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A pair of Step Up scholarships are a ‘godsend’ for the Hopstetters

By ROGER MOONEY

An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.

“Happy tears,” she said.

The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.

The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)

Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.

Evelyn Hopstetter

“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”

Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.

Their son, Triston, a sixth grader at the LIFT Academy in Seminole, is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.

Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”

“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”

Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.

“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”

Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.

“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”

Triston Hopstetter

The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.

Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.

Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.

She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.

They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.

Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.

Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.

“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”

Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.

“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”

The Hopstetters, Thanksgiving 2019.

While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.

“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”

The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.

Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.

“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.

Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.

“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”

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

Step Up earns another 4-star rating from Charity Navigator

Step Up For Students has again received a coveted four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator.

The rating is based on Step Up’s demonstration of strong financial health and its commitment to accountability and transparency.

“We are incredibly passionate about what we do and how we do it. We work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children, but that mission is nothing without the trust of our donors,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “That’s why earning this rating is not only important to us, it’s critical.”

This is the 14th time Step Up has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator in as many years.

In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “This is our highest possible rating and indicates your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way. Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area. … This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up for Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

Charity Navigator evaluates more than 1.5 million American charities.

“The intent of our work is to provide donors with essential information to give them greater confidence in both the charitable decisions that they make and the nonprofit sector,” Thatcher wrote.

Charity Navigator’s rating is the latest accolade given to Step Up by national organizations.

Step Up ranked 18th in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s most recent list of Top 100 nonprofits and 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities. In addition, Step Up has earned GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of Transparency.

‘Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine’

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

By ROGER MOONEY

“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.”

– Rachel Barcellona on Instagram

Rachel Barcellona will tell you her disability is not the fact she’s on the autism spectrum. The disability is the way others react to her being on the spectrum.

It’s the obstacles others placed before Barcellona when she was younger, either by teachers who didn’t believe in her ability to learn or classmates who bullied her because they saw her as different.

Barcellona didn’t fit in. She knew that. But here’s the thing: She never wanted to fit in. She wanted to standout.

“Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine,” she said.

Oh, she shines.

Her list of accomplishments is quite long. Here are the highlights:

  • Barcellona, 23, is a fashion model and a beauty queen. She was the first woman on the spectrum to participate in the Miss Florida pageant and is under contract to model personal care and beauty products for Sephora.
  • She is an on-air personality for The Chapters Rap with Steve Vaccaro, a New York-based radio program that promotes unity and diversity.
  • She is on the board of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida (CARD-USF) in Tampa.
  • She is on pace to graduate from USF in the spring of 2021, where she is double majoring in English/communications and creative writing.
  • She has sung the national anthem before basketball games at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Most of all, Barcellona is an advocate for autism.

She has her own platform which she calls The Ability Beyond Disability.

She has spoken at the United Nations during World Autism Awareness Day.

Her message: “I think that someone with any disability can become whatever they want. They just have to believe.”

Never give up

People believe in Barcellona. She wants them to believe in her. She knows the impact she has in the autism community, especially to young girls who see her as a role model.

“Families can identify with her story because it’s so multifaceted,” said Christine Rover, assistant program director at CARD USF. “It’s health challenges. It’s bullying. It’s ‘How do you get teachers to recognize my talents?’ Parents can relate to that story.”

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

But can their daughter grow up to be Miss Florida? Can they host a radio show? Can their voices be heard at the U.N.?

Why not?

Young girls on the spectrum tell Barcellona they want to be models and enter pageants.

“I always tell people to never give up,” Barcellona said.

In the United States, there are more than 3.5 million people on the autism spectrum.
In Florida, Step Up For Students helps schoolchildren on the spectrum meet their educational needs through the Gardiner Scholarship.
Managed by Step Up, the Gardiner Scholarship enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, whichever happens first.
During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on autism spectrum. Click here to learn more about the Gardiner Scholarship.

Barcellona grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida. She is the only child of Barbara and Frank Barcellona.

She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 3. She also has dyspraxia (a developmental motor coordination disorder), dyscalculia (difficulty in learning math) and epilepsy.

The early prognoses from doctors were not encouraging. They said Barcellona would have a lifetime of learning and physical challenges.

Barbara Barcellona recalled watching Rachel struggle to hang her backpack on a wall hook while in kindergarten.

“I thought to myself, she’s never going to get that,” Barbara said. “As she got older, it was well she got this step and this step. She kept rising to the occasion. When she was younger people told her she would never go to school, and now she’s two semesters away from her bachelor’s degree.”

While she is very open about her past, especially the bullying in middle school, Barcellona doesn’t like to dwell on those days.

