Category Archives for Student Spotlights

Meet Ben Zanca, Gardiner scholar


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDoctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.

Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.

“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.” Ben Z

Things looked bleak.

“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”

Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.

“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.

Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.

About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.

Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.

That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.

Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.

Ben was not thriving at the public school.

“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”

For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.

Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools,  approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.

“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.

“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”

Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.

While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.

“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”

Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.

On this particular day, Ben chose art.

“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”

Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.

“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”

One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.

“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”

The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.

“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s Laws of Motion. His self-confidence has increased tremendously.”

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Step Up scholarship helps boost Ariely’s grades and confidence


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedLinery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

Ariely Burgos, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, wants to be an athletic

Ariely Burgos, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, wants to be an athletic coach or PE teacher.

For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.

“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”

Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.

“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.

Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.

Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.

Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.

At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.

“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”

Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.

“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”

Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.

“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”

It worked.

Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.

When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.

Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.

“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.

“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”

While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.

Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.

“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”

Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.

“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”

Reach Geoff Fox at






Student Spotlight: Kamelia Martin was a girl without hope

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedBY GEOFF FOX

Kamelia "Kami" Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

Nine years ago, Kamelia Martin was born perfectly healthy in Bulgaria. Yet, her adoptive mother, Christen Martin, said for years she was given a regimen of anti-seizure medication, tranquilizers and sedatives.

The circumstances made for a tough, turbulent adjustment after Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted Kamelia two years ago.

“When an infant comes into the orphanage, they’re put in an isolation room where they learn their cries won’t get any attention,” Christen Martin said. “After they don’t cry, they get to come in the room with other children.

“They are treated like animals. They never experience the love of a father or mother. They’re put into a (drug-induced) stupor so they’ll be quiet and compliant.”

For Kamelia, the results were horrific.

By the time Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted her from the orphange, she was diagnosed with institutional autism and her IQ was measured at 35, the low threshold for moderate intellectual disability.

Because she had been malnourished for so long, Kamelia’s head was too small for her body and her ankles were weak and misshapen; she could not walk until she was 3. When the Martins brought her home to Louisiana, where Mason Martin was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, she could hardly communicate or speak, even in Bulgarian.

None of that deterred the Martins, who had three young children of their own when they decided to adopt Kamelia, who they often call “Kami.” Christen Martin said the couple knew since they got married that “God was calling us to adopt.”

“It was a divine sequence of events,” Christen Martin said. “The Lord just weighed Bulgaria on my heart.”

When the Martins first saw a photo of Kamelia, they saw a small, scared, lonely-looking girl. The photo weighed on them. They knew they wanted to help.

“When we pulled her file to find out more about her, we discovered she was born on Mason’s birthday the year of our marriage,” Christen Martin said. “Many little details like this worked together to encourage us each step of the way that our family was right for Kami.”

After an adoption process that took the Martins several months and a couple of trips to Bulgaria, Kami came to live with them in 2014. The transition from living in a cold, unloving Bulgarian orphanage to life in an American home with parents and siblings was turbulent for both Kami and her new family, including brothers Ezekiel, 7, and Isaiah, 3, and sister Eden, 5.

At the time, Kami was 7. She didn’t know how to play and could barely communicate. And, after years of being administered unneeded medication, she endured withdrawal from the drugs when she came to live with the Martins.

“The Bulgarian orphanage staff gave us prescriptions for medications they truly believed she needed,” Christen Martin said. “We consulted with a Bulgarian psychiatrist and she encouraged us to get her off them gradually. The withdrawal was definitely intense. There was so much outrageous behavior already that we didn’t know what were withdrawal symptoms.

“There was a lot of screaming, thrashing, rolling, clawing and biting. She wasn’t given any tools for healthy or normal communication. If she was disappointed, she’d drop to the ground and roll, scream and writhe. She was definitely just driven by instincts every moment and ruled by them without self-control. What happens to a person when they’re never given any love is tragic.”

The Martins tried to brace their biological children for the ordeal.

“They responded amazingly. We prayed for her together,” Christen Martin said. “When the other kids witnessed the screaming and scary behavior, they were nervous and afraid and it was hard, but the other children learned from an early age about loving others and how truly ugly child abandonment is; it’s one of the worst things in the world. They realize this is why you have a family. We all need it. I think they’ve taught Kami more than Mason and I could. They taught her how to play and be a child.”

