BY ROGER MOONEY
On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Jay Allen gave his mother a gift she will treasure forever.
With Deanna Singletary among the family members sitting in the front row behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Jay hit his first home run of the season for the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A minor-league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.
It was the first time Deanna saw her son hit a home run since he began playing professional baseball last summer. The two-run shot to left-center field provided the winning runs in a 4-3 victory against the Palm Beach Cardinals.
To say she was excited is a gross understatement.
“He hits it out and I jump up and down screaming,” Deanna said. “I’m known for that. I’m the loud one.
“It is still unbelievable.”
Jay, 19, has been hitting home runs since he began playing baseball when he was 9: In Little League, travel ball and at John Carroll High School, the private Catholic school near his Fort Pierce home that he attended with the help of an education choice scholarship.
A center fielder, Jay was picked in the first round (30th overall) of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft by the Reds after a stellar athletic career at John Carroll that saw him star in football, basketball, and baseball.
“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Jay said. “Everybody always pictures when they start playing sports to be a professional and when that happens, it’s a surreal moment.”
Jay was carving up the competition on the athletic fields in the Fort Pierce area as a middle schooler when Deanna decided she wanted a better education environment for her son. The mother of one of Jay’s teammates told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is supported by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. She applied and was accepted.
Jay attended Saint Anastasia Catholic School as an eighth-grader before moving on to John Carroll for high school.
“It was the best decision that I have made, honestly,” Deanna said. “Jay excelled in school. It was a smaller school, so the teachers are more hands-on. Financially, if I didn’t have Step Up, there was no way Jay would have been able to go to Saint Anastasia and John Carroll.”
Deanna’s two daughters – Ayonna Mitchell and Da’Nasia Davis – also receive the scholarships. Ayonna is going into her junior year at John Carroll; Da’Nasia begins her freshman year there in August.
“The (FTC) scholarship gave us a better opportunity,” Jay said. “It got us in a better school, and we rolled from there.”
John Carroll Principal Corey Heroux said Jay received mostly A’s and B’s in a course load that included honors classes.
“We’re very big on you’re a student/athlete,” she said. “You’re a student first and you can only be an athlete if you are taking care of your business in the classroom.
“We’re proud of having vigorous coursework, and he put the time in and took care of his business.”
Jay said he appreciated how the faculty at John Carroll pushed him academically.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but they made it their priority to make sure you were going to go to the next level and be a college student.”
Jay had several scholarship offers even after committing to play baseball at the University of Florida as a sophomore. Some college coaches continued to recruit Jay, trying to woo him to their campus with the promise of playing both football and baseball. But a fractured ankle suffered during football as an eighth-grader nudged Jay in the direction of baseball. He still has two screws in his ankle.
Ultimately, none of those coaches would have landed Jay. He opted for pro ball after the being drafted by the Reds.
“I felt the odds of me being a better baseball player than a better football player was in my favor,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out and I did get hurt playing football and that took a little toll.”
Jay, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, is rated the fifth-best prospect in the Reds minor league system by MLB.com. He began his pro career last summer in the Arizona Complex League before moving this season to the Reds’ Class A team in Daytona Beach. Playing in front of a host of family members, friends, staff and faculty from John Carroll and Saint Anastasia, and former teammates and coaches during most games played on Florida’s East Coast, Allen is among the team leaders in every offensive category.
Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star center fielder with the Reds during his 17-year Major League career, has worked with Jay since last summer. He is eager to see how Jay develops now that he can focus solely on baseball for the first time in his life.
“He has a lot of talent, and the more games he plays, the more he’ll understand,” Davis said after a watching Jay play recently in Clearwater. “He’s a tremendous upside for our organization and we’re proud to have him.”
Before each at-bat, Jay writes the letters “GS” in the dirt with the nob of his bat to honor his grandmother Gwendolyn Singletary, who recently passed away. Jay also has her name embroidered on his glove. His grandfather, Willie Singletary, taught Jay how to play center field by hitting buckets filled with baseballs to him whenever he could.
Willie, Deanna and her fiancé Eddie Davis attend as many of Jay’s games as they can. Deanna said she enjoys watching her son sign autographs for young fans before and after the games as much as she enjoys watching him play.
“Honestly, the enjoyable thing is Jay is doing things that he loves,” Deanna said. “I’m so happy for him.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
For Leidiana Candelario, moving from the Dominican Republic to Miami at age 8 was a major lifestyle transition.
It didn’t go very well at first — until an education choice scholarship from Step Up For Students changed everything.
Leidiana was miserable in her assigned elementary school, describing herself as an “outcast.” Her unfamiliarity with English made her a target of bullying.
“Every weekday I anxiously waited to go home from school, as home became my shelter,” she says.
Home for the family of five was a small room behind her father’s shop. Those cramped quarters were preferable to the misery she was enduring in school. But her future was grim.
“I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
A ray of hope appeared in the form of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, administered by Step Up For Students. After her parents applied and were awarded the scholarship, they now had options: They could afford to send Lediana and her two sisters to the school they chose because it was the best fit for their needs – La Progresiva Presbyterian School.
