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Former Step Up For Students scholar chasing major league dream

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Jay Allen gave his mother a gift she will treasure forever.

With Deanna Singletary among the family members sitting in the front row behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Jay hit his first home run of the season for the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A minor-league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

It was the first time Deanna saw her son hit a home run since he began playing professional baseball last summer. The two-run shot to left-center field provided the winning runs in a 4-3 victory against the Palm Beach Cardinals.

To say she was excited is a gross understatement.

“He hits it out and I jump up and down screaming,” Deanna said. “I’m known for that. I’m the loud one.

 “It is still unbelievable.”

Jay and his mom, Deanna.

Jay, 19, has been hitting home runs since he began playing baseball when he was 9: In Little League, travel ball and at John Carroll High School, the private Catholic school near his Fort Pierce home that he attended with the help of an education choice scholarship.

A center fielder, Jay was picked in the first round (30th overall) of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft by the Reds after a stellar athletic career at John Carroll that saw him star in football, basketball, and baseball.

“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Jay said. “Everybody always pictures when they start playing sports to be a professional and when that happens, it’s a surreal moment.”

Jay was carving up the competition on the athletic fields in the Fort Pierce area as a middle schooler when Deanna decided she wanted a better education environment for her son. The mother of one of Jay’s teammates told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is supported by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. She applied and was accepted.

Jay attended Saint Anastasia Catholic School as an eighth-grader before moving on to John Carroll for high school.

“It was the best decision that I have made, honestly,” Deanna said. “Jay excelled in school. It was a smaller school, so the teachers are more hands-on. Financially, if I didn’t have Step Up, there was no way Jay would have been able to go to Saint Anastasia and John Carroll.”

Deanna’s two daughters – Ayonna Mitchell and Da’Nasia Davis – also receive the scholarships. Ayonna is going into her junior year at John Carroll; Da’Nasia begins her freshman year there in August.

“The (FTC) scholarship gave us a better opportunity,” Jay said. “It got us in a better school, and we rolled from there.”

John Carroll Principal Corey Heroux said Jay received mostly A’s and B’s in a course load that included honors classes.

“We’re very big on you’re a student/athlete,” she said. “You’re a student first and you can only be an athlete if you are taking care of your business in the classroom.

“We’re proud of having vigorous coursework, and he put the time in and took care of his business.”

Jay said he appreciated how the faculty at John Carroll pushed him academically.

Jay heading toward home plate. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dowd.)

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but they made it their priority to make sure you were going to go to the next level and be a college student.”

Jay had several scholarship offers even after committing to play baseball at the University of Florida as a sophomore. Some college coaches continued to recruit Jay, trying to woo him to their campus with the promise of playing both football and baseball. But a fractured ankle suffered during football as an eighth-grader nudged Jay in the direction of baseball. He still has two screws in his ankle.

Ultimately, none of those coaches would have landed Jay. He opted for pro ball after the being drafted by the Reds.

“I felt the odds of me being a better baseball player than a better football player was in my favor,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out and I did get hurt playing football and that took a little toll.”

Jay, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, is rated the fifth-best prospect in the Reds minor league system by MLB.com. He began his pro career last summer in the Arizona Complex League before moving this season to the Reds’ Class A team in Daytona Beach. Playing in front of a host of family members, friends, staff and faculty from John Carroll and Saint Anastasia, and former teammates and coaches during most games played on Florida’s East Coast, Allen is among the team leaders in every offensive category.

Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star center fielder with the Reds during his 17-year Major League career, has worked with Jay since last summer. He is eager to see how Jay develops now that he can focus solely on baseball for the first time in his life.

“He has a lot of talent, and the more games he plays, the more he’ll understand,” Davis said after a watching Jay play recently in Clearwater. “He’s a tremendous upside for our organization and we’re proud to have him.”

Before each at-bat, Jay writes the letters “GS” in the dirt with the nob of his bat to honor his grandmother Gwendolyn Singletary, who recently passed away. Jay also has her name embroidered on his glove. His grandfather, Willie Singletary, taught Jay how to play center field by hitting buckets filled with baseballs to him whenever he could.

Willie, Deanna and her fiancé Eddie Davis attend as many of Jay’s games as they can. Deanna said she enjoys watching her son sign autographs for young fans before and after the games as much as she enjoys watching him play.

“Honestly, the enjoyable thing is Jay is doing things that he loves,” Deanna said. “I’m so happy for him.”

