Tag Archives forpoverty

No limits: Gardiner Scholarships fuel big dreams for the Alexander family


Abby Alexander is a 9-year-old entrepreneur who has developed – and hit the local market with – her own line of skin-care products. She recently sold her Gifts by Abby Lane merchandise during an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Her brother, Christopher, 13, loves acting and wants to eventually write and direct movies. In his spare time, he reads Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

A young entrepreneur, Abby Alexander recently displayed her own skin-care products, Gifts by Abby Lane, during an expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Abby and Christopher are biological siblings who were adopted at a young age by Kelli Alexander and Nicholas Alexander of Spring Hill, Florida, about 50 miles north of Tampa.

Christopher was 4 when the Alexanders adopted him, and he soon began attending a neighborhood school. Around third grade, he started having some difficulties.

“In school, the teachers started to notice that he was getting distracted by little things, like the temperature of the classroom or his friend was wearing new shoes,” Kelli Alexander said. “He couldn’t focus on what the teacher was teaching and his (learning style) is very one-step-at-a-time. He couldn’t focus. He’d get instructions and would get lost in multiple-step instructions.”

He often struggled with reading and math, and would come home frustrated and discouraged.

The Alexanders had adopted Abby when she was 19 months old. When Abby started school, she had different challenges.

“Abby struggled with not being in control of things,” Kelli said. “Anytime the teacher would deviate from a schedule, she couldn’t focus. If they were five minutes late for art class, it would throw off the rest of her day. She was done.”

It didn’t help that Abby also had attachment and anxiety issues, as did her brother.

Now in seventh grade, Christopher was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age 9. Abby, a fourth-grader, was 7 when she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum; the Alexanders also were told she is gifted.

Christopher Alexander is a voracious reader who wants to someday become a professional actor.

Through her own research, Kelli Alexander learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Thanks to the scholarship, Kelli has been able to afford to home school Christopher for the past four years, while husband Nicholas works at a Walmart distribution center. Abby started home schooling this year. Kelli Alexander said she is pleased with her children’s progress, and both kids said they are


happier learning at home, where they are also close to their 3-year-old brother William.

“Our family is always on a tight budget,” Kelli said. “The scholarship has allowed us to choose high-quality curricula, quality technology and supplies to cater to their special needs. The scholarship allows us to decide what, where and how we teach our children. We can design a curriculum that plays off of their strengths and passions. Since being home-schooled, both have shown remarkable improvements not just academically, but emotionally as well.”

Kelli, Abby and Christopher Alexander recently acted in a production of “Annie” at the Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, Florida.

The family, including Kelli, regularly participates in community theater productions at Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, which has Christopher dreaming of a career on the stage or in a director’s chair – or both. He said his overall outlook on life has changed since he started home schooling.

“Home-school is so much better,” he said. “My other school was so stressful and fake. The kids and students were crazy and stressful – naïve.”

He has acted in community productions of “Around the World In 80 Days,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Annie” and “Peter Pan.” He is currently auditioning for the part of Quee, a dwarf in the medieval comedy, “ReUnKnighted.”

“I really want to be an actor,” he said. “That’s my dream. I look to do any roles that sound good.”

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

“Right now, I’m on ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio,” he said.

In the fall, Abby decided she wanted to earn her own money. Her strong interest in science and math led to the idea of starting her own line of skin-care products.

“With the scholarship, we were able to find resources to help her learn about small businesses and in a very short time she created a business plan,” Kelli Alexander said. “Gifts by Abby Lane was born at our kitchen table. She makes specialty items that don’t have any added perfumes or dyes. In the past few months, she has expanded from selling to friends and family to setting up booths at large markets and she has many more planned for the coming months.  This business venture has been the greatest hands-on lesson for her in business, economics and customer service.”

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

“At first, we gave them as presents to some of our friends, then I thought it would be cool to make products that almost everybody can use,” she said.

Her interests are not bound to beauty products. The family has two kittens – Genie and Bobby – which has sparked her enthusiasm for the veterinary field.

Abby, described by her mother as “very analytical and practical,” has such a keen interest in national security that she has also considered a career as a border patrol agent.

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

“The Gardiner Scholarship has given us the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.




Cigar City Brewing gives back by donating $30,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


 TAMPA, FL – Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa-area brewery, announced on Feb. 2 a $30,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year.

