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Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

STEP UP FOR STUDENTS APPOINTS DENISHA MERRIWEATHER TO ITS BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Step Up For Students, the nation’s largest education choice scholarship funding organization, is proud to announce that Denisha Merriweather has been appointed to its Board of Directors. The Jacksonville native becomes the first scholarship program alumnus to serve on the non-profit’s board.

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha previously served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education. She currently is Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Denisha was recently awarded the 2021 Maverick PAC Future 40 award for her work in education advocacy. Denisha has shared her voice on education freedom across the country and her work has been published in the Wall Street JournalPragerU, the Washington Examiner, EducationWeek, Real Clear, Fox News , among other outlets.

Raised in poverty, Merriweather had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. In the sixth grade she received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which allowed her family to afford tuition at a private school in Jacksonville, where she blossomed. She has been a passionate advocate for education freedom since.

Merriweather earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science from the University of West Florida, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.

“Denisha embodies the power of educational choice,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up For Students. “I first knew she was special when she led a rally of over 5,000 people in Tallahassee as a high school senior to support a choice bill. It is a great honor to have her on our board.”

The nine-member Board of Directors is the governing and fiduciary body for Step Up. It sets policy, develops and approves strategic plans and the related allocation of resources, and is responsible for the organization’s performance.

Healthy employees = successful employees at Step Up for Students

Supporting the well-being of employees ties into the core values of Step Up For Students: Everyone is an asset and every event in an improvement opportunity.

With that in mind, Step Up formed the Wellness Committee this year, and the work of that committee earned a Silver Award at the 2020 Healthiest Companies Award, sponsored by the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council.

“One of the things we’ve seen highlighted during 2020 is the importance of whole life leadership – understanding and supporting your employees better as whole beings,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administration officer. “Employees are juggling so much – from children learning at home, co-working from home, worrying about elderly relatives, or job loss within the household, and just trying to stay safe. Well-being encompasses so many aspects of our lives. Strengthening ourselves in each of those areas to face life’s tough challenges is extremely important.”

View Anne White’s acceptance message.

More than 65 companies from the Jacksonville area received awards in four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Step Up has 221 employees.

First Coast Worksite Wellness Council provides local companies and wellness professionals with programs, education and resources to optimize their employee health and wellness programs.

According to its website, Silver Award winners “established more of a foundation for their wellness program. In addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle through communications and on-site activities, they’ve also established wellness champions and allocated funds toward the implementation of their program. They also offer programs that address other dimensions of wellness, not just physical well-being.”

Step Up’s Wellness Committee initiated a number of challenges throughout the year aimed at creating positive behaviors and attitudes among employees.

For the week of Sept. 21 to 26, the committee issued the “Move More Challenge” with these instructions: For each “Move More” activity that you (and your family or household, including pets) complete and submit a photo for, you will be entered into a raffle for one randomly selected prize winner. “Move More” activities include a picture of you walking, cycling, running, or completing any other fitness or outdoor activity. Family, pet and/or household photos are encouraged.

“I am so proud of and grateful for the team of employees who initiated our well-being committee with our partners at Hylant (Step Up’s benefits provider), and for the engagement of staff across our organization,” White said. “We are truly honored for their work to be acknowledged with the silver award from the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council, and are committed to continue finding ways to strengthen the well-being of our employees and, in turn, our organization.”

Nontraditional education, career path leads intern to Step Up For Students

By LORIE JEWELL

Teachers started telling me in the fourth grade that I had a talent for writing. At 10, though, my dream job was long-distance trucking. The idea of getting away and exploring the country from the high perch of a semi seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.

Step Up Marketing Intern Lorie Jewell with her grandson.

Step Up Marketing Intern Lorie Jewell with her grandson.

While a senior at Redford Union High School in Michigan in the early 1980’s, I chose the military as my first career path – one that afforded opportunities to not only develop writing and photography skills as a public affairs specialist, but also drive the U.S. Army’s beast of a truck known as a 5-Ton. In 1985, it was the biggest vehicle in the inventory and I got to drive a few of them during a deployment to South Korea. One or two even had tractor trailers attached, which proved quite the challenge when it came to backing the giant trucks into a makeshift motor pool.

