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Amerisure donates $350,000; helps lower-income students in Florida have access to education choice

Amerisure, one of the nation’s leading providers of commercial insurance, has announced a $350,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping more than 49 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since partnering with Step Up, Amerisure has generously funded 323 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through contributions totaling more than $2.2 million. This income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private school or assists with transportation costs to an out-of-district school that best meets the scholar’s learning needs.

Tax credit scholars like Gabriella Bueno, a 2020 graduate of Boca Raton Christian School, is now studying at Florida Atlantic University and pursuing a pharmaceutical career.

“When my parents made the decision to enroll me in a private Christian school they soon realized they could not afford the tuition, but they believed this was the best fit for me. Then they were blessed with the knowledge that they could pursue their choice of education for their children – all three of us – through the financial assistance and support of Step Up,” she said shortly before graduating.

“I truly believe that Step Up helped in motivating myself to be the best student I could be. I was the Student Council Secretary, the girls’ varsity basketball captain, and the National Honor Society President, and I was also involved in various other clubs at my school. I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up For Students, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Just like Gabriella, schoolchildren throughout Florida are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Enhancing our communities and participating in outreach programs is a large part of the Amerisure service culture,” said Greg Crabb, Amerisure President and CEO. “We are committed to supporting nonprofit organizations that enhance the lives of people in communities touched by Amerisure, our agents and our policyholders and believe our partnership with Step Up for Students does just that.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 Florida students are benefiting from an FTC scholarship managed by Step Up.  About 57% of these scholars are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are excited that Amerisure has partnered with us to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Because of their support, deserving students can access the school that best fit their learning needs.”

All in the family: How Step Up scholarships shaped the lives of Linzi’s 6 children

By ROGER MOONEY

Linzi Morris said she didn’t have a framework for her children’s education when she applied for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2005. She just wanted to move two of her sons from their district school to Academy Prep Center in Tampa, a private middle school with high academic standards.

“When they’re little, you’re thinking about them getting a good education so they can do well in life. I didn’t have an exact roadmap of how we were going to get there,” Linzi said. “These schools which are funded by the (Step Up For Students) scholarships helped show us what was available so we could get that roadmap and it would be an attainable thing and not just a dream.”

Dwight, a graduate of the University of South Florida, is a mechanical engineer.

Dwight is now 25. He is a college graduate who lives in Tampa. He is a mechanical engineer. He found that career with the help of an income-based scholarship from Step Up For Students.

William is also 25. He has a degree in biology and is currently serving in the United States Army and stationed in Georgia. His plan is to attend medical school. An income-based scholarship from Step Up figured prominently in his life.

Next in the family is Nanya. He is 23 and will graduate this December from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. In January, he is scheduled to begin a job at General Electric in its environmental, health and safety division. Like his brothers, Nanya benefited from an income-based scholarship from Step Up.

Notice a trend here?

From a private middle school to private high schools to college to careers. That is the roadmap followed by each of Linzi’s children. Because after Nanya came Linzi’s daughter Hera, 21, who will graduate Florida A&M in Tallahassee in the spring with a degree in food science, and daughter Saliyha, 17, a senior at Tampa Catholic, and son Qinniun, 15, a sophomore at Tampa Catholic.

William, a graduate of the University of Central Florida, is serving in the Army.

Six children. Six bright futures.

“Without Step Up I don’t know if I would be able to reach the goals I’m about to reach,” Nanya said.

Dwight (a University of South Florida graduate), William (University of Central Florida) and Nanya attended Jesuit High, an all-male school in Tampa. Hera, like her younger siblings, attended coed Tampa Catholic.

Hera, who is on a softball scholarship at FAMU, remembered how her friends used to question her academic path, wondering why Hera’s mom would send her to Academy Prep, which has 11-hour school days, 11 months of the year.

Her response? “How horrible of her for wanting me to get a great education and have a great future.”

