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:
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.”
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.?
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.”
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.’”
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?’”
“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.”
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 email@example.com.
By LORIE JEWELL
Teachers started telling me in the fourth grade that I had a talent for writing. At 10, though, my dream job was long-distance trucking. The idea of getting away and exploring the country from the high perch of a semi seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.
While a senior at Redford Union High School in Michigan in the early 1980’s, I chose the military as my first career path – one that afforded opportunities to not only develop writing and photography skills as a public affairs specialist, but also drive the U.S. Army’s beast of a truck known as a 5-Ton. In 1985, it was the biggest vehicle in the inventory and I got to drive a few of them during a deployment to South Korea. One or two even had tractor trailers attached, which proved quite the challenge when it came to backing the giant trucks into a makeshift motor pool.
My employment journey has taken many interesting twists and turns since then – a long stint as a Tampa-area newspaper reporter (17 years with The Tampa Tribune), census enumerator, freelance writer, real estate photographer, Uber driver, graduate student and instructor. I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and thankfully, the voyage continues.
This last gig – graduate school at the University of South Florida – brings me to Step Up For Students’ Marketing Department, where I will be completing an internship for the creative writing master of fine arts program. I’ll be using the skills teachers were so enamored with so long ago to tell the stories of other young people finding their way with the help of similarly inspiring educators – and how Step Up helps bring them together. I also see myself as a walking, talking example of the concept that education does not have to be a one-time, over and done deal. My educational path has been anything but traditional.
As for life outside of grad school – yes, it is possible – I like to say I’m all about the B’s – bowling, bingo, billiards, and babies. I have two adult children; my son is an Army staff sergeant with a wife and two children, while my daughter is a social worker and mother to my Great Dane-mix grand dog, Bailey. I am also an avid knitter and crocheter, which do not start with a B but are nonetheless top free time activity choices.
I believe serendipity has delivered me to Step Up at this point in my life, when education is so firmly ensconced behind the wheel. I’m excited to meet others on similar journeys and I will be honored to tell others all about them. (Insert happy face emoji here.)
Reach Lorie Jewell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From middle school on, we’ve watched Denisha Merriweather grow from an uncertain and failing young student into a confident, strong and already successful young woman.
She has spoken in front of, and been introduced by, governors and other high-ranking politicians, including the President of the United States. In a big way, she has become the face of school choice not only in Florida, but in the nation.
Once destined to drop out of school after failing third grade not once, but twice, Denisha today receives her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida College of Behavioral and Community Studies.
Denisha is not only a friend to the staff of Step Up For Students, she is now a coworker advocating for families all over the state. To say the staff is proud of her is a bit of an understatement. But, yes, Denisha, your Step Up family is so, so proud of you and can’t wait to applaud you as you continue your life’s journey.
Congratulations on this amazing accomplishment!
From John Kirtley, founder and chairman of Step Up For Students:
“Denisha embodies the power of choice. Her life story shows the wonderful things that can happen if a student can find the right learning environment. Congratulations Denisha!”
Said Jen Canning, Step Up process manager for the office of the president:
“It’s an honor to celebrate Denisha’s accomplishments with her today. Denisha isn’t just a model student, she’s a model citizen. Her commitment to using her life experiences to make the world a better place is truly remarkable. I’m proud of Denisha’s academic success, but I’m even more proud to call her my friend. ”
From Step Up Vice President of Advancement and CMO Alissa Randall:
“From failing third grade twice to working toward her master’s degree and earning it, that’ s quite an accomplishment. With the opportunity of a scholarship, she excelled and has made us all so very proud. She is a strong young woman who has an amazing future ahead of her. I’m so incredibly proud of her and all she has accomplished and what she will in the future.”
From “Nia” Estefania Nunez-Brady, Step Up manager of faith-based initiatives:
“I am so proud of the woman, sister and friend she has become to me. Everything she has accomplished, she worked hard for. Denisha, now it’s time to make all your dreams come true. I love you, friend.”
To learn about Denisha’s journey, click here.
Lisa Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Chris Yother could have slipped through the cracks.
A Merritt Island resident, he was one of nine children – and one of a set of quadruplets – born to Kate Brown and Michael Yother.
Unfortunately, Yother’s parents eventually divorced and money was tight. He had always been a conscientious student, but as high school approached, his mother decided she wanted the quadruplets educated at Brevard Private Academy (BPA), a local private school.
The Yothers applied for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through Step Up For Students, and each of the quadruplets – Chris, Eric, Josh and Allison – were accepted.
At BPA, Chris Yother took dual-enrollment classes through Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, and often tutored other students. By the time he graduated from high school in 2013, he had also earned an associate’s degree.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida majoring in international relations, he still wants to help others.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, Yother wants to join the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer.
“Down the road, I’d like to the represent the State Department as a foreign service officer; that would be my dream job,” Yother said. “You represent the interests of Americans abroad, protect them and stand up for their rights.
“I’d love to be in France. I speak some decent French, but I really like the French culture. The opportunity to be stationed anywhere abroad would be an honor.”
His brothers, Eric and Josh Yother, currently serve in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps., respectively. Allison Yother has also considered a military career.
“We’re from a huge military family, and I almost joined right after high school,” Chris Yother said. “Both of my grandfathers were in the military and lots of uncles and a great-grandfather.”