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

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. allocates $12 million to help Florida students

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., announced June 2 a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students, helping nearly 1,575 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2012, Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., a leading wine, spirits, and beer distributor, has generously funded nearly 13,040 scholarships through contributions totaling $85.1 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based scholarship program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. It allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.

“Johnson Brothers of Florida is proud to have partnered with Step Up For Students for the past 10 years to help Florida schoolchildren access the best education for them,” said Frank Galante, regional president of Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. “We are committed to supporting students and families throughout the state and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. announced a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (from left to right) are Principal of Icon Preparatory Academy Dr. Dwayne Raiford, President of Step Up For Students Doug Tuthill, General Sales Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Mike Madden, General Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Cullen Sullivan, and Vice President of Development for Step Up for Students Anne Francis.

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. celebrated this remarkable donation during a company meeting at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and Icon Preparatory School Principal Dr. Dwayne Raiford. Icon Preparatory School is located in Tampa and serves students in grades K-12, with more than 93% of its students benefitting from a Step Up For Students scholarship.

“It is clear that Johnson Brothers of Florida is committed to helping Florida students succeed,” Tuthill said. “Because of their support over the last 10 years, thousands of students throughout the state had access to the educational environment that works best for them, and we are truly grateful for their continued partnership.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Education choice alumni has clear vision for his future: ‘I want to be a missionary’

BY ROGER MOONEY

FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.

“I want to be a missionary,” he said.

Interesting. Why?

“That’s a pretty good question.”

After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”

That’s a pretty good answer.

Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.

“Now I’m set on that,” he said.

Rebecca and Zechariah Edwards.

Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.

Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.

“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”

Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.

Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.

After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.

“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.

“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”

Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.

Zech will pursue a degree in civil engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University.

He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.

Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.

He loves math, namely precalculus.

“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”

That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.

So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.

It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.

“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.

A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.

Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.

“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”

His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.

“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.

“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”

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

Earthquake survivor uses education choice scholarship to become a ‘Rising Star’

BY ROGER MOONEY

MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.

They didn’t make it.

Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.

Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.

Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.

Emmanuel and Gema before the Rising Stars Award ceremony April 27 at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate.

Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.

“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.

Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.

To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.

To an Ivy League college.

To medical school.

To a life helping those who need help.

She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.

“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.

Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.

Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.

“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”

Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.

Gema introduces herself at the Rising Stars Award event.

Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.

“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”

A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.

He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.

“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.

Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”

“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.

“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”

Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.

Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.

Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.

“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.

It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old

After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.

“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”

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

Cancer doesn’t interrupt path to med school for alumni of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

BY ROGER MOONEY

It was the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and Luke Desclefs was smoothly sailing toward graduating Jacksonville’s Bishop Snyder High School that spring. His course load wasn’t heavy. His grades were in order. His plans for college were in place.

Then in October, he noticed a lump on his neck.

Cancer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

His reaction? “It stinks.”

Luke was more upset with the intrusion in the plans for his final year of high school than the disease.

“Everyone faces something,” he said.

Luke understood that all too well.

Five years earlier, his mother Kathy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And in August, two months before Luke’s diagnosis, his dad Benoit was found to have an inoperable malignant brain tumor.

“We never asked, ‘Why us?’” Luke said. “Complaining about it isn’t going to help.”

Luke Desclefs

Life continued as best as it could for the Desclefs. Kathy ran The Magnificat Café, the French-American restaurant they owned in downtown Jacksonville, while Benoit underwent treatment. Luke endured three months of chemotherapy. His teachers at Snyder, which he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, adjusted his class schedule to accommodate his treatments.

“It’s not that enjoyable to have cancer,” Luke said. “Sometimes you’re tired of it, and you want to take off this jacket that’s cancer, breathe for a little bit and just put it on later. You can’t do that.

“But it could have been so much worse. You begin to feel blessed. It really changes your perspective on life.”

Luke, 20, is currently a sophomore at Florida State University. He is majoring in both exercise physiology and French. The first is part of a pre-med track. The latter is so he can converse with his family in France, where his dad was born, and possibly study abroad.

His coursework is demanding. He navigates that with the discipline to learn and study he acquired while attending private schools, first Christ the King Catholic School then Snyder.

“It’s incredible that I was able to do that,” Luke said. “But as I got older, I did begin to wonder how my parents paid for my education.”

