By GEOFF FOX
Linery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.
“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”
Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.
“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.
Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.
Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.
Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.
At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.
“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”
Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.
“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”
Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.
“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”
Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.
When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.
Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.
“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.
“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”
While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.
Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.
“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”
Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.
“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”
Reach Geoff Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
WEST PALM BEACH – The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE: PNC), one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the U.S., announced Wednesday a $2 million donation to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students for 329 financially disadvantaged children in Palm Beach County.
The $2 million donation will be used for scholarships during the 2016-17 school year. This is the first time that PNC has partnered with Step Up For Students, which is funded by corporationhttp://www,pnc.coms with tax-credited donations. PNC’s contribution will fund K-12 scholarships, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
The donation was announced by Cressman Bronson, PNC’s regional president of Florida East, on Wednesday while Atlantic Christian Academy‘s 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement economics class visited the bank’s local West Palm Beach offices. During their time at PNC, the students learned about monitoring credit scores, applying for school and car loans, as well as learning about the different lines of business that keep the engine of the bank humming smoothly.
“Our support of Step Up for Students is a strategic investment in the future of Palm Beach County children,” said Bronson.
“By easing the financial burden for parents with this tax donation, we’re supporting a solid foundation for the growth and success of our local children, their families and ultimately, our Florida economy.”
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.
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 98,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of PNC. The positive impact they will have on 329 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz. “PNC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their generosity.”
The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. is one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the United States, organized around its customers and communities for strong relationships and local delivery of retail and business banking; residential mortgage banking; specialized services for corporations and government entities, including corporate banking, real estate finance and asset-based lending; wealth management and asset management. For information about PNC, visit the website.
By PAUL SOOST
ST. PETERSBURG – Wright Flood, the largest provider of federal flood insurance policies in the U.S., recently announced its largest contribution to date to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. Wright Flood’s $1 million contribution will provide 164 scholarships to financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren.
The contribution was announced during the Step Up For Students Rising Stars Awards celebration in Pinellas County. The event, hosted at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, recognized Step Up scholars, parents and teachers for their exceptional work during the 2016-17 school year. Students were able to thank Wright Flood executives and other donors attending the event. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $559 million for these scholarships, helping lower-income students throughout Florida realize their dreams of attending a private school that fits their educational needs.
Wright Flood has partnered with Step Up For Students since 2008, contributing $2,850,000, which has provided a total of 516 scholarships. Step Up is a nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax credited donations.
“Wright Flood is proud to donate annually to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and is impressed with the success of the students who participate,” said Patty Templeton-Jones, president of Wright Flood. “As a St. Petersburg company, we are so glad to see students in our home state benefit.”
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 98,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. About 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. Scholars may also choose a $500 scholarship to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-district public school.
“We are always grateful to longtime corporate partners like Wright Flood who recognize the value of educational choice and who support our mission to ensure that all Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for Wright Flood’s continued support and for their commitment to the communities they serve.”
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
We have gratifying legal news to share. The Florida Supreme Court today rejected a final appeal, and the case against Florida’s 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship is officially over. Our students and parents won.
In 2014, the Florida Education Association and other groups challenged the program, arguing it steered money to private religious schools, and violated a provision in the state constitution that mandates a “uniform” public school system. The scholarships, they contended, were similar to school vouchers the high court struck down in 2006. But this time, the state prevailed, allowing tens of thousands of scholars to remain in the schools of their choice. The ruling was handing down early Wednesday, ending a long and tireless fight for Florida’s schoolchildren’s rights for education equality.
“Low-income parents and children in Florida have a great deal to celebrate today knowing that their access to school choice and a quality school will no longer be threatened,” John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children and Step Up For Students’ chairman and founder, said in a statement. “We would like to thank our coalition partners and allies in Florida who have worked tirelessly to defend the program and the children who rely on these life-changing scholarships. There should be no barrier preventing a child from reaching their full potential or receiving a world-class education, and we are thankful this meritless lawsuit has been resolved.”
Community and political leaders throughout the state have been applauding the decision, including Rev. R. B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, who helped lead the fight against the lawsuit. Said Holmes: “On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law.”
Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill added: “The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children. We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”
We know these legal proceedings over the past two-and-a-half years have created some angst among our families and supporters, and we hope you, too, will celebrate this ruling. The scholarship this year is serving 98,000 deserving students, and we expect even greater things ahead.
Faith Manuel, who has had three children use the scholarship, including her first son who was born when she was a teenager and is a senior a the University of North Florida, was overjoyed by the news.
