By GEOFF FOX
Chris Yother could have slipped through the cracks.
A Merritt Island resident, he was one of nine children – and one of a set of quadruplets – born to Kate Brown and Michael Yother.
Unfortunately, Yother’s parents eventually divorced and money was tight. He had always been a conscientious student, but as high school approached, his mother decided she wanted the quadruplets educated at Brevard Private Academy (BPA), a local private school.
The Yothers applied for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through Step Up For Students, and each of the quadruplets – Chris, Eric, Josh and Allison – were accepted.
At BPA, Chris Yother took dual-enrollment classes through Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, and often tutored other students. By the time he graduated from high school in 2013, he had also earned an associate’s degree.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida majoring in international relations, he still wants to help others.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, Yother wants to join the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer.
“Down the road, I’d like to the represent the State Department as a foreign service officer; that would be my dream job,” Yother said. “You represent the interests of Americans abroad, protect them and stand up for their rights.
“I’d love to be in France. I speak some decent French, but I really like the French culture. The opportunity to be stationed anywhere abroad would be an honor.”
His brothers, Eric and Josh Yother, currently serve in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps., respectively. Allison Yother has also considered a military career.
“We’re from a huge military family, and I almost joined right after high school,” Chris Yother said. “Both of my grandfathers were in the military and lots of uncles and a great-grandfather.”
Chris Yother said he and his siblings weren’t falling behind at their local public school, but a private institution seemed “more like a better fit,” adding that their ninth-grade transition to Brevard Private Academy “was very smooth.”
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “The big difference was (smaller) class sizes. The instruction was more personalized. The teachers could do more one-on-one stuff. The environment was modified to help the individual.
“In public school, we were having trouble connecting with the instructors and the material.”
Brown, Yother’s mother, was especially pleased with the change of environment for her quadruplets.
“With the one-on-one attention, they really learned and excelled,” she said.
Jenna Brocchini, an administrator at Brevard Private Academy, described Chris Yother as the most outgoing of his siblings. His positive effect on the small private school was almost immediate.
“He’s a friend to everybody and probably never had an enemy a day in his life,” Brocchini said. “What always struck me about him was he always had a very strong interest in politics. He actually went to see Obama speak” at Merritt Island in 2010.
“He camped out just to see the president speak. He was there the night before, and Obama didn’t speak until the afternoon. He was there in a camping chair and waiting for hours. A lot of kids that age don’t know much about politics or really care.”
As Yother prepares for his senior year at UCF, he is working at Office Depot, where he fixes computers in the technology department. He is also busy organizing paperwork for the Navy.
“It’s a rarity that I have much down time, although I did take a little break this summer,” he said. “I like to read a lot, stay home and still follow all the political stuff.”
And, he’s still helping people.
Brocchini said she recently posted a message on Brevard Private Academy’s Facebook page, asking if anyone could help set up computers at the school or offer technological support.
“Right away, he said, ‘I’ll come, anytime,’” she said. “He’s one of those people you rarely come across. He used to tutor his peers, and he wasn’t selfish with his counseling. He was always ready to help any of his friends. Public service is something I’ve always seen him doing.
“He’s a real humanitarian. I really feel like he’s going to have a successful future.”
BY GEOFF FOX
Savannah Lang has time to weigh her options.
The 2015 graduate of Merritt Island Christian School (MICS) had long wanted to become a pharmacist, but as she prepared for her sophomore year at Eastern Florida State College’s Cocoa Campus, the 19-year-old was considering a career in business.
She has also considered engineering.
“Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it all out,” Lang said. “I’m not 100 percent sure yet.”
Lang’s scholastic achievements – she earned an overall 3.89 GPA in high school, was part of the National Honor Society and received a humanitarian award for most volunteer hours – and the options she now considers are like answers to the prayers of her mother, Rhonda Ford.
A single mother since her daughter was 3, Ford, a massage therapist, said she had concerns about sending Savannah to public school.
“She had been going to Merritt Island Christian at 3 and 4, and I knew that was where I wanted to have her until she graduated,” Ford said. “I wanted Savannah in a Christian environment.”
The Brevard County school includes an elementary school, middle school and high school, as well as a preschool academy.
However, by the time Savannah was ready to start kindergarten, Ford was struggling financially.
Fate intervened – in the form of a beat-up Nissan Maxima.
“My car needed repair, like, a lot, so I was referred to a mechanic, and when they gave me the total, I asked if we could barter some of (the cost),” Ford said. “The mechanic said, ‘Yes, my wife has four little kids and could definitely use a massage.’
That was in spring 2002. By fall, Savannah’s scholarship application was approved and she was enrolled at MICS.
“The timing of the application was perfect,” Ford said. “It was totally God; He worked it all out.”
At the time, Ford and Savannah lived with Ford’s mother. The family lived under the same roof for several years, as Ford built her business and Savannah flourished in school.