This is the first time that Cigar City Brewing has partnered with Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund four K-12 scholarships so financially disadvantaged Florida children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

Cigar City Brewing Chief Operating Officer Justin Clark , right, presents Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant ,left, with a check for $30,000. The donation will provide K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida families to attend the school that best meets their child’s learning needs through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

“Cigar City Brewing is proud to support our community, and even more proud to make a difference in the life of a child through providing educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City Brewing’s chief operating officer. “We admire the work of Step Up For Students and are pleased to join in this partnership.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income children throughout the state. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are honored to welcome Cigar City Brewing as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

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 kinergarten 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.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.


Born drug-addicted and poor, a Step Up graduate’s story set for a happy ending


If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.

“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”

Ashley Elliott, a freshman at Valencia College, says if it wasn’t for Step Up For Students, she likely wouldn’t be in college now and on a path to become a teacher.

Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”

At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.

By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.

After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.

“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.

When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.

“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”

She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”

When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.

She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.

“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”

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


Republic National Distributing Company takes center stage and donates $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest wine and spirits wholesaler, announced on Feb. 6 a contribution of $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a $65 million contribution as Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera looks on. RNDC’s contribution will fund more than 9,940 scholarships for lower-income students to attend a school that best meets their learning needs. Rivera is a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with plans to become a commercial airline pilot.

The donation was announced during RNDC’s state sales meeting, held on a soundstage at Universal Studios Orlando.

RNDC’s donation will allow more than 9,940 K-12 students to attend the school of their choice through Florida Tax Credit scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

“Making a difference in the life of a student, their family and our community makes us very proud. For many students, having the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their learning needs can propel them on a path toward a better future,” said RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. “We’re proud to support Florida schoolchildren through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.”

This is the sixth consecutive year RNDC has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Step Up For Students allows lower-income families the opportunity to attend schools they might not otherwise be able to afford. But we couldn’t do this without the support and generosity of our donors,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since 2012, RNDC has contributed $180 million, providing more than 30,665 scholarships. On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank you for your continued commitment and generosity.”

Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera and his mother Deborah DeJesus attended the event to share their story with the RNDC associates. During his junior year of high school, Orlando’s grades had dropped to nearly failing. With help from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Orlando was able to change schools and attend Heritage Christian School in Kissimmee.

“Going to Heritage turned my life around,” said Orlando. “Today, I’m a freshman at Embry-Riddle, studying aeronautical science on the airline pilot specialty track. I’d like to thank Step Up For Students and donors like RNDC for making this possible.”

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 to $6,343 per student for kindergarten 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.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org

School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty


At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis, a Step Up For Students graduate, now attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different.

Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.

Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.

After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.

It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.

Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.

“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.

Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.

Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.

“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”

Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.

“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”

Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.

But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.

Renée Lewis, left, and Donna Nelson forged a strong bond in raising Maloni together.

After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.

With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.

The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”

From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.

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

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org. 

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student


Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.

“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”

He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.

Jacob, a student at New Generation School in Live Oak, is especially fond of teacher Charlene Redish, who has helped him overcome shyness, issues with self-confidence and academic concerns.

During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.

Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.

“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”

While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.

But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.

That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.

By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.

“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.

The results were immediate and stunning.

“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.

His grandparents quickly applied for and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families through Step Up For Students, and enrolled Jacob into New Generation.

With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.

“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”

Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.

Jacob Monastra likes digging for rocks, riding four-wheelers with his grandfather and fishing.

Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.

“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”

Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.

At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.

Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.

Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.

“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at dhudson@sufs.org.



Summit Bank supports educational success through $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


PANAMA CITY, FL – Summit Bank, N.A., a regional provider of personalized, concierge-style financial services, announced Oct. 26 a $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, funding 15 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay County, Escambia County and Okaloosa County.

Summit Bank executives visited Saint John Catholic School in Panama City to present Step Up For Students with a contribution to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Summit Bank is contributing a total of $100,000 to provide scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties. Pictured are (kneeling) Andy Stein, Summit Bank President & CEO, (standing left to right) Jeff Dibenedictis, Summit Bank Senior Vice President, Commercial Relationship Manager, Barbara Haag, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Financial Officer, Jim Looker, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Lending Officer, Dr. Vicki Parks, Saint John Catholic School Principal, Renae Sweeney, Step Up For Students Development Director, and Frank Hall, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer. They are joined by a few students benefiting from the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

This marks the fourth year Summit Bank has supported the scholarship program. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2014, the company has contributed a total of $450,000, the equivalent of 77 scholarships.

