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Young violinists bring joy to audiences and teachers

By ROGER MOONEY

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manny Perez used to stand in the back of the violin ensemble, hoping to shield himself from those in the audience with discerning ears who would know when he missed a note or, in his words, messed up.

“I thought I messed up most of the time,” Manny said.

Funny thing, though. No one ever approached Manny after a performance and told him he had messed up. Instead, those who listened to the group perform said things like, “You were amazing!” and “Great job!” and “I wish I could play the violin.”

They say that to Manny, a fifth grader, and the rest of the members of Strings of Joy, the violin ensemble made up of fourth and fifth graders from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.

The blossoming musicians found themselves the object of attention and some envy last spring when they played in the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg before a performance by the Florida Orchestra.

They were nervous beforehand.

“I had goosebumps,” Manny said.

They were thrilled afterward.

“It was my first time (playing) at a real theater, playing for so many people,” fourth grader Caden Wehrli said. “And seeing their faces, it was like, ‘Wow!’”

Strings of Joy is 17 strong with more than half its members, including those interviewed for this story, attending the private K-8 school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The ensemble consists of those who demonstrate an aptitude for playing the instrument and a love of performing.

Caden Wehrli

In the two years since it was formed, Strings of Joy has grown from playing during services at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and at nearby senior centers and senior homes, to playing the Mahaffey Theater.

The students have also played at the Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World and at the Catholic Foundation Gala in Tampa.

They have a gig lined up this spring to play in the lobby of Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater before another performance by the Florida Orchestra. They have been invited to play the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.

“Isn’t that amazing?” asked Mary Rehm, the school’s interim principal. “We’re incredible proud of what we do here.”

All-around students

There are a number of studies on the link between playing a musical instrument and academic performance. Albert Einstein played the violin. Thomas Jefferson, too.

The motor, visual and auditory parts of the brain are all engaged when Manny or Caden are playing their violin. One study referred to it as the brain receiving a full body workout. And like any workout, this ability becomes stronger over time and is eventually applied to other tasks, such as learning.

Jackson Smudde

Jackson Smudde, a fifth grader in the ensemble, said that is true in his case.

“I didn’t always pay attention in class that well. I was just kind of looking off,” he said. “Now I actually focus on what my teacher is saying.”

Father Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, agreed.

“I think we’ve seen potential in children that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It certainly unleased a lot of their gifts and talents and their potential outside of playing the violin.”

Caden’s mom, Kelly Wehrli, said she wasn’t sure if her son had the discipline needed to learn the violin. Turns out, he was. And that discipline carried over to the classroom.

“He has done so much better academically and musically than I could have ever expected,” she said. “I see a huge change. He gets straight A’s, which I’m really proud of.”

Kristy Bates, whose daughter Alivia is a fourth grader in the ensemble, played the clarinet and bagpipes when she was in middle school. She felt a change in the way she learned after she began playing those instruments.

“I noticed that it just kind of puts your brain in a different way of learning to where you just start thinking outside of the box,” Bates said. “And then reading notes is almost like a second language, so it’s a completely different method of learning, and it does help you in your other areas of schooling, as well.”

Life-long violinists

Our Lady of Lourdes has, historically, been big on the arts. Music and drama teacher Lisa Suarez estimated at least half of the school’s 210 students are involved in either the choir, the school play or Strings of Joy.

This year’s play will be “Fiddler on the Roof,” a nod to the young violinists.

Suarez said she was curious to see the response from the third-grade class when they began learning the violin.

“To see the kids gravitate towards it, that really surprised me, how much they love it,” she said.

Caden said the violin class was fun.

“I thought it was going to be hard, but actually it wasn’t,” he said. “Each time I heard the song once, I would play it once, and I would get it correct.”

Kate Francis, who oversees the Strings of Joy, said what is unique about the violin program is while some schools offer an instrument as an elective or extracurricular activity, Our Lady of Lourdes includes it among the third-grade courses. So, students who might not have any interest or might be intimidated are uncovering a hidden talent.

Manny Perez

“Manny loves the violin, and that’s going to be a part of him for his whole life and he learned it here,” Francis said. “That’s so cool.”

Ana Flores, Manny’s mother, remembered covering her ears when her son first started practicing at home. And now?

“He makes me feel like a proud mom,” she said. “He said he’s going to do it for the rest of his life. I’m going to have a violinist at home.”