Traversing the educational landscape

Education is important for Linzi, a single mother. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, but left after two years. She eventually attended a trade school and became certified as a medical assistant.

Dwight and William were sixth graders when Linzi learned of Academy Prep. The boys were good students, Linzi said, but she felt they weren’t being challenged academically at their district school.

She heard about Academy Prep from a friend and applied. That’s when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. At the time, the scholarship was just a few years old. This fall, it funded its one millionth scholarship.

Nanya, who graduates Florida State University in December, and his mother, Linzi.

“That’s one million opportunities,” Linzi said. “Everybody doesn’t use their opportunities. My kids will use their opportunities. I’ll make sure of it.”

It is a 40-minute drive from the family home in Tampa to Academy Prep. That meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a mad scramble to get the kids ready for the day. But Linzi said it was worth it, because her children were exposed to so much during their years there. They took sewing, etiquette and culinary classes. They studied law and film making; built rockets that flew and volcanoes that erupted.

“It kind of showed us what you want to be when you grow up,” Hera said. “You meet people. You have all these experiences.”

In sixth grade, she met a neurosurgeon and decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon. In eighth grade, a food scientist visited the school.

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to do that.’ It was either neurosurgery or food science. I picked food science,” she said.

Hera is currently applying for internships in that field while hoping COVID-19 doesn’t wreak too much havoc with the spring softball season. She has been the Rattlers’ starting third baseman since she first stepped foot on campus as a freshman.

Bragging rights

In addition to being an academically successful family, they are, as Linzi said, “a trash-talking family.” The kids brag about their test scores and grade point averages. Hera said she is motivated to land a job before graduation because Nanya already has one.

Yet, they are also a network of tutors. Those who excel in math and science are quick to lend their knowledge. Need help writing a paper? There are those in the family they can turn to.

Also, success leads to success. Dwight and William forged a path that none of the younger siblings want to stray from.

“I’m grateful for my family. They always pushed me,” Saliyha said. “Even if I don’t want to hear it, because, you know, teenager, they experienced it.”

Qinniun, Hera and Saliyha, the youngest of the six, are products of Tampa Catholic
High. Hera, who attends Florida A&M on a softball scholarship, will graduate this spring.

Saliyha is deciding between attending Florida State and St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida. She wants to study restaurant management/hospitality.

“I really, really want to be a culinary artist,” she said. “I want to be a restaurant owner and a culinary artist. I want to go to college and get a degree in a field I want to do and then pursue a degree in culinary arts.”

Saliyha said she likes to be challenged in the kitchen. She likes to put her own twist on what she is making, even if it is a popular dish. She feels the same about her education.

“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy and I have to work for everything.”

Saliyha followed the family roadmap. Academy Prep helped her get to Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic prepared her for college. College will prepare Saliyha for what? Owning her own restaurant?

“That’s the goal of the scholarship, to give you that push,” Linzi said. “I tell people the scholarship is one part, the school is another part, the parents are another part, but the biggest part is the kid. That child has to want it.

“I tell them because this is an opportunity where there are people who are basically paying for you to have this opportunity, you owe it to the people behind you not to mess it up.”

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

Assurant donates $8 million to support Step Up’s income-based scholarship program

Step Up For Students announced that Assurant, a leading global provider of lifestyle and housing solutions that support, protect and connect major consumer purchases, has donated $8 million through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to Step Up, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the first year that Assurant has partnered with Step Up and the donation will fund more than 1,132 K-12 scholarships for lower-income children in Florida.

“At Assurant, our core values of common sense, common decency, uncommon thinking, and uncommon results inspire our commitment to be a responsible corporate citizen,” said Alan Colberg, Assurant President and CEO. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and help lower-income Florida families access the education options they deserve.”

Step Up is 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 K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

Assurant announced an $8 million contribution to Step Up For Students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are students at St. Joseph Catholic School in Tampa, Florida who are among those benefiting from the scholarship.

