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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.