Jackson said he wants to play for a long time.

“Probably ’til the end of my life,” he said.

And Caden? “Until I get about 30-something,” he said.

“He has two goals,” said Caden’s mom. “He wants to be a professional musician now, and a professional baseball player, so, I’ll hit the lottery either way.”

Manny, the boy who once tried to remain unnoticed when he played, now plays solos. He was upset last May when the school year ended, and he had to return his violin.

He said he wants to play the violin for “a very long time.”

Why?

“Because,” he said, “I can bring joy to people without singing or without talking, just with moving my hand with the bow and making gestures with my hands and the violin strings.”

About Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School

Founded in 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes sits in a 34-acre campus in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin and is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. More than 70 of the 210 K-8 students attend the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The school incorporates the Catholic tradition in its curriculum, though accepts students from all faiths. Tuition for parishioners for the 2019-20 school year begins at $7,435 for the first student and increases by $6835 per additional child. For non-parishioners, tuition is $9,305 for the first students and increases by $8,705 for each additional child.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Time to nominate students, teachers, parents for Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.

Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.

Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.

School principals can nominate students for one of the following:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.

Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.

Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.

  • Miami-Dade North: Monday, March 16
  • Miami-Dade South: Tuesday, March 17
  • Palm Beach: Thursday, March 19
  • Broward: Monday, March 23
  • Leon: Tuesday, March 24
  • Lee: Tuesday, March 24
  • Brevard: Wednesday, March 25
  • Hillsborough: Wednesday, March 25
  • Duval East: Thursday, March 26
  • Pinellas: Thursday, March 26
  • Duval Central: Monday, March 30
  • Volusia: Tuesday, March 31
  • Marion: Tuesday, March 31
  • Escambia: Wednesday, April 1
  • Orange East: Thursday, April 2
  • Orange West: Thursday, April 2

Event locations will be announced at a later date.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Covanta funds Step Up scholarships, fuels future environmental leaders

SPECIAL TO STEP UP FOR STUDENTS

Tampa middle school students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy are well on their way to be the next generation of environmental leaders as they creatively displayed the importance of recycling in a recent art contest.

In honor of Earth Day, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students participated in a Recycling and Science Poster Contest organized by Covanta, operator of eight Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities in Florida and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.

The contest asked students to visualize their commitment to recycling and science by depicting a theme, such as Energy-from-Waste, composting, recycling, electronic recycling and more. For its participation, the school received a $500 gift card to Staples to be used for school supplies.

Winners were honored for their outstanding design at a ceremony held on Earth Day.


Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy (top left), Cheryl Audas (second from right), senior development officer at Step Up For Students, and Steven Abe (right), facility manager at Covanta, with the students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy

Winners:

  • First Place – Aaliyah Lewis, sixth grade
  • Second Place – Natalie Moreland, seventh grade
  • Third Place – Jasmine Morgan, sixth grade
  • Honorable Mention – Spencer Mitchell, fifth grade, Zoelee Lopez, fifth grade, Ester Pauline Martinez Bemal, seventh grade

Through Step Up For Students, Covanta has funded more than 140 scholarships for deserving Florida schoolchildren since 2016. The funds are donated through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves lower-income children in Florida and allows them to attend the school of their choice.

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” said Tom Murphy, client services manager for Covanta. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy, first place winner Aaliyah Lewis and Cheryl Audas, senior development officer at Step Up For Students

“Because of companies like Covanta, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” Murphy said. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to future opportunities to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s EfW operations provide sustainable waste management to Florida that generates enough renewable energy to power more than 300,000 area homes and businesses.

Cigar City Brewing gives back by donating $30,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 TAMPA, FL – Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa-area brewery, announced on Feb. 2 a $30,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year.

This is the first time that Cigar City Brewing has partnered with Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund four K-12 scholarships so financially disadvantaged Florida children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

Cigar City Brewing Chief Operating Officer Justin Clark , right, presents Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant ,left, with a check for $30,000. The donation will provide K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida families to attend the school that best meets their child’s learning needs through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

“Cigar City Brewing is proud to support our community, and even more proud to make a difference in the life of a child through providing educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City Brewing’s chief operating officer. “We admire the work of Step Up For Students and are pleased to join in this partnership.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income children throughout the state. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are honored to welcome Cigar City Brewing as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for kinergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.