“We all know a great education is key to helping our kids find success and dream for the future,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “That is why programs like the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are crucial for our state, and I applaud Assurant for their investment in educational choice options for our state’s underprivileged schoolchildren.”

During the 2020-21 schoolyear, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. 

“I am happy to see Assurant participate in assuring all students can get a great education regardless of zip code,” said Senator Manny Diaz. “I am proud to see this Miami-Dade employer become a partner in this program for the future of the community.”

About 57% of scholarship children are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 schools currently participate in the program.

“We are honored to have Assurant as a partner in our mission to help deserving Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique 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 Assurant are transforming the lives of schoolchildren in our community.”

WellCare of Florida donates $15 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

WellCare of Florida contributed $15 million to Step Up For Students, investing in the future of 2,235 deserving schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, WellCare has generously funded nearly 6,114 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $34.5 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

WellCare of Florida is affiliated with Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, a leading multi-national healthcare enterprise committed to helping people live healthier lives.

The scholarships help students like recent Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from the tax-credit scholarship and is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.


Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from a Step Up For Students income-based scholarship, is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.

“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up.

“The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that. But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”

Just like Tommy, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Our mission is to transform the health of our communities, one person at a time,” said Liz Miller, CEO of Centene’s Florida health plans, which include WellCare. “Education is a critical part of our community’s health, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Step Up served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

Community Partner: Florida KidCare offers affordable health care for children

By FLORIDA HEALTHY KIDS CORPORATION

The school year looks different this year for every family in Florida. Whether your child is learning in the classroom or at home, health care coverage for them is vital. 

Florida KidCare is the state’s low-cost health and dental insurance program for kids from birth through the end of age 18.

“Florida KidCare is health insurance built to cover the needs of children as they grow from babies into young adults,” said Ashley Carr, chief marketing officer at Florida Healthy Kids Corporation. “During a year like 2020, it’s more important than ever to make sure all children have access to the doctors and medications they may need to stay healthy and happy, and for families to know that affordable insurance can be found.”

There are four programs under the Florida KidCare umbrella: Medicaid for Children, MediKids, Florida Healthy Kids and the Children’s Medical Services Managed Care Plan. The Children’s Medical Services program is for children with special healthcare needs.

Eligibility for the programs is based on a child’s age, family’s household size and annual income. Competitively priced full-pay options are available to families who aren’t eligible for subsidy plans. Also, children are eligible for coverage even if one or both parents already have health coverage.

For families interested in Florida KidCare, they can estimate what their monthly premium payment might be in 15 seconds or less by using the Cost Calculator.

Most families enrolled in Florida KidCare pay $15 or $20 a month for all eligible children in the household.  There are no application fee and enrollment is year-round.

For more information, go to floridakidcare.org or call (888) 540-KIDS (5437) Monday – Friday between 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET.

Time to nominate your students for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?

How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?

Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?

Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!

“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.

School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:

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

Click here to nominate your students.

The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.

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

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

Elisabeth’s story: From a mom’s worst nightmare to a mom’s best dream

By ROGER MOONEY

Elisabeth Edwards came home from school one afternoon and told her mom that she wanted to die.

She was 6.

Elisabeth was stupid, she told her mom. That’s how they made her feel at school. She questioned why God made her that way. She questioned why God made her at all.

She told her mom that she wanted to kill herself. She asked if she could kill herself right then.

Her daughter’s words were nearly too much for Consuelo to process. But she clung to the hope that Elisabeth was having a rough time adjusting to the first grade and to her new school, and this was her way of acting out.

But then Elisabeth began banging her head against the walls at home when she was angry. Then she started banging her head against the walls at school.

“That’s when I knew she was serious,” Consuelo said.

Elisabeth posing for a school photo during the 2019-2020 school year
at Master’s Training Academy.