“Almost one year after our Historic March on Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III, three days after we celebrated Dr. King’s legacy, we have such a tremendous victory for the students in Florida,” said Manuel, who was a speaker during that rally. “My children’s ability to choose the school which worked for them has made all the difference in their individual success as students. I’m so thankful that this program will have the ability to continue to make a difference for Florida’s students.”
By GEOFF FOX
Chris Yother could have slipped through the cracks.
A Merritt Island resident, he was one of nine children – and one of a set of quadruplets – born to Kate Brown and Michael Yother.
Unfortunately, Yother’s parents eventually divorced and money was tight. He had always been a conscientious student, but as high school approached, his mother decided she wanted the quadruplets educated at Brevard Private Academy (BPA), a local private school.
The Yothers applied for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through Step Up For Students, and each of the quadruplets – Chris, Eric, Josh and Allison – were accepted.
At BPA, Chris Yother took dual-enrollment classes through Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, and often tutored other students. By the time he graduated from high school in 2013, he had also earned an associate’s degree.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida majoring in international relations, he still wants to help others.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, Yother wants to join the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer.
“Down the road, I’d like to the represent the State Department as a foreign service officer; that would be my dream job,” Yother said. “You represent the interests of Americans abroad, protect them and stand up for their rights.
“I’d love to be in France. I speak some decent French, but I really like the French culture. The opportunity to be stationed anywhere abroad would be an honor.”
His brothers, Eric and Josh Yother, currently serve in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps., respectively. Allison Yother has also considered a military career.
“We’re from a huge military family, and I almost joined right after high school,” Chris Yother said. “Both of my grandfathers were in the military and lots of uncles and a great-grandfather.”
Chris Yother said he and his siblings weren’t falling behind at their local public school, but a private institution seemed “more like a better fit,” adding that their ninth-grade transition to Brevard Private Academy “was very smooth.”
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “The big difference was (smaller) class sizes. The instruction was more personalized. The teachers could do more one-on-one stuff. The environment was modified to help the individual.
“In public school, we were having trouble connecting with the instructors and the material.”
Brown, Yother’s mother, was especially pleased with the change of environment for her quadruplets.
“With the one-on-one attention, they really learned and excelled,” she said.
Jenna Brocchini, an administrator at Brevard Private Academy, described Chris Yother as the most outgoing of his siblings. His positive effect on the small private school was almost immediate.
“He’s a friend to everybody and probably never had an enemy a day in his life,” Brocchini said. “What always struck me about him was he always had a very strong interest in politics. He actually went to see Obama speak” at Merritt Island in 2010.
“He camped out just to see the president speak. He was there the night before, and Obama didn’t speak until the afternoon. He was there in a camping chair and waiting for hours. A lot of kids that age don’t know much about politics or really care.”
As Yother prepares for his senior year at UCF, he is working at Office Depot, where he fixes computers in the technology department. He is also busy organizing paperwork for the Navy.
“It’s a rarity that I have much down time, although I did take a little break this summer,” he said. “I like to read a lot, stay home and still follow all the political stuff.”
And, he’s still helping people.
Brocchini said she recently posted a message on Brevard Private Academy’s Facebook page, asking if anyone could help set up computers at the school or offer technological support.
“Right away, he said, ‘I’ll come, anytime,’” she said. “He’s one of those people you rarely come across. He used to tutor his peers, and he wasn’t selfish with his counseling. He was always ready to help any of his friends. Public service is something I’ve always seen him doing.
“He’s a real humanitarian. I really feel like he’s going to have a successful future.”
BY GEOFF FOX
Savannah Lang has time to weigh her options.
The 2015 graduate of Merritt Island Christian School (MICS) had long wanted to become a pharmacist, but as she prepared for her sophomore year at Eastern Florida State College’s Cocoa Campus, the 19-year-old was considering a career in business.
She has also considered engineering.
“Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it all out,” Lang said. “I’m not 100 percent sure yet.”
Lang’s scholastic achievements – she earned an overall 3.89 GPA in high school, was part of the National Honor Society and received a humanitarian award for most volunteer hours – and the options she now considers are like answers to the prayers of her mother, Rhonda Ford.
A single mother since her daughter was 3, Ford, a massage therapist, said she had concerns about sending Savannah to public school.
“She had been going to Merritt Island Christian at 3 and 4, and I knew that was where I wanted to have her until she graduated,” Ford said. “I wanted Savannah in a Christian environment.”
The Brevard County school includes an elementary school, middle school and high school, as well as a preschool academy.
