, and we truly are blessed.”

***

There was never a question Nicolas would excel in the classroom. His grades were always above average. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge with interests ranging from animals to cars to music and composers to anything to do with history.

His favorite composers are Mozart and Tchaikovsky. His favorite ballet is “The Nutcracker.”

He can play guitar and the keyboard, the banjo and the bongos. He loves to play Elvis Presley songs on the ukulele with “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” among his favorites.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

He has a pet parrotlet named Kiwi that likes to sit on his shoulder.

He attends operas with his mom.

On most Saturdays, you can find Nicolas at the local library, where he feeds his curiosities by reading books for as long as six hours.

Whenever English teacher Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles sees Nicolas walking down the hall, he says, “Here comes literature’s greatest fan.”

“Nicolas,” Rodriguez-Miralles said, “is the only student I think I’ve ever had in a class who taught me something about literature, and I have an advanced degree in literature.”

It happened in freshman year when Rodriguez was teaching Greek and Roman mythology. Nicolas knew the backstory to the battle between Poseidon and Athena. Rodriguez-Miralles had not delved that far into the story. Nicolas had.

During Black History Month that same year, Rodriguez-Miralles was showing the movie “Selma” to the class. Music was playing in the background of one scene. Rodriguez-Miralles said it was hardly audible.

Nicolas heard it and said, “Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 3rd movement.”

Rodriguez-Miralles picked up his iPad and searched for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 3rd movement. What do you know?

“How many freshmen do you know that can spot correctly the third movement of the fifth symphony of Beethoven? Nic can,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

The teacher went home, flipped through his music collection and found box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. He gave it to Nicolas the next day.

“Apparently, you’re Beethoven’s greatest fan, so now you can enjoy the symphonies complete,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

***

It is easy for someone like Nicolas to remain inside his comfort zone, to save his bold moments for the classroom where learning is what he has mastered.

But to the surprise and delight of his mom and teachers, Nicolas slowly began to dip his toes in Pace’s social scene.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista played a police officer in The Great Gatsby, one of several school plays in which he appeared.

He joined the drama club and has appeared in a number of productions, including a few musicals that required him to sing in front of an auditorium filled with strangers. Not an easy task for most high school students.

His recent role of Sigmund Freud required him to speak with an Austrian accent, which, he nailed.

Homecoming is a big event at Pace with students coming to school dressed as that year’s theme. One year the theme was board games. Nicolas went to school dressed as the Monopoly Man, a picture of which appeared in the yearbook.

“Popular kids get to do that,” Phyllis said. “(At Pace) you are popular because you are a student.”

Nicolas saved his biggest breakout moment for this year’s Powder Puff game when he joined the fellas on the sidelined dressed as a cheerleader while the girls played football.

“He’s doing things that make him a little uncomfortable,” Principal Ana Garcia said, “but he’s not afraid to try, which is a wonderful thing.”

Nicolas had been asked in past years if he wanted to be a cheerleader. He did not.

“Before I thought I would feel all embarrassed inside,” Nicolas said.

Why this year?

“So, I realized I got to take action,” he said. “It’s now or never. I feel like inside I have to do it.”

And now …?

“It was pretty good, like great,” he said.

***

Phyllis believes her son’s growth scholastically and socially stems directly from Mrs. Garcia’s leadership.

“It has to be from her,” Phyllis said. “She has to say to her faculty, ‘This is something we believe in. We believe in our students.’ They really do.”

Mrs. Garcia, who said she is “humbled” to hear that, adding, “Here at the school the general population is very acceptant of kids with differences, and so it’s a great environment for kids who are a little bit different. Somehow, they all find a place where they are accepted, where they can excel, where they can grow and develop.”

Each day, after finishing his lunch, Nicolas walks over to the table where the teachers sit and says hello to each.

“Sometimes I feel like it makes them happy,” Nicolas said.

And he writes Christmas cards to his teachers.

Each year, Phyllis writes a letter to Mrs. Garcia thanking her for the work she and her staff do with Nicolas. Mrs. Garcia shares the letters with her staff and faculty at the beginning of each year.

“It’s very inspiring and very inspirational to start the year that way, because you start on a high,” Mrs. Garcia said.

It is Mrs. Garcia’s way of telling everyone that they do make a difference in the lives of each student.

“And we need to continue to do this,” Mrs. Garcia said, “because if we impact one or two kids like this, for heaven sakes, this is what we need to be doing.”

