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How a great-grandmother and a Step Up scholarship changed the lives of two young girls

By ROGER MOONEY

On a Friday morning in March 2020, a judge granted Sharon Strickland temporary custody of her great-granddaughter, Savannah.

The little girl, 8 at the time, had been living in unsanitary conditions, Strickland said, with an elderly relative who was in failing health. Savannah often went hungry.

According to Sharon, the family dynamic has been complicated and the children’s mother lost parental rights to all four of her daughters.

The youngest great-grandchild, Karlee, was already living with Strickland, having been placed there by the state four months earlier. Karlee arrived at Strickland’s doorstep at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in early November 2019, carrying all her possessions in a backpack and a trash bag. She was 3.

Savannah came with even less. Just the clothes she wore that day to school – a shirt that was missing a few buttons and tattered pants. No socks.

Savannah and Karlee collect shells at Daytona Beach.

For years, Strickland tried to gain custody of her great-granddaughters.

“Nobody was standing up for these girls and these girls needed a voice,” Sharon said. “I said, ‘I’m the voice.’”

And Judge John D. Galluzzo of the 18th Judicial Court in Seminole County, Florida listened. He ordered Savannah to live with Sharon for one week and scheduled another hearing for the following Friday.

Savannah moved into her “Gram’s” clean house in South Daytona Beach, where she ate three meals a day, wore new clothes, slept in a real bed, and played with her little sister.

At the end of that week, Savannah found herself in front of the judge again for a custody hearing. He asked Savannah if she wanted to return to her old home or remain with her sister and great-grandmother.

“I want to live with my great-grandma,” Savannah answered without hesitation.

For nearly a year, Savannah has lived with her Gram. When recently asked why she picked her great-grandmother, Savannah said, “I have my own room. My Gram is nice to me.”

Strickland was thrilled. Now 65, she finds herself again in the role of mother after empty nesting for more than 20 years.

“God has a plan for all of us,” she said. “He placed me in this position for a reason.”

Strickland’s goal is to adopt Savannah and Karlee as well as a third great-granddaughter.

A fourth sister lives with her biological father and is doing well, Strickland said.

Strickland sees a better life for Savannah and Karlee, ones that include clean clothes, nutritious meals and a quality education.

 “I’m going to make it happen,” Strickland said.

‘A good fit’

Once the girls moved in, Strickland learned about the income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students from the Child Protective Home Study Specialist in Volusia county. She applied and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for Savannah. With the opportunity to give her great- granddaughters a faith-based education, she decided on Warner Christian Academy, a Pre-K through 12 private school in South Daytona. The school is five minutes from home, eight minutes from where she works and came highly recommended.

The girls enrolled before this school year. Savannah, now 9, is in second grade. Karlee, 4, is in VPK and isn’t yet old enough to use the scholarship program.

Nealy Walton is the elementary school principal at Warner Christian. She listened intently as Strickland told Savannah’s story when they first met last spring. Education was not a point of emphasis in Savannah’s prior home, and she struggled in a neighborhood school, especially with reading. Stickland wanted Savannah to repeat the second grade.

But there was more. She had trust issues when it came to adults. She used to check each day to make sure no one took her clothes and toys. She hid food around the house.

Strickland once found a piece of paper on which Savannah wrote, “I hate you!” Strickland asked her about it and was shocked by Savannah’s answer.

“She was talking about herself. At 8 years old, that’s concerning. That’s very concerning,” Strickland said.

Both girls receive counseling.

“It might take years for them to feel good,” Strickland said.

As Strickland talked, one name came to Walton’s mind: Debbie Adams. She has taught second grade at Warner Christian for 43 years. During that time, Adams has developed the ability to read a student, to learn his or her interests, habits, and hang-ups. What makes them happy. What makes them mad. What frightens them. She knows some students are dealing with far greater problems then the lessons being taught in class.

“I can’t help them if I don’t know where they have been and what they need,” Adams said. “Once you get that, the education will come.”

Savannah and Adams, Walton said, “are a good fit.”

And given the spiritual foundation of the school and the unstable lives Savannah and Karlee led before living with their great-grandmother, Walton said, “It’s no accident they are here. The Lord definitely created an opportunity for them to be here. It’s not by luck.”

‘A brave little girl’

Adams said Savannah gives the best bear hugs.

“Yes, I do,” Savannah said.

She loves her new school, because Adams is “super nice,” and she has a lot of friends.

The smaller class sizes at Warner Christian allow for more one-on-one time between Savannah and Adams. Her grades have improved, especially in reading.

“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.

The family: Savannah, Sharon and Karlee.

The biggest part of Savannah’s success was learning to trust adults. She had been let down by so many during her first eight years. The young girl doesn’t know who her father is.

“We live in a tough world, and she has had to deal with an even tougher world,” Adams said. “For me, I think these kids just want to know you love them. They want to know you understand.”

Once Savannah accepted the love from Adams, Walton and the rest of the Warner Christian staff, she began to emerge from the protective shell she was forced to build around herself.

“She’s more content,” Adams said. “She’s happier with herself, because she is settled in. She works hard. She’s proud of what she does, so her inner dialogue that she has with herself has improved tremendously. When she first came in, it was more of a negative thing and life was just tough, and she’s a very sensitive girl. She was hard on herself, but she’s had a lot of baggage to overcome.

“Her and I working together, we have a good bond at this point, a lot of respect for each other. She’s a brave little girl, I’ll tell ya. She’s a very loving girl.”

