Step Up For Students announced that Assurant, a leading global provider of lifestyle and housing solutions that support, protect and connect major consumer purchases, has donated $8 million through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to Step Up, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
This is the first year that Assurant has partnered with Step Up and the donation will fund more than 1,132 K-12 scholarships for lower-income children in Florida.
“At Assurant, our core values of common sense, common decency, uncommon thinking, and uncommon results inspire our commitment to be a responsible corporate citizen,” said Alan Colberg, Assurant President and CEO. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and help lower-income Florida families access the education options they deserve.”
Step Up is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. 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 all know a great education is key to helping our kids find success and dream for the future,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “That is why programs like the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are crucial for our state, and I applaud Assurant for their investment in educational choice options for our state’s underprivileged schoolchildren.”
During the 2020-21 schoolyear, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
“I am happy to see Assurant participate in assuring all students can get a great education regardless of zip code,” said Senator Manny Diaz. “I am proud to see this Miami-Dade employer become a partner in this program for the future of the community.”
About 57% of scholarship children are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 schools currently participate in the program.
“We are honored to have Assurant as a partner in our mission to help deserving Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is producing measurable results, companies like Assurant are transforming the lives of schoolchildren in our community.”
WellCare of Florida contributed $15 million to Step Up For Students, investing in the future of 2,235 deserving schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, WellCare has generously funded nearly 6,114 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $34.5 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.
WellCare of Florida is affiliated with Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, a leading multi-national healthcare enterprise committed to helping people live healthier lives.
The scholarships help students like recent Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from the tax-credit scholarship and is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.
“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up.
“The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that. But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”
Just like Tommy, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
“Our mission is to transform the health of our communities, one person at a time,” said Liz Miller, CEO of Centene’s Florida health plans, which include WellCare. “Education is a critical part of our community’s health, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
Step Up served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”
By ROGER MOONEY
Elisabeth Edwards came home from school one afternoon and told her mom that she wanted to die.
She was 6.
Elisabeth was stupid, she told her mom. That’s how they made her feel at school. She questioned why God made her that way. She questioned why God made her at all.
She told her mom that she wanted to kill herself. She asked if she could kill herself right then.
Her daughter’s words were nearly too much for Consuelo to process. But she clung to the hope that Elisabeth was having a rough time adjusting to the first grade and to her new school, and this was her way of acting out.
But then Elisabeth began banging her head against the walls at home when she was angry. Then she started banging her head against the walls at school.
“That’s when I knew she was serious,” Consuelo said.
Elisabeth, now 9, has a sensory disorder that can prevent her from processing at lot of information at once. It became an issue soon after Elisabeth began attending the first grade. She would get confused in class and grew angry over her confusion. What Elisabeth perceived as a less-than-empathetic reaction from those around her – classmates and teachers – made the situation worse.
That’s when Elisabeth developed suicidal thoughts. Consuelo found a therapist and another school for her daughter. Elisabeth lasted a week. Administrators at the new school asked Consuelo to withdraw Elisabeth because they weren’t equipped to handle students with behavioral issues.
If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Consuelo and her husband, Maxwell, a plumber, qualified for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. She found herself scrolling through the school directory on Step Up’s website, searching for one near their Apopka, Florida home that accepts students with a sensory disorder.
Consuelo came across Master’s Training Academy in Apopka, a K-12 private Christian school about 20 miles outside of Orlando. The school focuses on students with behavioral health and learning disabilities. She called Helenikki Thompson, the school principal. Consuelo was upfront about Elisabeth’s condition and expected to be turned away. Thompson invited Elisabeth to spend a day at the school.
It was a perfect match. Elisabeth is now in the fourth grade at Master’s. She has a legion of friends. She leaves “Thank You” notes and homemade muffins for her teachers. She said she can’t remember the last time she was angry at school.
“I felt like I was at home, because I just saw everybody was happy,” Elisabeth said of that first visit. “All the kids were funny, happy, everything that you would want in a friend. So was the teacher.”
Consuelo no longer receives phone calls from exasperated teachers and is no longer worried about her daughter’s mental health. She said she owes Elisabeth’s life to Master’s Training Academy and to Step Up.
“If it wasn’t for Master’s, I’d probably be going to grave site grieving for her,” Consuelo said. “It was that bad.”
‘We want her back’
Consuelo describes her daughter as an outgoing young lady with a beautiful smile and a warm heart.
“To me she is a typical person who is trying to find her way in a world that is full of craziness,” Consuelo said. “Sometimes, when she was young, she didn’t know how to internalize that.”
A person’s tone of voice can provoke Elisabeth. Stern language from the teachers and staff at the first two schools Elisabeth attended only made her outbursts worse.
