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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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A supportive environment made all the difference for this scholarship student


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedTatianna Mondesir used to pull her hair down over her face in class. She was trying to hide, trying to avoid being called upon to answer questions she knew she would get wrong.

“When I got a wrong answer, people would laugh at me,” said the normally vibrant girl with the long braids. “I didn’t understand as well as them.”

In her zoned neighborhood school, she was earning C’s, D’s and F’s in third grade and was in danger of being retained. She managed to scrape by, but her pediatrician had advice for her mother: Look into the Step Up For Students scholarship for low-income students. Consider a private school that might give Tatianna a better chance to learn and grow. Tatianna

The next year, at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, Tatianna was still struggling and hiding behind her hair. But now no one laughed when she couldn’t produce the answers.

Tatianna Mondesir graduated from eighth grade at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate last spring.

This was the start of a transformation.

“The teachers and my classmates supported me,” said Tatianna, now a ninth-grader. “In fourth grade and fifth grade I struggled a lot, because I wasn’t on the same level as other kids. But I improved to getting C’s.”

Smaller classes, after-school tutoring, and extra attention from her teachers helped. But nothing made as big an impact, Tatianna said, as the compassion and encouragement she felt all around her.

Finally, she had hope, which began to turn into belief in herself.

“When she came to sixth grade, she was still a year behind,” said history teacher Laura Hennebery. “But she was really working hard.”

And wanting more. Quarter after quarter, Tatianna watched her friends go up on stage for an honor roll ceremony while she sat alone next to their empty chairs. She became obsessed with making honor roll, too.

At the end of the fourth quarter, she thought she was there. But when she and her mom, Karen, met with her math teacher, she learned she was short by a single point.

“I had a 79,” Tatianna recalled. “I was so happy! I thought she was going to round up, but she didn’t. My mom asked her if I could have extra credit so I could make the honor roll, but she wouldn’t let me. She said I should have done the extra credit that was available (during the school year). But I never did that, which was a mistake.”

Tatianna was upset at first. But her teachers continued to be supportive. And the next year, her determination kicked into higher gear.

She wrote down her goals for seventh grade: Work harder. Study more. Participate in class. Read more books. Do all the extra credit. Make honor roll.

Tatianna also changed her hairstyle, wearing a headband to hold her hair back. A beautiful smile emerged with her confidence.

To everyone around her, the change was obvious.

“When she first came to school and even through sixth grade, she was very quiet, kept to herself,” Ms. Hennebery said. “She just didn’t want anyone giving her any kind of attention. … You’d ask her a question and she would just shake her head, ‘No, I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that.’ ”

But now Tatianna was involved with school activities, participating in class – and meeting her goals.

She got all A’s and B’s and made honor roll all four quarters. At the end of the year, she was on stage shaking hands with principal Stacy Angier, who gave her a pin for induction into the National Junior Honor Society.

“When I walked onto the stage it was really cool, an incredible feeling,” she said. “I was really proud of myself.”

After finishing eighth grade at Abundant Life, Tatianna enrolled in her zoned, public high school. Her mom had lost her job in administration at a pest control company. So even with the Step Up scholarship, a private school was no longer financially possible.

Her new school is huge and fast-paced. But Tatianna said her goals are on track. She plans to go to college and become a lawyer – things she didn’t dare dream a few years ago.

Mom is confident, too. Tatianna’s first report card showed her falling just shy of honor roll, with all A’s and B’s and one C (in digital marketing). But it’s not like she hasn’t been here before.

Thanks to the scholarship, Tatianna was able to attend a school where “they really pushed her,” Karen said.

Now, she knows how to push herself.

Said mom, “I know she will be okay now.”

About Abundant Life Christian Academy

Started in 1990, Abundant Life Christian Academy is accredited by AdvancED and serves 445 PreK-8 students, including 237 on tax credit scholarships. The school uses a mix of curriculum – mostly BJU Press, Saxon Math in middle school, and some Abeka materials. This year, the MAP® (Measures of Academic Progress) test replaced the SAT as the school’s annual assessment test. Tuition varies per grade, from $6,600 to $7,300 per year. Abundant Life participates in Step Up For Students’ Success Partners program, a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up For Students scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds.The school also has access to the Teaching and Learning Exchange, a web-based, interactive tool featuring the State Standards, instructional strategies, parent and student interventions, while at the same time addressing social and behavioral issues. Abundant Life is also participating in a MAP® pilot program run by Step Up. MAP® is an adaptive computer assessment that informs educators as to what individual students are ready to learn and guides the teachers to revise their teaching based on student needs.


