Donate

Tag Archives forGardiner Scholarship

New autism center in Florida Keys offers education, therapy, resources – and hope

For 23 years, the Carrie Brazer Center for Autism in Miami has served students on the autism spectrum and others with neurodiverse conditions. During that time, Brazer, a Florida-certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in special education, noticed that families from the Florida Keys were driving as much as three hours to come to the area for therapies and other services.

To better serve those families, Brazer opened a small office in Tavernier, an unincorporated area in Key Largo with a population of 2,530. When a charter school campus across the street became available, Brazer seized the opportunity to open the school’s second campus on the half-acre lot.

The new campus opened last year with six large classrooms in a 5,000-square-foot building. The school has a large indoor play area with lots of swings. The weather usually is pleasant enough for the students to eat lunch outdoors.

“It’s just gorgeous,” Brazer said. “It’s very beachy and homey and airy and spacious.”

Click here to continue reading.

Education savings account allows Dylan to gain independence one step at a time

BY ROGER MOONEY

SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.

It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.

Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).

“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”

Dylan has “gained a lot of independence” during his seven years at LiFT Academy.

Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.

Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.

“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”

And they were, one arduous step at a time.

Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.

It took nearly half an hour.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”

Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.

“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.


LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.

The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.

Dylan said his mom’s blunt honestly about his physical limitations has allowed him to overcome a number of obstacles.

“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.

“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.

“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.

When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.

In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.

“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.

A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.

“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.

How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.

“About seven,” he said.

Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.

On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.

What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.

“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”

Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.

“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”

Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.

The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:

“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”


Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.

“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”

Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.

“One hundred percent,” he said.

Dylan shows off his muscles.

Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.

“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”

Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.

“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.

He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.

“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.

A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.

He also wants a Chevy Silverado.

“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”

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

Podcast: Florida mom looks forward to additional benefits of education savings account

Karen and David Prewitt with their son, Caleb.

reimaginED Senior Writer Lisa Buie talks with Karen Prewitt, whose son, Caleb, 15, is benefitting from a change in Florida law that is merging the McKay Scholarship program into the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.


Click here to listen to the podcast.


Born with Down Syndrome, Caleb attends North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, his parents’ school of choice for him since kindergarten.

While the McKay Scholarship made it possible for Caleb to have the best possible educational environment, it covered tuition only, leaving the family with out-of-pocket costs for physical, occupational and speech therapies that help children with Down Syndrome learn to be as independent as possible.

The new scholarship program is an education savings account, which allows parents the flexibility to spend their money not only on tuition and fees but also on necessities such as private tutoring, devices and therapies not covered by insurance.

Catholic high school returns to Key West. Scholarships help make it possible

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Catholic high school education will return to Key West.

The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, which currently educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this week announced plans to add grades 9 and 10 in August 2023. The Basilica High School will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and plans to offer enrollment to students in Key West and the Lower Keys, Principal Robert Wright told the Keys Weekly.

The last Catholic high school in Key West, Mary Immaculate, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment.

However, demand has since been rising. According to Wright, the Basilica School’s enrollment increased 100 percent between 2013-2019, and currently is at capacity with a waiting list. Many of those families want to extend their children’s Catholic education beyond middle school.

In a 2019 column for Keys Weekly, Wright credited Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for helping fuel that growth. “In 2013,” he wrote, “we began accepting Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students. That made a private school education affordable to scores of families seeking alternatives to the public schools that, for whatever reasons, weren’t working out for them. Since then, our enrollment has nearly doubled, from 170 students to 320. We have 100 on a waiting list, simply because we lack the capacity to accommodate them. If we fail to provide a right and just education, these families would seek to go elsewhere.”

The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the income-based tax credit scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship (created by the Legislature in 2019), and 20 who attend on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.

In announcing plans for the high school, Wright noted that “scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.”

Overall, Catholic school enrollment in Florida increased this academic year following a nearly 7% decline at the start of the COVID pandemic. According to data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, enrollment grew by 4,610 students, or nearly 6%, during the 2021-22 school year. Again, Florida’s choice scholarships helped make that possible: Scholarship students made up just 24% of Catholic school enrollment in 2015 but make up 47% of enrollment today.

LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • 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.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

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

Step Up receives 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for 15th year

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students recently received the highest honor from Charity Navigator, the non-profit that evaluates more than a million charitable organizations in the United States.

The four-star rating has been an annual achievement for Step Up in each of the last 15 years, since Step Up was first evaluated by Charity Navigator.

“Earning this rating is vitally important to our cause,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “We are extremely passionate about what we do and work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Our mission continues because of the trust of our donors.”

Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher wrote in a letter to Tuthill that the four-star rating was based on Step Up “demonstrating strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.”

“This is our highest possible rating and indicates that your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way,” Thatcher wrote. “Attaining a four-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your area of work. This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up For Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

Thatcher wrote that donors are looking for accountability and transparency in nonprofits. That’s why his organization evaluates more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America.

“Charity Navigator aims to accentuate the work of efficient and transparent organizations,” Thatcher wrote. “The intent of our work is to provide donors with essential information to give them greater confidence in both the charitable decisions that they make and the nonprofit sector.”

