BY ROGER MOONEY
FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.
“I want to be a missionary,” he said.
“That’s a pretty good question.”
After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”
That’s a pretty good answer.
Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.
“Now I’m set on that,” he said.
Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.
Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.
“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”
Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.
Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.
After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.
“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.
“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”
Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.
He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.
Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.
He loves math, namely precalculus.
“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”
That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.
So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.
It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.
“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.
A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.
Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.
“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”
His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.
“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.
“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By DAVID TUTHILL
Josh Clay sometimes speaks at such a frantic speed he needs to slow himself down.
But he speaks with authority on so many topics – from theater, to the band Green Day, to the world of comedy – that you would never believe the challenges he’s overcome.
The 15-year-old was born with Asperger’s syndrome. Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions, and may exhibit compulsive behaviors and repetitive movements. They also tend to show an intense, all-absorbing interest in topics they enjoy.
In preschool, Josh often hit milestones later than his classmates, and he exhibited behavioral tics associated with Asperger’s.
In elementary school, he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan to help him navigate the special education he needed, which seemed to work. He was on an adequate academic pace and he made good acquaintance with fellow students. Thanks to a strict school policy, bullies were virtually nonexistent.
When it was time to start middle school, other potential issues came into focus. Josh was an “out of zone” Title I student for elementary school, but a lack of room in the preferred middle schools meant Josh would have to attend the school near his address, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.
His parents, Edward and Julie Clay didn’t feel confident their neighborhood school in Naples, Florida, could accommodate him academically.
So, Edward and Julie decided to home-school Josh in sixth and seventh grade.
“Josh was academically fine in elementary school,” Julie Clay said. “He was just a little fidgety. We decided home schooling for middle school was probably for the best as he got older.”
Josh’s sixth- and seventh-grade years were successful. His mother had no plans of putting Josh back in school, but things were about to change.
Knowing his diagnosis meant he would always need extra attention and therapy, Julie Clay took Josh to a behavioral therapist before he started eighth grade this year.
The therapist told her about two things that would change the direction of Josh’s education: the Gardiner Scholarship for families with children with certain medical diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, and De LaSalle Academy, a private school for students with special needs in nearby Fort Myers, Florida.
“When I heard about (De LaSalle) I thought, ‘Wow, this would be really great for him. Let’s walk down this path and see if it’s the right fit,’” Julie Clay said.
On his first visit to De LaSalle, Josh noticed how different the school was from his previous ones.
“I saw they all had classes with kids who reminded me of me,” he said. “I got along well with the teachers, and I liked that the only homework was classwork that we didn’t finish.”
While Josh was eager to attend and blend into the De LaSalle culture, there were some growing pains. He applied for and received the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.
His situation was nothing new to De LaSalle Principal Lori Riti. Under her direction, the school’s speech language pathologist, social communication , occupational therapist and counselor all work in tandem for students like Josh.
“Josh came here with some social issues, mainly with getting along and connecting in a way with other kids that was healthy,” Riti said.
Some of the issues Josh mastered at De LaSalle Academy were interpreting nonverbal communication and perception, as well as conflict resolution. The school’s specialists made tremendous strides with him. One of his closest friends at school was once a child with whom he argued and fought with regularly.
“Josh had some onboard skills, but he had to take where he was and develop much further,” Riti said. “He wasn’t successful until he had direct intensive work. I give a lot of credit to our teachers and advisors for his success.”
His achievements aren’t limited to the classroom. Josh has become one of De LaSalle’s star theater performers. He recently starred as Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”
This winter, the school’s Performing Arts Club will perform the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” De LaSalle’s stage will be designed to look like an old-time radio station, and Josh will play several roles, including the “warped and frustrated” Mr. Potter, Mr. Gower, the druggist, and Ernie, the cab driver.
A natural performer, his penchant for inspiring laughter at school is legendary.
On a recent weekday, he told one of his favorite jokes about ordering steak at a restaurant: “When they asked how I wanted it cooked, I said, ‘On a stove.’”
While Josh’s favorite band is Green Day, he strongly warns against their occasionally profane language. The family saw the band perform live in September. Since the tickets were purchased in January, Josh had to wait nine months.
It was worth it.
The show, he said, “was legendary.”
Josh said he hopes to someday attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he wants to continue improving his acting chops and hone his comedic talent.
As for his experiences at De LaSalle, he couldn’t be happier.
“For parents who want to send their kids to this school, well, it’s the greatest school in the universe,” Josh said. “It will be the greatest move you ever do.”
David Tuthill can be reached at email@example.com.