Girls run for the joy and life lessons of it at St. Pius V Catholic School

By LAUREN MAY, Guest Blogger

At St. Pius V Catholic School in Jacksonville we’re excited to have a new extracurricular offering: Girls on the Run, a nonprofit after-school activity for girls in grades three through eight. The mission: “We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”

Fourth-grader Ta'Niya Bartley and Princial "Coach" Lauren May run during a recent practice.

Fourth-grader Ta’Niya Bartley and Princial “Coach” Lauren May run during a recent practice.

St. Pius second-grade teacher Esther Franqui coached at a previous school and thought it would be a great addition to the activities available to students at St. Pius.

Coach Franqui and myself, Principal “Coach” Lauren May, created a team of 13 female students. The girls are engaged twice weekly in the Girls on the Run curriculum which helps girls learn valuable core lessons such as:

  • Recognizing our power and responsibility to be intentional in our decision making
  • Embracing our differences and find strength in our connectedness
  • Expressing joy, optimism and gratitude through our words, thoughts and actions
  • Nurturing our physical, emotional and spiritual health
  • Leading with an open heart and assume positive intent
  • Standing up for ourselves and others.

It’s already having a positive impact on our students.

“I like Girls on the Run because it helps me make friends, be a kind person and get in shape,” said Mikela Jones, fourth-grader at St. Pius.

Fourth-grader Mikayla Jones, , Gwendolyn Hickson, and daughter Trimya Jackson, also a fourth-grader share a moment during practice.

Fourth-grader Mikayla Jones, , Gwendolyn Hickson, and daughter Trimya Jackson, also a fourth-grader share a moment during practice.

Step Up For Students has several coaches or running buddies in the Jacksonville area. The season ends today (Dec. 3) with a 5K at the University of North Florida, and each girl is assigned a running buddy who runs the 5K with her.

This is a great way for the community to have an impact a girl in a positive way. The girls feel empowered and they are excited about the support.

“I have never been more proud of myself!” said fifth-grader Alethea Butler, after 5K practice at St. Pius on Nov. 10.

Third grader Caleb Dubois-Brinson runs during practice.

Third-grader Caleb Dubois-Brinson runs during practice.

At the Girls on the Run coaches training I met with Conchita Moody, Step Up’s Human Resources manager.

We began talking about the history of St. Pius and the 120 Step Up scholars at the school.

“Coach” Conchita agreed to send Step Up hats to all girls on the team.

The community at large is being positively impacted by the work of St. Pius faculty and staff at Step Up partner schools and in the Step Up offices.

Thank you for your participation and for helping our girls learn to activate their limitless potential and learn to accomplish her dreams. Thank you also to Girls on the Run for their support of the program in several schools across the state!

Prior to becoming principal of St. Pius in the 2015-16 school year, Lauren May taught kindergarten at the Jacksonville school for four years.  She holds a bachelor’s and Master of Education, specializing in Early Childhood and Special Education from the University of Florida and is currently studying for a Master of Educational Leadership  at St. Leo University. Lauren is an avid Gator fan. While in college, she worked with the Gator football team recruiting department and gave tours to prospective students. She has served on the Gator Club of Jacksonville board of directors for four years, most recently as vice president.

Republic National Distributing Company contributes $55 million to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


donor corner TAMPA – Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest premium wine and spirits distributor, announced Monday a $55 million donation to Step Up For Students to provide scholarships for financially disadvantaged children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Florida EVP Ron Barcena (second from left) presented Step Up For Students with a $55 million check at an event on Monday at Cristo Rey Tampa High School. Joining Barcena is Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill (second from right) and Step Up scholars Jeremiah Alexander, Steven Faison, Tamara Gumbs, Ziyah Hughes and Ariely Burgos.

The donation was announced Monday at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, a Catholic college-preparatory school and work study program for lower-income children in the Tampa Bay area. Of the 88 students attending Cristo Rey Tampa High School, 76 of them are recipients of the Step Up For Students scholarship.

