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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.”
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.
“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 email@example.com.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– Step Up For Students announced April 28 a $5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program fromUniversal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), helping more than 655 Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
Since 2017, UPCIC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. has generously funded more than 2,620 scholarships through contributions totaling $18.5 million to 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 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.
“Universal is committed to giving back to our community,” said Steve Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. (UIH). “We are proud to support hundreds of schoolchildren through our partnership with Step Up For Students.”
UPCIC celebrated this incredible donation at Parkridge Christian Academy in Coral Springs, where nearly 30% of the students use a scholarship through Step Up For Students. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback, made a special appearance and met with students benefitting from the scholarship.
“We are honored to have UPCIC as a partner in our mission to help Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is producing measurable results, companies like UPCIC are helping to transform the lives of deserving schoolchildren in our community.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12
scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
Both Walter and Nate are products of school choice. Nate attended Bradenton Christian School in Florida on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Walter attended private schools in Ohio.
They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nate is a communications associate. They have teamed up for the School Choice Boyz podcast to bring the value of education choice to a new audience.
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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BY ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:
“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.
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.”
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, Catholic high school education will return to Key West.
The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, which currently educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this week announced plans to add grades 9 and 10 in August 2023. The Basilica High School will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and plans to offer enrollment to students in Key West and the Lower Keys, Principal Robert Wright told the Keys Weekly.
The last Catholic high school in Key West, Mary Immaculate, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment.
However, demand has since been rising. According to Wright, the Basilica School’s enrollment increased 100 percent between 2013-2019, and currently is at capacity with a waiting list. Many of those families want to extend their children’s Catholic education beyond middle school.
In a 2019 column for Keys Weekly, Wright credited Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for helping fuel that growth. “In 2013,” he wrote, “we began accepting Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students. That made a private school education affordable to scores of families seeking alternatives to the public schools that, for whatever reasons, weren’t working out for them. Since then, our enrollment has nearly doubled, from 170 students to 320. We have 100 on a waiting list, simply because we lack the capacity to accommodate them. If we fail to provide a right and just education, these families would seek to go elsewhere.”
The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the income-based tax credit scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship (created by the Legislature in 2019), and 20 who attend on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.
In announcing plans for the high school, Wright noted that “scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.”
Overall, Catholic school enrollment in Florida increased this academic year following a nearly 7% decline at the start of the COVID pandemic. According to data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, enrollment grew by 4,610 students, or nearly 6%, during the 2021-22 school year. Again, Florida’s choice scholarships helped make that possible: Scholarship students made up just 24% of Catholic school enrollment in 2015 but make up 47% of enrollment today.
BY ROGER MOONEY
It has been nearly a decade since Jasmine and Emily Rojas graduated Abundant Life Christian Academy as eighth graders, yet in a sense, they never left.
The sisters still email or visit their former teachers and volunteer for school activities. When Jasmine needed a letter of recommendation for dental school, she turned to Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier. When Angier needed volunteers to judge the recent science fair, she turned to Emily.
When they struggled with a science assignment during high school and college, they both turned to Loretta Camacho, their former middle school science teacher.
“That,” Angier said, “is what a school is supposed to be, right?”
It is for the Rojas sisters, who credit the academic disciplined learned there as a big key to their success at an academically competitive public high school, Florida Atlantic University, and their postgraduate studies. Jasmine is scheduled to attend dental school at Case Western Reserve University in August, and Emily is working virtually toward her master’s in music at Liberty University.
“(Abundant Life) was a big part of my foundation going into high school and going into college, facing those worldly situations and having the discernment to make the right choices,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine (Class of ’13) and Emily (Class of ’14) attended Abundant Life, a private school in Margate, Florida, with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, which are provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students.
Step Up celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of empowering parents to find an educational environment that best suits the needs of their children. During that time Step Up has awarded more than 1 million scholarships across the five programs it manages.
Claudia and Wilman Rojas are proponents of school choice. They sent their two oldest children – Bryan and Kelley – to Abundant Life because they wanted them to have a faith-based education.
“They wanted us to have that foundation, even when we’re not at home,” Emily said.
The plan was the same for Jasmine and Emily. But when the nation’s economy plunged into a deep recession in 2008, the school was no longer affordable. Or it wasn’t until the family learned of the FTC Scholarship.