“I had broken out in hives when she was going through all that,”
Consuelo said. “That’s how bad it was. It was because of nerves. When your kid goes through something, you go through something.”
Elisabeth did have an outburst during her initial visit to Master’s Training Academy. It happened when a teacher asked her to read out loud. Elisabeth received speech therapy to help her properly enunciate words. She had some bad experiences when asked in school to read in front of the class. She thought this new teacher was setting her up for more embarrassment.
The reaction from Thompson, who was in the room, was not what Consuelo or her daughter expected.
Thompson remembers telling Elisabeth, “I’m sorry for your past hurt. I don’t know who hurt you. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help you.”
She said she gave Elisabeth a hug and told her she would see her the next day.
“I don’t know what type of experiences she had, but I know she was hurt,” Thompson said. “She was damaged really bad.”
Thompson’s son, Brendan, was bullied in his district school. He received therapy and attended Apopka Christian Academy for high school, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. He graduated in 2016 and is currently enrolled in Seminole State College of Florida.
Dealing with what her son went through gives Thompson a unique perspective on why children can feel threatened at school. Thompson and her staff do not raise their voices when a student is acting out. They try to dilute the situation with kind words and hugs. The school has a quiet room, where a student go to calm down. The room has soft lighting and comfortable chairs. The student can read, listen to soft music or pray if they choose.
Teachers at Master’s have been known to diffuse a situation by taking the student or the entire class outside for some fresh air. Thompson said there is at least one activity a week that allows the students to put away the books and have some fun. An example: a spa day for the elementary school girls, where they do each other’s hair and nails. Pre-pandemic, of course.
Consuelo said it took Elisabeth months before she realized she could trust the staff at her new school. And when she did, she took off academically.
“I can tell you, when someone breaks down a kid, they can really break a kid down, and it takes a long time to build a kid back up,” Consuelo said. “What they did for her in the beginning, when she had her blowouts and cried, the teacher would look at her and say, ‘You know what? We still love you here. You can be mad at us and you can cry, but we’ll see you again tomorrow.’”
Thompson remembers a day not long after Elisabeth enrolled when Consuelo came after school to pick up her daughter. Consuelo asked Thompson how the day went. Thompson said Elisabeth had a moment.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want her back,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that? We want her back. I just want you to know as a parent that she was having a bad day.’”
Master’s tailored the curriculum for Elisabeth, giving her extra time in subjects where she struggled and letting her advance at her own pace in those where she excelled.
Elisabeth has stopped telling her mom that she feels stupid.
“I feel like I’m the smartest kid in the world,” she said.
Consuelo volunteers at the school. She’ll help out in the main office, chaperon field trips and watch a class if a teacher needs to step away. She has nothing but praise for Master’s Training Academy, the empathy toward Elisabeth shown by Thompson and her staff, and for Step Up, for managing the scholarship that enabled Elisabeth to attend the school.
“(Master’s) represent the scholarship very well,” Consuelo said. “If it wasn’t for Step Up, I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. I owe (Step Up) my daughter’s life, and that means the world to me.”
ABOUT MASTER’S TRAINING ACADEMY
Located in Apopka, Florida, Master’s a K-12, Christian-based school that focuses on mental and behavioral health and learning disabilities. Students can attend the school in-person or virtually during the pandemic. Tuition is $5,800 for the 2020-21 school year. Book materials for K-3 is $350; 4-8 is $390 and 9-12 is $410. There is a $50 testing fee of the ACT Aspire and $25 for Map growth.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.
That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.
It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.
This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.
“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.
Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.
“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”
Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.
Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.
Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.
Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.
“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.
“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”
But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.
“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.
The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.
“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”
Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.
“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.
Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.
“Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”
That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.
And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.
Natalie loves the story.
“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.
“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”
Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”
And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”
“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
Supporting the well-being of employees ties into the core values of Step Up For Students: Everyone is an asset and every event in an improvement opportunity.
With that in mind, Step Up formed the Wellness Committee this year, and the work of that committee earned a Silver Award at the 2020 Healthiest Companies Award, sponsored by the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council.
“One of the things we’ve seen highlighted during 2020 is the importance of whole life leadership – understanding and supporting your employees better as whole beings,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administration officer. “Employees are juggling so much – from children learning at home, co-working from home, worrying about elderly relatives, or job loss within the household, and just trying to stay safe. Well-being encompasses so many aspects of our lives. Strengthening ourselves in each of those areas to face life’s tough challenges is extremely important.”
View Anne White’s acceptance message.
More than 65 companies from the Jacksonville area received awards in four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Step Up has 221 employees.
First Coast Worksite Wellness Council provides local companies and wellness professionals with programs, education and resources to optimize their employee health and wellness programs.