RNDC State Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presented Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with an oversized check representing the company’s $55 million contribution for the 2016-17 school year. The company’s donation, more than triple the amount of previous years, will fund more than 9,000 K-12 scholarships. The donation marks the fifth consecutive year that RNDC has partnered with Step Up, bringing its total to $115 million since 2012.

“As part of our commitment to social responsibility, we are focused on making positive differences that enrich the spirit and well-being of those in the communities we serve,” said Barcena. “We’re thrilled that this contribution will provide educational choices for lower-income Florida families, helping them set their children up for a successful future.”

From a truck driver to sales representative to human resources manager, a diverse group of RNDC associates attended the event with Barcena.

“We can’t do this without them,” Barcena said, adding it takes a strong effort from all parts of the business to be successful as a company, and the same is true for community engagement.


State Sen. Darryl Rouson shakes hands with Cristo Rey freshman Ziyah Hughes while Tamara Gumbs, also a freshman, looks on.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson attended the event at Cristo Rey to thank Republic National Distributing Company for supporting the community and lower-income students.

“Having received a private school education myself, I’m proud to see so many deserving students receiving the same learning opportunity, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and to corporate donors like Republic National Distributing Company,” he said.

Rouson recalled a time as a boy he attended camp on the same grounds as Cristo Rey, and that he, too, went to Catholic school which led him to his successful career as a lawyer and a legislator.

“Saints walk among us daily and they come in the form of companies like Republic National Distributing Company and provide opportunities for children who need it,” Rouson said.

Steven Faison, an freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School shared his scholarship story during the event Monday with Republic National Distributing Company and Step Up For Students representatives.

Steven Faison, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School shared his scholarship story during the event Monday with Republic National Distributing Company and Step Up For Students representatives.

Steven Faison is one such student. The ninth-grader at Cristo Rey told the small crowd of guests at his school that while he went to a public magnet school, the overcrowding was troublesome for him. But private school seemed financially out of reach until he and his family learned about Cristo Rey and the scholarships through Step Up For Students.

“Education is very important to my family,” he said, “I plan to be the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.”

Step Up helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to qualified lower-income K-12 schoolchildren throughout Florida. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.

“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of Republic National Distributing Company. The positive impact they will have on more than 9,000 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Tuthill. “RNDC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their continued support.”

During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 95,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Step Up public relations and social media manager Lisa A. Davis contributed to this report. 







HMSHost partners with Step Up For Students; contributes $400K


donor cornerBETHESDA, MD — Global restaurateur HMSHost has pledged $400,000 to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income schoolchildren in  Florida.

HMSHost’s contribution will benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income, helping underprivileged children attend a K-12 school of their parents’ choice that better fits their learning needs. Parents can choose between a scholarship toward private school tuition and fees, or one to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-county public school.hms-logo-footer

“HMSHost values education immensely, and investing in the local communities where we operate is extremely important to our company,” said HMSHost President and CEO Steve Johnson. “The Step Up For Students organization is doing important work in Florida and it is a privilege to have formed this partnership to help set up Florida youth for success.”

The scholarship program’s funding comes from tax-credited donations from corporations like HMSHost that do business in Florida.

“Thanks to HMSHost, 66 Florida schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend a school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and our families, we thank HMSHost for its generosity and we are grateful they have chosen to support our mission.”

Florida enacted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001 to expand educational opportunities for children of families with limited financial resources. Since its inception, the program has grown exponentially and awarded more than 95,000 scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for the 2016-17 school year.

HMSHost operates restaurants in nine Florida airports and is committed to supporting state and local communities. Visit HMSHost’s location finder to see where HMSHost operates. Further details about HMSHost’s commitment to community relations can be found here:

The company is a world leader in creating dining for travel venues. HMSHost operates in more than 120 airports around the globe, including 44 of the 50 busiest airports in North America. The Company has annual sales in excess of $2.8 billion and employs more than 37,000 sales associates worldwide. HMSHost is a part of Autogrill Group, the world’s leading provider of food & beverage services for people on the move. With sales of around €4.3 billion in 2015, the Group operates in 31 countries and employs over 57,000 people. It manages approximately 4,200 stores in over 1,000 locations worldwide. Visit for more information. They can also be found on Facebook at and on Twitter at @HMSHost.