“I like to live life in the now,” she said. “I like to be happy and focus on what’s going to happen in the future. Just be positive.”

Her mom tells her that the past plays an important role in the future.

“I sometimes tell her you have to look back to see how far you’ve come,” Barbara said, “and sometimes looking back isn’t always easy.”

‘Me issues’

Barcellona was 10 when she decided she would change the world.

She was tired of being bullied in middle school and called “The Devil” by classmates and fed up with those who viewed her as different because she was on the spectrum. That included teachers, who she sensed didn’t know how to connect with students with special needs.

“There were lots of us,” she said. “There were autistic (students). There were people with other disabilities that were a lot worse, and nobody knew how to handle them. They were just kind of shoved into a corner, pretty much, and I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”

Rachel and Barbara

Her anger boiled over one day when she couldn’t perform a task, simple to some, maybe, but not to her. Sensing Barcellona’s vulnerability, some of her classmates pounced.

“I could never do anything right,” she said. “They were just yelling at me that I was stupid, so I just yelled at everyone to shut up. Then I got in trouble, of course. The principal asked me, ‘OK Rachel, what’s wrong?’”

What’s wrong?

“They have me issues!” she screamed.

Then she cried.

“I was very emotional,” she said.

When Barcellona returned home that afternoon she went into her bedroom, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started listing the changes she wanted to see in the world.

While she doesn’t remember everything she wrote that afternoon, she remembers what she wrote first. She wanted to have a party for children with special needs.

Barcellona didn’t know it at the time, but she was building the foundation to The Ability Beyond Disabilities. Her ultimate goal is to open a school for students with special needs.

“I really love the fact that she wants to help other people,” Barbara Barcellona said.

People can change

Barbara started entering Rachel in local beauty pageants when she was 4. She thought it might help her daughter cope with her depression. It did.

Standing on the stage, Barcellona felt empowered. She loved to sing. She loved to entertain.

“I remember I got on that stage, I had a fear of coming off of it,” Barcellona said. “I liked showing people that I’m there. I liked just being there. I had a feeling people cared about me for who I was. I didn’t get that when I wasn’t on stage.”

Rachel at the United Nations.

Now, the girl with Asperger’s was drawing attention to herself for different reasons. She placed first at pageants. She was on Tampa Bay area TV shows talking about the difficulties of life on the spectrum and why it shouldn’t be that way. She appeared in the pages of fashion magazines, modeling the latest styles.

She sang the national anthem before a WNBA game in New York and before a Tampa Bay Lightning game in Tampa.

The little girl who was bullied for being different now had hockey and basketball fans cheering and saying, “Wow, I wish I could sing like her.”

Barcellona said it all comes from her heart. It has to. She knows her message must be sincere or people won’t listen.

Her goal is to prove that those on the spectrum can achieve many things. They just need a chance. That is why she is quick to share her story.

“I think she acknowledges that there have been some challenges and struggles for her, but she always says, ‘Yep, that’s life, but I’m not going to let it stop me,’” Rover said. “She really seems to turn it around and use it as fuel and say, ‘I want to help others who’ve had these obstacles put in their way,’ and just shines with it.”

For 10 years, Barcellona received therapy from CARD-USF. Now, she sits on the constituency board, where Rover said Barcellona provides the first-person voice of life on the spectrum.

“To see that come full circle is something I find incredible about her,” Barbara Barcellona said. “She doesn’t need to do that, but she generally wants to help other people. I think the world of her for it.”

Rover credits Barbara and Frank for guiding their daughter through those uneasy childhood moments and supporting her dreams.

“I always thought she was capable of achieving what she wanted to,” Barbara Barcellona said. “But there were oftentimes, especially during middle school, where she faced so many challenges, she had to be very strong. Even though you have a family and a good support system, it has to come from within. Even though we support her 100%, some of the stuff she really had to believe in herself.”

Barcellona is confident in her own abilities and future.  She will work in radio. She will have a modeling career. She will build that school for children with special needs.

She will use her platform to change the way people view those on the spectrum, the way they view anyone with a disability.

Every so often Barcellona hears from an old classmate which makes her happy and lets her know her message is being heard.

“The ones that were really mean to me in middle school end up emailing me and telling me how wrong they were, and they were sorry,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people change.”

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

Of baby supplies, care packages for soldiers and feeding the needy: The tale of one student’s charity

By ROGER MOONEY

After he helped deliver food to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic in late February, Jack Figueredo helped bring more food to five impoverished families in a nearby town.