The answer was the tax credit scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Step Up is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing education choice to families of Florida schoolchildren. Last year, it awarded its 1 millionth scholarship.

How Luke came to receive an FTC Scholarship is an example of the sacrifice a father is willing to make for his family.

Family time is important for Benoit. His father had been in the restaurant business and worked nights and weekends. Benoit, who was born in a town outside of Paris and studied at a culinary school in Bordeaux, dreamed of owning his own restaurant. He also wanted to be home for dinner. He wanted to spend the weekends with Kathy and the kids.

Hours like that don’t exist in that line of work. Unless you own the restaurant. And you only serve lunch.

In September 2003, Benoit opened The Magnificat Café. The restaurant was surrounded by office buildings that supplied the lunch crowd. Benoit had his wish. He was doing what he loved while spending time with those he loved.

Benoit and Kathy Desclefs.

“It worked out for our kids. It worked out for us,” Benoit said. “I spent time with my kids at night. I watched them grow. I was with my wife at night and on the weekends.”

But it came with a price. Lunch hours are just that. Most patrons had little time for appetizers or dessert. The big money comes at dinner, when people order several courses and maybe mix in a bottle of wine.

 “Your profit margin at night is much higher,” Benoit said.

“Hence,” Kathy added, “that’s why we were on Step Up For Students. We worked hard, but we didn’t make the income.”

Kathy and Benoit wanted a Catholic education for Luke.

“This scholarship really afforded him a great education, and he was in an environment that was conducive to studying and had great teachers and all the discipline that comes with parochial school,” Kathy said. “It helped provide him with the hunger and thirst to learn, and he did very well as a result, obviously.”

Kathy, who put her treatments on hold when Benoit and Luke became sick, recently returned to work. But not at The Magnificat Café. They had to sell it in August 2020, a casualty of COVID-19 as much as Benoit’s inability to work.

The brain tumor forced Benoit into an early retirement. Kathy, who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 30, recently began working at the Women’s Help Center in Jacksonville.

Luke sees that as a return to some normalcy for the family.

“It’s not really normal when your parents don’t work for reasons of health,” Luke said.

Luke’s cancer is two years in remission. He hasn’t decided on what he will specialize in, but he knows he will bring a unique perspective to the profession.

“The blessings that come from having cancer far surpass the suffering,” he said. “I can understand my patients more, and because of that, I can work with them in ways that other physicians can’t. The patient-physician relationship will be better. It’s more real. It’s more honest. I can respond to their needs better.”

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

Northeast Florida Catholic school lauded for outreach efforts to immigrant families

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh poses with students who are participating in the school’s rural education program.

BY LISA BUIE

A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.

The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.

The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.

“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

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Two families, football and education choice helps Junior realize his dreams of a college scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:

  • His father died when he was 3.
  • He has a heart murmur that was detected when he was in the seventh grade and threatened to end his athletic career.
  • The grim memories of the day his father passed away surfaced when Junior was in the 10th grade and caused anxiety attacks.

Blessed?

“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.

Mary Lou Lopez, Junior Vandeross and Nina Vandeross. (Photo courtesy of Jesuit High School.)

Junior, 18, is a senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa. He has a football scholarship to the University of Toledo. As the leading receiver on Jesuit’s football team last fall, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a state championship.

After the season, Junior received the Bill Minahan Award, presented annually to a football player in Hillsborough County who best demonstrated “extraordinary perseverance as well as leadership, selflessness, passion, loyalty, excellence on the field and service to others.”

“He keeps pushing,” said Nina Vandeross, Junior’s mom. “He never gives up. That’s what I love about him.”

Junior attends the private Catholic high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by corporate contributions to Step Up For Students.

“The Step Up scholarship helped him tremendously. I really appreciate that they have that for children,” Nina said. “Everybody is not fortunate, but the Step Up program makes it possible for people to have a better education and a better future.

“I love it. It makes your kid better. It makes them feel like they can do what they want to do. I am so grateful for it.”

Nina is also grateful for Denis Lopez and his family, who entered Junior’s life at a time when he needed a strong male role model.

“They are angels on earth,” she said.

Lopez is an officer with the Tampa Police Department. He was serving as the athletic director and football coach at the Police Athletic League when he met Junior, who was 7 at the time. Lopez was impressed not only with Junior’s talent on the field but his demeanor away from it. He volunteered to drive Junior home from practice because Nina didn’t have a car. Lopez took more of an interest in Junior when he learned his father had died and that Nina often worked nights at her job as an IHOP waitress.