***

Nicolas had a recent homework assignment where he had to list some of the struggles in his life. He told his mom he could not think of any.

Phyllis reminded him that he falls under the Autism spectrum, that he has trouble making friends, that he was a late talker and that he had difficulty learning to write because he had difficulty learning to hold a pencil.

“He doesn’t see it as a negative or a struggle,” Phyllis said. “He struggled trying to find out what his challenges were.”

Dominguez said he often sees what he called “the courage of a lion” in his students who have Autism.

“He knows what he’s got, but to him, he’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m carrying this cross.’ No, no. he works through it,” Dominguez said. “He’s not oblivious to it, but to him it’s not a reason to stumble and to cry.

“He lives in such a beautiful world. I talk about Nic and I start getting a lump in my throat because I’m going to miss him a lot. He’s that special of a child.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High

Opened in 1961, Monsignor Pace High or “Pace” is part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It serves 885 students, including more than 500 on Step Up For Student Scholarships. Pace is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It was selected by the Catholic High School Honor Roll as one of the top 50 Catholic Schools in the nation. Pace students take the PSAT/ASPIRE in ninth and 10th grade, the PSAT/ACT in 11th and the AP test all four years. Annual tuition and fees for grades nine to 11 is $12,050 and $12,300 for grade 12.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Consider donating to Step Up on #GivingTuesday

By ROGER MOONEY

On Nov. 27, Giving Tuesday, Step Up For Students wants you to consider supporting children in Florida who need a clearer path to a better education.

Donate to Step Up on Tuesday, the global day of donating to nonprofits known worldwide as #GivingTuesday.

Better yet, get your friends and family involved with a Facebook Fundraiser.

“Giving Tuesday is day to pause in the hustle and bustle of the holidays and give back to what truly matters,” said Karis Tuner, Step Up’s director, development. “At Step Up, the chance for families to choose a classroom that fits their children’s needs best matters to us. When you give to Step Up you change the life of a child by opening doors of opportunity that would otherwise be closed. Giving Tuesday may be just one day of the year, but together we can make it the day that forever changed a child’s life.”

Step Up hopes to create 900 Facebook Fundraisers, a number that would represent 3 percent of 30,000-plus people who liked our Facebook page.

Click here for instructions on how to create a Facebook Fundraiser or watch this short video.

#GivingTuesday was started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York to generate online donations to charities on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It falls after Black Friday and Cyber Monday and helps kick off the holiday and Christmas seasons.

In 2017, #GivingTuesday raised $274 million, including $45 million on Facebook.

Step Up provides scholarships to more than 115,000 schoolchildren in Florida through four scholarships that help lower-income families, students with special needs, victims of bullying and students in grades 3 through 5 who struggle reading.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Time to nominate VIPs for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Is there a Step Up For Students scholar in your school who is outstanding in academics? The arts? Athletics?

Know a teacher whose impact on students deserves praise?

Or a parent whose support of his or her scholar’s education needs to be celebrated?

Step Up For Students provides the platform for schools to recognize these individuals during its annual Rising Stars Award program.

“This event was designed to recognize the amazing students, teachers, and family members who fill the halls of our Step Up For Students partner schools every day,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, office of student learning. “Last year we recognized over 800 students. We look forward to honoring even more students this year.

“It is our privilege to celebrate the accomplishments of Step Up scholars, as well as some of the most supportive parents, families and educators. Each year we look forward to this event in more than 12 regional celebrations where the schools come together to share the special talents and accomplishments of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Rising Stars honors students who receive Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit and Gardiner scholarships during the 2018-19 school year.

Applications are being accepted now. Deadline for nominations is Jan. 4. Those selected will be celebrated in February at one of 15 locations around the state.

Nominate someone here.

Schools can nominate up to six individuals across the following categories:

High Achieving Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who is excelling in a specific area (academics, arts, athletics)?

Turnaround Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who has struggled when they first came to your school and has made a dramatic improvement?

Exceptional Teacher Award. Do you have a teacher who pushes his or her students to succeed? Do you have a teacher who truly represents the power of parent partnerships and focuses on building a relationship for success? Do you have a teacher who embraces the importance of continuous improvement and professional development?

Outstanding Student Character Award. Do you have a Step Up student who shows outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism?

Phenomenal Family Member Award. Do you have a parent or guardian of a Step Up student who you can always count on to support your school and the education of his or her child?

Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four  scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for children in lower-income families,  the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.