In 2015, the Martins moved to Orlando. By then, Mason Martin was out of the Air Force and working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which focuses on translating the Bible into hundreds of languages.

Christen Martin homeschools her children, but she needed help with Kami. In Orlando, the family learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Kamelia "Kami" Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and a Gardiner scholar.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and as a Gardiner scholar.

The Martins applied for the scholarship and Kami was accepted, due to her intellectual disability. They used the scholarship to hire Kathy Wood, an occupational therapist who has worked with Kami twice a week for about a year.

It was slow going, at first.

“I do in-home therapy and I met her with her family around her,” Wood said. “It’s nice to have that advantage because sometimes a clinic can add a whole level of distance. That said, Kami was very difficult to engage. I hate to say she was a feral child, but that’s a clear view of what it felt like. She had not had a lot of human contact.

“When she first arrived, there was still a lot of no eye contact and she would not tolerate being touched at all. She would not engage me in any way. She would turn her back on me and would not include me in her space – like an animal might do to protect itself or home.”

But Wood showed up consistently and slowly earned Kami’s trust. After a few weeks, Kami allowed Wood to perform reflex techniques that help train her body to adjust to life outside of a crib.

“We do basic exercises,” Wood said. “On her feet, I stimulate the tendons to increase walking ability, coordination and balance, even her emotions. I do cross-body reflexes, where you stimulate the bottom left foot and raise the right leg, cross it over the body and back down. Then, we do the other leg. You work both halves of the brain that way. It increases coordination and motor control.”

Kami has been speaking more lately, but there is much progress yet to be made. The family uses most of the scholarship money for occupational therapy, but it has also covered a trip to a pediatric eye doctor.

“She’s probably not very clear if you don’t know what she’s trying to say. Her thoughts are jumbled and she’s trying to figure out how to say things,” Wood said. “I’ve learned her language a little bit. The other day, she was telling me about a trip to the playground. She said, ‘Miss Kathy, swing at the playground, tic-tack, tic-tack, tic-tack.’ She was telling me about the trip to the playground and how she heard the swing going up and down.

“She’s wired differently than you and I; she is very in tune to sounds. She learned in that crib what was safe and not safe by sound. Her senses of sound, hearing and touch are all heightened because she didn’t get proper development.”

Simply being around the Martins has been crucial to Kami’s development, Wood said.

“Four or five months ago, I saw her imitating and playing pretend for the first time. She put a baby doll to bed with a blanket – it was appropriate play,” Wood said. “She had been playing with her sister and her sister taught her that. She wasn’t hitting the baby against the wall, it was very appropriate. She could mimic a loving gesture. She has the ability to understand sequence. That shows me she has tremendous ability to grow and thrive in many ways.

“I’m really excited for her potential. Last week, she looked at me, smiled warmly and said ‘Miss Kathy.’ We were playing a silly little game, but she connected with me in a genuine way.”

Mason Martin said he is encouraged by the progress Kami has made since she joined the family two years ago, but he understands there is still a lot of work to do. Like most parents, he wants his children to become happy, productive, self-sufficient adults.

“It’s been a lot of work for her and she’s never really been made to do that work before,” he said. “She needs somebody to spend time with her. It’s been exciting and a lot of difficult challenges on the way – some days more than others. The best way to describe it is she’s very resilient. As long as we don’t give up on her, she won’t give up.  … She really needed somebody who wouldn’t give up on her. It’s been amazing to see.”

Christen Martin said Kami is on about the same social level as a preschooler, but is learning how to act appropriately around people. Academically, she has progressed a bit further.

“She longs for connection, but it takes time to understand how to relate to others in proper ways,” Christen Martin said. “She is in the pre-writing stage; she knows her colors, shapes, some animals and everyday objects. She’s working on forming letters and learning their sounds, and we do believe she will learn to read and write. We just don’t know what the timetable will look like.”






Student Spotlight: Step Up graduate Savannah Lang contemplates the future


step-up-15-logo_final-2Savannah 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.


Savannah Lang was inducted into Eastern Florida State College’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

“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.’

“The mom came into the office and while I was giving her a massage, she told me about Step Up For Students and the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.”

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.

There’s time.

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.”