Lopez asked Nina if Junior could spend some nights at his house with his wife, Mary Lou, and their sons, Xavier, who is a year older than Junior, and Xander, who is a year younger. Nina willingly agreed.

“Nina is the star of the show,” Lopez said, “because she made the biggest sacrifice of everyone, giving up time with her son.”

Junior has his own bedroom at the Lopez house and a closet filled with clothes. He also has his own set of chores.

“We’re all one family now,” Nina said.

A routine physical when Junior was 12 uncovered a heart murmur, placing his football future in jeopardy. After a battery of tests, Junior was cleared to play, and the murmur has never been an issue.

With the help of a tax credit scholarship, Junior followed Xavier to Jesuit.

Junior struggled in class as a sophomore, the result of a series of anxiety attacks. It seems he could no longer suppress the memories of his father’s death.

Junior had gone to the store with Nina that day. When they returned, Junior ran into his parents’ bedroom and began climbing on his dad, who had been napping. Nina was surprised her husband didn’t wake up. Jessie Vandeross Jr. (Junior is actually Jessie Vandeross III) had died of a heart attack. He was 29.

“When you’re that age, you can see it, but you can’t understand it,” Junior said. “But when I got older, I can remember everything, how the whole entire day went. Seeing him in bed. Seeing him being taken away in an ambulance.”

Junior sometimes wonders what life would be like with his father.

“Everything I do is for him, because he would want me to do the same thing if he were here,” he said.

As they did with their sons, Denis and Mary Lou Lopez hammered the importance of education into Junior.

“Education, it changes everything for you,” Lopez said. “That’s what breaks cycles.”

Junior found Jesuit’s academic rigors to be challenging at times, but he applies to the classroom the same focus and drive that carries him on the football field.

“It doesn’t come easy for him, but he works hard, and I think that will benefit him at the next level,” said Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions. “He doesn’t realize it yet how prepared he’s going to be once he gets to Toledo.”

Like a lot of high school football players, especially those who were top players on state championship teams in Florida, Junior dreams of playing in the NFL. But he wants to major in business at Toledo, because he’s also eying a career in real estate.

With her son nearing high school graduation with a college scholarship in hand, Nina says she can finally breathe.

“Life is so much better when you see your children are living their dreams,” Nina said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do, because some kids don’t get the opportunity to do what they want to do.”

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

Step Up receives 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for 15th year

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students recently received the highest honor from Charity Navigator, the non-profit that evaluates more than a million charitable organizations in the United States.

The four-star rating has been an annual achievement for Step Up in each of the last 15 years, since Step Up was first evaluated by Charity Navigator.

“Earning this rating is vitally important to our cause,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “We are extremely passionate about what we do and work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Our mission continues because of the trust of our donors.”

Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher wrote in a letter to Tuthill that the four-star rating was based on Step Up “demonstrating strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.”

“This is our highest possible rating and indicates that your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way,” Thatcher wrote. “Attaining a four-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your area of work. This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up For Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

Thatcher wrote that donors are looking for accountability and transparency in nonprofits. That’s why his organization evaluates more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America.

“Charity Navigator aims to accentuate the work of efficient and transparent organizations,” Thatcher wrote. “The intent of our work is to provide donors with essential information to give them greater confidence in both the charitable decisions that they make and the nonprofit sector.”

Step Up received perfect score on several measures that go into the four-star rating, among them Governance, Transparency, Program Expenses, Fundraising Efficiency.

“The Charity Navigator rating underscores that when donors invest in Step Up, they are assured their contributions will be maximized to the fullest potential,” Tuthill said.

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

Step Up scholarship to a private school ‘changed our whole entire lives’

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE, Florida – Vadin Mankotya played second base for EXP Realty this season, proudly wearing the jersey sponsored by his mom. And Jennifer Mankotya, a sales associate, was equally proud to have sponsored a team in the Hernando Youth League in Brooksville.

“It was,” she said, “a pretty big accomplishment.”

Not long ago, Jennifer scraped by on her salary plus tips while working as a waitress. Life wasn’t easy for the single mother. But Jennifer wanted the best education opportunity for Vadin, and she was determined to send him to a private school.

What changed? A scholarship to a private school, managed by Step Up For Students.