“The moment my father, with excitement in his eyes, told me ‘Mi hija, nos dieron la beca!’ (“My daughter, they gave us the scholarship!”), I knew the best of changes would come,” Leidiana said.
At La Progresiva, Leidiana blossomed. No longer an outcast, she was warmly received, and thrived. The school’s principal, Melissa Rego, is a former public school teacher who also is the daughter of Cuban exiles. The student body includes many descendants of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Dominicans. More than two-thirds don’t have parents who attended college.
Lediana no longer looked at her home as a safe shelter from school. Now, school felt like a second home. It was family, too.
In 2018, after nine years on the tax credit scholarship, Lediana graduated high school. Two years later, she graduated Miami-Dade College with a degree in English. She’s now back where her success story began as a scared fourth-grader – teaching at La Progresiva, where 635 students are attending on income-based scholarship this year.
“School choice meant opportunities and inevitable growth,” Leidiana says. “Thanks to school choice, I learned to love education. I learned to reach for my wildest dreams.
“Choice brings liberty. Choice brings opportunity. Choice brings life.”
Nathan Cunneen offered some thoughts on Christopher Columbus High School in Miami after he and Walter Blanks Jr. visited the school earlier this year, Nathan and Walter teamed to form the School Choice Boyz, a podcast to bring the value of education choice to a younger audience. They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nathen is a communications associate.
A Recipe for a Great School: Christopher Columbus High School
During a Spring trip to Miami, the School Choice Boyz had the opportunity to tour and explore Christopher Columbus High School, a Marist Brothers institution serving the Miami area. We were impressed with everything at CCHS, from academics to world-class extracurriculars. They deliver incredible value to students and their community, which includes a significant population of students utilizing Florida school choice programs like those managed by Step Up For Students. Here are some thoughts from our visit about what makes CHS – and any school – such a success.
Culture is everything:
Christopher Columbus has experienced incredible success since its founding in 1958. Frankly, there’s too much to fit into this short description. One hundred percent of Columbus Explorers are accepted to college, and the class of 2021 earned more than 20 million dollars’ worth of collegiate scholarships. The school has an Emmy-winning broadcast journalism program. The robotics program won the state championship in 2020. The debate team consistently ranks in the top 10% nationally. Teams win state titles in multiple sports on a regular basis. The school offers more than 70 career, service, or social-oriented clubs and honor societies. You get the point.
Principal David Pugh and Betty Vinson, the head of CCHS’s guidance department, very kindly showed us around the school and shared its success, attributing these achievements to the tight-knit family environment that the school has cultivated. Principal Pugh explained how for many of their students, the faces of teachers, administrators, and coaches are the first and last that they see each day. Columbus is where life happens for many of these students. Every morning before 5 AM, students begin to gather outside of campus to wait for the doors to open.
It was obvious that students want to be there, which makes all their accomplishments seem like the only natural outcome. Students love to learn, and the results speak for themselves.
Success begets success:
CCHS has a long history of alumni involvement. Nearly half of the existing staff are alumni of the school. This trend again speaks to the family culture at work at this school — time has shown that graduates want to remain involved. Betty assured us, “When you ask one of our students where they went to school, they don’t respond with University of Florida, or Miami, or even Georgetown. They tell you they went to Christopher Columbus.”
Alumni who no longer live in Miami stay involved in other ways. NFL star C.J. Henderson, currently of the Carolina Panthers, donated to the school to build world-class athletic training facilities. He attended the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Marcus Lemonis, the host of CNBC’s The Profit, returns to the school to mentor Business Club members. The institution has created a positive feedback loop by fostering a family environment and delivering in the ways that matter. CCHS’s past success is now contributing to its current success.
School choice opens endless doors:
Roughly 45% of Columbus students utilize the Florida tax-credit scholarship or other forms of school choice. Yet how each student is funded is somewhat of an afterthought. We asked Betty how school choice has impacted the growth of the school. She said, “At this school, every dollar is used to the benefit of the students. I honestly could not tell you the difference between scholarship dollars and others. Every dollar follows the student.”
That sentiment powerfully reflects the significance of school choice. Because of school choice programs in the background, many students and faculty can enjoy an excellent educational experience in the foreground. The end goal, after much more progress is made, is for school choice to disappear into the background. “Every dollar following the student,” is something we should be able to take completely for granted. At CCHS, and many other schools in Florida, that’s exactly the case.
Christopher Columbus High School shows a recipe for success in the education space, and the potential that exists when dollars follow students. Beyond the joy of everyone there, the most telling moment of the visit came when we were waiting outside the school for our Uber back to our hotel. We had said goodbye to the helpful staff and were standing by the road when three students went out of their way to approach us, ask us how we were doing, and tell us how awesome their school was. We did not ask them any questions – they just wanted to tell us that they love their school. Every student should have that feeling. School choice can open that possibility for countless students like it has in Florida, if only states are bold enough to take that step.
Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., announced June 2 a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students, helping nearly 1,575 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.
Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2012, Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., a leading wine, spirits, and beer distributor, has generously funded nearly 13,040 scholarships through contributions totaling $85.1 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based scholarship program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. It allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.
“Johnson Brothers of Florida is proud to have partnered with Step Up For Students for the past 10 years to help Florida schoolchildren access the best education for them,” said Frank Galante, regional president of Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. “We are committed to supporting students and families throughout the state and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”
Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. celebrated this remarkable donation during a company meeting at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and Icon Preparatory School Principal Dr. Dwayne Raiford. Icon Preparatory School is located in Tampa and serves students in grades K-12, with more than 93% of its students benefitting from a Step Up For Students scholarship.
“It is clear that Johnson Brothers of Florida is committed to helping Florida students succeed,” Tuthill said. “Because of their support over the last 10 years, thousands of students throughout the state had access to the educational environment that works best for them, and we are truly grateful for their continued partnership.”
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
BY ROGER MOONEY
FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.
“I want to be a missionary,” he said.
“That’s a pretty good question.”
After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”
That’s a pretty good answer.
Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.
“Now I’m set on that,” he said.
Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.
Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.
“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”
Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.
Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.
After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.
“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.
“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”
Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.
He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.
Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.
He loves math, namely precalculus.
“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”
That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.
So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.
It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.
“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.
A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.
Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.
“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”
His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.
“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.
“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CDW has partnered with Step Up For Students to help provide technology resources and digital equity for recipients of Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, and the Reading Scholarship program.
“At CDW, we understand how important it is for students to have access to the technology resources they need to be successful in school,” said Taylor Amerman, CDW Global Social Impact. “Our partnership with Step Up For Students, in support of Florida school children, is just one of the many ways we are committed to digital equity, and we are thrilled to see all the amazing work this organization has accomplished through our collaboration. CDW’s global social impact strategy is focused on empowering learners to reach their unlimited potential through technology, and our purpose is to make technology work so people – just like these amazing students – can do great things.”
Through this partnership with CDW, families throughout Florida have been able to access technology resources, including devices and educational apps, that are necessary for their children to thrive in school.
The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities and the Reading Scholarship are managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarships allow students to pursue and access educational support designed to help them achieve their academic goals.
The Reading Scholarship was created to help young public school students who have difficulty reading. The causes of reading challenges are often varied and complex, but many times digital tools can provide alternative teaching methods that can help students overcome their struggles.
Students like Samantha, who is just one of many young scholars who have learned to love reading because of the Reading Scholarship. Samantha grew up being read to by her mom, Lindsey, so it was surprising when Samantha didn’t enjoy reading.
When she was in the third grade Samantha received a low score on the English Language Arts section of the Florida Standards Assessments, which made her eligible for the Reading Scholarship. With this scholarship, Lindsey purchased 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.
“Epic! makes it easier for me to read, because if I don’t know what a word is, I can tap on it, and the app will sound it out,” said Samantha, now a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Imagine School Lakewood Ranch, a charter school in Manatee County.
As a result of CDW’s support, even more students like Samantha will continue to have access to the digital resources they need to help them achieve academic success. In addition to this partnership, CDW also provides Step Up For Students with philanthropic contributions.
“We are grateful to have CDW as a partner,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Technology has become a critical tool in supporting our students, and CDW’s investment in our school community means that even more of these young children will have access to the resources they need as they advance and learn.”
For 23 years, the Carrie Brazer Center for Autism in Miami has served students on the autism spectrum and others with neurodiverse conditions. During that time, Brazer, a Florida-certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in special education, noticed that families from the Florida Keys were driving as much as three hours to come to the area for therapies and other services.
To better serve those families, Brazer opened a small office in Tavernier, an unincorporated area in Key Largo with a population of 2,530. When a charter school campus across the street became available, Brazer seized the opportunity to open the school’s second campus on the half-acre lot.
The new campus opened last year with six large classrooms in a 5,000-square-foot building. The school has a large indoor play area with lots of swings. The weather usually is pleasant enough for the students to eat lunch outdoors.
“It’s just gorgeous,” Brazer said. “It’s very beachy and homey and airy and spacious.”
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BY ROGER MOONEY
MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.
They didn’t make it.
Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.
Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.
Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.
Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.
“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.
Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.
To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.
To an Ivy League college.
To medical school.
To a life helping those who need help.
She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.
“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.
Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.
“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”
Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.
Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.
“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”
A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.
He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.
“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.
Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”
“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.
“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”
Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.
“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.
Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.
Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.
“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.
It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old
After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.
“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.”
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.
It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.
Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).
“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”
Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.
Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.
“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”
And they were, one arduous step at a time.
Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.
It took nearly half an hour.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”
Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.
“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”
It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.
LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.
The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.
“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.
“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”
The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.
“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.
When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.
In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.
“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.
A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.
“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.
How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.
“About seven,” he said.
Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.
On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.
What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.
“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”
Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.
“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”
Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.
The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:
“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”
Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.
“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”
Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.
“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”
Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.
“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.
He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.
“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.
A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.
He also wants a Chevy Silverado.
“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.