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Young violinists bring joy to audiences and teachers

By ROGER MOONEY

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manny Perez used to stand in the back of the violin ensemble, hoping to shield himself from those in the audience with discerning ears who would know when he missed a note or, in his words, messed up.

“I thought I messed up most of the time,” Manny said.

Funny thing, though. No one ever approached Manny after a performance and told him he had messed up. Instead, those who listened to the group perform said things like, “You were amazing!” and “Great job!” and “I wish I could play the violin.”

They say that to Manny, a fifth grader, and the rest of the members of Strings of Joy, the violin ensemble made up of fourth and fifth graders from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.

The blossoming musicians found themselves the object of attention and some envy last spring when they played in the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg before a performance by the Florida Orchestra.

They were nervous beforehand.

“I had goosebumps,” Manny said.

They were thrilled afterward.

“It was my first time (playing) at a real theater, playing for so many people,” fourth grader Caden Wehrli said. “And seeing their faces, it was like, ‘Wow!’”

Strings of Joy is 17 strong with more than half its members, including those interviewed for this story, attending the private K-8 school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The ensemble consists of those who demonstrate an aptitude for playing the instrument and a love of performing.

Caden Wehrli

In the two years since it was formed, Strings of Joy has grown from playing during services at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and at nearby senior centers and senior homes, to playing the Mahaffey Theater.

The students have also played at the Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World and at the Catholic Foundation Gala in Tampa.

They have a gig lined up this spring to play in the lobby of Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater before another performance by the Florida Orchestra. They have been invited to play the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.

“Isn’t that amazing?” asked Mary Rehm, the school’s interim principal. “We’re incredible proud of what we do here.”

All-around students

There are a number of studies on the link between playing a musical instrument and academic performance. Albert Einstein played the violin. Thomas Jefferson, too.

The motor, visual and auditory parts of the brain are all engaged when Manny or Caden are playing their violin. One study referred to it as the brain receiving a full body workout. And like any workout, this ability becomes stronger over time and is eventually applied to other tasks, such as learning.

Jackson Smudde

Jackson Smudde, a fifth grader in the ensemble, said that is true in his case.

“I didn’t always pay attention in class that well. I was just kind of looking off,” he said. “Now I actually focus on what my teacher is saying.”

Father Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, agreed.

“I think we’ve seen potential in children that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It certainly unleased a lot of their gifts and talents and their potential outside of playing the violin.”

Caden’s mom, Kelly Wehrli, said she wasn’t sure if her son had the discipline needed to learn the violin. Turns out, he was. And that discipline carried over to the classroom.

“He has done so much better academically and musically than I could have ever expected,” she said. “I see a huge change. He gets straight A’s, which I’m really proud of.”

Kristy Bates, whose daughter Alivia is a fourth grader in the ensemble, played the clarinet and bagpipes when she was in middle school. She felt a change in the way she learned after she began playing those instruments.

“I noticed that it just kind of puts your brain in a different way of learning to where you just start thinking outside of the box,” Bates said. “And then reading notes is almost like a second language, so it’s a completely different method of learning, and it does help you in your other areas of schooling, as well.”

Life-long violinists

Our Lady of Lourdes has, historically, been big on the arts. Music and drama teacher Lisa Suarez estimated at least half of the school’s 210 students are involved in either the choir, the school play or Strings of Joy.

This year’s play will be “Fiddler on the Roof,” a nod to the young violinists.

Suarez said she was curious to see the response from the third-grade class when they began learning the violin.

“To see the kids gravitate towards it, that really surprised me, how much they love it,” she said.

Caden said the violin class was fun.

“I thought it was going to be hard, but actually it wasn’t,” he said. “Each time I heard the song once, I would play it once, and I would get it correct.”

Kate Francis, who oversees the Strings of Joy, said what is unique about the violin program is while some schools offer an instrument as an elective or extracurricular activity, Our Lady of Lourdes includes it among the third-grade courses. So, students who might not have any interest or might be intimidated are uncovering a hidden talent.

Manny Perez

“Manny loves the violin, and that’s going to be a part of him for his whole life and he learned it here,” Francis said. “That’s so cool.”

Ana Flores, Manny’s mother, remembered covering her ears when her son first started practicing at home. And now?

“He makes me feel like a proud mom,” she said. “He said he’s going to do it for the rest of his life. I’m going to have a violinist at home.”

Jackson said he wants to play for a long time.

“Probably ’til the end of my life,” he said.

And Caden? “Until I get about 30-something,” he said.

“He has two goals,” said Caden’s mom. “He wants to be a professional musician now, and a professional baseball player, so, I’ll hit the lottery either way.”

Manny, the boy who once tried to remain unnoticed when he played, now plays solos. He was upset last May when the school year ended, and he had to return his violin.

He said he wants to play the violin for “a very long time.”

Why?

“Because,” he said, “I can bring joy to people without singing or without talking, just with moving my hand with the bow and making gestures with my hands and the violin strings.”

About Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School

Founded in 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes sits in a 34-acre campus in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin and is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. More than 70 of the 210 K-8 students attend the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The school incorporates the Catholic tradition in its curriculum, though accepts students from all faiths. Tuition for parishioners for the 2019-20 school year begins at $7,435 for the first student and increases by $6835 per additional child. For non-parishioners, tuition is $9,305 for the first students and increases by $8,705 for each additional child.

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

Time to nominate students, teachers, parents for Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.

Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.

Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.

School principals can nominate students for one of the following:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.

Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.

Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.