Chris Yother said he and his siblings weren’t falling behind at their local public school, but a private institution seemed “more like a better fit,” adding that their ninth-grade transition to Brevard Private Academy “was very smooth.”
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “The big difference was (smaller) class sizes. The instruction was more personalized. The teachers could do more one-on-one stuff. The environment was modified to help the individual.
“In public school, we were having trouble connecting with the instructors and the material.”
Brown, Yother’s mother, was especially pleased with the change of environment for her quadruplets.
“With the one-on-one attention, they really learned and excelled,” she said.
Jenna Brocchini, an administrator at Brevard Private Academy, described Chris Yother as the most outgoing of his siblings. His positive effect on the small private school was almost immediate.
“He’s a friend to everybody and probably never had an enemy a day in his life,” Brocchini said. “What always struck me about him was he always had a very strong interest in politics. He actually went to see Obama speak” at Merritt Island in 2010.
“He camped out just to see the president speak. He was there the night before, and Obama didn’t speak until the afternoon. He was there in a camping chair and waiting for hours. A lot of kids that age don’t know much about politics or really care.”
As Yother prepares for his senior year at UCF, he is working at Office Depot, where he fixes computers in the technology department. He is also busy organizing paperwork for the Navy.
“It’s a rarity that I have much down time, although I did take a little break this summer,” he said. “I like to read a lot, stay home and still follow all the political stuff.”
And, he’s still helping people.
Brocchini said she recently posted a message on Brevard Private Academy’s Facebook page, asking if anyone could help set up computers at the school or offer technological support.
“Right away, he said, ‘I’ll come, anytime,’” she said. “He’s one of those people you rarely come across. He used to tutor his peers, and he wasn’t selfish with his counseling. He was always ready to help any of his friends. Public service is something I’ve always seen him doing.
“He’s a real humanitarian. I really feel like he’s going to have a successful future.”
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.
By Jen Canning, Step Up For Students Executive Assistant
Howdy y’all! I’m Jen, one of the newest members of the Step Up For Students team. My background is in horses and cattle, and I grew up working on my family’s ranch in Lipan, Texas. I studied animal science at Oklahoma State University, and it was there I developed a special place in my heart for children.
While attending OSU, I began volunteering for a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding facility for children with special needs. This organization helped children with all kinds of unique needs, from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. I dedicated much of my college life to working with these kids and discovered there is no one-size-fits-all education for these students. This belief led me to join Step Up for Students after completing my Masters of Business Administration from University of South Florida in St Petersburg.
I did a little research before starting with the organization, so I came to work with a broad knowledge of what we did. I knew Step Up managed two different scholarships: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students and the Personal Learning Scholarships Accounts Scholarship (PLSA) for children with certain special needs. The tax-credit scholarship allows parents to choose between funding private school tuition and fees up to $5,677 and a $500 transportation scholarship to help families get their child to school in a different district. Yep, I did my homework. I am the executive assistant to Step Up President Doug Tuthill after all.
I knew that tens of thousands of young Floridians were currently on a scholarship from the organization, and I knew that first and foremost, Step Up promotes a parent’s right to choose the best form of education for their child, regardless of their income.
Even though I’ve only been with the organization for a brief couple of weeks, I’ve learned so much more about what it is we do here at Step Up. For example, I now know that we are a four out of four stars charity, with a Charity Navigator score of 99.92%. It’s a good feeling to know that I work for a charity that is properly allocating its funds and operating in the best interest of the students!
I’ve also learned that there are many private schools that are as dependent on the Step Up scholarship as their students. Scholars have chosen to attend more than 1,500 partner schools across the state, and on average, Step Up scholars constitute about a quarter of the total enrollment of those schools. Some of these schools cannot afford to operate without our scholarship.
Since joining the Step Up team, I’ve been most excited to learn about the work the Office of Student Learning is doing with our partner schools. Providing scholarships is only the first step to helping children from low-income families succeed. Carol Thomas’ team is working with the schools to develop programs that bridge the gap between families and their children’s educators. This includes an online portal that empowers parents to become more engaged in their child’s education. We’re also fundraising to provide even more wraparound services.
Step Up wasted no time in throwing me into the mix of being a part of this amazing organization. On my second day of work, I sat in on a meeting with a neuroscientist and learned about how the psychology of a child who grew up in poverty is vastly different than that of a child from an affluent family. This fundamental difference could lead to a need of a different type of learning environment for these students. The better we understand this psychology, the better able we are to empower our scholars, their parents, and the schools we work with.
During my second week on the job, I attended a Pastors’ Round Table. This was a gathering of prominent Hispanic church leaders in the Tampa area to discuss our organization, threats against our scholarship, and how it impacts their congregations. We brought along former Step Up scholar Denisha Merriweather to tell her story of how the scholarship provided for her success. We’re excited she’s now an intern at Step Up. We were able to garner tremendous support from the pastors, many of which have church members on our scholarship.
Needless to say, I’m more than excited about my future with Step Up for Students. I have the opportunity of working closely with our marketing team soon and I’m happy to be putting that part of my education to good use. In the future, I hope to work more with the PLSA team because my heart will always be with children with unique needs and ensuring their families that their child has a right to the best possible education.
Jen is the executive assistant at Step Up For Students. She lives on Pass-A-Grille Beach in St Petersburg, and when she’s not working at and learning about Step Up, Jen enjoys open water swimming in the Gulf and cooking homemade meals from scratch.