“Summit Bank is committed to making a difference in our local communities and is excited to provide the opportunity for 15 families to find the right learning environment for their child through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said President and CEO Andy Stein. “We hope this support helps propel these students towards educational success and bright futures.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers 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.

“We are grateful that Summit Bank joins us in our mission to impact the poverty cycle by providing educational options for lower-income Florida families,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank Summit Bank 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-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties this school year, 43 schools are participating in the program which will benefit more than 2,475 students.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.







Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood


Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors. That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

Calvary principal Denise Vega and Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz say that uniting as one makes both school stronger. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

“You think of it as an octopus with eight legs,” said Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz. “There are certain things that these legs can do, and certain things that those legs can do. So that’s kind of how we work. What can I help you with? What can you help me with?”

The partnership started with a phone call.

Four years ago, officials at Sadler asked Calvario City Church if they could use the church as a shelter in case of emergency. Of course, the pastors said. Is there anything else we can do?

That’s when they heard about Sadler’s homeless children. There were 30 to 40 back then. Now there are 85 to 90. (Sadler’s enrollment ballooned from 400 to 800 over that span.)

Vega, who is also a children’s pastor at the church, said she was in shock. “I felt a burden,” said Vega, a whirlwind of motion with a perpetually hoarse voice. “How can you learn on an empty stomach?”

One hundred percent of students at Sadler are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent are English language learners. The demographics at Calvary City Christian Academy are challenging, too, with about 90 percent of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.

But that didn’t deter anyone at either school from joining hands. In fact, the profound need compelled it.

The schools and the church hatched a plan to provide food to the homeless families on weekends, when the public school could not provide for the students. The groceries are purchased on Wednesdays, bagged on Thursdays and handed out from a pantry at Sadler on Fridays.

In addition, large companies like Publix, Goya, Nabisco and Merita have donated food unsolicited. It all ends up with the lowest-income families at Sadler.

Valeria Angeles, a sixth-grader who attended Sadler from K-5, was one of the students who received them. She brought them to her grandmother, Enitt Manzano, at the hotel she paid for weekly.

“I was so surprised and amazed,” said Manzano. “I didn’t have words to describe the happiness. It’s only the two of us, and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed with so many groceries.”

Valeria now attends Calvary City Christian Academy. She did well at Sadler, but her grandmother wanted to put her in a private school and she qualified for a Step Up scholarship.

Vega said there have been occasions in which each school has recommended to parents that the other might be a better fit for their child. The bottom line, she said, is helping the community, not staking out territory.

“Are they my competition? No!” Vega said. “These are children and they need support from people who are willing to extend a helping hand. That’s all we want to be.”

Food wasn’t the only thing missing at Sadler.

As the schools grew closer, other needs were identified and other services offered.

To start the school year, Calvary families round up backpacks full of school supplies to give to their counterparts at Sadler. At Thanksgiving, they give additional baskets full of food. At Christmas, they deliver presents in an Angel Tree event in response to student wish lists.

Calvary students, families and church members have painted buildings at Sadler and gardened in the courtyard. Vega taps into the church’s ministries for more resources.

The result is a suite of wraparound services for Sadler’s most disadvantaged families: English-language classes for parents. Assistance in getting food stamps, affordable housing, health care and jobs. There are even referrals for drug rehabilitation and a shelter for abused women.

“Everything that is available to us, we make available to the community,” Vega said.

Vega and Ortiz have forged a tight bond that reflects the closeness of their schools. They laugh together, plan social events together, and finish each other’s sentences.

A 15-year educator, Ortiz said the support his school receives from Calvary is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s given him a vision of the future where institutions, including schools, can form even stronger ties to maximize their strengths.

“There should be no hurdles to providing for the community. That’s it. That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “It’s just saying there are no lines here. Let’s make sure we can help our neighbor out, just as they would help us.”

About Calvary City Christian Academy

Located in Orlando’s Oak Ridge community, the school is a ministry of Calvario City Church and was formerly known as Iglesia El Calvario. There are 256 K-12 students, including 226 on the Step Up scholarship. Affiliated with the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), the school is accredited by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS) as well as Green Apple. It uses a mix of A Beka, Bob Jones and Saxon Math curriculums. The Terranova test is administered three times a year to measure growth. Tuition is $6,000 annually for K-8 and $6,300 for high school.

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.