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LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

‘Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine’

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.

By ROGER MOONEY

“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.”

– Rachel Barcellona on Instagram

Rachel Barcellona will tell you her disability is not the fact she’s on the autism spectrum. The disability is the way others react to her being on the spectrum.

It’s the obstacles others placed before Barcellona when she was younger, either by teachers who didn’t believe in her ability to learn or classmates who bullied her because they saw her as different.

Barcellona didn’t fit in. She knew that. But here’s the thing: She never wanted to fit in. She wanted to standout.

“Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine,” she said.

Oh, she shines.

Her list of accomplishments is quite long. Here are the highlights:

  • Barcellona, 23, is a fashion model and a beauty queen. She was the first woman on the spectrum to participate in the Miss Florida pageant and is under contract to model personal care and beauty products for Sephora.
  • She is an on-air personality for The Chapters Rap with Steve Vaccaro, a New York-based radio program that promotes unity and diversity.
  • She is on the board of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida (CARD-USF) in Tampa.
  • She is on pace to graduate from USF in the spring of 2021, where she is double majoring in English/communications and creative writing.
  • She has sung the national anthem before basketball games at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Most of all, Barcellona is an advocate for autism.

She has her own platform which she calls The Ability Beyond Disability.

She has spoken at the United Nations during World Autism Awareness Day.

Her message: “I think that someone with any disability can become whatever they want. They just have to believe.”

Never give up

People believe in Barcellona. She wants them to believe in her. She knows the impact she has in the autism community, especially to young girls who see her as a role model.

“Families can identify with her story because it’s so multifaceted,” said Christine Rover, assistant program director at CARD USF. “It’s health challenges. It’s bullying. It’s ‘How do you get teachers to recognize my talents?’ Parents can relate to that story.”

Related: Adults on the autism spectrum are asking employers for one thing: A chance

But can their daughter grow up to be Miss Florida? Can they host a radio show? Can their voices be heard at the U.N.?

Why not?

Young girls on the spectrum tell Barcellona they want to be models and enter pageants.

“I always tell people to never give up,” Barcellona said.

In the United States, there are more than 3.5 million people on the autism spectrum.
In Florida, Step Up For Students helps schoolchildren on the spectrum meet their educational needs through the Gardiner Scholarship.
Managed by Step Up, the Gardiner Scholarship enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, whichever happens first.
During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on autism spectrum. Click here to learn more about the Gardiner Scholarship.

Barcellona grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida. She is the only child of Barbara and Frank Barcellona.

She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 3. She also has dyspraxia (a developmental motor coordination disorder), dyscalculia (difficulty in learning math) and epilepsy.

The early prognoses from doctors were not encouraging. They said Barcellona would have a lifetime of learning and physical challenges.

Barbara Barcellona recalled watching Rachel struggle to hang her backpack on a wall hook while in kindergarten.

“I thought to myself, she’s never going to get that,” Barbara said. “As she got older, it was well she got this step and this step. She kept rising to the occasion. When she was younger people told her she would never go to school, and now she’s two semesters away from her bachelor’s degree.”

While she is very open about her past, especially the bullying in middle school, Barcellona doesn’t like to dwell on those days.

“I like to live life in the now,” she said. “I like to be happy and focus on what’s going to happen in the future. Just be positive.”

Her mom tells her that the past plays an important role in the future.

“I sometimes tell her you have to look back to see how far you’ve come,” Barbara said, “and sometimes looking back isn’t always easy.”

‘Me issues’

Barcellona was 10 when she decided she would change the world.

She was tired of being bullied in middle school and called “The Devil” by classmates and fed up with those who viewed her as different because she was on the spectrum. That included teachers, who she sensed didn’t know how to connect with students with special needs.

“There were lots of us,” she said. “There were autistic (students). There were people with other disabilities that were a lot worse, and nobody knew how to handle them. They were just kind of shoved into a corner, pretty much, and I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”

Rachel and Barbara

Her anger boiled over one day when she couldn’t perform a task, simple to some, maybe, but not to her. Sensing Barcellona’s vulnerability, some of her classmates pounced.

“I could never do anything right,” she said. “They were just yelling at me that I was stupid, so I just yelled at everyone to shut up. Then I got in trouble, of course. The principal asked me, ‘OK Rachel, what’s wrong?’”