My employment journey has taken many interesting twists and turns since then – a long stint as a Tampa-area newspaper reporter (17 years with The Tampa Tribune), census enumerator, freelance writer, real estate photographer, Uber driver, graduate student and instructor. I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and thankfully, the voyage continues.

This last gig – graduate school at the University of South Florida – brings me to Step Up For Students’ Marketing Department, where I will be completing an internship for the creative writing master of fine arts program. I’ll be using the skills teachers were so enamored with so long ago to tell the stories of other young people finding their way with the help of similarly inspiring educators – and how Step Up helps bring them together. I also see myself as a walking, talking example of the concept that education does not have to be a one-time, over and done deal. My educational path has been anything but traditional.

As for life outside of grad school – yes, it is possible – I like to say I’m all about the B’s – bowling, bingo, billiards, and babies. I have two adult children; my son is an Army staff sergeant with a wife and two children, while my daughter is a social worker and mother to my Great Dane-mix grand dog, Bailey. I am also an avid knitter and crocheter, which do not start with a B but are nonetheless top free time activity choices.

I believe serendipity has delivered me to Step Up at this point in my life, when education is so firmly ensconced behind the wheel. I’m excited to meet others on similar journeys and I will be honored to tell others all about them. (Insert happy face emoji here.)

Reach Lorie Jewell at ljewell@sufs.org. 

Step Up For Students’ team member Nina Gregory shares a personal story

By GEOFF FOX

For many people, March is a time to enjoy college basketball, reset clocks and bask in the coming of spring.

Camille Gregory, Step Up team member Nina Gregory’s daughter, celebrates her niece Caroline’s first birthday.

It is also Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month – a time to raise understanding about the group of neurological disorders that permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination. In the United States, about 764,000 people have at least one symptom of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is one of the qualifying diagnoses for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, managed by Step Up For Students, whose scholarship recipients you support.

Nina Gregory, who works in Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, recently spoke about her daughter Camille, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby. Doctors told Nina her daughter would probably never walk or talk, but Camille eclipsed those expectations long ago. 

They have a beautiful story of love and perseverance. Please watch Nina share her story. 

 

Please listen to Nina read a book she wrote about her daughter. Flip the pages below.

Step Up’s Wall is an old soul – and total geek

By DAVID TUTHILL

Keaton Wall is the youngest worker in Step Up For Students’ Clearwater office, but he may also be the most indispensable.

As a IT Support Specialist and the essential one-stop-shop for any co-worker with a technical issue, Wall, 21, is the man who keeps the wires plugged in at Step Up.

And he seems to possess an old soul to complement his technological gifts.

“I am a big geek when it comes to hardware and understanding how a system is running,” Wall says in his unique, fast-paced cadence. “With network administration, I can still deal with hardware-type stuff but on a larger scale. And it allows me to help people, which I enjoy, but once again, on a larger scale than just say a computer technician.”

Wall is the son of Bryan Wall, of Nottingham, England, a former Hollywood set designer, and mother, Cheryl Wall, of Long Island, New York. He has half-siblings over 15 years older than he and his younger sister.

His father’s work put him in touch with technology and computers from a young age – and even inspired his name. He is named in honor of movie star Michael Keaton, who became friends with Bryan Wall when they worked on the original “Batman” film. They bonded over a shared interest in ancient British history.

“I got into artwork on computers and wanted to know how they worked,” Bryan Wall says in a friendly British accent, speaking on a layover between flights at his current job as a corporate trainer for AutoNation. “Keaton and I built computers together. He really got into the technical side of things when friends and neighbors had repair issues. He dove in deep, learned how to build them from scratch, and took it to the next level when he went to school, with programming and such.”

That next level began when Keaton Wall applied for the Career Academy of Information at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. He attended there for two years until he decided that waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a 5 a.m. bus to attend 7 a.m. classes was too much of a burden.