Elisabeth, now 9, has a sensory disorder that can prevent her from processing at lot of information at once. It became an issue soon after Elisabeth began attending the first grade. She would get confused in class and grew angry over her confusion. What Elisabeth perceived as a less-than-empathetic reaction from those around her – classmates and teachers – made the situation worse.

That’s when Elisabeth developed suicidal thoughts. Consuelo found a therapist and another school for her daughter. Elisabeth lasted a week. Administrators at the new school asked Consuelo to withdraw Elisabeth because they weren’t equipped to handle students with behavioral issues.


If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Consuelo and her husband, Maxwell, a plumber, qualified for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. She found herself scrolling through the school directory on Step Up’s website, searching for one near their Apopka, Florida home that accepts students with a sensory disorder.

Consuelo came across Master’s Training Academy in Apopka, a K-12 private Christian school about 20 miles outside of Orlando. The school focuses on students with behavioral health and learning disabilities. She called Helenikki Thompson, the school principal. Consuelo was upfront about Elisabeth’s condition and expected to be turned away. Thompson invited Elisabeth to spend a day at the school.

It was a perfect match. Elisabeth is now in the fourth grade at Master’s. She has a legion of friends. She leaves “Thank You” notes and homemade muffins for her teachers. She said she can’t remember the last time she was angry at school.

“I felt like I was at home, because I just saw everybody was happy,” Elisabeth said of that first visit. “All the kids were funny, happy, everything that you would want in a friend. So was the teacher.”

Consuelo no longer receives phone calls from exasperated teachers and is no longer worried about her daughter’s mental health. She said she owes Elisabeth’s life to Master’s Training Academy and to Step Up.

“If it wasn’t for Master’s, I’d probably be going to grave site grieving for her,” Consuelo said. “It was that bad.”

‘We want her back’

Consuelo describes her daughter as an outgoing young lady with a beautiful smile and a warm heart.

“To me she is a typical person who is trying to find her way in a world that is full of craziness,” Consuelo said. “Sometimes, when she was young, she didn’t know how to internalize that.”

A person’s tone of voice can provoke Elisabeth. Stern language from the teachers and staff at the first two schools Elisabeth attended only made her outbursts worse.

“I had broken out in hives when she was going through all that,”
 Consuelo said. “That’s how bad it was. It was because of nerves. When your kid goes through something, you go through something.”

Elisabeth did have an outburst during her initial visit to Master’s Training Academy. It happened when a teacher asked her to read out loud. Elisabeth received speech therapy to help her properly enunciate words. She had some bad experiences when asked in school to read in front of the class. She thought this new teacher was setting her up for more embarrassment.

The reaction from Thompson, who was in the room, was not what Consuelo or her daughter expected.

Thompson remembers telling Elisabeth, “I’m sorry for your past hurt. I don’t know who hurt you. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help you.”

She said she gave Elisabeth a hug and told her she would see her the next day.

“I don’t know what type of experiences she had, but I know she was hurt,” Thompson said. “She was damaged really bad.”

Thompson’s son, Brendan, was bullied in his district school. He received therapy and attended Apopka Christian Academy for high school, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. He graduated in 2016 and is currently enrolled in Seminole State College of Florida.

Dealing with what her son went through gives Thompson a unique perspective on why children can feel threatened at school. Thompson and her staff do not raise their voices when a student is acting out. They try to dilute the situation with kind words and hugs. The school has a quiet room, where a student go to calm down. The room has soft lighting and comfortable chairs. The student can read, listen to soft music or pray if they choose.

Teachers at Master’s have been known to diffuse a situation by taking the student or the entire class outside for some fresh air. Thompson said there is at least one activity a week that allows the students to put away the books and have some fun. An example: a spa day for the elementary school girls, where they do each other’s hair and nails. Pre-pandemic, of course.

Consuelo and Elisabeth.

Consuelo said it took Elisabeth months before she realized she could trust the staff at her new school. And when she did, she took off academically.