According to its website, Silver Award winners “established more of a foundation for their wellness program. In addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle through communications and on-site activities, they’ve also established wellness champions and allocated funds toward the implementation of their program. They also offer programs that address other dimensions of wellness, not just physical well-being.”
Step Up’s Wellness Committee initiated a number of challenges throughout the year aimed at creating positive behaviors and attitudes among employees.
For the week of Sept. 21 to 26, the committee issued the “Move More Challenge” with these instructions: For each “Move More” activity that you (and your family or household, including pets) complete and submit a photo for, you will be entered into a raffle for one randomly selected prize winner. “Move More” activities include a picture of you walking, cycling, running, or completing any other fitness or outdoor activity. Family, pet and/or household photos are encouraged.
“I am so proud of and grateful for the team of employees who initiated our well-being committee with our partners at Hylant (Step Up’s benefits provider), and for the engagement of staff across our organization,” White said. “We are truly honored for their work to be acknowledged with the silver award from the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council, and are committed to continue finding ways to strengthen the well-being of our employees and, in turn, our organization.”
By ROGER MOONEY
An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.
“Happy tears,” she said.
The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.
The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)
Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.
“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”
Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.
Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”
“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”
Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.
“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”
Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.
“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”
The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.
Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.
Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.
She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.
They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.
Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.
Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.
“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”
Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.
“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”
While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.
“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”
The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.
Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.
“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.
Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.
“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The rating is based on Step Up’s demonstration of strong financial health and its commitment to accountability and transparency.
“We are incredibly passionate about what we do and how we do it. We work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children, but that mission is nothing without the trust of our donors,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “That’s why earning this rating is not only important to us, it’s critical.”
This is the 14th time Step Up has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator in as many years.
In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “This is our highest possible rating and indicates your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way. Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area. … This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up for Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”
Charity Navigator evaluates more than 1.5 million American charities.
“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,” Thatcher wrote.
Charity Navigator’s rating is the latest accolade given to Step Up by national organizations.
Step Up ranked 18th in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s most recent list of Top 100 nonprofits and 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities. In addition, Step Up has earned GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of Transparency.
By ROGER MOONEY
After he helped deliver food to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic in late February, Jack Figueredo helped bring more food to five impoverished families in a nearby town.
The next day, Jack and his mom held a baby shower in another part of the Dominican for 35 financially disadvantaged moms-to-be, arranged by the Rawlings Foundation, a Christian mission and outreach organization.
After the women received their bags filled with much-needed baby supplies, finished their lunches and polished off the sheet cake, Jack took time to reflect and was, in his words, “shocked” at what he witnessed during his two days in the country.
The poverty. The need for food and supplies. The unbridled joy of those he helped.
“We did so much, and yet I wanted to do so much more,” he said. “As soon as we came back to America, I hit the ground running because I want to help all these people.”
So, Jack has plans for a farmer’s market in Miami-Dade County, where he will help deliver fresh produce to low-income families. And he is organizing a campaign to send care packages to members of the armed forces in Afghanistan. He is currently securing permits so he can help feed and clothe the homeless in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami and Homestead.
The baby shower went so well, there are plans for another, this one in Venezuela.
It should be noted that Jack is 16 and finishing his sophomore year at Miami’s Westwood Christian School, a private K-12 school that he and his brother Jonas, who recently graduated, attend with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables lower-income families to send their children to private schools.
Helen and Frank Figueredo qualified after the collapse of the real estate market in 2008 ruined their real estate business.
Westwood provided Jack and Jonas with a quality education in a religious setting. The real estate collapse showed the brothers what life is like for those struggling to get by.
Their parents no longer owned Porsches, and they no longer shopped at high-end stores.
Even during the family’s financial hardship, Helen made the boys pick one wrapped present under the Christmas tree to donate to a needy child. And at Thanksgiving and Easter, the family piled into the car Frank bought for less than $90 at a police auction and made their way to Miami to deliver sandwiches to the homeless who congregate near downtown.
It was part of Helen’s grand lesson to her children: Material things don’t matter. People do.
“The only way these kids are going to appreciate what they had was by seeing what life could be like if they didn’t have much and to instill in them that desire to always want to share, always want to give back, to put humans over material stuff, life over material stuff,” Helen said.
Looking back, Jack said the family trips to feed the homeless were “a great experience.”
“It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this,” Jack said. “I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
So, Jack decided when he got older, he was going to organize his own charity – Socks and Sandwiches.
That goal became reality last September when Jack started Kids United Foundation. There are five members on the board of directors – Jack and four high school seniors, including Jonas.
“I thought it fit perfectly. Kids helping kids because I’m a kid,” Jack said.