He switched schools, and graduated from Clearwater High School while dual enrolled at St. Petersburg College. He earned his diploma with a semester and a half of college already completed.

“When I graduated high school, I was not completely certain where I wanted to go, since most universities all have generic ‘computer science’ degrees, which all focus mainly on programming, which I hate,” Keaton Wall says.

Armed with an associate’s degree, he is still enrolled at SPC.  He has earned certificates for computer support, Microsoft server administration, and Linux system administration. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in technology development and management, with a minor in project management.

He spends his free time like many young men – hanging  out with his friends, playing video games and strumming his guitar. When it comes to music, he is able to sing both the most intense heavy metal songs in an unrecognizable ragged voice, and strum acoustic, improvised melodies often focused on his angst with the opposite sex.

He went into full geek mode during a recent employee luncheon in the Step Up offices, when he brought out a virtual-reality headset and helped a half-dozen of his co-workers explore the future of gaming.

He never fails to leave an impression.

“Keaton is a problem solver, always in good spirits and is well-versed in hardware,” says Rebeca Figueroa, a project manager at Step Up, who shares a cubicle wall with Keaton. “He’s always assisting me with my computer needs and has provided great guidance. He’s an old soul.

“Keaton is a lot more mature than I’ve seen a 21-year-old be. He’s grounded, knows what he wants, has a great profession and is very stable for his age. He writes music, listens with intent and never judges a situation. These qualities show not only a well-rounded individual, but one that has been around enough to have experience in life.”

He may also have a wandering spirit. The way he sees it, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves the sunny shores of Pinellas County for the bright lights of New York.

“New York is just so alive and energetic, and it’s very modern. It’s a massive city filled with everything,” he says. “It draws me to it because I am very energetic. I like how big it is and how it makes me feel so small. I can be anything there that I can put my mind to. There’s also not a palm tree in sight, which makes me happy.”

Until then, he remains a vital cog in the wheel of Step Up’s Clearwater operations. Some may find that remarkable, but it’s no surprise to his family.

“We are all just so proud of him,” Bryan Wall says. “He was never a trouble growing up, always had great friends. We are so proud to see what he’s a part of at such a young age.”

Two minutes with Step Up President Doug Tuthill

Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, recently took a few moments to talk about his vision for the organization.

“We’re in the equal opportunity business,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure that low-income children have the same opportunities more affluent kids have. We want to make sure special needs (students) have their needs met also.”

 

 

Step Up For Students named a top employer in Jacksonville

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students has been selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees, the newspaper announced Tuesday. 

Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.

“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “… I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals.  Next step – St. Pete!”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income K-12 students, funded by corporate donors, and the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Combined, the programs are serving more than 100,000 students for the 2016-17 school year. Step Up For Students employs 194 full-time employees in its Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and remote locations. The Journal’s recognition applies only to the Jacksonville location where 127 employees are based.

The Journal has been partnering with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, collecting data from surveys taken by each company that submitted an application. Finalists are chosen by analyzing the results of the employee satisfaction data.

In the application survey, it asks why a company should make the list of the Best Place to Work and what programs have been implemented to make the company a great place to work.

“Valuing the employee is of utmost importance to us, and hopefully when reading the other responses, it is evident that we take this to heart based on the support and opportunities employees are provided,” states one of Step Up’s responses.

Another response also points out that Step Up leaders have also committed to working on relationship management, as well as investing in employee happiness by creating a new department called Organization and Professional Development, which focuses on overall wellness of Step Up employees.

“Our goal is to promote our two core company values through these areas: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. It has become ‘the way in which we do things,'” according to information sent to the Journal.

“Step Up For Students devotes a lot of time, money and resources to improving employees’ cognitive and emotional management,” a survey response points out. “We believe that the root cause of many business-related challenges can be overcome by ensuring employees are self-aware, empathetic and are able to manage themselves and their relationships within the organization.”

Company rankings will be announced during an awards ceremony on June 22 at the Omni Jacksonville Hotel.

