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All Posts by Roger Mooney

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

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

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

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

Conn’s HomePlus Supports Florida Students Through Scholarship Program

Conn’s HomePlus has contributed $174,000 to Step Up For Students, helping 23 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

This is the first year Conn’s HomePlus has partnered with Step Up For Students to contribute to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an income-based scholarship program funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending a private school or public school different than their zoned district school.

Conn’s HomePlus is one of the top consumer goods retailers in the country whose mission is to make it possible for everyone to purchase quality, long-lasting products for their home. Through their partnership with Step Up, they also support the mission of giving students access to the educational options they need. Step Up scholarships help provide those options to students like Joshua Brutus, a senior at Tampa Bay Christian Academy (TBCA).

Joshua Brutus, who benefits from a Step Up For Students scholarship, is a senior at
Tampa Bay Christian Academy who plans to attend college and start his own nonprofit.

Joshua was once considered the class clown until he was appointed junior class president by the principal of TBCA — a decision intended to draw out Joshua’s full potential. Joshua rose to the challenge, becoming a class leader and earning A’s and B’s.

Now, he has big plans for his future: a college education and possibly a career as an electrical engineer. Joshua is also committed to giving back. He wants to start a nonprofit to help young Black men in economically-struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

Joshua also understands the importance of the support he is getting from the Step Up scholarship because it gives him the ability to attend Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

“I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Just like Joshua, tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren are able to access the learning environment that works best for them with the help of a Step Up scholarship, which are possible because of the support of companies like Conn’s HomePlus.  

“At Conn’s HomePlus, we are committed to supporting students and families in the communities where we live and work,” said Chandra Holt, Conn’s HomePlus President and CEO. “We believe in the mission of Step Up For Students and are excited to partner with them to help provide Florida students the educational options they need to succeed.”  

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“With the support of Conn’s HomePlus, even more students in Florida will be given access to the educational environment that works best for them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students throughout Florida.”

Reading grades improve, love of books grows with the help of Florida’s Reading Scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Lindsey Pawlishen was so confident she would pass her love of reading to her daughter that she asked for and received children’s books instead of traditional gifts at the baby shower.

She began reading to Samantha when Samantha was an infant expecting to instill that love of reading.

But Samantha didn’t love reading.

“I didn’t understand it,” Lindsey said, “because everybody said if you read to your kids as soon as they are born, they’re going to be readers, but that didn’t work.”

It would turn out that Samantha’s lack of interest had something to do with the fact she struggled to read. She scored low on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments as a third grader during the 2020-21 school year. That made her eligible for Florida’s Reading Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Samantha’s reading scores have improved and her love of reading has increased with the help of the Reading Scholarship.

The scholarship was created to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. Those who scored a 1 or 2 on the third- or fourth-grade ELA section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible.

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.

Lindsey was told about the scholarship from the principal at Samantha’s school. She applied for the scholarship last summer and was accepted. She used the funds to buy an iPad and downloaded the Epic! app.

Epic! provides digital books and videos for children 12 and under. It suggests books based on what the child is reading and tracks their progress for the parents. It also has educational features.

“It makes it easier for me to read, because if I don’t know what a word is, I can tap on it, and it will sound it out,” said Samantha, 9, a fourth-grader at Imagine School Lakewood Ranch, a charter school in Manatee County.

Samantha is still a grade level below in reading, but she is gaining ground. An A student in her other classes, she has raised her grade this year in literature to a B. Lindsey said she will gladly take that. It’s much better than seeing her daughter feel what she described as “defeated.”

“I was sad for her, because she was getting frustrated, not understanding why she wasn’t picking up reading,” Lindsey said. “I couldn’t figure out how to help her. I felt bad she wasn’t picking up.”

Samantha used to roll her eyes when her mother told her about the adventures she could have by simply reading a book. Now, Samantha goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, having discovered the Harry Potter series. She also loves The Baby-Sitters Club series.

Samantha plays defense on a travel ice hockey team, practicing twice a week at a rink an hour north of the family’s home in Palmetto. It makes Lindsey happy to see her daughter with her nose in a book during the long rides to and from games and practices.

When asked what it was like to read before she received the Reading Scholarship, Samantha said, “It was a little bit hard.”

Now, “it’s finally clicking,” Lindsey said. “That is nice to see, because I was always in a book when I was a kid.”