Students Spotlight: Alani Charles on a mission to help others

alanistep-up-15-logo_final-2By 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.”alani

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.”


Student Spotlight: Graduate Travis Blanks


step-up-15-logo_final-2The 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. travis-blanks-and-bride

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.

Blanks, who earned a sociology degree at Clemson, entered the National Football League draft following the national title game, but was not selected.

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.

In 2009, the year Blanks entered high school, his mother, Carol Hutto, heard about Step Up For Students through administrators at North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee

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.”

Student Spotlight: Lacey Nowling, Faith Christian Academy, Jay, Fla.


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedAs early as sixth grade, Lacey Nowling knew her love for children was calling her to become a pediatrician.

Living in the tiny town of Jay, Fla., in the far northwestern reaches of the panhandle, she had a clear vision of her future.

But certainty turned to doubt as her school work got harder and harder in ninth grade.

“She had bad grades,” Lacey’s mom, Elizabeth Nowling, recalled. “She was running D’s and F’s most of the school year. She was just barely making it by the skin of her teeth.” LaceyNowling_spotlight

At the same time, Lacey was feeling more and more out of place at her neighborhood school. Because of the bad influences there, she was becoming distracted from her schoolwork. Then, the only thing that was keeping her at that school – band – fell apart as well.

“Band was my safe place,” she said. “Band was what kept me going.”

The last straw was at band camp when Lacey, a piccolo player, unwittingly broke a rule by drinking Gatorade on the field. The director chided her in front of the band and made her stay in a push-up position for the rest of practice.

“After practice we went back to the band room, and I went into the bathroom and cried,” Lacey said, still emotional as she recounted the event years later. “It was a few weeks later when I quit.”

For months, Lacey’s mother had been pushing her to transfer to Faith Christian Academy, a private school at their church. Lacey was now open to the change.

Her younger brother, Zack, was already attending FCA with the help of the Step Up For Students scholarship, which gives parents the ability to choose from more than 1,600 participating private schools statewide.

The Nowlings, with dad Obie in construction and mom Elizabeth a homemaker, were among the first families at Faith Christian Academy to receive the scholarship. They would not have been able to afford the tuition otherwise.

“I’m so grateful we have that opportunity, that choice,” Elizabeth said.

Lacey transferred to FCA for 10th grade and slowly started improving the 2.30 GPA she had in her neighborhood school. Along that road to recovery was a lot of catching up on the school work she couldn’t master before.

Somewhere in her first year at Faith Christian, Lacey revived her dream. And to keep it alive, she made a remarkably mature decision to repeat 11th grade.

“She had such a desire to go to college and to do more with her life that she came to us and said, ‘I’m just going to stay another year,’ ” said principal Sandra Lassiter. “She knew it was going to be very hard to just try to cram in everything. What she had left to do she could have easily thought it was too much and just quit, but she didn’t.”

“Her grades were good. She was really wanting to get those harder classes in, instead of just getting a general diploma, to strive for a college prep diploma. She knew that would really help her in going to college.”

That it did. Lacey graduated FCA in 2015 with a 3.37 GPA. and became the first in her family to attend college. She began studying nursing last year at Jefferson Davis Community College, just across the state line in Brewton, Ala. She had a B average in her first year.

“I did have some reservations with her going out into the big world,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t know how it was going to be. Her goal is to get her nursing degree and then as she’s working, continue on with her education to be a pediatrician. She truly loves children and they love her.”

Thanks to Lacey’s perseverance and help from a Step Up scholarship, her dream of becoming Dr. Nowling is on its way to becoming reality.

About Faith Christian Academy

Originally called Cobbtown Christian Academy, the school opened on Aug. 25, 2010 with six students. In the 2015-16 school year, Faith Christian Academy had 33 students enrolled in grades K-12, 13 of whom were on the Step Up For Students scholarship. FCA, located at 13050 Highway 89 in Jay, Fla., is expecting to grow to 53 students this fall for the 2016-17 school year. The school employs two curriculums – A.C.E. (or Accelerated Christian Education) and A Beka – and is switching from the Stanford 10 standardized test to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Annual tuition is $3,000 a year.

Student Spotlight: Darius Cook of Orlando


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDarius Cook wants to someday become an entrepreneur.

He isn’t sure yet what type of business he wants to run, but the outgoing recent graduate of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando said he feels confident that his communications skills will be used.