 

Meet Judith Thomas, Step Up’s new social media manager

Judith Thomas, Step Up's new social media manager, enjoys traveling and here is pictured in Scotland in 2015.

Judith Thomas, Step Up’s new social media manager, enjoys traveling and here is pictured in Scotland in 2015.

CaptureBehindthescenesJudith grew up in Germany and first came to live in the U.S. in January 2004 as an au pair – a nanny – for a family in New Jersey. Shortly after, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with her au pair family. She fell in love with Florida and her future husband, Josh. After her au pair year, she went back home to Germany for college. She majored in American Studies and Rhetoric at the Eberhard Karls University, one of the oldest universities in Europe located in the picturesque town of Tuebingen.

During her time in Tuebingen, she worked as an education advisor and public relations assistant for the German-American Institute starting her career in social media and marketing.

After graduating, Judith moved to the U.S. in May 2012, and first worked for a local gym in Jacksonville to develop and grow their social media presence. The last four years she has worked in the communications department of an association management company in Jacksonville where she developed strategies for social media, communications and marketing for multiple nonprofit healthcare associations.

In her free time, Judith loves to travel – no matter if that means exploring local destinations or other cities, states or countries. When she is traveling, her husband and her Nikon D3200 camera are her steady companions. She inherited her passion for photography from her dad, who probably has about a million pictures of her and her two sisters growing up for which Judith is very grateful.

She also loves reading, yoga, the beach, camping, baking (German goodies), good food, and spending time with her family and friends.

Judith joined Step Up For Students in April 2017 as the first full-time social media manager. She is excited about the opportunity to develop strategies for social media and increase awareness of Step Up For Students through social media.

Reach her at jthomas@sufs.org.  

 

Behind the Scenes: Organizational and Professional Development Team

By ANDREA THOERMER

CaptureBehindthescenesHello from the newest department at Step Up For Students: The Organizational and Professional Development Department.

Our job is to strengthen the culture of the organization by enhancing employees’ decision-making through professional, emotional, cognitive and social learning opportunities, and by improving organizational processes and structure. I know, that’s a mouthful. Basically, we support and invest in our employees’ professional development so they experience greater success, joy and satisfaction at work. We believe that by keeping our employees happy, we can better serve our families and schools.

That’s why our team of four employees really push at promoting our company’s two core values: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. We know that our organization can best serve our community if we hold true to these two values.

An OPD meeting with the book "Joy Inc.: How We Build a Workplace People Love," clockwise from lower left: Doug Tuthill, Kevin Law, Mickey Strope, Anne White, Gina Caicedo, Jill LaR and Andrea Thoermer.

An OPD meeting with the book “Joy Inc.: How We Build a Workplace People Love,” clockwise from lower left: Doug Tuthill, Kevin Law, Mickey Strope, Anne White, Gina Caicedo, Jill LaRose and Andrea Thoermer.

One aspect of professional development we give a lot of attention to is focused on improving employee’s cognitive and emotional management skills. These skills include self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship management. When employees are aware of how they are “being” in a certain situation, then they can better manage those thoughts and emotions so their behavior benefits everyone in that situation. We also know it’s important to be empathetic toward others, which helps us better manage our work relationships. We have done a lot research in this area and have found that these traits are essential and contribute to a happy and productive workplace.

Over the past 11 months, our employees have received feedback from their peers and are now creating Personal Development Plans so each employee can grow professionally. For example, if you are a Service Center representative and you aspire to be a manager, then you would take manager and leadership courses preparing you for a manager role. Or, if you process Gardiner Scholarships, but have a lot of interest in improving the processes in the organization, then you would take courses focused on process improvement.

Our department works as a team to create internal classes to address these plans. We also reach out to our colleagues who have certain skills and knowledge to help us provide even more courses to meet the diverse and unique needs of our colleagues. We are so thankful for the amount of talent we have in the organization. Some of the classes we provide include: Microsoft Outlook training, Project Management tips, a Step-In Program focused on improving cognitive and emotional management skills, Mentoring and Shadowing opportunities, Toastmasters (to improve presentation skills) and a variety of other communication and leadership classes.