Behind the Scenes: Organizational and Professional Development Team


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mickey Strope, Director of Information and Knowledge Management

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

–Ella Beaver, Site Administrator

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

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

–Ron Matus, Director of Policy and Public Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Martina Ady, Assistant Operations Manager, Contact Center

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


UnitedHealthcare donates $10 Million for Step Up For Students Scholarships



FORT MYERS, Fla.  – UnitedHealthcare on Tuesday donated $10 million to Step Up For Students, which will fund K-12 scholarships for nearly 1,650 financially disadvantaged school children throughout Florida.

Local chef and culinary instructor Melissa McCartney (back row third from left) led the 7th and 8th grade classes in making healthy after-school snacks as part of a healthy lifestyle presentation by UnitedHealthcare at Summit Christian School. Presenting the healthy snacks are (front row left to right) Step Up scholars Jensen Howell, Regina Pina, Ethan Godoy, (back row left to right) Step Up President Doug Tuthill, UnitedHealthcare CEO Nicholas Zaffiris, McCartney, Summit Christian School Principal Todd Zylstra, and Step Up scholars Manny Pina and Ethan Godoy. Local chef and culinary instructor Melissa McCartney (back row third from left) led the 7th and 8th grade classes in making healthy after-school snacks as part of a healthy lifestyle presentation by UnitedHealthcare at Summit Christian School. Presenting the healthy snacks are (front row left to right) Step Up scholars Jensen Howell, Regina Pina, Ethan Godoy, (back row left to right) Step Up President Doug Tuthill, UnitedHealthcare CEO Nicholas Zaffiris, McCartney, Summit Christian School Principal Todd Zylstra, and Step Up scholars Manny Pina and Ethan Godoy.

Local chef and culinary instructor Melissa McCartney (back row third from left) led the seventh and eighth grade classes in making healthy after-school snacks as part of a healthy lifestyle presentation by UnitedHealthcare at Summit Christian School. Presenting the healthy snacks are (front row left to right) Step Up scholars Jensen Howell, Regina Pina, Ethan Godoy, (back row left to right) Step Up President Doug Tuthill, UnitedHealthcare CEO Nicholas Zaffiris, McCartney, Summit Christian School Principal Todd Zylstra, and Step Up scholars Manny Pina and Joseph Martinez.

Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida, announced the donation at a scholarship celebratory event at Summit Christian School in Fort Myers, where 42 students were awarded scholarships for the 2016-2017 school year. This is UnitedHealthcare’s seventh year participating in Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, bringing the company’s total contribution to $69 million since 2009.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that provides scholarships for children in grades K-12, so they may attend a private school or an out-of-district public school that best fits their individual learning needs. During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students expects to serve more than 94,000 lower-income students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $5,886 per student

“UnitedHealthcare is honored to partner with Step Up for Students to support scholarships that ensure more Florida students have access to quality education,” Zaffiris said. “We value the role schools can play in helping students understand the importance of good health as they evolve to become productive adults.”

Following the scholarship donation announcement, students at Summit Christian School traded in their pencils for spatulas during a healthy snacks cooking demonstration sponsored by UnitedHealthcare and Step Up For Students.

Local culinary instructor and owner of Method Teaching Kitchen Melissa McCartney showed seventh- and eighth-graders how to prepare tasty after-school snacks that can satisfy hunger and give them energy for extra-curricular activities and homework time. The program was designed to show the connection among nutrition, physical fitness and learning.

“The Step Up For Students Scholarship Program is positively shaping the future of our state’s children, and we could not do this important work without donors like UnitedHealthcare,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for its support and generosity, and for the impact that UnitedHealthcare is making in our community.”

About UnitedHealthcare

UnitedHealthcare is dedicated to helping people nationwide live healthier lives by simplifying the health care experience, meeting consumer health and wellness needs, and sustaining trusted relationships with care providers. The company offers the full spectrum of health benefit programs for individuals, employers, military service members, retirees and their families, and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and contracts directly with 1 million physicians and care professionals, and 6,000 hospitals and other care facilities nationwide. UnitedHealthcare is one of the businesses of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), a diversified Fortune 50 health and well-being company. For more information, visit UnitedHealthcare at or follow @myUHC on Twitter.