  • Miami-Dade North: Monday, March 16
  • Miami-Dade South: Tuesday, March 17
  • Palm Beach: Thursday, March 19
  • Broward: Monday, March 23
  • Leon: Tuesday, March 24
  • Lee: Tuesday, March 24
  • Brevard: Wednesday, March 25
  • Hillsborough: Wednesday, March 25
  • Duval East: Thursday, March 26
  • Pinellas: Thursday, March 26
  • Duval Central: Monday, March 30
  • Volusia: Tuesday, March 31
  • Marion: Tuesday, March 31
  • Escambia: Wednesday, April 1
  • Orange East: Thursday, April 2
  • Orange West: Thursday, April 2

Event locations will be announced at a later date.

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

Making the most of the opportunity, resources, investment that come with Step Up scholarship

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham spent seven weeks during the summer of 2019 working at a medical clinic in a small town in Guatemala. He traveled to the Central American country on his own, lived with a host family and used the Spanish he learned in high school to communicate.

He worked with the nurses, taking the blood pressure and recording heights and weights of patients. He would give health clinics, teaching the residents how to clean their food and even how to clean their hands before eating.

“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “You would think that after being away from home in a foreign country for seven weeks that you would be excited to come back home. But for me, I wanted to stay and continue to work. To me, that work felt meaningful.” 

The opportunity arose because of the work Tommy did during his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, where he is now a sophomore pre-med major with a full scholarship.

He earned the opportunity to go to Notre Dame because of the work he did at Jesuit High School in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. There, Tommy was a top student, active in the school’s clubs and a participant in summer mission trips.

The opportunity to attend Jesuit came about with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables K-12 students from lower-income families receive a private school education.

If Tommy, 19, were to talk to students who received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the first time, he would use words like “opportunity” and “resources” and “investment,” as in those who donate to the scholarship are investing in your future, so use the resources now available to you and make the most of this opportunity.

(Read Part I and Part II of the three-part series about Tommy)

“It’s really up to them on how much they want to change what they have right now, their own circumstances,” Tommy said. “My own circumstances pushed me to work a little harder, work a little extra so that I could go beyond ‘average.'”

“I’ll have to admit, it’s easier said than done, for sure.”

But it can be done.

Tommy is a good example.

His parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, are employed in the service industry, sometimes balancing two jobs as a waiter or waitresses to provide for Tommy and his younger sister, Jennifer, who attends the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

They pushed their children academically so Tommy and Jennifer would never have to run from job to job in an effort to make ends meet.

Tommy is aware of the sacrifices made by his parents. The best way he can thank them, he said, is to max out on his academic opportunities.

He did that at Jesuit, earning a coveted QuestBridge scholarship.

Tommy at a birthday party last summer with his host family
during his seven-week stay in Guatemala.

Students who receive a QuestBridge Scholarship call them life-changing. Started in the mid-2000s at Stanford University, the scholarship provides a full four-year scholarship for top academic students from lower-income families at some of the country’s top colleges and universities.

Tommy, now a sophomore at Notre Dame, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior. He is thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon.

His course load this semester includes organic chemistry II, physics, neuroscience, psychology and theology. He is also conducting research for a way to analyze certain molecules that might inhibit cancer immunotherapy.

He spent the fall break with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge in the southern part of the state.

Tommy was always a top student, but he admits he might not have made it this far without the opportunity provided by Step Up. It allowed him to attend a top academic high school and not be intimidated by classmates who came from wealthier backgrounds.

“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.”

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

EverBank inspires hope for Florida schoolchildren through $1.5 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

EverBank, a division of TIAA, FSB, today announced a $1.5 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. The donation will fund about 229 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

This marks the 14th year EverBank has supported the scholarship program. Since teaming with Step Up in 2004, the company has contributed more than $14.5 million, the equivalent of 3,050 scholarships.

Step Up For Students and EverBank, a division of TIAA, FSB, celebrated EverBank’s support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Jacksonville on Thursday (Jan. 25). EverBank’s donation of $1.5 million will fund about 229 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. Pictured back row from left to right, Step Up Chief Financial Officer Joe Pfountz, St. Matthew’s Principal Kathy Tuerk, Step Up Development Officer Renae Sweeney and TIAA, FSB, Vice President and CRA Officer Joseph Hernandez.

Step Up For Students and EverBank, a division of TIAA, FSB, celebrated EverBank’s support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Jacksonville on Thursday (Jan. 25). EverBank’s donation of $1.5 million will fund about 229 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. Pictured back row from left to right, Step Up Chief Financial Officer Joe Pfountz, St. Matthew’s Principal Kathy Tuerk, Step Up Development Officer Renae Sweeney and TIAA, FSB, Vice President and CRA Officer Joseph Hernandez.

“EverBank is proud to support the dedicated work of Step Up For Students through our contributions to the scholarship program. Providing opportunities for lower-income Florida families to find the right learning environment for their children will lead to avenues to a brighter tomorrow,” said TIAA, FSB, Vice President and CRA Officer, Joseph Hernandez “We believe this relationship will continue our efforts to inspire hope and empower change in the communities in which we work and live.”

The announcement was made at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Jacksonville, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade students. Nearly 40 percent of its 225 students use Step Up For Student scholarships.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. 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.

“EverBank has been a longtime supporter of Step Up For Students in providing options for lower-income Florida families to find the environment that best meets their child’s learning needs. We appreciate and applaud their commitment and contributions,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank EverBank for their generosity.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.