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

Education choice scholarship leads Step Up student-athlete to U.S. Naval Academy

BY ROGER MOONEY

Denim Edwards slid to his knees as he caught the ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown on what would be his last play of his high school football career.

It came late in Christopher Columbus High’s loss at Venice High during the state semifinals earlier this month. Moments later, Denim, a senior, stood alone on the field as his teammates trudged toward the locker room.

He stared into the distance.

What’s next?

“Manhood,” said Denim’s dad, Terence Edwards.

The next time Denim, a 5-foot-7, 190-pound running back with breakaway speed, touches a football will be for the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He will attend the school next year as he prepares for life at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Denim Edwards signs a national letter of intent to attend the U.S Naval Academy while his mother, Michelle Witherspoon, watches.

Denim is about to enter a world of 5:30 a.m. alarms, endless salutes, “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” demanding academic workloads and “Beat Army!”

It’s a world not suited for everyone.

Denim can’t wait.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said, “like the school I attend now.”

Denim entered Columbus in Miami as a sophomore during the 2019-20 school year. He attends the all-male Catholic high school on a Family Empowerment Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the FES funds K-12 education choice for students from low- and middle-income families.

“I think it’s an excellent scholarship program,” said Denim’s mother, Michelle Witherspoon. “What I really like about it is, most scholarships you apply for are low-income based. The middle class, you tend to have to pay for everything. The Step Up scholarships provides opportunities for middle income families who need help.”

Michelle has a Ph.D. in leadership in education and is an assistant professor of communications at Miami Dade College. Terence drove a fuel truck for a construction company when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack one morning in 2016. As a result, he has a permanent defibrillator inserted in his chest and cannot work.

Denim’s parents were looking for a high school with high academic standards that would prepare their son for college when they settled on Columbus. That the school excels in athletics – especially football – was a plus.

“If we didn’t have (the scholarship),” Terence said, “we wouldn’t have been here. Denim was able to accomplish what he needed to accomplish as far as his education.”

Columbus Principal David Pugh said from the moment he first stepped on campus, Denim exhibited the qualities the school looks to instill in every student.

“In the classroom, in the hallways, on the field, he leads by example,” Pugh said. “He’s a respectful young man. He does everything right.”

Columbus used “We Lead” as the marketing slogan for this school year. Denim, who has been a captain on the football team during his two seasons, was chosen as one of the campaign’s student ambassadors.

“There couldn’t be anyone better than Denim to lead us in our advertising,” Pugh said.

The term leader is used often when people talk about Denim. He’s proud of that label. He shares his insights into the position with the younger running backs in the program, coaching them on how to run with the ball. How to use their vision. When to cut. When to stiff-arm a tackler.

“I feel I was born to lead because I am very vocal,” he said. “I love all my teammates. I want to be there for all of them.”

That trait carries to his life off the field. Denim is part of a group that is forming a club for the Black students at Columbus, the first of its kind at the school. He is an honor roll student who arrived on campus each day at 5:30 a.m. during football season so he would be on time for practice, which began at 6 a.m. He plans to serve as an assistant track coach this spring.

All students at Columbus are required to volunteer in the community. Denim’s volunteer work goes a step further. He is a member of the Kudos Youth Group, sponsored by the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, his mom’s sorority.

Denim plans to represent this uniform with the same dedication, discipline and leadership as he displayed at Columbus High.

For that, Denim volunteers at a food pantry, works with a domestic violence awareness campaign, and helps collect trash after youth football games. He wrote letters to grandparents in the neighborhood for Grandparents Day and wrote letters to military veterans for Veterans Day.

His message to the veterans was simple: “Thank you for fighting for our country. I appreciate that so much. You didn’t have to. You put your life on the line for the country.”

Denim could add that he’s a future Midshipman since he officially committed to Navy on Dec. 15, which was the first day high school seniors could sign a letter of intent to attend a college and play a sport.

His interest in Navy began last year when the Navy coaches showed an interest in him. Last July, Denim and his parents visited the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Navy and Wake Forest University. He decided on Navy during that visit. It helped that he has an idea of what to expect from two former teammates who are on the football team.

Also, Navy reminded him of Columbus.

“They say when you’re an alumni of Columbus, you’re always going to be a part of that scene. You’re always going to go back there. You get relationships out of it, relationships you don’t get at any other school,” he said.

Terence gave his son a long, emotional embrace after that final football game. He talked about what Denim accomplished at Columbus and what he endured.