Breaking boards and breaking barriers:  What on earth do these two things have in common?


Susan Sleboda, right, with son Ryan, center, and husband, Bill

Proud mom Susan Sleboda, right, with son Ryan, center, and husband, Bill.

My son, Ryan is 15 years old. He has autism spectrum disorder. Ryan has been receiving the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students since the fall of 2015. I would imagine Ryan’s story is a common one if you have a child with autism.

For many years we bounced around the central Florida (Lake Mary and Sanford) area signing up Ryan for just about every sport you could imagine. Basketball, soccer, baseball and swimming. Ryan tried them all, however, he would get easily bored or frustrated, inevitably ending in a full-blown earthquake or meltdown. This led to teasing and taunting by other children. It led to dirty looks from other parents. I would wager that almost every one of you have felt this heart wrenching moment – as you watch your child struggle, falter and fail.  My husband, Bill, and I had the eternal hope of finding a “good fit” for Ryan.

After several seasons of tears, anger, anxiety and stress, our family had enough. We finally accepted that sports would not be the right fit for Ryan. The doctors stressed the need for Ryan to be in an activity where he could stay active, work on his social skills and maybe even make a friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck. Ryan was unhappy and lonely. I have always believed that when one door closes, somewhere God opens a window. That held true for Ryan.

In the fall of 2013, I went on a field trip for one of my older sons and met a mom named Christine Eckstein. I opened up to her and shared Ryan’s story. I told her about Ryan’s educational and medical journey with autism. I relayed our plight in finding a sport for Ryan and our sadness with our lack of success. Imagine my surprise when she shared her story of her sons David and Kenny, who also happen to have autism spectrum disorder. Christine told me about a martial arts program that her daughter, Katarina, created to help families just like ours. It’s called Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. They created a nonprofit program to provide martial arts instruction to students with disabilities to help them grow into independent, self-assured adults. As a family they began their journey to help Kenny and David and turned it miraculously into a way to help strangers in need.  I was impressed and in awe of their story. The mom, dad, Katarina, David, Kenny and even little sister Ava all earned their black belts.

Ryan on the mat.

Ryan in full gear on the mat ready for action.

Christine insisted I speak with Katarina about the program. Katarina came over the very next day and met Ryan. She believed the Breaking Barriers program would help Ryan and she insisted we give it a try. To be honest, I was nervous and really questioned how it would be possible for Ryan to learn martial arts. How could he focus and have the discipline needed in a sport such as this? I was afraid to hope. I was even more afraid to set up Ryan for another failure. Could Ryan succeed in taekwondo(TKD) with his autism? I didn’t know for certain but desperate times called for desperate measures.

With a glimmer of hope, we took Ryan to D.C. Turnbull’s Martial Arts studio in Sanford, Fla. for his first Breaking Barriers TKD class in January 2014. The students and instructors welcomed Ryan literally with hugs and high fives. We were amazed by the kindness and love we experienced that day by this open and loving group of students. It was incredible to watch these students who happened to have varying disabilities (autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities) demonstrate their martial arts abilities. They were not just taking part in the class, they were excelling at the sport.  As parents we were in awe.  Ryan was invited onto the mats and by the time class was over he was hooked! Ryan began his TKD journey. It has now been two years and Ryan is a deputy black belt and will be testing for his BLACK BELT in November of this year.

What we have witnessed is truly an incredible transformation in Ryan. Guess what happened? It was something we had always hoped for in spite of Ryan’s many setbacks over the years. Ryan became a LEADER.  In February, he was awarded the rank of a Teaching Assistant in the special needs program, assisting younger students with disabilities to learn TKD. Breaking Barriers taught Ryan self-control, discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and indomitable spirit.  When Ryan puts on his uniform and steps onto the mat the transformation is incredible! He repeats the mantra “Yes I can,” whenever he learns something challenging and new. Ryan has competed and earned gold and silver medals in forms and sparring. His favorite competitive event is board breaking. He is really good at it. Seriously, you should see his spinning hook kick!