“It’s helped both of us,” Jennifer said. “It’s changed our whole entire lives.

“If I didn’t have this scholarship, I don’t know what I’d do. I would make it happen, but it would be extremely hard for me. Financially, it helped me a lot, and it’s also given Vadin the opportunity to have the best education he can possibly have. I’m so grateful it is there.”

Vadin Mankotya poses in front of a mural at his school, Entirety K-12 in Brooksville.

Vadin, now a seventh-grader at Entirety K-12 private school in Brooksville, began receiving the Step Up scholarship during the 2016-17 school year. With a large portion of her salary no longer going toward Vadin’s education, Jennifer was able to afford the 63-hour class necessary to pursue her real estate license and the yearly fees required of all real estate agents.

Working in real estate was always her passion, Jennifer said. She went to real estate school after high school, but injuries sustained in a car accident prevented her from getting her license during the mandated time frame from when she completed her course.

Then, she said, life came at her fast. A marriage, a baby, a divorce. To carve out a living for herself and Vadin, Jennifer worked various jobs – in a bank, in medical billing, as a waitress.

“It was kind of me getting my life back together after that,” she said. “So that kind of stopped me from pursuing my dreams initially.”

Jennifer worked the late morning/afternoon weekday shift at a restaurant. She didn’t work nights or weekends (shifts that earn better tips) because she didn’t have anyone who could watch Vadin. She would take a break to pick him up from school, and he would sit at an empty table and do his homework until her shift ended.

“My mom was busting her butt every day,” Vadin said.

Jennifer sent Vadin to a private school even before she learned of the Step Up scholarship.

“I am a single mom, and education for Vadin is really important to me,” she said. “I’ve always taught him you can never take away education, and nobody is going to be able to take away your manners. Those are the things I really focus on.”

It was the Step Up scholarship that allowed Jennifer to pursue both the dream of a quality education for her son and for her to, as she said, “reach for what I love.” And because she reached, Jennifer now owns a home. She no longer drives a car that routinely broke down and didn’t have air conditioning. She can afford presents for Vadin at Christmas. The scholarship, Jennifer said, allowed her to pursue a dream that has given her both confidence in herself and independence.

“The scholarship helped my mom get back on her feet,” Vadin said. “She has a career in real estate. That’s always been what she wanted to do. I’m proud to say that my mom is a real estate agent.”

The scholarship also allows Jennifer to pursue another goal: a quality education for her son. Vadin recently received a report card where his lowest grades were a pair of B’s. He apologized to his mother for those low scores.

“I said, ‘You did great.’ He said, ‘I could have done better,’” Jennifer said. “It was a proud mom moment.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning fueled by imagination.” Students attend school for four weeks, then have a week off. They take core classes Monday through Thursday. Fridays are reserved for a full day of an elective class, which include architecture and engineering, culinary, dance, video production, art, forensics, and acts of service.

Last year, the entire student body went camping for four days in Ocala. The middle school students read the book, “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Principal Penny Bryson wanted the students to experience what it might be like to live in a jungle. This year, the school trip is to Busch Gardens, where they will spend four days embedded with the zoologists.

“This is really different from other schools,” Vadin said. “We do a lot of things different here. My goal is to go to college and have a career, and I don’t think that would be possible without Miss Penny. She supports me in everything I do.”

Jennifer said it costs $250 to sponsor a team in the Hernando Youth League. That’s something she would have never been able to afford working as a waitress.

“It made me feel proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “You know when you have a check list in your head of what you want to do? I checked that box, and I hope to check that box every single season.”

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

Jacksonville teen reaps benefits of Step Up Scholarship

By JEFF BARLIS

When Kayla Fudge was a newborn, her mother struggled to take care of her. In swooped Kayla’s great aunt Glendora like a guardian angel. She loved. She nurtured. And she taught.

A public school teacher for 14 years, Glendora Jackson-Fudge raised three children of her own before adopting Kayla when she was 2. Glendora and husband Michael Fudge, a landscaper for 31 years, didn’t have much money. But as parents they were full of fun, wisdom, and old-school values.

“They’re mom and dad to me,” said Kayla, who was born and raised in Jacksonville. “They didn’t have to take me, they wanted to. That makes me feel special. I know they believe in me if no one else does.”

That belief propelled the 20-year-old to college. She is only one credit away from earning her associate degree. Kayla still lives under her parents’ roof, but those old-school sensibilities mean she pays for room and board, does chores, and works part time.