And there is this: Denim almost lost his father when Terence had the heart attack. He almost lost him again when Terence was hospitalized late in 2019 with an aorta dissection. No one knew at the time that Terence had contracted the virus that would become known as COVID-19.

“He stood tall. He made it through. I’m proud of him,” Terence said.

It’s that toughness, plus his academic prowess, plus his desire to be a leader, that should serve Denim well at Navy. Or, as his dad said, manhood.

“This isn’t the end,” Terence said after the final game. “This is a beginning. He has another life to start.”

A life made possible with the help of an education choice scholarship.

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

Step Up receives 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for 15th year

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students recently received the highest honor from Charity Navigator, the non-profit that evaluates more than a million charitable organizations in the United States.

The four-star rating has been an annual achievement for Step Up in each of the last 15 years, since Step Up was first evaluated by Charity Navigator.

“Earning this rating is vitally important to our cause,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “We are extremely passionate about what we do and work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Our mission continues because of the trust of our donors.”

Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher wrote in a letter to Tuthill that the four-star rating was based on Step Up “demonstrating strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.”

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

Thatcher wrote that donors are looking for accountability and transparency in nonprofits. That’s why his organization evaluates more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America.

“Charity Navigator aims to accentuate the work of efficient and transparent organizations,” Thatcher wrote. “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.”

Step Up received perfect score on several measures that go into the four-star rating, among them Governance, Transparency, Program Expenses, Fundraising Efficiency.

“The Charity Navigator rating underscores that when donors invest in Step Up, they are assured their contributions will be maximized to the fullest potential,” Tuthill said.

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

Step Up scholarship to a private school ‘changed our whole entire lives’

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE, Florida – Vadin Mankotya played second base for EXP Realty this season, proudly wearing the jersey sponsored by his mom. And Jennifer Mankotya, a sales associate, was equally proud to have sponsored a team in the Hernando Youth League in Brooksville.

“It was,” she said, “a pretty big accomplishment.”

Not long ago, Jennifer scraped by on her salary plus tips while working as a waitress. Life wasn’t easy for the single mother. But Jennifer wanted the best education opportunity for Vadin, and she was determined to send him to a private school.

What changed? A scholarship to a private school, managed by Step Up For Students.

“It’s helped both of us,” Jennifer said. “It’s changed our whole entire lives.

“If I didn’t have this scholarship, I don’t know what I’d do. I would make it happen, but it would be extremely hard for me. Financially, it helped me a lot, and it’s also given Vadin the opportunity to have the best education he can possibly have. I’m so grateful it is there.”

Vadin Mankotya poses in front of a mural at his school, Entirety K-12 in Brooksville.

Vadin, now a seventh-grader at Entirety K-12 private school in Brooksville, began receiving the Step Up scholarship during the 2016-17 school year. With a large portion of her salary no longer going toward Vadin’s education, Jennifer was able to afford the 63-hour class necessary to pursue her real estate license and the yearly fees required of all real estate agents.

Working in real estate was always her passion, Jennifer said. She went to real estate school after high school, but injuries sustained in a car accident prevented her from getting her license during the mandated time frame from when she completed her course.

Then, she said, life came at her fast. A marriage, a baby, a divorce. To carve out a living for herself and Vadin, Jennifer worked various jobs – in a bank, in medical billing, as a waitress.

“It was kind of me getting my life back together after that,” she said. “So that kind of stopped me from pursuing my dreams initially.”

Jennifer worked the late morning/afternoon weekday shift at a restaurant. She didn’t work nights or weekends (shifts that earn better tips) because she didn’t have anyone who could watch Vadin. She would take a break to pick him up from school, and he would sit at an empty table and do his homework until her shift ended.

“My mom was busting her butt every day,” Vadin said.

Jennifer sent Vadin to a private school even before she learned of the Step Up scholarship.

“I am a single mom, and education for Vadin is really important to me,” she said. “I’ve always taught him you can never take away education, and nobody is going to be able to take away your manners. Those are the things I really focus on.”

It was the Step Up scholarship that allowed Jennifer to pursue both the dream of a quality education for her son and for her to, as she said, “reach for what I love.” And because she reached, Jennifer now owns a home. She no longer drives a car that routinely broke down and didn’t have air conditioning. She can afford presents for Vadin at Christmas. The scholarship, Jennifer said, allowed her to pursue a dream that has given her both confidence in herself and independence.