Faith is a big part of the teacher-student relationship at Warner Christian. That’s what Strickland was looking for when she chose the school. She loves helping Savannah with her homework, especially when it comes to learning bible verses. She loves that Karlee sits next to Savannah and learns the verses, too.

“This (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship) has just been a blessing to me, because there is no way I could have afforded to send either one of them there to get the education they are going to receive on what I make,” said Strickland, an administrative assistant at The House Next Door, a family counseling center in Daytona Beach.

Conversations and laughs

One night while saying prayers at bedtime, Savannah turned to her Gram and asked, “Am I ever going to leave here?

“No,” Strickland said.

“Good,” Savannah said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

Strickland, who has been divorced since 1982 and lived alone for 23 years before she gained custody of Karlee, is adjusting to the sights and sounds of having young children in the house.

“Here we go again,” she said. “It’s the whole aspect of learning each one of them. I’ve had a year with Karlee. She’s still tricking me, because she’ll eat green beans sometimes and sometimes, she won’t.”

Karlee loves Cheerios. Savannah won’t eat lunch meat. Both girls love to dance. Strickland said she thinks Savannah will someday be some type of leader.

Strickland welcomes the noise and the mess of a house filled with clothes and toys. The worst part about living alone all those years, she said, was eating dinner by herself.

“Now I have conversations and laughs and goofiness while we’re eating,” she said. “That’s something to be thankful for.”

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

Does your child struggle at school? Step Up For Students can help

By ROGER MOONEY

Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.

Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.

Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.

Maloni Lewis turned her academic path around after receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up.

Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.

And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.

Step Up can help.

Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. 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 Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.

This scholarship 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.”

Click here to join the 2021-22 interest list for the Gardiner Scholarship.

Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars 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.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

Click here to apply for the Hope Scholarship.

Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.

“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.

Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.

Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

Moving education beyond the residential ZIP Code in Florida: Step Up provides choices

By ROGER MOONEY

School days meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call for Linzi Morris and her children so they could make the 40-minute ride across Tampa, Florida to their respective middle schools and high schools, passing more conveniently located options along the way.

Why?

Because Linzi wanted the best education opportunity for her six children.

“I looked at it as an investment, an investment in their future,” she said. “I can take the easier route, but I’m looking at it as I want them to get the best opportunity to do the best they can do.”

That’s the power behind the income-based and  special-needs scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. In Florida, parents are not tethered to their neighborhood schools even when personal funds won’t stretch that far. They have the flexibility to customize their child’s education and the freedom to send their child to a school outside their zone.

Saliyha and Qinniun are the youngest of Linzi’s six children to attend private schools with the help of income-based scholarships managed by Step Up.

Step Up offers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for those who meet the eligibility requirements found here, and the Gardiner Scholarship for those children with certain special needs who meet the criteria here.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Click here to apply for a scholarship for children with certain special needs.

The scholarships are portable, too, meaning if the family moves to another part of the state, the scholarship moves with them to a participating school or approved providers and resources, as does their ability to choose the best education fit for their child.

Click here to find the list of schools that accept Step Up scholarships.

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren attended one of the more than 1,800 private schools in Florida that accept Step Up’s income-based scholarships.

Since its inception in 2001, Step Up has funded 1 million scholarships.

Those scholarships were used at faith-based and non-denominational schools; schools that emphasized arts and science and schools designed for children with certain special needs.

Some parents favored small schools with smaller class sizes, so their child could have more one-on-one time with the teacher. Others sent their children to larger private schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, a Catholic school with a student population of more than 1,800.

Some parents found schools located close to home. Others, like Linzi Morris, set the alarm clock for 5 a.m.

Linzi sent all six of her children to Academy Prep Center, a private middle school in Tampa, because of its high academic standards. Her two oldest sons attended Jesuit High in Tampa, while her daughters and youngest son attended Tampa Catholic High.

Her three oldest children have graduated college. Another will graduate college in the spring. Her two youngest are still in high school.

The morning commute is long and slowed by rush-hour traffic. But to Linzi, it was worth the investment that comes with the freedom given to parents who uses the opportunity to choose the educational path for their child.

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

WellCare of Florida donates $15 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

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.


Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from a Step Up For Students income-based scholarship, 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.”

Elisabeth’s story: From a mom’s worst nightmare to a mom’s best dream

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 posing for a school photo during the 2019-2020 school year
at Master’s Training Academy.

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 and Elisabeth.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

How a toy spider led a young girl who was bullied to a new school and a rooster to his calling

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.

From top to bottom, Grace, Natalie and Thomas and the book, “Rudy Howls at the Moon.”

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.”

Normal.

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.”

Grace reads her book during Story Time with Step Up

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.”

Of course.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Healthy employees = successful employees at Step Up for Students

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.”

Step Up earns another 4-star rating from Charity Navigator

Step Up For Students has again received a coveted four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator.

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.

Student Spotlight: Scholarship student enjoying the calm after the storm

 

By JEFF BARLIS

The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.

For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.

Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.

“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”

 “This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler. "It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

“This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler, who attend Hillsborough Baptist School. “It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.

“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.

He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.

“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”

The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.

TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.

“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”

By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.

At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.

The school had TJ Baker Acted, which meant he was taken for a psychological evaluation. The diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Ngozi felt relieved to know what was going on.

“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”

With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.

Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.

Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.

But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.

Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.

“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.

Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.

With all A’s and B’s, TJ is planning to go to college in the fall – either Hillsborough Community College or University of South Florida – aiming to become a veterinarian.

In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.

One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.

TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.

Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”

About Hillsborough Baptist School

Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.