Cook, 18, is working as a cashier at Publix, while he waits to start classes at Valencia College in August. After completing two years at Valencia, he plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The costs will be covered, in part, by a tuition-reimbursement program at Publix.

His mother, Amy Cook, takes pride in her oldest son’s bright prospects. In 2008, as Darius prepared to enter fifth grade, the single mother of four worried he wasn’t getting a quality education at their neighborhood school.

Amy Cook, left, and her son Darius, both say he is on the path to success because of Step Up For Students' income-based scholarship

Amy Cook, left, and her son Darius, both say he is on the path to success because of Step Up For Students’ income-based scholarship

“It was the worst of the worst,” she said. “My daughter went there, so I was kind of involved, but the environment and the other kids there were not nice kids. And there was no personalized attention. There was no art and music, just math and reading, and tutoring to pass the FCAT.”

At the day care center where her youngest children stayed, administrators told Cook about Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program helps expand educational opportunities for lower-income children.

Cook was skeptical. She said she applied for the scholarship in 2008, mostly so the day care workers would stop “pushing me to sign up for it.”

She is now thankful for their perseverance.

“It wasn’t difficult; it was too good to be true,” said Cook, who works as a server at a local deli. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

Thanks to the scholarship, Darius was enrolled at Saint Andrew Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in south Orlando.

“It’s literally in my backyard. I mean, we can literally jump the fence to get there,” Cook said. “And it is a (National) Blue Ribbon school. When Darius started going to Saint Andrew, I noticed how much of a better education he got than my (older) daughter. It’s a huge difference, especially among their peers. There’s no bullying. It’s friendly and a nice environment.”

Darius said the differences between Saint Andrew and the public school were obvious from Day One.

“It’s a more controlled learning environment,” he said. “The classes are smaller and the teachers are a lot more available to help you. Multiple times, I went in earlier in the morning and my math teacher came in early to tutor me, just because I asked her to.

“To this day, I feel close enough to go in and talk with them.”

Besides excelling in the classroom at Saint Andrew, Darius participated in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.

“Darius was always a gifted communicator and leader in his class,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal at Saint Andrew. “I’ve seen him a few times since he graduated and gone onto the public high school. He talks about how much he valued his time here and wants to be involved in alumni (groups) in a leadership capacity.”

Darius Cook Grad snip2While Dr. Phillips High is a public school, Cook said that Saint Andrew helped Darius make a smooth transition.

“They really work on your individual needs,” she said. “The school’s eighth-grade class was small – 30 kids. Some of them went to another private high school. Darius and four other kids went to Dr. Phillips, and (Saint Andrew) did a very good job of preparing them.”

Cook’s youngest sons, A.J., 13, and Nicolas, 8, now attend Saint Andrew, thanks again to Step Up and the scholarship program.

According to Sojourner, A.J. is also a gifted student-athlete.

“He balances (sports and academics) really well,” Sojourner said. “Nicolas is a great young man. Their family is just very involved in the community. They’re always at our fundraisers and volunteering for activities at the school.”

Nowadays, when he isn’t working or studying, Darius said he most enjoys attending a local ping-pong club, where he takes lessons and competes against high-level players.

While his future aspirations are formulating, he has a general idea that his communications talents will come into play.

“At a young age it was cultivated that I had good skills in talking to people and handling situations,” he said. “I’ll find what’s best for me, based on my skill set.”

Geoff Fox is always looking to tell a great story about our scholarship programs. Have Step Up students, partner school, therapist, teacher or other related news you to see a story about? Please reach him at



Jordan Massie transitions from hurt to healer, thanks to school choice


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedTwo years ago, Jordan Massie was lost and hurt. Rocked by turbulence at home, she was skipping school and hanging with the wrong crowd. Drugs swirled around her. At one point, she watched a friend sell OxyContin to a pregnant classmate.

Two years later, the 18-year-old Jacksonville, Fla. student graduated June 2 as the salutatorian of her class. She’s racked up $10,000 in college scholarships. Jordan Massie photo (003)

She sees a future in healing.

Credit a girl with guts, a vow to Grandma, and The Foundation Academy, a school for square pegs that shored up her strength. Credit, too, a scholarship that gave her access to that school and, from there, a real path to living out her dreams.