“She was on the honor roll all 12 years and developed really good study habits,” Ford said. “My mom would pick her up after school, and she’d start doing her homework in the car. It was such a blessing, especially for a single mom.
“It was the fact that you feel that you have control and direction of your child’s education – in an environment that is totally conducive for learning. There are no outside influences of an environment without discipline. The teachers can hug you, you know?
“It’s been an amazing blessing.”
While the scholarship helped financially, MICS Superintendent Nanci Dettra, lauded Savannah’s effort in the classroom, and on the varsity volleyball court. Savannah also participated in dual enrollment at MICS, taking high school courses along with college-level ones through a local community college and Palm Beach Atlantic University.
During her senior year, Savannah also received the Principal’s Scholarship, a two-year award to help pay for classes at Eastern Florida State College. At Eastern Florida, she is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for high academic achievers pursuing two-year degrees.
Dettra described Lang as being as determined and passionate as she was outgoing and popular.
“She really is a go-getter,” Dettra said. “Focused is a great word for Savannah.”
In February 2016, Savannah became a registered pharmacy technician at a local drug store. While it was the right environment to learn more about being a pharmacist, Savannah said her retail experience has led her to consider pursuing a career in merchandising.
Of course, she could change her mind again.
As she drove to the drug store where she works full-time on summer breaks, Savannah seemed grateful for the educational groundwork instilled in her at MICS.
“I really enjoyed it because it was so much smaller, and there was more one-on- one time if you needed help,” she said. “There wasn’t this big classroom. You could talk to teachers and counselors. That helped me tremendously.”
By GEOFF FOX
Ten years after graduating from The Rock School, a K-12 Christian school in Gainesville, Alani Charles is working to ensure that some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents are cared for properly.
At 27, Charles is married to wife Tara and has a 4-year-old son, Olin. For several years, he and Tara Charles worked as family teachers at Boys Town North Florida in Tallahassee. Boys Town is a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to at-risk children and troubled families.
“We were basically like foster parents for four to seven children at a time,” Alani Charles said. “We’d take them to school, take them to dinner. Whatever was needed. I’ve always kind of had a desire to help people.”
A couple years ago, he accepted a new job as a licensing specialist at Daniel Memorial, Inc., in Jacksonville. Daniel Memorial is considered Florida’s oldest child-serving agency.
“What I do is I go out to foster homes and license them; I make sure they’re in compliance to take care of children,” Charles said. “I go into people’s homes. I make sure they’re up-to-date on training, and make sure that things like fire extinguishers and alarms are working. We ensure that parents have all their needs met, as well as the children. I make sure they have the basic necessities.”
While Charles was not raised in foster care, he had personal experience with a broken home, as his parents divorced around the time he entered high school. That left his mother, Maureen Charles, to alone raise Alani and her older son Carlos by herself.
Although Alani Charles wasn’t a troublemaker, he said that period of his life was full of distractions. He didn’t care much for his neighborhood school and was mostly out to have fun.
That’s when administrators at The Rock School in Gainesville told his mother about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The scholarship provides financial assistance to low-income families for private school, or assists with transportation costs to attend a public school outside their home district.
Charles said he was comfortable going to The Rock School, as it is affiliated with his family’s church, The Rock of Gainesville.
Maureen Charles said her sons did well in school before they started attending The Rock, but that they both flourished there.
“The atmosphere (at The Rock) was a lot more challenging and people expected more of you,” Alani Charles said recently. “Between going to church and school, I was there six days a week.”
Not only did Alani Charles become co-captain of the basketball team, captain of the soccer team and a track and field participant, who competed in shot put and discus, but his study habits were also bolstered and refined.
The same went for Carlos Charles
In 2006, Alani Charles graduated from The Rock – in a class of 13 – with a 3.8 grade point average. He was named the school’s top scholar-athlete and won awards for exemplifying commitment, trust, excellence and leadership.
Jim McKenzie, principal at The Rock, said he is not surprised by Alani Charles’ continued success.
“He had a great experience here,” McKenzie said, adding that the former student still occasionally visits his old school. “We hope that his experience will be like that for a lot of the kids who come here on scholarship. (Alani) is just a really personable, charismatic guy – friends with everybody. He was always very compassionate and had a big heart; he’s like a big teddy bear.
“He had a big, larger-than-life personality that went with his (physical) stature, but he was very gentle, as well.”
Spurred by his success, Charles enrolled at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
In May 2015, Carlos Charles graduated from Huston-Tilliotson University – a private, historically black university – in Austin, Texas, where he earned a degree in music, his mother said.
“He stopped (going to college), but he went back,” Maureen Charles said of Carlos. “I always told them you must finish what you start. It took him a little while, but he finished good and that’s the main thing.”
Both her sons have made her proud.
“If you work hard, it pays off. I always told them you don’t get anything for free.”
By GEOFF FOX
The joy in Travis Blanks’ voice was obvious.
He had recently returned from scenic Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he went on a honeymoon with his new wife and college sweetheart, Chandler. The couple married on June 25, 2016.
