By PAUL SOOST
FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, Tuesday celebrated its $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students at its Florida headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale.
Breakthru’s donation will provide K-12 scholarships to more than 11,100 low-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2015-16 school year.
This is the fifth year Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations that receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“A quality education can open the doors to endless possibilities. Breakthru is proud to play a role in providing opportunities for financially-disadvantaged children in Florida through our support of Step Up For Students,” said Bob Drinon, Breakthru Beverage Group South Region president. “We hope that more children will have the opportunity to learn in an environment that best meets their academic needs.”
Nearly 78,000 low-income students are using income-based Step Up scholarships for the 2015-16 school year, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,677 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program, known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, statewide.
“This program is about empowering people to have choices. It’s about empowering low-income families to be able to match their child with the learning environment that best meets their needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are so grateful to have Breakthru Beverage partnering with our mission to provide equal opportunity for all people. We couldn’t do this without their support and generosity.”
Denisha Merriweather, a Step Up scholarship alumna, was a featured speaker at the event. Step Up helped Merriweather attend the school of her choice. “Without the scholarship, I probably would have dropped out of school,” said Merriweather. “Today, I am proud to say, after all the challenges I faced, I am the first person in my family, my whole family, to graduate from college.” Today, she is a college graduate and is continuing her education to earn her master’s degree.
During the event, Drinon and Tuthill also spoke about the scholarships changing the lives of children throughout Florida. Since the scholarship program began in 2001, nearly 480,000 scholarships have been awarded to low-income students like Denisha.
Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, is one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and other beverages in Florida. A member of the Breakthru Beverage Group, Breakthru Florida services a variety of accounts including hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, grocery and retail stores from offices and distribution facilities throughout the state. Breakthru Beverage Group was formed by joining substantial holdings of The Charmer Sunbelt Group and Wirtz Beverage Group. The company employs more than 7,000 associates and with its affiliates have operations in 19 markets across the country and Canada.
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, Denisha Merriweather thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life. Today, the 24-year-old college graduate is working toward her master’s degree.
“I’m just so grateful,’’ Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.’’
She’s on a mission now educating others about Step Up and seeking support so the nonprofit can continue to help disadvantaged students like herself realize their dreams.
“So many doors of opportunity have been opened for me that I feel the best way to say thanks is to make sure other children are given the same chance,’’ Denisha said.
Read more and watch videos about Denisha’s path to success through Step Up For Students here.