What’s wrong?

“They have me issues!” she screamed.

Then she cried.

“I was very emotional,” she said.

When Barcellona returned home that afternoon she went into her bedroom, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started listing the changes she wanted to see in the world.

While she doesn’t remember everything she wrote that afternoon, she remembers what she wrote first. She wanted to have a party for children with special needs.

Barcellona didn’t know it at the time, but she was building the foundation to The Ability Beyond Disabilities. Her ultimate goal is to open a school for students with special needs.

“I really love the fact that she wants to help other people,” Barbara Barcellona said.

People can change

Barbara started entering Rachel in local beauty pageants when she was 4. She thought it might help her daughter cope with her depression. It did.

Standing on the stage, Barcellona felt empowered. She loved to sing. She loved to entertain.

“I remember I got on that stage, I had a fear of coming off of it,” Barcellona said. “I liked showing people that I’m there. I liked just being there. I had a feeling people cared about me for who I was. I didn’t get that when I wasn’t on stage.”

Rachel at the United Nations.

Now, the girl with Asperger’s was drawing attention to herself for different reasons. She placed first at pageants. She was on Tampa Bay area TV shows talking about the difficulties of life on the spectrum and why it shouldn’t be that way. She appeared in the pages of fashion magazines, modeling the latest styles.

She sang the national anthem before a WNBA game in New York and before a Tampa Bay Lightning game in Tampa.

The little girl who was bullied for being different now had hockey and basketball fans cheering and saying, “Wow, I wish I could sing like her.”

Barcellona said it all comes from her heart. It has to. She knows her message must be sincere or people won’t listen.

Her goal is to prove that those on the spectrum can achieve many things. They just need a chance. That is why she is quick to share her story.

“I think she acknowledges that there have been some challenges and struggles for her, but she always says, ‘Yep, that’s life, but I’m not going to let it stop me,’” Rover said. “She really seems to turn it around and use it as fuel and say, ‘I want to help others who’ve had these obstacles put in their way,’ and just shines with it.”

For 10 years, Barcellona received therapy from CARD-USF. Now, she sits on the constituency board, where Rover said Barcellona provides the first-person voice of life on the spectrum.

“To see that come full circle is something I find incredible about her,” Barbara Barcellona said. “She doesn’t need to do that, but she generally wants to help other people. I think the world of her for it.”

Rover credits Barbara and Frank for guiding their daughter through those uneasy childhood moments and supporting her dreams.

“I always thought she was capable of achieving what she wanted to,” Barbara Barcellona said. “But there were oftentimes, especially during middle school, where she faced so many challenges, she had to be very strong. Even though you have a family and a good support system, it has to come from within. Even though we support her 100%, some of the stuff she really had to believe in herself.”

Barcellona is confident in her own abilities and future.  She will work in radio. She will have a modeling career. She will build that school for children with special needs.

She will use her platform to change the way people view those on the spectrum, the way they view anyone with a disability.

Every so often Barcellona hears from an old classmate which makes her happy and lets her know her message is being heard.

“The ones that were really mean to me in middle school end up emailing me and telling me how wrong they were, and they were sorry,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people change.”

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

Lofty grades, lofty goals lead to QuestBridge Scholarships for Jesuit High graduates

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.

“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”

That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.

“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”

Both young men attended Jesuit, a catholic high school in Tampa, using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships run by Step Up For Students.

Miguel Coste Jr. (left) and Trace Nuss

Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.

“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”

Lofty goals

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.

For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.

“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”

More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.

Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.

The path to Princeton

Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.

He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.

“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.

Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.

Trace was honored in March by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero of Tomorrow. (Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning)

Trace was honored in March as a Community Hero of Tomorrow by the Tampa Bay Lightning for his work with Special Olympics, something he began doing during his freshman year at Jesuit.

“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.

The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.

The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.

A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.

He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.

Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.

“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”

One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.

“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”

When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.

“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”

The path to Notre Dame

Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.

Why poverty studies?

“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.

Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.

“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.

Miguel (top) captured a district wrestling title during his senior year.

Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.

He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.

Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.

His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.

Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.

Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.

The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.

Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.

Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.

One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.

“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”

Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.

“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”

The right situation

Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.

“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”

Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.

Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.

As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.

Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.

“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”

And Trace is headed to Princeton.

“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”

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

About Jesuit High School

Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.