“The scholarship helped my mom get back on her feet,” Vadin said. “She has a career in real estate. That’s always been what she wanted to do. I’m proud to say that my mom is a real estate agent.”

The scholarship also allows Jennifer to pursue another goal: a quality education for her son. Vadin recently received a report card where his lowest grades were a pair of B’s. He apologized to his mother for those low scores.

“I said, ‘You did great.’ He said, ‘I could have done better,’” Jennifer said. “It was a proud mom moment.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning fueled by imagination.” Students attend school for four weeks, then have a week off. They take core classes Monday through Thursday. Fridays are reserved for a full day of an elective class, which include architecture and engineering, culinary, dance, video production, art, forensics, and acts of service.

Last year, the entire student body went camping for four days in Ocala. The middle school students read the book, “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Principal Penny Bryson wanted the students to experience what it might be like to live in a jungle. This year, the school trip is to Busch Gardens, where they will spend four days embedded with the zoologists.

“This is really different from other schools,” Vadin said. “We do a lot of things different here. My goal is to go to college and have a career, and I don’t think that would be possible without Miss Penny. She supports me in everything I do.”

Jennifer said it costs $250 to sponsor a team in the Hernando Youth League. That’s something she would have never been able to afford working as a waitress.

“It made me feel proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “You know when you have a check list in your head of what you want to do? I checked that box, and I hope to check that box every single season.”

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

DTCC continues its support of scholarship program for Florida schoolchildren

The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), the premier post-trade market infrastructure for the global financial services industry, has contributed over $711,000 to Step Up For Students in the last year, helping nearly 100 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs and making a difference in their local community.

Zoe was one student who benefited from DTCC’s contribution. Zoe, who was determined to succeed in school, sought to create a different path for herself than the one her mother and brother followed, where both dropped out of school. Zoe “always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” and through the Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship, she was able to attend Carrollwood Day School in Tampa, where she graduated with a 4.0 GPA and went on to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) to study sports medicine.

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala, wanted for her daughter, adding, “I’m so thankful and so grateful. She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up Scholarship and go to that school.”

Just like Zoe, more than 100,000 schoolchildren throughout Florida have benefitted from the scholarship they received during the 2020-21 school year.

Zoe, who benefited from the Step Up For Students scholarship, graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Carrollwood Day School and is now attending the Louisiana State University.

“At DTCC, it is our mission to drive positive change” said Susan Cosgrove, CFO at DTCC. “We believe Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to support their efforts in helping students throughout Florida access the education they deserve.”

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2019, DTCC has generously funded 239 Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarships through contributions totaling $1.6 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited donations from corporations and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-district public schools.

“DTCC is committed to investing in their community and this donation is proof of just that,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “With the support of companies like DTCC, we are able to continue to provide educational options for deserving students in Florida.”

Since 2002, Step Up has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the program.

“We remain deeply committed to making a difference in communities where we live and work, and we’ve seen, firsthand, the life-changing benefits of the Step Up For Students program, in Tampa – where we are based – and across the state of Florida. We look forward to our continued partnership with this important organization,” stated Marie Chinnici-Everitt, CMO and Head of DTCC Tampa.

Sunshine Health donates $20 million to support Florida schoolchildren

Sunshine Health will fund scholarships for 2,625 deserving students with a $20 million contribution to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, Sunshine Health has generously funded 8,738 scholarships since 2004 through contributions totaling more than $59.5 million, including its most recent contribution of $20 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending private or out-of-district public schools.

Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, is one of the largest healthcare plans in Florida and is committed to transforming the health of the community one person at a time.

A healthy body starts with a healthy mind, and Step Up scholarships help students like Yonas Worku.  Yonas emigrated from Ethiopia when he was 5 and, with the help of a Step Up scholarship, attended Sacred Heart Catholic School before going to Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Yonas Worku, who benefited from the Step Up For Students scholarship, graduated valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is now attending the University of Florida.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said his mother, Zinash Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas recently graduated as valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is currently taking classes at the University of Florida, where he will major in computer science.

Just like Yonas, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program managed by Step Up For Students.

“We are committed to improving the health of communities across Florida,” said Nathan Landsbaum, Sunshine Health President and CEO. “Education is an important Social Determinant of Health. We are proud to increase our support of Step Up For Students and provide even more Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“Because of this incredible contribution from Sunshine Health, thousands of Florida’s students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their continued partnership and commitment to transforming the lives of Florida’s schoolchildren.”

