St. PETERSBURG – One by one their names were called, and nearly two dozen Step Up For Students scholars from St. Petersburg to Bradenton grinned from ear to ear as they walked in front of a packed house to accept their Scholars of Excellence Award medals.
Like Zharia Stephens, a sixth-grade tax-credit scholar at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg. She has been on honor roll all year, participates in many activities and wants to become a lawyer.
“These students are working so hard and many have come such a long way since using one of our scholarships. We are so proud of all of them and need to applaud them publicly,” Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office for Student Learning, said after the event.
The awards ceremony Feb. 1 at the Cathedral of St. Jude honored students who made significant academic strides since receiving their scholarships and was the kickoff to this year’s series of regional meeting tours held by Step Up For Students. The annual event helps provide participants and supporters with timely updates on the nearly 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
New to this year’s program are special awards given to teachers and parents. At some locations, such as St. Jude, corporate donors were invited to join the awards ceremony and share the moment with the children they help.
Hugh Culbreath, a social studies teacher from Academy Prep, was among the first educators honored by Step Up at the regional meetings. He has taught at the school for about five years and puts his students first in all that he does, eating lunch with them, playing games and leading class trips.
“We are so excited to recognize outstanding teachers and parents and even grandparents this year,” Thomas said. “As we teach in our Success Partners program, it takes all of these people contributing for the success of a child. They deserve to be recognized, too.”
Step Up started the regional tours in 2014 as a way to give educators from partner schools a chance to learn more about the program and get questions answered directly from Step Up staff. This year, Step Up is holding about a dozen meetings, concluding Feb. 25 in Fort Myers.
“We found that it was extremely valuable in our partnership with our schools,” Thomas said. “We’re working for Florida’s students together, so it’s important we communicate regularly to foster the success of the program, and, of course, the success of the scholars”
As the students’ awards were presented at the St. Jude event, donors created a reception line to personally congratulate each of the scholars, and afterwards many families circulated to meet the donors to thank them directly.
“What a terrific event,” said Dick Kelecy, Chief Operating Officer of UretekHoldings, Inc., a geotechnical construction company. “It was really rewarding to see all the children and educators who benefit so much from Step Up For Students’ efforts. Having many of the parents come up on their own afterwards to personally thank the sponsors, one of which came to tears as she spoke about the benefits her children had received, was particularly rewarding.”
Highlighting these students’ achievements spotlighted the positive impact receiving a Step Up scholarship brings to each child.
“I continue to be awed by the results being achieved by Step Up,” said Shaun Williams, CFO of Sagicor Life Insurance.
By JILL METZ, Step Up For Students
Did you know that during the 2015 fundraising season (Jan. 2-July 7) for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the corporate community pledged $2.4 million per day in support of Step Up For Students? Step Up For Students is honored to have the support from hundreds of generous corporations that are located anywhere from Florida to California and many points in between.
In fact, 38 corporations elected to partner with Step Up For Students for the first time in 2015 and the total pledge commitments from all companies ranged from $2,000 to $100 million. These corporations often find themselves divided by industry competition, however, they are uniting for the profound cause of providing educational opportunities to Florida’s youth.
As an 11-member strong fundraising and development team, we know our gratitude is echoed by the 77,079 students who are currently benefiting from a scholarship, and we look forward to collaborating with the corporate community in 2016 as we seek to expand the program by 25 percent in an effort to meet the growing demand from interested families.
We wanted to take this opportunity to highlight four individuals who have personally witnessed the transformations afforded through a Step Up scholarship:
“What an unbelievable gift. As a single mom, to be able to put my son in a positive environment … To let him learn and focus on learning seemed too good to be true. But it happened.”
– June Welcome, mother to Ryan Tetoff, Step Up For Students graduate.
“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids… They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.”
– Adrienne Cirino, mother to Layla and Jeremiah, both Step Up scholars at PHA Preparatory School.
“I don’t think my mom and I could afford my private school on our own.” Miguel also wants all the Step Up For Students partners to know that “they are extremely nice’’ for helping him and other children find schools that work for them.
-Miguel Martinez, fifth-grade scholar at Kingdom Academy.
“I’m just so grateful. This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.’’
–Denisha Merriweather, Step Up scholar who was first in her immediate family to graduate high school and continued onto the University of West Florida, where she graduated, in 2014 and is a current graduate student at the University of South Florida.
Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Jill Metz has worked for Step Up For Students for nine years and is director of development. When she’s not hitting the pavement looking for donors to support Florida’s low-income schoolchildren, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two daughters.
By David Bryant, Step Up For Students
I recently had the great pleasure to go back to my business school alma mater to give an informal lunch talk to undergraduate business students. The lunch was hosted by University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville. I graduated from UF’s MBA program in 2001, and except for attending some college football games at the Swamp, I had not been very active with the business school’s alumni association.
Since 2012, I have been working for Step Up For Students as a development officer, where I am part of the team responsible for fundraising for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, one of two scholarship programs our company helps administer. (The other is the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program for children with certain special needs.)
So I was excited to share my experience about working for Step Up as part of the college’s Alumni Café series. Here’s a description from the Warrington website:
Alumni Café is a casual lunch-and-learn speaker series that connects a small number of our undergraduate business students per session with a local Warrington alum. The goal is to facilitate our students’ understanding of classroom concepts by offering the experienced and balanced perspectives of our diverse alumni base. The intimate and relaxed setting, with catered lunch, creates an environment that encourages meaningful engagement.