The next day, Jack and his mom held a baby shower in another part of the Dominican for 35 financially disadvantaged moms-to-be, arranged by the Rawlings Foundation, a Christian mission and outreach organization.

After the women received their bags filled with much-needed baby supplies, finished their lunches and polished off the sheet cake, Jack took time to reflect and was, in his words, “shocked” at what he witnessed during his two days in the country.

The poverty. The need for food and supplies. The unbridled joy of those he helped.

Jack and Helen Figueredo at the baby shower in the Dominican Republic.

“We did so much, and yet I wanted to do so much more,” he said. “As soon as we came back to America, I hit the ground running because I want to help all these people.”

So, Jack has plans for a farmer’s market in Miami-Dade County, where he will help deliver fresh produce to low-income families. And he is organizing a campaign to send care packages to members of the armed forces in Afghanistan. He is currently securing permits so he can help feed and clothe the homeless in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami and Homestead.

The baby shower went so well, there are plans for another, this one in Venezuela.

It should be noted that Jack is 16 and finishing his sophomore year at Miami’s Westwood Christian School, a private K-12 school that he and his brother Jonas, who recently graduated, attend with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables lower-income families to send their children to private schools.

Helen and Frank Figueredo qualified after the collapse of the real estate market in 2008 ruined their real estate business.

Westwood provided Jack and Jonas with a quality education in a religious setting. The real estate collapse showed the brothers what life is like for those struggling to get by.

Their parents no longer owned Porsches, and they no longer shopped at high-end stores.

Even during the family’s financial hardship, Helen made the boys pick one wrapped present under the Christmas tree to donate to a needy child. And at Thanksgiving and Easter, the family piled into the car Frank bought for less than $90 at a police auction and made their way to Miami to deliver sandwiches to the homeless who congregate near downtown.

It was part of Helen’s grand lesson to her children: Material things don’t matter. People do.

“The only way these kids are going to appreciate what they had was by seeing what life could be like if they didn’t have much and to instill in them that desire to always want to share, always want to give back, to put humans over material stuff, life over material stuff,” Helen said.

Jack delivering food to impoverished families in the Dominican Republic.

Looking back, Jack said the family trips to feed the homeless were “a great experience.”

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

So, Jack decided when he got older, he was going to organize his own charity – Socks and Sandwiches.

That goal became reality last September when Jack started Kids United Foundation. There are five members on the board of directors – Jack and four high school seniors, including Jonas.

“I thought it fit perfectly. Kids helping kids because I’m a kid,” Jack said.

The name was changed because Jack wants to help as many people as possible. And, because it takes time to obtain the permits needed to work with the homeless.


Jack didn’t want to wait. He was upset last summer when he was too young to travel to the Dominican with Helen and Jonas on a mission trip sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lakes. Jack was 15, and the minimum age was 16.

“I was kind of bummed,” he said. “This was one of the main reasons I started my own charity. I wanted to help in a way where my age would not be an issue. The only way to do that is if I started it, I did, I created it and I was the boss.”

After hearing Helen’s stories about the extreme poverty she and Jonas encountered on the mission, Jack decided to act.

He came up with the idea of a baby shower after Helen told him of all the pregnant women she saw walking around barefoot and all the small children she saw barely clothed.

Jack filling bags with baby supplies for the baby shower.

They organized a fundraiser Valentine’s Day 2019 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. Kids United received a percentage of the ticket sales. They raised $7,000.

“It was a very successful fundraiser for our first one,” Jack said.

That enabled Kids United to put together gift bags for each of the 35 expectant mothers filled with $72 worth of diapers, bottles and baby clothes.

It also allowed them to buy food for the children in the orphanage and for five additional families in the Dominican.

Jack’s next move was the join the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade, an organization committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention. He was added to the Children’s Issues and Oral Health Committee.

At one of the meetings, Jack suggested a farmer’s market in low-income areas to help children who are not getting enough nutrition in their diet.

The idea was a hit. The question: Who would spearhead the campaign?

“I can do it,” Jack said.

Kids United partnered with Farm Share, a nonprofit that delivers fresh food to needy families and individuals in Florida. In October, Farm Fresh donated 2,800 pounds of produce to Kids United, which then distributed it during a harvest festival at Tropical Park in Miami.

The plan was to hold a farmer’s market four times a year, but the shutdown because of the coronavirus put that plan on hold. It also canceled another dinner theater fundraiser.

Still, Jack’s charity is forging ahead.

With the help of his godfather, Romy Comargo, Jack started H.E.R.O. – Honoring Every Ranger Overseas.