However, by the time Savannah was ready to start kindergarten, Ford was struggling financially.
Fate intervened – in the form of a beat-up Nissan Maxima.
“My car needed repair, like, a lot, so I was referred to a mechanic, and when they gave me the total, I asked if we could barter some of (the cost),” Ford said. “The mechanic said, ‘Yes, my wife has four little kids and could definitely use a massage.’
That was in spring 2002. By fall, Savannah’s scholarship application was approved and she was enrolled at MICS.
“The timing of the application was perfect,” Ford said. “It was totally God; He worked it all out.”
At the time, Ford and Savannah lived with Ford’s mother. The family lived under the same roof for several years, as Ford built her business and Savannah flourished in school.
“She was on the honor roll all 12 years and developed really good study habits,” Ford said. “My mom would pick her up after school, and she’d start doing her homework in the car. It was such a blessing, especially for a single mom.
“It was the fact that you feel that you have control and direction of your child’s education – in an environment that is totally conducive for learning. There are no outside influences of an environment without discipline. The teachers can hug you, you know?
“It’s been an amazing blessing.”
While the scholarship helped financially, MICS Superintendent Nanci Dettra, lauded Savannah’s effort in the classroom, and on the varsity volleyball court. Savannah also participated in dual enrollment at MICS, taking high school courses along with college-level ones through a local community college and Palm Beach Atlantic University.
During her senior year, Savannah also received the Principal’s Scholarship, a two-year award to help pay for classes at Eastern Florida State College. At Eastern Florida, she is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for high academic achievers pursuing two-year degrees.
Dettra described Lang as being as determined and passionate as she was outgoing and popular.
“She really is a go-getter,” Dettra said. “Focused is a great word for Savannah.”
In February 2016, Savannah became a registered pharmacy technician at a local drug store. While it was the right environment to learn more about being a pharmacist, Savannah said her retail experience has led her to consider pursuing a career in merchandising.
Of course, she could change her mind again.
As she drove to the drug store where she works full-time on summer breaks, Savannah seemed grateful for the educational groundwork instilled in her at MICS.
“I really enjoyed it because it was so much smaller, and there was more one-on- one time if you needed help,” she said. “There wasn’t this big classroom. You could talk to teachers and counselors. That helped me tremendously.”
By PAUL SOOST
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.
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 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 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.
By PAUL SOOST
CLEARWATER – Monin, Inc., producer of premium syrups, gourmet sauces, fruit purées and fruit smoothie mixes for coffees, iced teas, lemonades, cocktails and more, has announced a $60,000 donation to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
This is the first time that Clearwater-based Monin has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit which provides K-12 scholarships for financially disadvantaged Florida children so they can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. The scholarships are funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Monin’s donation will fund 10 scholarships.
“At Monin, we strive to provide support and improve lives for people in our local community. Through our partnership with Step Up For Students, we are making an impact on a few families through helping children become more successful,” said Bill Lombardo, Monin CEO. “Having options and choices speaks to our products at Monin,” added Greg Grabau, Monin CFO. “We are proud that our contribution will allow educational choice to families that otherwise would not have it.”
Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program allowing 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 grateful for the new partnership with Monin, and for their generosity and support of the scholarship program,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Thanks to our donors, we are able to provide educational options to Florida schoolchildren so they can find the best learning environment that suits their individual needs.”
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students expects to serve 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.
By GEOFF FOX
ABB OPTICAL GROUP, a leading distributor of optical products in the U.S., announced today it’s kicking off a partnership with Step Up For Students by matching an anonymous $10,000 donation, and contributing through its employee giving program.
Step Up is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, and the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for Florida students with certain special needs.
The combined donation of $20,000 will help Step Up maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating wraparound services which further promote students’ academic success. One such service is the Teaching and Learning Exchange, a learning management system that provides ongoing educational support services including personal learning plans for each student. Its goal is to strengthen partnerships between home and school, fostering student success.
“We are delighted to partner with Step Up to help enhance their scholars’ learning experience,” said Paul Sherman, Chief Financial Officer at ABB OPTICAL GROUP. “Our organization believes that every child deserves a chance to succeed, and we are extremely proud to support the mission of Step Up For Students.”
In addition to the match donation, ABB OPTICAL has incorporated Step Up into its employee giving program, making it an option for employees to contribute with a 100 percent match from the company.
“We are honored to be included in ABB OPTICAL GROUP’s employee giving program,” said Alissa Randall, Step Up For Students CMO “This partnership will allow us to offer additional services to the children we serve.”