Some of the OPD department’s other initiatives include Genius Hour, Interdepartmental Working Lunches and President Office and Asset Hours. Genius Hour allows our employees to innovate and collaborate with others to come up with ideas or projects that could benefit the organization. Out of these genius ideas, we now have a walking treadmill desk to allow employees opportunities to stretch their legs and get some exercise while working. We also have implemented a chat service in the Service Center to field more questions from our families. Interdepartmental Working Lunches happen once a month and provide us with a platform to share information company-wide and work together on a variety of projects.

For the President’s Office and Asset Hours, Doug Tuthill, our leader, either allots time for employees to speak with him about any issues or ideas, or he goes to their work place location (cubicle, office, etc.) and inquires into what they do on a daily basis in order to more fully understand the inner workings of the organization and further carry out our two core values: Everyone is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity.

We consider it a privilege to support our employees professionally as we strive to increase workplace satisfaction and productivity so we can ultimately better serve you.

Hear what Step Up team members are saying about OPD’s courses: 

“In pursuit of achieving some of my PDP objectives, I participated in various OPD offerings including the Step-In Program and communicating from a place of nothingness.

Both of these offerings were time well spent. I believe that I have acquired certain skills that allow me to be more aware and in control of my emotions, and I have recently, really enjoyed the art of communicating. It always feels great when you can grow and learn, and I am looking forward to future offerings.”

–Mickey Strope, Director of Information and Knowledge Management

“I was very appreciative of the Microsoft Outlook class.  It has been very helpful – now I have Meeting Rooms in my Outlook calendar.”

–Ella Beaver, Site Administrator

“As part of my professional development plan, I decided I needed to beef up my public speaking skills, so in March I became a member of a local Toastmasters speech club. It’s too soon to proclaim any miracles, but I’ve been having fun. My fellow Toastmasters, including Lauren Barlis and Meredith McKay from Step Up, are the best! They’re warm, encouraging, non-judgmental. In that kind of atmosphere, it’s impossible not to overcome hang-ups and get better.

Ultimately, I hope, it’s the scholarship students and parents who benefit, because if I can become a better communicator, then I will be a better advocate. Frankly, it’s the students and parents who inspired me to give it a shot. At Step Up, we are always hearing stories about parents and students who scale mountains to reach their dreams. The least I can do, for them, is go attack a little hill.”

–Ron Matus, Director of Policy and Public Affairs

“I had the opportunity to take a class to learn about SCRUM, it’s a methodology for managing projects. Since taking the course, I have been using it with my team so we can work together more efficiently as possible to better serve our parents. Below is a description of SCRUM:

Safe: A way to express your ideas, generate insight, share concern in an environment that is judgment free and without blame.

Collaboration: Teams are self-organizing. The team holds each other accountable for achieving daily commitments and are allowed to go beyond boundaries to showcase their talents.

Retrospective: Allows time for reflection. We identify what went well and what could be improved. Everything is measured and decisions are based on data and variations, and not opinions.

Uniformity:  We own the plan! We determine our capacity and focus on one improvement at a time. If we succeed, we succeed together. If we fail, we fail together.

Mentality: The idea is not to look for solutions to solve all your problems or to look for reasons why something is impossible. Failure and learning from failure is encouraged because experimenting and failing is the fuel for innovation.”

–Martina Ady, Assistant Operations Manager, Contact Center

Andrea Thoermer is director of Professional Development, Organizational & Professional Development. She has been with Step Up For Students for three years after teaching for seven years in the public school system and graduating from the University of Florida with her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. What she likes most about working for Step Up is that she is given the opportunity to help employees grow professionally and personally by creating meaningful learning opportunities focused on their specific needs. She enjoys the challenge of helping others see in themselves what she sees in them.  When Andrea is coming up with ways to support Step Up staff, she dotes on her 9–month-old daughter and husband of six years. She also enjoys spending time with her close friends and other family members, cooking, trying new restaurants, indulging in decadent desserts and exercising to burn off all the calories she consumes.