“Absolutely a blessing,” Jasmine said. “We wouldn’t have been able to continue to go to that school without the scholarship.”
Said Emily: “Abundant Life is such a good school. It helped us grow with our relationship with God and keep firm with that, and with our studies as well. There wasn’t another school that would have been like that. I’m extremely grateful.”
In addition to being “top-notch students,” as Angier described them, Jasmine and Emily were mainstays on the girls basketball, softball and volleyball teams.
“They came to school early. They stayed late,” Angier said. “Anything we needed, they helped with. They always did their work. Polite. Respectful. There was never any discipline. Not even, ‘Hey, don’t talk in class.’ They learned in their home that you respect authority, that you work hard, that you always do your best. That permeated their time here.”
Abundant Life was K-8 when the Rojas children attended. (It has since added a high school.) That meant Jasmine and Emily needed to find a new school after eighth grade. After using education choice in the form of a tax credit scholarship to attend Abundant
Life, the Rojas family exercised another form when Jasmine and Emily both chose to attend Florida Atlantic University High School.
FAUHS is a competitive school that requires an admissions test, letters of recommendation and an interview. Students graduate with three years of college credits. While the school is not part of the local public school system, it is recognized as a public school by the State University System. Angier sent them there with recommendation letters and her blessings.
“And they were rock stars there, too,” she said.
Angier and her staff try to build a relationship with all their families, though not all are as close as the one with the Rojases. When Jasmine expressed an interest in studying nonprofit management at FAU, Angier offered to set up an internship for her at her old school. Writing letters of recommendation for any of the Rojas children was an easy task for Angier.
Claudia calls her children’s time at Abundant Life a “blessing.”
“I’m very grateful for this school,” Claudia said. “They helped my kids in so many ways, growing spiritually and growing into the persons they are right now. The experience there, I think I was more happy than they were.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) recently joined the Brookings Institute to discuss his role in the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, which exists within the U.S Commission on Civil Rights’ Office of the Staff Director.
The bipartisan, 19-member Commission, comprised of congressional lawmakers, executive branch appointees, issue experts, activists, and other stakeholders, examines social disparities affecting Black men and boys in America and recommends policies to improve upon or augment current government programs.
Included in Rubio’s conversation with the Institute on why the Commission’s work matters, he spoke passionately about the importance and value of education choice. Here is an excerpt:
It’s one of the reasons why one of the things I’ve been supportive of is school choice. Not because I’m anti-public schools. I went to public schools. Some of the best public schools in America are public schools in South Florida. But I also have seen firsthand — not because I read about it — someone be taken through an opportunity scholarship, which is funded through corporate donations to Step Up For [Students] in Florida, be able to go to a private school or a school of their parents’ choice, where they are exposed to all kinds of things that expand their horizons.
Suddenly, they realize there’s this whole other world out there — job and career opportunities that they may never have been aware of if their life had been isolated to just the 15, 20 square blocks of their neighborhood and their local community. That is a life-changing opportunity that suddenly sparks all sorts of interest. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
People who never thought about becoming an engineer or a pilot, or going into the service academies, or going into law or science, whatever it may be, because they didn’t even know that those jobs existed, because they don’t know anyone who has jobs like that. To me, that’s extraordinarily important, and it’s one of those things that I think are underappreciated.
How much value that has in young people’s lives, to be exposed to those opportunities and to expand horizons early on. You can read more of Rubio’s comments here.
BY ASHLEY ZARLE
The contribution will be used to provide educational opportunities to more than 100 students through K-12 scholarships and underscores Cadence’s commitment to supporting programs and initiatives that help its communities thrive. Since 2019, the bank has funded 160 scholarships through contributions, totaling $1.2 million.
“We’re pleased to support Step Up For Students’ efforts to provide educational options for students who have financial needs,” said Frank Hall, president – Northwest Florida division for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank. “These scholarships are providing our future leaders with access to resources and opportunities that will help them tap into their full potential.”
Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides lower-income families with financial assistance toward private school tuition and fees, or with transportation costs to attend an out-of-district public school. Through partnering with Step Up For Students, companies can fund scholarships and receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“We are grateful for the continued support of Cadence Bank,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Because of its generosity, we are able to continue to provide Florida’s students with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle, senior manager, community relations donor events, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.