Step Up received perfect score on several measures that go into the four-star rating, among them Governance, Transparency, Program Expenses, Fundraising Efficiency.

“The Charity Navigator rating underscores that when donors invest in Step Up, they are assured their contributions will be maximized to the fullest potential,” Tuthill said.

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

Addi’s Memorial Park: A place to remember a brave little girl

By Scott Kent

Outside the second-story window of Addison Sinclair’s pink bedroom in Windermere, Florida, across an asphalt bike path, amidst a copse of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, is a green space that will become a memorial to the little girl who is no longer there to view it.

“Addi,” as she was called by her family and friends, passed away Dec. 29, 2020, after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 8.

“Resilient” is how Kara Sinclair described her daughter, who was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, when she was 3 years old in 2015. Addi initially endured a year-and-a-half of treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries. Over the next five years, Addi’s cancer recurred nine times.

“She faced things that would knock any adult down. She didn’t let it knock her down,” Kara said. “She always had spunk and charisma. Always looked forward to the next day.”

Kara and her husband, Mark, tried to keep their daughter’s childhood as normal as possible during those difficult times. That included ensuring Addi received an education. She initially tried attending a public school, but she missed so much classroom time because of her treatments that she was forced to stay home. Her kindergarten teacher would come to the house to work with her, but it proved not to be a long-term solution. Addi’s compromised immune system also eventually negated the possibility of class instruction.

Then in 2019 a hospital social worker told Kara about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs (now called the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities), administered by Step Up For Students. The program provides families with up to $10,000 annually in an education savings account, which gives them the flexibility to spend the funds in a variety of ways to customize their children’s education – on private school tuition, materials, therapies, etc.

The Sinclairs used theirs to hire an at-home tutor for Addi, and to purchase an online curriculum as well as a laptop computer, books, and educational games. That allowed them to work around her treatment schedules. Addi blossomed as a student.

“She loved her tutor,” Kara said. “She was a hard worker, and once she had consistency in her schoolwork she picked up reading. She always looked forward to her tutor coming in, she enjoyed having someone there to provide hands-on instruction.”

Without the scholarship, Kara said, the tutor and curriculum would’ve been an additional out-of-pocket expense competing with “insane” medical bills.

“We would’ve had to prioritize med over ed,” she said.

It also would’ve hamstrung the family’s ability to provide Addi many of the activities children her age – and beyond – enjoy. Indeed, they packed decades of experiences into Addi’s short lifetime. The family went on several cruises and beach vacations (Addi loved the sand). Addi had more than 10 Disney staycations, visited several theme parks, and traveled to California, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio.

She became a Daisy Girl Scout, and was thrilled to earn badges and win the top Cookie Sales award. Addi also had an artistic side. She made jewelry. She put on puppet shows. She loved all musicals. She enjoyed singing, and she took a dance class. She learned to swim, and her parents built a swimming pool in the back yard, where she spent hours with her friends and “became a little fish.”

Kara said her daughter “never took a nap” and “rarely sat down,” bouncing through the house with the energy of a typical 8-year-old.

The last two months of her life, Addi finally began to slow down. But even when she wasn’t feeling well in her final days, her mother said, she was polite and always used her manners.

Addi passed away at home four days after Christmas, surrounded by her parents, her older brother William, her puppies, and her beloved doll baby.

Addi provided many lasting memories in her short time on earth, but her parents wanted something more. Something physical that others could experience, connecting it to the little girl who brought so much joy to those who knew her. A place where you can hear children’s laughter and families can go as a distraction from what life throws at us. As the Sinclairs said, childhood is short, and none of us know what tomorrow will bring.

That’s when they got the idea to turn that green space outside Addi’s bedroom window into a memorial park for other children and families to play in.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Kara said. “She would meet up with neighborhood friends there, and she always said it should have picnic table and swing. It makes sense. She was a kid. She played.”

Addi’s Memorial Park is planned to have that picnic table and swing, as well as benches and playground equipment, such as slides, climbing areas, and a crawl tunnel. The neighborhood homeowner’s association approved the proposal and has agreed to maintain the park.

The Sinclairs are seeking assistance in funding the project. They plan to hold fundraisers (COVID-19 permitting), and they have an online page that accepts donations.

When completed next year – hopefully, Kara said, by Addi’s birthdate of April 4 – they expect the memorial park that bears her name to reflect the qualities that defined their daughter: playful, caring, positive, always with a smile on her face.

Scott Kent, assistant director, strategic communications, can be reached at skent@sufs.org.

The curious climb of neurodivergent actor JJ Humphrey as he prepares for the biggest role of his career

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA ­­– Christopher Boone knows every prime number up to 7,057. He hates the color yellow. He loves trains. He does not like to be touched. He loves animals. He has a pet rat named Toby.

Christopher is the main character in Mark Haddon’s novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Though it is never stated, it is implied that the 15-year-old is on the autism spectrum. Christopher lives a complicated life, and that life becomes even more complicated with a gruesome discovery that leads to several life-altering revelations and one epic journey on a train.