Addi’s Memorial Park: A place to remember a brave little girl

By Scott Kent

Outside the second-story window of Addison Sinclair’s pink bedroom in Windermere, Florida, across an asphalt bike path, amidst a copse of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, is a green space that will become a memorial to the little girl who is no longer there to view it.

“Addi,” as she was called by her family and friends, passed away Dec. 29, 2020, after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 8.

“Resilient” is how Kara Sinclair described her daughter, who was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, when she was 3 years old in 2015. Addi initially endured a year-and-a-half of treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries. Over the next five years, Addi’s cancer recurred nine times.

“She faced things that would knock any adult down. She didn’t let it knock her down,” Kara said. “She always had spunk and charisma. Always looked forward to the next day.”

Kara and her husband, Mark, tried to keep their daughter’s childhood as normal as possible during those difficult times. That included ensuring Addi received an education. She initially tried attending a public school, but she missed so much classroom time because of her treatments that she was forced to stay home. Her kindergarten teacher would come to the house to work with her, but it proved not to be a long-term solution. Addi’s compromised immune system also eventually negated the possibility of class instruction.

Then in 2019 a hospital social worker told Kara about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs (now called the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities), administered by Step Up For Students. The program provides families with up to $10,000 annually in an education savings account, which gives them the flexibility to spend the funds in a variety of ways to customize their children’s education – on private school tuition, materials, therapies, etc.

The Sinclairs used theirs to hire an at-home tutor for Addi, and to purchase an online curriculum as well as a laptop computer, books, and educational games. That allowed them to work around her treatment schedules. Addi blossomed as a student.

“She loved her tutor,” Kara said. “She was a hard worker, and once she had consistency in her schoolwork she picked up reading. She always looked forward to her tutor coming in, she enjoyed having someone there to provide hands-on instruction.”

Without the scholarship, Kara said, the tutor and curriculum would’ve been an additional out-of-pocket expense competing with “insane” medical bills.

“We would’ve had to prioritize med over ed,” she said.

It also would’ve hamstrung the family’s ability to provide Addi many of the activities children her age – and beyond – enjoy. Indeed, they packed decades of experiences into Addi’s short lifetime. The family went on several cruises and beach vacations (Addi loved the sand). Addi had more than 10 Disney staycations, visited several theme parks, and traveled to California, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio.

She became a Daisy Girl Scout, and was thrilled to earn badges and win the top Cookie Sales award. Addi also had an artistic side. She made jewelry. She put on puppet shows. She loved all musicals. She enjoyed singing, and she took a dance class. She learned to swim, and her parents built a swimming pool in the back yard, where she spent hours with her friends and “became a little fish.”

Kara said her daughter “never took a nap” and “rarely sat down,” bouncing through the house with the energy of a typical 8-year-old.

The last two months of her life, Addi finally began to slow down. But even when she wasn’t feeling well in her final days, her mother said, she was polite and always used her manners.

Addi passed away at home four days after Christmas, surrounded by her parents, her older brother William, her puppies, and her beloved doll baby.

Addi provided many lasting memories in her short time on earth, but her parents wanted something more. Something physical that others could experience, connecting it to the little girl who brought so much joy to those who knew her. A place where you can hear children’s laughter and families can go as a distraction from what life throws at us. As the Sinclairs said, childhood is short, and none of us know what tomorrow will bring.

That’s when they got the idea to turn that green space outside Addi’s bedroom window into a memorial park for other children and families to play in.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Kara said. “She would meet up with neighborhood friends there, and she always said it should have picnic table and swing. It makes sense. She was a kid. She played.”

Addi’s Memorial Park is planned to have that picnic table and swing, as well as benches and playground equipment, such as slides, climbing areas, and a crawl tunnel. The neighborhood homeowner’s association approved the proposal and has agreed to maintain the park.

The Sinclairs are seeking assistance in funding the project. They plan to hold fundraisers (COVID-19 permitting), and they have an online page that accepts donations.

When completed next year – hopefully, Kara said, by Addi’s birthdate of April 4 – they expect the memorial park that bears her name to reflect the qualities that defined their daughter: playful, caring, positive, always with a smile on her face.

Scott Kent, assistant director, strategic communications, can be reached at skent@sufs.org.

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