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Of baby supplies, care packages for soldiers and feeding the needy: The tale of one student’s charity

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.

Jack and Helen Figueredo at the baby shower in the Dominican Republic.

“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.

Jack delivering food to impoverished families in the Dominican Republic.

Looking back, Jack said the family trips to feed the homeless was “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.

Jack filling bags with baby supplies for the baby shower.

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 that was set for last November.

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.

The moms-to-be at the baby shower.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

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.

Abi’ya Wright

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.

Nicole Singletary

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.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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.

Aydin Montero

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.”

A legacy

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.

Jose Calixto

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.”

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

A Virtual Pomp and Circumstance: Step Up celebrates Class of 2020

By LISA A. DAVIS

Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.

“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”

Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”

Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.

“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.

“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”

Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.

“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”

“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.

“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Busy 48 hours includes trip to State Capitol, trophies for Piney Grove Boys Academy

By ROGER MOONEY

Alton Bolden, principal at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, has a new name for Feb. 5.

“Championship Wednesday,” he said.

It began that morning when a quartet of middle schoolers won in dominated fashion the 13th annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl. (Click here to watch the competition.)  Later that afternoon, students cliched another   victory in the elementary school basketball championship game.

“We were winning every which way we looked,” Bolden said.

Piney Grove is a private K-12 school with 75 of its 98 students attending on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

What made their accomplishments that Wednesday more impressive is the fact about 35 students, including the Brian Bowl winners and several members of the basketball team, spent almost 20 hours the day before traveling to and from the State Capitol in Tallahassee. They were there to support Step Up and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship during a media event for the program at the Capitol Rotunda.

From bottom left: Nathan Smith, Alex Day, Julian Day and Shaun Scott-Richards with the HP Chromebooks they won for finishing first in the 13th Annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl.

“Although it was a lot of time on the bus, I feel it was worth it,” said eighth grader Alex Day, captain of the Brain Bowl team. “It is amazing when all the people from different backgrounds – high-income, low-income, no matter the differences – can come together and solve one problem.”

The students toured the state senate and met a number of the black and Hispanic pastors from across the state who also traveled to Tallahassee for the event.

“I got to meet new people and knowing that people care about our education and are willing to pay for us to go to school, that’s what I took away from the trip,” said eighth grader Shaun Scott-Richards.

Bolden quizzed the Brian Bowl team and went over plays with the basketball team during the bus rides.

“They were well-prepared,” he said.

It showed during the finals when Alex, Shaun and teammates Julian Day (seventh grade) and Nathan Smith (sixth) rolled to a 300-60 victory against Lauderhill 6-12 STEM MED School.  All four students receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

The win was a by-product of preparation. Bolden said the students studied daily for a month.

“I learned more about my history,” Nathan said.

Julian admitted he and his teammates were a little nervous about the competition for several reasons: Lauderhill 6-12 won it last year while it was Piney Grove’s first time in the event, and it was being recorded by the Broward Educational Community Network. There were video cameras, bright lights and BEACON TV host, Lisa Lee.

“But if you get a chance, don’t give up,” Julian said. “Take another chance, another chance. Don’t give it up.”

The boys jumped to an early lead and never looked back. The topic was Black History Month and several times they provided correct answers before the host finished asking the questions.

Rosa Parks.

Muhammad Ali.

The Tuskegee Airmen.

The answers flowed and so did some tears.

“I don’t cry easily but they had me in tears because they were answering questions before they were finished asking the questions,” Bolden said. “They were committed.”

Alex, Shaun, Nathan and Julian each received an HP Chromebook for their efforts. Bolden was presented with the trophy.

After the awards ceremony, Bolden had to hustle back to campus, so he could drive the bus carrying the basketball team to its championship game at West Broward Prep. School, Piney Grove took home the second trophy of the day, courtesy of a 38-32 victory.

“They definitely made a statement about the school,” Bolden said. “We don’t have just athletes. People think this is a behavioral-change school, and we tell them it’s not a behavioral-change school. We are a school offering inner-city youth a college preparatory education in the inner city.

“That was a very busy 48 hours, and successful, too. I was very proud of them for that.”

ABOUT PINEY GROVE BOYS ACADEMY

The school’s mission is to provide a “harmonious, educational environment that enhances the physical, mental and spiritual talents” for the K-12 students. The school’s Primary curriculum is A Beka. High School and Middle school students take Advance & AP classes through Florida Virtual School. High school students are also offered duel enrollment at Broward College and Bethune-Cookman University. Tuition including fees: kindergarten $6,669; grades 1-4 $6,619; 5th grade $6,669; grades 6-7 $6,915; 8th grade $6,990; grades 9-11 $7,211 and 12th grade $7,286.

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.

Mount Zion students show they care with supplies sent to hurricane survivors

By ROGER MOONEY

St. PETERSBURG, FL – The plastic boxes, originally meant to hold school supplies like pencils and markers and glue and tape, were stuffed with necessities like toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant and underwear.

Each box contained a note written by a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy.

“Hello, friend. I hope this brings you some happiness and joy,” wrote Tavaris Jones Jr., 6, a first grader at the K-5 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida.

E’Monie Cooper, 8, a second grader, stuffed socks, soap, a toothbrush, rubber bands, baby wipes, pens and a hand towel into a box.

“Love you and be safe,” she wrote on her note.

The boxes were then taped shut and shipped to the Bahamas, where they were intended to ease the burden of children living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 hurricane that made landfall on Sept. 1 and cut a destructive path across the group of islands.