JJ Humphrey, 17, is on the spectrum. He is an actor who lives in central Florida and receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities. The scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, covers his homeschooling as well as his drama and music classes.

For some time, JJ has wanted to play Christopher Boone in the stage adaptation of Haddon’s book, going so far as to say it’s on his “bucket list.”

“I really like the character and I can relate to him,” JJ said. “I want to see the world through his eyes for a little while.”

JJ Humphrey rehearsing for a scene where he flies during the play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

JJ’s wish comes true this holiday season when he stars in the Tampa Repertory Theater’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” (Click here for schedule and tickets.)

This is the biggest role of his young acting career. It is a significant role, as well, given that JJ is a neurodivergent actor playing a neurodivergent character.

“I feel like it’s important because not a lot of characters are neurodiverse,” JJ said. “There are more neurotypical characters in general. I feel a neurodiverse person playing a neurodiverse character is important, and I feel like that’s how it should be a majority of the time, if not all of the time.”

Emilia Sargent, the play’s director and the producing artistic director of the Tampa Repertory Theater, said there was a concerted effort to cast a neurodivergent actor for Christopher’s role. She asked Mickey Rowe for recommendations. Rowe was the first neurodivergent actor to play Christopher when he starred in the Broadway production. Rowe recommended JJ, whom he had met previously.

JJ nailed the audition.

“He was Christopher when he walked in the door,” Sargent said.


JJ has been acting in community theaters around Central Florida for nine years. He’s had small roles in two movies, “At the End of the Day” and “Wish.”

“It’s what he eats, sleeps, breathes,” said JJ’s mom, Michelle Humphrey.

He has played Young Shrek in “Shrek the Musical,” Max in “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” Scut Farkus in “A Christmas Story,” and Olaf in “Frozen.”

How JJ became involved in acting is, as he said, “an interesting story.”

JJ loves all things Star Wars, and the family was at Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Ashley Eckstein, who voiced Ahsoka Tano in the Star Wars franchise, was the host of one of the shows. She asked for a volunteer to do a Chewbacca imitation. JJ raised his hand. His imitation and the confidence and energy he showed while performing it in front of a packed room so impressed Eckstein, she told the Humphreys she felt he should try theater.

JJ joined the Out of the Box troupe for actors with unique abilities at the Lakeland Community Theater and instantly found himself at home on the stage.

“I love to make people laugh and smile,” he said. “When you work hard on a scene and it’s a funny scene and the whole audience starts laughing, it is the best feeling to make people smile and know that you’re making them happy and that you’re entertaining him.”

Initially, JJ faced obstacles.

The physical part of acting could present a challenge. In one play, JJ was required to go from sitting on a stool to standing in one smooth move. He couldn’t do it without knocking over the stool. JJ was receiving occupational therapy at the time. He worked on it with his therapist. When the production opened, JJ could accomplish the move without knocking the stool into the orchestra pit.

McGowan said JJ comes without an ego. And, while some, if not most teenagers are not willing to make a fool of themselves in public, JJ is willing to if that’s what the script calls for.

“I think that’s really worked to his advantage,” she said. “He can see it for what it is. If it has to be funny, he’ll make it funny. It’s not intimidating to him.”

Dan Chesnika, executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, has worked with JJ for seven years and has shared the stage with him in several productions. He said it’s impossible to see JJ on stage and not fall in love with him. He said JJ is a “courageous” actor who can make a part uniquely his.

“He confirms what I think about theater, that it’s a home for people who march to their own drummer,” Chesnika said. “JJ’s on the spectrum, and he sees the world just a little differently than a lot of other kids, but that makes him better in a theater. I’m really proud that JJ thrives in this environment. I admire the kid a lot.”

Jordan Woods-Robinson is an actor who played Eric Raleigh in “The Walking Dead” TV series. Like McGowan and Chesnika, Woods-Robinson is one of JJ’s many acting coaches. He called JJ’s role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” an “amazing opportunity.”

“I hope it opens doors,” he said. “I know he’s going to tackle it with great aplomb. I hope many people see this and want to continue working with him.”


JJ is a member of the Florida Youth Council and the Epilepsy Florida Youth Advocacy Council. He has worked with elementary school children as part of Chesnika’s group, Drama Time Live. He serves as an acting teacher and mentor with the Out of the Box troupe.

JJ with Mickey Rowe.

JJ said he would like to someday teach acting. Right now, though, he’s busy trying to forge a career in the medium he loves. Landing the lead role in a series on TV or for a streaming service is his goal.

At the same time, he knows he is an advocate for neurodiverse actors.

“I feel like me doing this is showing that any neurodiverse actor can do what I’m doing with training and putting enough work into it,” he said.

Christopher Boone wants to be an astronaut and soar among the stars, though he knows his fear of traveling will crush that dream. JJ Humphrey wants to soar among the stars, too. On Broadway. On TV. In the movies.

“Acting started out just for fun and it became a career choice,” he said.

Those who work with him say he is talented enough to have those dreams.

“If all the stars align,” Chesnika said, “why not?”

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

1 2 3 8