“People at the school want you to succeed so much. That’s something you’re going to latch on to, whether you want to or not,” Jordan said. “I don’t know how you can still go towards the negative when they want the positive for you.”

The spiral down began in ninth grade. Darkness descended on Jordan’s family – mental illness, domestic violence, jail, death. Relationships frayed and snapped. Over the next few years, she would spend far more time than a teenager should in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices – a girl with emotional wounds, still tending to family members who were hurt or dying.

Jordan said it’s not an excuse, but “I dragged that to school with me, and I went in all the wrong directions.” The girl who was on the honor roll in middle school stopped turning in work, then stopped going to class. Things got even worse in 10th grade.

Then, in the middle of the year, her grandmother died. Months later, she could still hear Grandma’s voice: “Work hard. Stay in school. Don’t get stuck in a dead-end job.”

“I felt like I didn’t get to make her proud while she was here,” Jordan said, “so I needed to make her proud now.”

Jordan didn’t think she could do that at the school she was in. Some teachers there told her she’d never amount to anything. Others just dialed it in. There was, she said, no spark.

She thought back to happier times, to the school she attended in sixth grade. For that one year, before her family moved, she lived next door to a gem: The Foundation Academy, a preK-12 school with 280 students. Thanks to a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, her family could afford to enroll her.

Jordan’s mom, a sales associate at Wal-Mart, loved the school’s understated spirituality. Jordan loved the emphasis on responsibility. She worked with students of all ages on dance and theater productions, and everybody had to do their part.

Jordan couldn’t get a tax-credit scholarship for her junior year; growing demand led to early application deadlines. But the school’s principal, Nadia Hionides, allowed her to attend for $100 a month until Jordan’s mom, Elizabeth Waterman, secured a scholarship through Step Up For Students for 2015-16 school year.

The turnaround was immediate.

“I had not done work in so long, I was actually excited about doing things,” Jordan said.

Among the 1,600 private schools that participate in the tax credit scholarship program, The Foundation Academy is fairly distinctive. It stresses project-based learning and community service, arts and the environment. It sits on 23 acres with an organic garden and an aquaponics pond. It offers Bible study and tai chi.

The mix is perfect, Hionides said, for kids who feel like they don’t fit in.

“The design of our school is because kids generally feel like misfits. But when they come to The Foundation Academy, they see everyone’s a misfit,” Hionides said. “You come in knowing everybody needs help. You just join the team, and you help, and you get help. And it works.”

Returning to The Foundation Academy, Jordan dove back into school work. After a guest speaker at school talked about domestic violence, she found herself writing about it for two hours for a class assignment. She focused her senior project on cancer after her uncle passed away. She organized a blood drive.

She also cut ties to the past, avoiding old friends and keeping her head in the books. “I basically became like a hermit crab,” she said.

When Hionides announced at the senior cookout that Jordan was salutatorian, cheers erupted while Jordan stood speechless. She said she wanted to let the tears roll, but couldn’t allow herself just yet.

No such restraint for Mom. “It was amazing,” Waterman said. “I cried and cried and cried.”

Now Jordan is working on her graduation speech, about how much The Foundation Academy changed her life. “We’ve drawn strength from each other,” she is going to tell her teachers and classmates, “and overcome things we didn’t think we could.”

Jordan is also focused on what’s next. She plans to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville this fall.

She wants to be a nurse.

She said she was inspired by the hospice workers who tended to her uncle. They treated everyone like family. They understood the pain. They radiated calm in the midst of the storm.

That, Jordan said, is who she strives to be.

About Foundation Academy

The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville was founded in 1988, with a mission to “educate children using arts integration in a family-like environment, helping each student become a critical thinker, a lifelong learner, and grow in knowing that God loves them.” It serves 280 students in PreK-12, and currently enrolls 106 students with tax credit scholarships. It is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition is $6,000 for grades K-5, $7,000 for grades 6-8, and $8,000 for grades 9-12. The school administers the Stanford Achievement Test.

Student Spotlight: Deondre Pride, Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedWhen Deondre Pride transferred to Victory Christian Academy as a junior in high school, it took him all of three days to come to a conclusion.

He told his mom, “This is not the school for me.”

Mom wasn’t having it.

“There was no conversation,” Deanna Joyner recalled. “When he spoke, I ended it.”