Romy, Helen’s cousin, was a Chief Warrant Officer 3 with the Special Forces. While serving in Afghanistan in 2008, he was shot on the back of the neck and paralyzed from the neck down.

Romy and his wife, Gaby, have since started the Stay in Step Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Tampa. Stay in Step provides exercise programs for patients both military and civilian with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

H.E.R.O will send care packages containing comfort food, socks and paper stationary to soldiers overseas. The stationary is so the soldiers can correspond with schoolchildren from the Miami area. Kids United is in the process of contacting schools in that area for volunteers to be pen pals.

Gaby Camargo is Venezuelan. She told Jack that she and her husband would help fund the trip if the next Kids United baby shower was held in Venezuela.

The coronavirus has placed a temporary hold on Jack’s idea for Seniors vs. Seniors trivia, where high school seniors compete against residents at the Allegro Senior Living facility in Dadeland.

The moms-to-be at the baby shower.

Originally, Helen advised her son to stick with one charitable endeavor.

“We want to help people, but we don’t want to be committed to one thing,” Jack said. “That’s why we’re committed to such a wide variety of events, and we want to do what no one else is doing.”

Helen also impressed the importance of education on her sons. Both are top-of-the-class students at Westwood and members of the National Honor Society.

Jonas is a finalist for the Silver Knights Award. Held annually by the Miami Herald, the awards go to students who have high grades while making significant contributions to their schools and communities. Jonas, who holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo, teaches self-defense to Westwood students in grades kindergarten through third. He is headed to the University of Miami with plans to become a lawyer.

Jack is following the same path as Jonas.

No one wants to be poor, Helen said. No one wants to see their business collapse and the savings disappear because of a downward turn of the economy.

But, out of their struggle grew a desire from Jonas and Jack to help those less fortunate.

“We are getting Kids United Foundation off the ground,” Jack said, “but we are barely scratching the surface of what we want to do.”

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

Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

By ROGER MOONEY

A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”

Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.

“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.

And so, she did.

Abi’ya Wright

In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.

Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.

Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.

“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”

Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.

So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.

“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.

The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.

“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.

The path less taken

Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.

“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”

Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.

Nicole Singletary

Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”

Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”

Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.

“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”

Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.

Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.

“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”

Real life experience

With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.

Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.

Aydin Montero

The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.

Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.

“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.

Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.

“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.

“I’m much, much better now.”

A legacy

It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.

Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.

Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.

All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.

Jose Calixto

When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”

It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.

“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”

That is the hope of Principal Torano.

A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.

“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”

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

Step Up manages 5 education choice scholarships: Which one do you qualify for?

By Roger Mooney

The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.

Jonas and Jack Figueredo

One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a  private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.

They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.

Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.

A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?

Well, let’s take a look using these examples.

Scholarships for children from lower-income families

The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.

In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.

Scholarships for children with certain special needs

Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.

Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.

A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)

The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.

Phyllis was relieved.

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

Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.

Scholarship for students who have been bullied

Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.

“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

Scholarship for students struggling to read

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Kiersten Covic

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.

Again, to learn more about the Step Up scholarships, click here. To read more stories about how those scholarships impact the lives of the
Step Up scholars, click here.

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

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

By LISA A. DAVIS

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

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

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

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

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

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

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

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

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

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

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

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

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

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

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adopting special needs children turned the Cogan family into a Krewe

By ROGER MOONEY

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

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

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

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

The Cogan Krewe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karwen Cogan

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

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

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

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

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

How one became four

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

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

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

Kade and Kai.

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

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

“It didn’t worry me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kassi before the procedures to correct her clubfoot.

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

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

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

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

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

The Gardiner Scholarship at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An adoption advocate

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

Kade playing his ukulele.

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

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

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

“That’s where my heart is,” she said.

Big and getting bigger

They refer to themselves as the Cogan Krewe.

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

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

“Like an airport shuttle bus,” Nick said.

“It’s a spectacle,” Kenley said.

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

What? No ‘K’ names?

They will have that option, Keely said.

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

Karwen and Kassi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many puzzle pieces that tell the story of Ryan Sleboda

By ROGER MOONEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

And confidence?

“Lots of confidence,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.

Once, that was Ryan’s life.

Not anymore.

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

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

“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.

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

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

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

That’s another puzzle piece – his future.

Ryan holds his acceptance letter to Beacon College.

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

Yes, he is autistic.

No, it does not define him.

The puzzle pieces, they define him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Roger Mooney

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

Quite the opposite, he said.

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

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

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

That was a great way for Show to begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under-tapped talent pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a function issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

She has not, however, overcome autism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working through the diagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stereotypes must be erased.

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

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

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

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

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

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