And you know what? NONE of this would have been possible without the help of Gardiner Scholarship has assisted us in providing an incredible learning experience for Ryan at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, FL.  This has freed up other funds in our budget so Ryan can participate in new experiences such as the life changing TKD program at Breaking Barriers Martial Arts.

Ryan and his Breaking Barriers buddies prove time and again that their ABILITIES far outweigh any disability they may have. They are breaking boards while breaking barriers. These participants show improvement in their physical abilities such as coordination and strength, but MORE importantly, the BB students show MARKED success in their social skills, focus, independence, respect and confidence.  The best part is that TKD is a lifelong sport. If a student is able to reach the rank of black belt, they can choose to keep going and earn higher degrees of black belt. This is different than most sports where students tend to drop out as they get older. Instead TKD and the BB program encourages its students to challenge themselves to stick with the program and achieve higher black belt ranks.

Do you want to be impressed?

Take a minute to watch this video.  It will show you the incredible abilities of our Breaking Barriers students. Added bonus:  You get to see my superstar son, Ryan – he is the student holding up the autism sign. Watch for his incredible spinning hook!

Want more?

Breaking Barriers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Florida.  Its goal is to teach martial arts to children with special needs. Organizers recently held their first fundraiser – the Breaking Barriers Invitational – an AAU Martial Arts tournament. There were special needs competitors from different areas of Florida as well traditional competitors. It was a big success and next year will be even better. All money raised by the Breaking Barriers programs goes to purchase specialty gear, additional instructors, use of the training facility, etc. The program will continue to expand and provide education and opportunities for special needs students as well as assistance to instructors who wish to offer their own special needs programs in other areas.

Susan Sleboda is not only mom to Ryan, she has two other older, sons, and a husband, Bill. By profession, she is a lawyer, but on sabbatical from practicing so she could raise her three boys. When she’s not watching Ryan break boards, she spends time advocating for him and volunteering in their community. The family lives in Lake Mary, Fla.



Johnson Brothers of Florida Announces $7 million donation to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


donor corner Johnson Brothers of Florida, one of the top beverage distributors in the state, announced its $7 million donation to Step Up For Students to provide scholarships for financially disadvantaged families for the 2016-17 school year.

This is the fifth year Johnson Brothers of Florida has donated to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Johnson Brother’s donation will provide K-12 scholarships to more than 1,150 Florida schoolchildren who will be able to attend the private school of their choice.

Johnson Brothers of Florida President Frank Galante presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a donation of $7 million to fund scholarships. The donation will fund more than 1,150 scholarships for low-income K-12 students in Florida.

Johnson Brothers of Florida President Frank Galante presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a donation of $7 million to fund scholarships. The donation will fund more than 1,150 scholarships for low-income K-12 students in Florida.

“Finding the right learning environment for your child is paramount in pursuing a good education. Johnson Brothers is proud to provide the keys that help open the doors to possibilities,” said Johnson Brothers of Florida President Frank Galante. “We are pleased to help Florida students in their educational endeavors and to give back to the communities where we do business.”

Johnson Brothers of Florida has donated $26.1 million to Step Up For Students since joining the program in 2012. During that time, they have supported more than 4,750 students with scholarships.

This school year, Step Up For Students served nearly 78,000 throughout Florida, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,677 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are excited that Johnson Brothers of Florida continues to help us provide educational choices for students who otherwise wouldn’t have this opportunity,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are grateful for our partnership with Johnson Brothers and for all they’re doing to help Florida schoolchildren access the educational environment that best fits the way they learn.”

About Johnson Brothers of Florida

Johnson Brothers of Florida is a wine, spirits and beer distributor located in Tampa, with headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since 1989 Johnson Brothers of Florida has been serving the State of Florida with a tradition of excellence, distributing to 24 counties throughout the Central and Southwest regions. To learn more about the Johnson Brothers, please visit

About Step Up For Students

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch program, or those who are homeless or in foster or out-of-home care, may qualify. It provides tuition assistance to the private school of their parents’ choice or transportation help to an out-of-district public school. Since 2001, Step Up has awarded nearly 480,000 scholarships.

Step Up also helps administer the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), for Florida students with certain special needs. With the Gardiner Scholarship, recipients may use the funds for a variety of approved services including private tutoring, occupational therapy, instructional materials and other services.

For more information, visit:

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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