The name was changed because Jack wants to help as many people as possible. And, because it takes time to obtain the permits needed to work with the homeless.
Jack didn’t want to wait. He was upset last summer when he was too young to travel to the Dominican with Helen and Jonas on a mission trip sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lakes. Jack was 15, and the minimum age was 16.
“I was kind of bummed,” he said. “This was one of the main reasons I started my own charity. I wanted to help in a way where my age would not be an issue. The only way to do that is if I started it, I did, I created it and I was the boss.”
After hearing Helen’s stories about the extreme poverty she and Jonas encountered on the mission, Jack decided to act.
He came up with the idea of a baby shower after Helen told him of all the pregnant women she saw walking around barefoot and all the small children she saw barely clothed.
They organized a fundraiser Valentine’s Day 2019 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. Kids United received a percentage of the ticket sales. They raised $7,000.
“It was a very successful fundraiser for our first one,” Jack said.
That enabled Kids United to put together gift bags for each of the 35 expectant mothers filled with $72 worth of diapers, bottles and baby clothes.
It also allowed them to buy food for the children in the orphanage and for five additional families in the Dominican.
Jack’s next move was the join the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade, an organization committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention. He was added to the Children’s Issues and Oral Health Committee.
At one of the meetings, Jack suggested a farmer’s market in low-income areas to help children who are not getting enough nutrition in their diet.
The idea was a hit. The question: Who would spearhead the campaign?
“I can do it,” Jack said.
Kids United partnered with Farm Share, a nonprofit that delivers fresh food to needy families and individuals in Florida. In October, Farm Fresh donated 2,800 pounds of produce to Kids United, which then distributed it during a harvest festival at Tropical Park in Miami.
The plan was to hold a farmer’s market four times a year, but the shutdown because of the coronavirus put that plan on hold. It also canceled another dinner theater fundraiser.
Still, Jack’s charity is forging ahead.
With the help of his godfather, Romy Comargo, Jack started H.E.R.O. – Honoring Every Ranger Overseas.
Romy, Helen’s cousin, was a Chief Warrant Officer 3 with the Special Forces. While serving in Afghanistan in 2008, he was shot on the back of the neck and paralyzed from the neck down.
Romy and his wife, Gaby, have since started the Stay in Step Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Tampa. Stay in Step provides exercise programs for patients both military and civilian with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.
H.E.R.O will send care packages containing comfort food, socks and paper stationary to soldiers overseas. The stationary is so the soldiers can correspond with schoolchildren from the Miami area. Kids United is in the process of contacting schools in that area for volunteers to be pen pals.
Gaby Camargo is Venezuelan. She told Jack that she and her husband would help fund the trip if the next Kids United baby shower was held in Venezuela.
The coronavirus has placed a temporary hold on Jack’s idea for Seniors vs. Seniors trivia, where high school seniors compete against residents at the Allegro Senior Living facility in Dadeland.
Originally, Helen advised her son to stick with one charitable endeavor.
“We want to help people, but we don’t want to be committed to one thing,” Jack said. “That’s why we’re committed to such a wide variety of events, and we want to do what no one else is doing.”
Helen also impressed the importance of education on her sons. Both are top-of-the-class students at Westwood and members of the National Honor Society.
Jonas is a finalist for the Silver Knights Award. Held annually by the Miami Herald, the awards go to students who have high grades while making significant contributions to their schools and communities. Jonas, who holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo, teaches self-defense to Westwood students in grades kindergarten through third. He is headed to the University of Miami with plans to become a lawyer.
Jack is following the same path as Jonas.
No one wants to be poor, Helen said. No one wants to see their business collapse and the savings disappear because of a downward turn of the economy.
But, out of their struggle grew a desire from Jonas and Jack to help those less fortunate.
“We are getting Kids United Foundation off the ground,” Jack said, “but we are barely scratching the surface of what we want to do.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”
Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.
And so, she did.
In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.
Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.
Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.
“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”
Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.
So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.
“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.
The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.
“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.
The path less taken
Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.
“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”
Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.
Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”
Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.
Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.
Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”
Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.
“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”
Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.
Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.
“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”
Real life experience
With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.
Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.
The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.
Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.
“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.
Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.
“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.
“I’m much, much better now.”
It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.
Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.
Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.
All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.
When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”
It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.
“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”
That is the hope of Principal Torano.
A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.
“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”
By Roger Mooney
The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.
One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.
They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.
Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.
A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?
Well, let’s take a look using these examples.
Scholarships for children from lower-income families
The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.
In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.
Scholarships for children with certain special needs
Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.
She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.
A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)
The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.
Phyllis was relieved.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.
Scholarship for students who have been bullied
Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.
“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Scholarship for students struggling to read
In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.
Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”
It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.
Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)
With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.
The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.
“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.