“I was sad that that happened, and it was sad for them, because some people got hurt,” said Keizyon Taylor, 10, a fourth grader. “I had feelings for them.”

Keizyon’s box contained socks, underwear, soap, hand sanitizer and tissues.

“It made me feel good because I was helping somebody,” he said.

(Back row from left) Principal Franca Sheehy, E’Monie Cooper, Angelica Strong and Keizyon Taylor and (front row from left) Aubreanna Clements, Taliyah Jones, Alexander James and Tavaris Jones Jr., of Mount Zion Christian Academy helped pack 120 care boxes for children in the Bahamas living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

Mount Zion’s 90 students plus teachers and staff packed 120 of those care packages and delivered them to a hurricane relief collection center.

“It was going to the kids who did not have the stuff we have,” said kindergartener Aubreanna Clements, 5.

All but one of Mount Zion’s students attend the school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarships are managed by Step Up For Students.

“This project, I felt, would let them feel like they were doing something for someone in need. Even something as small as a little note is golden to the victims,” Mount Zion Principal Franca Sheehy said.

Sheehy said the project fit in well with her theme for this school year: “Acts of Kindness.”

“Every week they focus on different behaviors,” she said. “Welcoming a person. How to listen. Empathy. Especially empathy. It was part of this project, emphasizing feeling how another person would feel in this situation.”

The idea for the care packages came to Sheehy a few days after Hurricane Dorian’s 185 mph winds left thousands homeless and caused $3.4 billion in damage to the Bahamas.

Inside her office were more than 100 plastic pencil boxes that had been donated to her school the previous month. She and the staff were discussing ways the boxes could be used. Several of the civic groups she belongs to were already organizing hurricane relief projects. Sheehy looked at the empty boxes and said, “We can do this, too.”

Letters were sent to the parents and guardians of her students asking them to donate children’s supplies, if they could, with emphasis placed on “if they could.”

Sheehy, along with combined donations from the teachers and staff members, bought washcloths, underwear, wipes, toothbrushes and socks. 

The items were lined up, along with those donated by the parents and others, on tables in a classroom. Each student chose items to fill their pink or blue box. The students wrote notes intended to lift the spirits of the child who would receive it.

“I hope you like these gifts we sent from Mount Zion,” wrote second grader Angelica Strong, 7.

She put soap, towels, underwear and socks in her care package.

“It was raining bad (in the Bahamas), and on the news they were checking on the kids, seeing if anything happened to them,” Angelica said. “That made me feel sad.”

Sheehy was pleased with how her school was able to make a small dent in the relief effort and how her students responded to the project.

“Our students need to learn that they can give and help others. This was a time where it wasn’t about them and their needs, but about someone else’s needs,” she said. “I think the project was a success, and they got something from it.”

Aubreanna, the kindergartener who recognized the need to help those less fortunate, remembered seeing the devastating images on TV – families that lost their homes and parents searching for their children. She did not write a note. Instead, she drew a picture of children playing at the beach.

“It was a happy picture,” Aubreanna said.

About Mount Zion Christian Academy

The Mount Zion Christian Academy opened in August 2012 under the leadership of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Enrollment at the K-5 school increased since 2014 by 95% with a 90% retention rate. All teachers have a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree and all teacher assistants have an Associate’s Degree minimum. Half of faculty/staff have Orton Gillingham Reading Approach (multi-sensory) training. All students receive breakfast/lunch assistance. Tuition with fees for K-3 is $6,993. Tuition with fees for grades 4-5 is $6,519.

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

Breakthru Beverage Florida donates $35 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, announced Friday that it is donating $35 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

Breakthru’s donation will fund more than 5,028 scholarships for K-12 lower-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2019-20 school year.

Breakthru Beverage Florida and Step Up For Students celebrated the ninth consecutive year of Breakthru’s support at Abundant Life Christian Academy with students that benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Since 2011, Breakthru Beverage Florida has generously funded 55,882 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling more than $324 million to Step Up For Students.

“One of our core values at Breakthru is to do our part to better the communities we serve,” said Eric Pfeil, executive vice president of Breakthru Beverage Florida. “We are proud to support Step Up For Students and are dedicated to helping give Florida schoolchildren the opportunity to reach their highest potential.”

Breakthru Beverage Florida  celebrated their ninth consecutive year of support of Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are, Breakthru Beverage Florida Chief Financial Officer Eric Roth, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Anne Francis, Breakthru Beverage Florida Executive Vice President Eric Pfeil, and Abundant Life Christian Academy Principal Stacy Angier. They are joined by Abundant Life Christian Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

During the visit at Abundant Life Christian Academy, the students talked about all the unique opportunities they have at the school and their goals for the future. A couple of students also shared their science fair project that will be up for judging soon. One fourth grade student, who uses the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, presented his science project on rocks and minerals to a very impressed crowd.

Step Up For Students, 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 gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Students at Abundant Life Christian Academy shared their science projects that will be up for judging soon.

“Breakthru Beverage Florida continues to show their incredible commitment to deserving schoolchildren through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Breakthru understands how important this scholarship is to so many students in Florida. They are a critical part of the program’s success and we are grateful for their continued support.”

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.

Volunteering at MDA camp in high school helped former Step Up scholar find his life’s calling

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.

There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.

But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.

“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”

That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.

“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”

Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.

(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)

There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.

There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.

They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.

Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.

A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.


Tommy spent his fall break at Notre Dame with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge.

“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”

The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.

“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”  

And that’s what happened.

The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.

Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.

He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.

The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.

“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”

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