No PowerPoints, flashy handouts or suits are required. We’re simply recruiting great storytellers who appreciate the learning process. This is your chance to give back to Warrington and connect with students in a very unique way.
I was especially intrigued by that second paragraph, and I really liked the informal nature of the presentation. Instead of just talking at the students and treating it like a lecture, the lunch was conducted as a two-way conversation. Thirteen students participated, and I found the small size of the group facilitated an excellent discussion.
My topic was on corporate philanthropy, which fits Step Up For Students very well since the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship initiative of our organization depends on corporate tax-credited donations to fund these scholarships for low-income Florida students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This program provides options for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any choice but to go to their zoned neighborhood school. The really cool thing about our program is it gives kids a chance to find a school that best meets their learning needs.
The college students were very intrigued by the large amount that we fundraise ($559 million is the goal for 2016), and asked me how the Step Up development team tackles such a large goal. I explained how we first try to find companies that qualify for donating to our program and we tell them about the benefits of participating, and that it’s actually quite simple for companies to donate. These scholarships that wouldn’t be possible without our donors are changing the lives of thousands of children each year. In fact, for this new school year, we already have nearly 77,000 Florida Tax Credit scholars enrolled in school through Step Up. This year’s scholarship helps pay up to $5,677 in tuition and fees. When our donors or prospective donors hear the stories of how these students are affected, and sometimes even meet the children, they know it is a worthwhile cause. The students were very interested in learning about how Step Up helps these low-income kids, and they said that we are providing a great public service by making private school available to our students.
The students asked me great questions about my career path, too, and one student wanted to know what qualities make up a great fundraiser for Step Up. I shared with them that it’s vital to be very persistent with prospective donors, and also to be available at all times for any questions. It is also important to build a good relationship with the donors. We look at our corporate contributors as more than donors, they are partners. They want to see and hear the success stories they helped create, and we love sharing our scholarship stories. Sharing these stories helps us be good stewards to the donors, which is very important. But the most important trait of a good development officer at Step Up is passion, passion for what we do and passion for making a difference in children’s lives. You have to have that to be part of our organization. I enjoy working for Step Up For Students, and I am pleased to be part of such a dedicated team.
Overall, the Alumni Café was a great experience, and I was honored to get a chance to speak with the students about the awesome work we’re doing at Step Up. I was very impressed by how smart and insightful the students were, too. The University of Florida is churning out super smart kids, and I’m proud to be an alumnus. Who knows, maybe some of them will join the Step Up team one day.
David Bryant is a Development Officer for Step Up for Students, and works closely with the development team and donor companies to raise money for scholarships. David has 14 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management, and he is excited to take on the $559 million goal for 2016. David has held the CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) credential since 2009.
Editor’s Note: This post kicks off our semi-regular feature: Behind the Scenes, where we give you an inside look at Step Up For Students. We hope you enjoy it!
By Ashley Foster, Guest Blogger
Flash back to September 2014.
At Step Up For Students, we are involved in a lot more than processing scholarships. As many of you know, the income-based (or Florida Tax Credit Scholarships) are funded by corporations whose leaders believe in our mission to help families choose the best learning environment for their children. One donor company was so interested in Step Up, their marketing team wanted to interview some families.
Frontline Insurance, a new donor to Step Up and an insurance company based in Lake Mary, arranged to meet families face-to-face and hear their stories in their own words about benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. So in September, the Frontline marketing team, accompanied by one of our Step Up employees and two professional photographers, arrived at the Tobar family’s home in Apopka to learn about their experience with the scholarship program.
Before we started the interview, Mario, then a high school senior, showed us his football awards and talked about his favorite players as his mom, standing in the kitchen, smiled with pride. Once we got started, Kiara Sanchez-Mora and Kristin Hunkiar, members of Frontline Insurance’s marketing team, sat on the living room sofa with a laptop and asked Mario, his little sister Gabby and their parents, Kenia Palacios and Victor Tobar, about Step Up and why it was a good fit for the family.
Kenia explained, with tears in her eyes, how thankful she was Mario had the chance to experience such a dramatic turn-around at his Orlando high school, Bishop Moore Catholic High School, and how proud she was of Gabby who attends Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic School, adjacent to Mario’s high school. Both use Step Up’s income-based scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.
Once the interview was over, the Tobar family stood at their kitchen counter while the photographers adjusted the lighting on their flash, checked their computer monitors and snapped away. As we were saying our goodbyes, Kiara and Kristen made friends with the Tobars’ then-puppy, named Tebow, who had been patiently waiting in his crate.
It’s all in a day’s work, and we couldn’t do it without our awesome families who share their inspiring stories, and our donors who make the whole program possible.
In less than a couple of weeks, Mario is on his way to the University of West Florida in Pensacola where he will study engineering and play football. He has been working two jobs on the weekends to save a little bit of money to take with him.
You can read Frontline’s story here, along with the story of another amazing Step Up family in Ormond Beach, whose children have also benefited from Step Up For Students scholarships. Also, reach Step Up’s story about Mario here and about Faith Manuel and her eldest child, Davion Manuel-McKenney of Ormond Beach here.
Ashley Foster is Step Up’s former Marketing Manager, who recently moved with her husband, Gary, to North Carolina for his job. They live in Raleigh with their new puppy Lady Mae. Ashley currently teaches yoga at a local studio and is searching for the next step in her marketing career.