Back home in Clemson, South Carolina, he spoke as he took a lunch break from his new job as a mortgage loan officer at Oconee Federal Bank, where some customers recognize him instantly.
Less than a year earlier, Blanks was a star linebacker for the University of Clemson Tigers football team that made it to the national championship game, where it lost to Alabama, 45-40, in an instant classic.
Although Blanks had always dreamed of playing in the NFL, the 22-year-old said he is perfectly content.
“It was tough not realizing my dream like I wanted to, but I have a great job; I have a degree and I met my wife,” he said. “I’m not really walking around with any disappointments.”
Blanks’ positive outlook has always been an asset. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he was considered too small to be an impact player for Clemson, but he proved critics wrong.
In his senior year, he registered 43 total tackles, made several stops against rival Florida State University and played with fiery determination in the championship contest. He accomplished that after sitting out his junior year with a knee injury.
While Blanks’ personal drive has never been in question, he has had help along the way.
Since the closest neighborhood high school had low graduation rates and a floundering sports program, Hutto, a single mother of four, pursued the scholarship. Her application was accepted and Blanks spent his high school years at North Florida Christian.
The school became something of a haven for Blanks, whose father was in prison during his time there.
“It’s a Christian environment,” Hutto said. “They teach kids about the Bible and religion, and it’s a very tight-knit group of people. They’re very supportive. It’s smaller than a regular public school, so we thought it would be fitting for him.
“He was able to meet some very good people who helped shape his future.”
Pastor Randy Ray, who has been at North Florida Christian for about 25 years, was one of those people.
“Travis is one of the most exemplary students we’ve had; he’s in the Top Five,” Ray said. “First of all, he was a good citizen. You’re not a good student unless you’re a good citizen. He was a great athlete and all kinds of things, but we’ve had a lot of great athletes.
“He was a part of our community. He loved it here, and we loved him. He was serious about what he did, but he didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a gift of doing things well, but he could laugh at himself if things didn’t go perfectly.
“Step Up allowed him to be a part of our community,” Ray said.
When Blanks earned a football scholarship to Clemson, the family – including an older sister and two younger brothers – moved to South Carolina to be near him.
A commercial insurance agent with BB&T, Hutto has since relocated to Fort Myers and is planning to apply again for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for her 15-year-old twin son and daughter.
While Blanks said he has left the gridiron behind, he is realizing other dreams.
His recent wedding to Chandler, Hutto said, “was beautiful.”
“They’ve been together three strong years, during the most difficult times of their lives – at college,” she said. “It was a gorgeous time for two gorgeous people.”
Blanks also is settling nicely into his new career.
“No matter what kind of job you get, they’re going to have to train you to do what they want you to do – even if I had a finance degree,” he said. “I know how to interact and talk to people, and meet their needs.
“I’m just trying to provide for my wife, but I love my job. We’re a community bank, so I get to have a personal relationship with my customers. I’m dealing with people, not just sitting around in a back office somewhere.”
By TRAVIS BLANKS, Guest blogger
My name is Travis Blanks. I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself, and how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship helped me realize my dreams.
A year ago, I was a linebacker for the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers football team that made it to the College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama. While we didn’t win, the game was considered an instant classic. We only lost by five points, and I’m confident Clemson will have another successful season this year.
After the season, I declared myself eligible for the National Football League draft. While I was disappointed not to be selected by an NFL team, I am hardly bitter.
In fact, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.
I married my fiancée Chandler in June. Our honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was absolutely beautiful, and helped me unwind before I embarked on a career.
At Clemson, I earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I was able to use the degree to secure my new job as a mortgage loan officer for Oconee Federal Bank in Clemson. I honestly love the work and enjoy interacting with people and helping them meet their needs.
I remember well how others helped me during my own times of need.
As I prepared to enter high school, my mom, a single mother of four, worried about me attending the local public school, where graduation rates were low and the sports program was floundering. She wanted me to be well-prepared for college and to avoid as many distractions as possible.
Fortunately, administrators at North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee told my mom about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administered by Step Up For Students. She applied for the scholarship and I was accepted.
I had always been a diligent student, but at North Florida Christian, I absolutely thrived. The school fosters a tight-knit Christian environment, where the teachers were extremely supportive and the class sizes smaller than those I experienced in public school. I felt more like part of a family.
At North Florida Christian, teachers and administrators also focused on helping students become good citizens. They helped shape my future and brighten my worldview.
Might all of this have happened for me without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship? Maybe. But, I would not have been able to attend North Florida Christian, which I still visit whenever I can.
To me, the scholarship was invaluable.
My mother agrees. After recently moving back to Florida from South Carolina, she hopes my brother and sister, 15-year-old twins, will also qualify for a scholarship through Step Up.
I sincerely feel the best way to say thanks is to make sure other children are given the same chance. Everyone deserves an opportunity for success, no matter their family’s income level.