Deanna, a single mom, had transferred four of her five children from their neighborhood school in Polk County to Victory Christian in large part because Deondre, her oldest son, was struggling.

Deondre Pride (seated), with Mom Deanna Joyner, left, and VCA Headmaster Karla Collins, right.

Deondre Pride (seated), with Mom Deanna Joyner, left, and VCA Headmaster Karla Collins, right.

The move was only possible because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program that gives low-income parents the ability to access private schools that may be a better fit for their children. In Deondre’s case, the scholarship through Step Up For Students changed the course of his life.

Before the scholarship and the new school, Deanna said, “Deondre kind of got lost in the cracks.”

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Deondre was a rising star at defensive end for his local public high school – the only sophomore starter on defense. But in that same year his GPA fell to a 2.1.

In his mother’s words, Deondre had “flopped” and was no longer able to balance school with sports.

“He wasn’t mature,” Deanna said. “Big boy, big size, big voice, but he wasn’t mature. He’s always had his hand held to a certain degree.”

Sometimes he didn’t bother to show up for class at his old school. Other times he didn’t take notes, follow instructions or stay awake.

“As long as I’m good in football I don’t have to worry about doing this work,” Deondre recalled thinking.

At his old school, Deondre would serve an in-school suspension if he got in trouble. No classes. Just sit there all day.

Not at VCA.

“Instead of trying to get you out of here,” Deondre said, “they try to get you in here.”

The headmaster at VCA, Karla Collins, had known Deondre’s father, Eugene Pride, and Deanna since they were teenagers. Both were students who struggled in high school.

Deanna called herself a “late-bloomer” who once juggled four jobs in order to get a master’s degree, become a teacher, and give her children a better life. She watched Deondre carefully in high school and feared he was headed down the same road.

But with Collins’ hands-on approach, there was no chance of Deondre falling through the cracks.

“He’s in a fishbowl here,” Collins said. “He can’t hide.”

Deondre sensed all of this in his first three days and came up with a plan to go back to his former school.

“I would always come in the morning (to VCA) with the attitude like I don’t want to be here at all,” he said. “I decided to do whatever I’ve got to do to get kicked out of this school for failing.”

Collins recognized a familiar pattern.

“It’s easier to start over than to deal with your issues,” she said, “and we just make them deal with their issues.”

That kind of attention is one of the biggest differences between schools with enrollments of 460 versus 1,500.

Deondre was never taken out of classes at VCA. If he got in trouble, football coach Tommy Lewis would cut his playing time.

“It makes you learn,” Deondre said.

The importance of academics was reinforced when high-profile college football programs started recruiting Deondre. One week he would beam to his friends about a call from a coach at a powerhouse school. The next week the same coach would call back to say Deondre was no longer being recruited because of grades.

“It was heartbreaking,” Deondre said.

By the end of his junior year, a motivated Deondre had a 3.0 GPA and was a force at outside linebacker on Victory Christian’s state champion football team.

Late in the school year, he met with a football coach from Coffeyville, a community college in Kansas. Deondre was offered a scholarship on the spot.

“It was just like, ‘Whew!’ Joy and everything, just so uplifting,” he said. “It felt amazing.”

Fast forward nearly a year and Deondre has a 3.85 GPA in a senior year that has been a model of focus.

In a few weeks he will become the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college.

Sometimes Deondre thinks about all the ways in which his graduation could have been derailed. He thinks about his father, uncle and cousins. Why weren’t they able to get to college?

“I know for a fact if I had stayed at (his former school) I would not be talking about going to college,” Deondre said. “It probably would have been like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to school or go hang out on the corner.’ All my family and friends are in Lake Wales, and they’re the same exact way.”

With feelings of luck, gratitude and accomplishment, there’s no getting the smile off of Deondre’s face these days. His dreams of playing college football and studying agriculture will soon be reality.

He likes to tell his story to younger student athletes at Victory Christian. He likes to impart the biggest lesson he learned — academics come before athletics.

“It’s been a journey,” he said. “Just being here turned me into a man.”

It was all part of Deanna’s plan. Her son, who used to be obsessed with getting football scholarship offers from Division-1 schools, is now a serious student.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s D-1, D-2, or D-3,” she said. “What matters is de-gree.”

Reach Jeff Barlis at

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