For children like DeMarco McClain, an eighth-grader at Morning Star School in Tampa, Step Up’s programs have been life-changing. Due to an intellectual disability and dyslexia, DeMarco was reading on a third-grade level when his family moved to Tampa from the Bronx, New York last year.
Thanks to the compassionate, dedicated teachers at Morning Star, DeMarco, a Gardiner scholar, is now reading at his appropriate grade level and his soaring confidence has fueled a newfound ambition – to someday become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
“We are extremely pleased to have ABB OPTICAL GROUP as a partner in our quest to provide greater opportunities for Florida students like DeMarco and others who most need it,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are humbled by the generosity of ABB OPTICAL’s employees and proud that they share our vision.”
About ABB OPTICAL GROUP
ABB OPTICAL GROUP is a leading distributor of optical products in the United States. The company supplies nearly two-thirds of eye care professionals across the country with brand name contact lenses, fully customizable gas permeable and custom specialty soft contact lenses, ophthalmic lenses and more. The company’s Digital Eye Lab is a fully automated optical lab dedicated to freeform digital lens fabrication. ABB OPTICAL GROUP also offers practice building services such as pricing strategy tools, business reviews, annual supply staff training and e-commerce solutions. For additional information, visit ABBOptical.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Ten years after graduating from The Rock School, a K-12 Christian school in Gainesville, Alani Charles is working to ensure that some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents are cared for properly.
At 27, Charles is married to wife Tara and has a 4-year-old son, Olin. For several years, he and Tara Charles worked as family teachers at Boys Town North Florida in Tallahassee. Boys Town is a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to at-risk children and troubled families.
“We were basically like foster parents for four to seven children at a time,” Alani Charles said. “We’d take them to school, take them to dinner. Whatever was needed. I’ve always kind of had a desire to help people.”
A couple years ago, he accepted a new job as a licensing specialist at Daniel Memorial, Inc., in Jacksonville. Daniel Memorial is considered Florida’s oldest child-serving agency.
“What I do is I go out to foster homes and license them; I make sure they’re in compliance to take care of children,” Charles said. “I go into people’s homes. I make sure they’re up-to-date on training, and make sure that things like fire extinguishers and alarms are working. We ensure that parents have all their needs met, as well as the children. I make sure they have the basic necessities.”
While Charles was not raised in foster care, he had personal experience with a broken home, as his parents divorced around the time he entered high school. That left his mother, Maureen Charles, to alone raise Alani and her older son Carlos by herself.
Although Alani Charles wasn’t a troublemaker, he said that period of his life was full of distractions. He didn’t care much for his neighborhood school and was mostly out to have fun.
That’s when administrators at The Rock School in Gainesville told his mother about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The scholarship provides financial assistance to low-income families for private school, or assists with transportation costs to attend a public school outside their home district.
Charles said he was comfortable going to The Rock School, as it is affiliated with his family’s church, The Rock of Gainesville.
Maureen Charles said her sons did well in school before they started attending The Rock, but that they both flourished there.
“The atmosphere (at The Rock) was a lot more challenging and people expected more of you,” Alani Charles said recently. “Between going to church and school, I was there six days a week.”
Not only did Alani Charles become co-captain of the basketball team, captain of the soccer team and a track and field participant, who competed in shot put and discus, but his study habits were also bolstered and refined.
The same went for Carlos Charles
In 2006, Alani Charles graduated from The Rock – in a class of 13 – with a 3.8 grade point average. He was named the school’s top scholar-athlete and won awards for exemplifying commitment, trust, excellence and leadership.
Jim McKenzie, principal at The Rock, said he is not surprised by Alani Charles’ continued success.
“He had a great experience here,” McKenzie said, adding that the former student still occasionally visits his old school. “We hope that his experience will be like that for a lot of the kids who come here on scholarship. (Alani) is just a really personable, charismatic guy – friends with everybody. He was always very compassionate and had a big heart; he’s like a big teddy bear.
“He had a big, larger-than-life personality that went with his (physical) stature, but he was very gentle, as well.”
Spurred by his success, Charles enrolled at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
In May 2015, Carlos Charles graduated from Huston-Tilliotson University – a private, historically black university – in Austin, Texas, where he earned a degree in music, his mother said.
“He stopped (going to college), but he went back,” Maureen Charles said of Carlos. “I always told them you must finish what you start. It took him a little while, but he finished good and that’s the main thing.”
Both her sons have made her proud.
“If you work hard, it pays off. I always told them you don’t get anything for free.”