“I can tell you, when someone breaks down a kid, they can really break a kid down, and it takes a long time to build a kid back up,” Consuelo said. “What they did for her in the beginning, when she had her blowouts and cried, the teacher would look at her and say, ‘You know what? We still love you here. You can be mad at us and you can cry, but we’ll see you again tomorrow.’”

Thompson remembers a day not long after Elisabeth enrolled when Consuelo came after school to pick up her daughter. Consuelo asked Thompson how the day went. Thompson said Elisabeth had a moment.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want her back,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that? We want her back. I just want you to know as a parent that she was having a bad day.’”

Master’s tailored the curriculum for Elisabeth, giving her extra time in subjects where she struggled and letting her advance at her own pace in those where she excelled.

Elisabeth has stopped telling her mom that she feels stupid.

“I feel like I’m the smartest kid in the world,” she said.

Consuelo volunteers at the school. She’ll help out in the main office, chaperon field trips and watch a class if a teacher needs to step away. She has nothing but praise for Master’s Training Academy, the empathy toward Elisabeth shown by Thompson and her staff, and for Step Up, for managing the scholarship that enabled Elisabeth to attend the school.

“(Master’s) represent the scholarship very well,” Consuelo said. “If it wasn’t for Step Up, I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. I owe (Step Up) my daughter’s life, and that means the world to me.”

ABOUT MASTER’S TRAINING ACADEMY

Located in Apopka, Florida, Master’s a K-12, Christian-based school that focuses on mental and behavioral health and learning disabilities. Students can attend the school in-person or virtually during the pandemic. Tuition is $5,800 for the 2020-21 school year. Book materials for K-3 is $350; 4-8 is $390 and 9-12 is $410. There is a $50 testing fee of the ACT Aspire and $25 for Map growth.

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

Love of learning returns for this student with Down syndrome

By LISA A. DAVIS

On most Friday mornings 14-year-old Matthew Mezzei springs awake in the 5 o’clock hour, excited to start his school day. It’s the earliest he rises. His inner alarm clock alerts him to a special day in his family’s home in rural Pasco County:

“Fun Friday!” his mother, Lisa Mezzei, said. “It’s a reward at the end of a busy week.”

On this particular Friday, it’s 10 a.m., and Matthew, a bespectacled boy with a bright smile and a love for baseball, excitedly greets a visitor to his home in Zephyrhills. His house is also his classroom. The day’s schedule is laid out on the kitchen counter. It includes several educational centers such as science, math, reading and even an obstacle course for agility exercises. They use much of their home’s shared living space as a classroom, and Fun Friday consists of educational game centers rather than straight curriculum.

“Centers help me to remember,” Matthew said.

Matthew was born with Down syndrome. His education began at his neighborhood school where he had an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, which is essentially a guide for children with certain special needs to reach their educational goals more easily. Matthew was in a general classroom and had great support, but by first grade something changed.

“When he was 7, he started not understanding what was being asked of him on tests,” his mother recalled. “He kept saying he felt tricked, and he started withdrawing at school.”

That’s when Mezzei knew she had to do something, because her happy-go-lucky boy was now often sad. She began researching her options and realized private and charter schools were not a good fit for Matthew either. Then she discovered the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship program was new at that time. Home school seemed like the best option, and at an average of $10,000 per student annually to pay for curriculum and other approved learning tools, she added full-time teacher to her role. She decided it was best for her son to repeat first grade.

“Because of the Gardiner Scholarship, it wasn’t as daunting (to try home schooling),” she said. “The timing was so fortuitous. We had been wanting to withdraw him from the school, but we had no other options. At least the financial part wasn’t so scary.”

She used the scholarship to purchase learning aids for Matthew from places like Lakeshore Learning and Rainbow Resource. She bought science experiment kits, agility equipment, math games, chapter books, Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and more. They have used the funds for speech and occupational therapy.

Home schooling made all the difference, Mezzei said.

“Within six months, not only was his personality back, his confidence was back, and his love of learning was back,” she said.

