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Cancer doesn’t interrupt path to med school for alumni of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

BY ROGER MOONEY

It was the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and Luke Desclefs was smoothly sailing toward graduating Jacksonville’s Bishop Snyder High School that spring. His course load wasn’t heavy. His grades were in order. His plans for college were in place.

Then in October, he noticed a lump on his neck.

Cancer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

His reaction? “It stinks.”

Luke was more upset with the intrusion in the plans for his final year of high school than the disease.

“Everyone faces something,” he said.

Luke understood that all too well.

Five years earlier, his mother Kathy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And in August, two months before Luke’s diagnosis, his dad Benoit was found to have an inoperable malignant brain tumor.

“We never asked, ‘Why us?’” Luke said. “Complaining about it isn’t going to help.”

Luke Desclefs

Life continued as best as it could for the Desclefs. Kathy ran The Magnificat Café, the French-American restaurant they owned in downtown Jacksonville, while Benoit underwent treatment. Luke endured three months of chemotherapy. His teachers at Snyder, which he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, adjusted his class schedule to accommodate his treatments.

“It’s not that enjoyable to have cancer,” Luke said. “Sometimes you’re tired of it, and you want to take off this jacket that’s cancer, breathe for a little bit and just put it on later. You can’t do that.

“But it could have been so much worse. You begin to feel blessed. It really changes your perspective on life.”

Luke, 20, is currently a sophomore at Florida State University. He is majoring in both exercise physiology and French. The first is part of a pre-med track. The latter is so he can converse with his family in France, where his dad was born, and possibly study abroad.

His coursework is demanding. He navigates that with the discipline to learn and study he acquired while attending private schools, first Christ the King Catholic School then Snyder.

“It’s incredible that I was able to do that,” Luke said. “But as I got older, I did begin to wonder how my parents paid for my education.”

The answer was the tax credit scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Step Up is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing education choice to families of Florida schoolchildren. Last year, it awarded its 1 millionth scholarship.

How Luke came to receive an FTC Scholarship is an example of the sacrifice a father is willing to make for his family.

Family time is important for Benoit. His father had been in the restaurant business and worked nights and weekends. Benoit, who was born in a town outside of Paris and studied at a culinary school in Bordeaux, dreamed of owning his own restaurant. He also wanted to be home for dinner. He wanted to spend the weekends with Kathy and the kids.

Hours like that don’t exist in that line of work. Unless you own the restaurant. And you only serve lunch.

In September 2003, Benoit opened The Magnificat Café. The restaurant was surrounded by office buildings that supplied the lunch crowd. Benoit had his wish. He was doing what he loved while spending time with those he loved.

Benoit and Kathy Desclefs.

“It worked out for our kids. It worked out for us,” Benoit said. “I spent time with my kids at night. I watched them grow. I was with my wife at night and on the weekends.”

But it came with a price. Lunch hours are just that. Most patrons had little time for appetizers or dessert. The big money comes at dinner, when people order several courses and maybe mix in a bottle of wine.

 “Your profit margin at night is much higher,” Benoit said.

“Hence,” Kathy added, “that’s why we were on Step Up For Students. We worked hard, but we didn’t make the income.”

Kathy and Benoit wanted a Catholic education for Luke.

“This scholarship really afforded him a great education, and he was in an environment that was conducive to studying and had great teachers and all the discipline that comes with parochial school,” Kathy said. “It helped provide him with the hunger and thirst to learn, and he did very well as a result, obviously.”

Kathy, who put her treatments on hold when Benoit and Luke became sick, recently returned to work. But not at The Magnificat Café. They had to sell it in August 2020, a casualty of COVID-19 as much as Benoit’s inability to work.

The brain tumor forced Benoit into an early retirement. Kathy, who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 30, recently began working at the Women’s Help Center in Jacksonville.

Luke sees that as a return to some normalcy for the family.

“It’s not really normal when your parents don’t work for reasons of health,” Luke said.

Luke’s cancer is two years in remission. He hasn’t decided on what he will specialize in, but he knows he will bring a unique perspective to the profession.

“The blessings that come from having cancer far surpass the suffering,” he said. “I can understand my patients more, and because of that, I can work with them in ways that other physicians can’t. The patient-physician relationship will be better. It’s more real. It’s more honest. I can respond to their needs better.”

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

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