Kayla Fudge, right, and her great aunt and “guardian angel” Glendora Jackson-Fudge.

As a mother and educator, Glendora knew best. After Kayla attended her neighborhood elementary school, Glendora switched her to private school. Kayla was always a bright student with grades to match. Glendora was watching over her and knew she would do even better with an education customized for her.

Through online research, Glendora found Step Up For Students, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship .

A native of Jacksonville’s southside, Glendora was a working mom who put in enough nights and weekends to earn two master’s degrees in education. She taught social science in district schools. One day she fell coming out of her classroom and tore cartilage in her knee. She endured unbearable pain for three years before retiring in 2010.

“We lost a big chunk of my teaching income, like 60%, when I had to retire and go on disability,” Glendora said. “So, the scholarship really helped. And my husband’s work is seasonal. We were able to survive. If we didn’t have that scholarship, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for private school.”

It took just two weeks at Kayla’s neighborhood middle school for Glendora to make the decision.

“Kayla couldn’t take it there,” Glendora said. “I couldn’t even take being a substitute teacher there, so I couldn’t imagine her staying there. All the fights, the drama, the disruption in the classrooms.

“And Kayla wasn’t being challenged, either. She was bored. I thought she would do better with more individualized attention.”

Glendora and Kayla say the scholarship was like a ladder to fulfilling her potential. The neighborhood schools were swelling with students, and Kayla felt like she didn’t belong and couldn’t stand out.

“In public school, my mom said I would dumb myself down to blend in. I didn’t think she was right,” Kayla said. “But when I got to different schools with more people on the same academic level as me, I really felt what she was talking about.”

She longed for classroom challenges, but just as important was a brightly lit stage and her desire to explore performance art.

Glendora knew Kayla had talent when she was in fourth grade. She sang a Celine Dion song and won first place in a summer camp talent show.

Kayla is excited about the Tyler Perry audition and knows her dreams are within reach.

Kayla has a strong, soulful voice and graceful movements. Her almond eyes convey myriad emotions. Her personality sparkles in conversation, but on the stage she really comes alive.

Bishop Kenny High School was Kayla’s third private school, and when she arrived for 11th grade, she quickly found it was worth the wait.

“It really made me more excited about academics,” Kayla said. “I wasn’t just remembering information for a test, I was actually learning skills. But the biggest thing was I had a lot more opportunity to show my personality than at other schools.”

Kayla’s guidance counselor, Scott Sberna, pushed her to get better grades, but more importantly, he pushed her to enter the school pageant. She wasn’t going to do it, but he wouldn’t let it go. When he saw the spark of Kayla’s passion, he motivated and encouraged her to go for it.

“The pageant is a very big deal to a lot of families and young ladies in our school,” Sberna said. “Tryouts start before the Christmas holiday. Practices run three days a week or more until dress rehearsal. Many families hire private pageant coaches.”

Kayla had scant experience doing plays at her previous high school. This was a solo shot, and a pressure cooker at that.

“Typically, we have six to 10 visiting queens and members of their court (from nearby high schools) who come for the show and support their BKHS friends competing,” Sberna said.

For her performance, Kayla danced while singing “Almost There” from Disney’s “Princess and the Frog.” The applause was thunderous. She was the pageant runner-up and won the award for most talented. She created a YouTube page to share a video of the performance.

Her confidence soared.

That led to an audition for a performing arts college in Los Angeles. She was accepted, but tuition was about $22,000 a year even with the school granting a scholarship. It was out of reach, but not out of her heart.

Kayla went on to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. She attends Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she has a 3.2 grade point average studying physical therapy and has never gotten a C. She’s thinking about transferring to the University of Central Florida for a seven-year physical therapy program. She’s also considering the University of North Florida to switch her focus to animal care.

She sings at church and still dreams of performing. To keep that dream in the forefront, Glendora is bringing Kayla to a Tyler Perry audition in Atlanta later in November.

“My goals after college are to be a physical therapist, have my doctorate in physical therapy specifically and to be an actress at the same time, which is a weird combo, but it’s completely achievable,” says Kayla with a bright smile. She knows her future is bright.

“It would not surprise me if she does all three,” Sberna said. “She has the intelligence, grit, and chops to do it all. She deserves all the credit for pushing herself to where she is today.”

Judith Thomas, Step Up’s social media manager, contributed to this report.


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