Matthew loves learning about geography and the world around him. He has been making great strides since becoming a Gardiner scholar through Step Up For Students.

He made great strides, and his reading comprehension increased substantially.

His occupational and speech therapists agree that Matthew, now a seventh grader has made great progress since being home-schooled.

“The Mezzei family is a therapist’s dream family,” said Kelly Partain, Matthew’s occupational therapist. “They truly take all recommendations to heart and actually implement them, which makes for excellent outcomes. Matthew continues to exceed his goals as he has an excellent attitude and works hard every day at home while being home-schooled, at therapy, or on the ball field.”

Added his speech therapist, Lindsey Leeson, who works at the same clinic as Partain, “He has a big heart and is always looking to help other kids in our clinic and tells us how much he loves and appreciates us every session. “He’s a gem.”

Like most things, his therapy sessions moved online in March, but he continues to make strides.

Matthew’s speech is often hard to understand for those who first meet him, but his glowing personality and love of learning come shining through.

“This scholarship is life-changing and allows us to educate Matthew to the fullest extent of his abilities,” Mezzei said. “Our biggest hope is for him to be happy and successful in life, and as you know, we believe unequivocally this is his best path. … Matthew is so proud of what he learns and knows.”

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

How a toy spider led a young girl who was bullied to a new school and a rooster to his calling

By ROGER MOONEY

Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.

That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.

It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.

This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.

“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.

From top to bottom, Grace, Natalie and Thomas and the book, “Rudy Howls at the Moon.”

Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.

“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”

Normal.

Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.  

Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.


The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.


Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.

Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.

“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.

“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”

But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.

“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.

The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.

“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”

Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.

“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.

Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.

 “Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Grace reads her book during Story Time with Step Up

That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.

And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.

Natalie loves the story.

“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.

“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”

Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”

Of course.

And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”

“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”

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

Healthy employees = successful employees at Step Up for Students

Supporting the well-being of employees ties into the core values of Step Up For Students: Everyone is an asset and every event in an improvement opportunity.

With that in mind, Step Up formed the Wellness Committee this year, and the work of that committee earned a Silver Award at the 2020 Healthiest Companies Award, sponsored by the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council.

“One of the things we’ve seen highlighted during 2020 is the importance of whole life leadership – understanding and supporting your employees better as whole beings,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administration officer. “Employees are juggling so much – from children learning at home, co-working from home, worrying about elderly relatives, or job loss within the household, and just trying to stay safe. Well-being encompasses so many aspects of our lives. Strengthening ourselves in each of those areas to face life’s tough challenges is extremely important.”

View Anne White’s acceptance message.

More than 65 companies from the Jacksonville area received awards in four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Step Up has 221 employees.

First Coast Worksite Wellness Council provides local companies and wellness professionals with programs, education and resources to optimize their employee health and wellness programs.

According to its website, Silver Award winners “established more of a foundation for their wellness program. In addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle through communications and on-site activities, they’ve also established wellness champions and allocated funds toward the implementation of their program. They also offer programs that address other dimensions of wellness, not just physical well-being.”

Step Up’s Wellness Committee initiated a number of challenges throughout the year aimed at creating positive behaviors and attitudes among employees.

For the week of Sept. 21 to 26, the committee issued the “Move More Challenge” with these instructions: For each “Move More” activity that you (and your family or household, including pets) complete and submit a photo for, you will be entered into a raffle for one randomly selected prize winner. “Move More” activities include a picture of you walking, cycling, running, or completing any other fitness or outdoor activity. Family, pet and/or household photos are encouraged.

“I am so proud of and grateful for the team of employees who initiated our well-being committee with our partners at Hylant (Step Up’s benefits provider), and for the engagement of staff across our organization,” White said. “We are truly honored for their work to be acknowledged with the silver award from the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council, and are committed to continue finding ways to strengthen the well-being of our employees and, in turn, our organization.”

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