Donor Appreciation Rallies

2008 Donor Appreciation Rally

Denisha Merriweather is but one of the 22,000 students who are receiving K-12 scholarships in Florida this year, but that makes her story no less compelling. The progress she has made as a junior at Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville left even Gov. Charlie Crist amazed at a rally held here on Monday to celebrate the seventh year of low-income scholarships in the state.

“Denisha is a young woman who has found a new spark in her life,” Crist said. “She has turned around her school career because she found a school that connected with her. God bless her.”

Denisha has received a Step Up For Students Scholarship for five years, and she stood before the governor, local dignitaries, corporate donors and more than 600 parental choice supporters at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville to tell her story. The program, also known as Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships, provides annual tuition scholarships of up to $3,950 or transportation scholarships of up to $500 to out-of-district public schools for students whose families meet the federal guidelines for free and reduced lunch. In its first six years, the program has been fueled by more than $400-million in corporate contributions and three companies – Walgreens, PSS World Medical and Fidelity National Financial – were singled out Monday for their own commitment to low-income students.

“Our contributions over the past three years have provided scholarships for more than 6,500 children throughout Florida, giving them the opportunity to receive the education they deserve,” said Debra Garza, Divisional Vice President of Government and Community Relations for Walgreens.  “It’s only right that we give back to those families who make our community strong – because our companies couldn’t exist without them.”

Denisha told those in attendance that, before receiving the scholarship, she failed third grade twice, missed school repeatedly, recorded D’s and F’s in her classes, and found herself in conflicts and physical fights with other students. Now, she is an honor roll student with a 3.8 GPA who is an active volunteer for the Police Athletic League and the statewide vice president of the Youth Directors Council in Florida. She is looking toward college and a career as a geneticist.

“The last five years have completely changed my life,” Denisha said.  “If it weren’t for the scholarship program, I might have been one more student who drops out of school and just another statistic. … My school ended up being a perfect fit for me. It was the first time in my life that I actually believed in myself.”

The scholarship program has gained in political popularity each year, with a strong bipartisan majority in the Legislature voting in May to expand its reach to more than 25,000 students a year. The program provides educational options for economically disadvantaged students, and the average household income for a family of four last year was $24,489. These same families paid, on average, $1,000 out of their own pockets to make up the difference between the scholarship and the full cost of the private tuition. Gov. Crist, who signed the expansion bill this year, called the scholarships “an example of what we need to do to adapt public education to a new century.”

“We are no longer just competing with other states in this great nation, but with other countries as well,” said Governor Crist. “Step Up For Students Scholarships are helping us to diversify our education system to achieve greater results and provide our children and future workforce with a world-class education.”

Gov. Crist was joined in his praise by retired Duval Sheriff Nathaniel Glover Jr. and former State Rep. Terry Fields. Sheriff Glover, a police officer for more than 35 years and the first African-American sheriff in Florida in more than 100 years, was the featured speaker. Glover said he is a strong believer that the most effective tool in combating crime is education, and he dedicates his time these days to encouraging students to stay in school and pursue higher education.

“The reality of what our youth face today is devastating,” Glover said.  “Just last year, more than 4,100 Duval County youth were charged with delinquent crimes and 18 percent of those were charged with committing violent felony offenses. The link missing for many of these children is the proper education.”

The rally, called “More Choices, Better Futures,” is held each year to recognize the vital role that corporations play in the program. Walgreens itself has contributed $26-million to the Step Up For Students Scholarships since 2006. Fidelity presented a check for $2.3-million and PSS World a check for $1-million.

“The scholarship program opened the door for us to provide financial resources that would benefit Florida’s most valuable asset — our children,” said Richard Cox, Senior Vice President-Chief Tax Officer for Fidelity National Financial, Fidelity National Information Services and Lender Processing Services.  “Our donation today of $2.3-million is an investment in Florida’s future, and it is a great opportunity for Fidelity to impact the lives of thousands of children.”

“At PSS World Medical, we are dedicated to improving healthcare in America through innovative solutions.  And now, with our partnership with Step Up For Students, we have found an innovative way to help improve education for all of Florida’s students,” said Andrew Behrends, Vice President and Corporate Controller for PSS World Medical, Inc.  “We are excited to be a part of this program and look forward to seeing the great outcomes of this partnership.”

Representatives from the event sponsors Walgreens, Florida Lottery, Winn-Dixie, Lowe’s, Mercantile Bank, SDE, Bealls Inc., and Dunkin Donuts were also honored at the event.

2007 Donor Appreciation Rally

Governor Charlie Crist was joined by Rep. Ronald Brisé, Former Congresswoman Carrie Meek as well as other dignitaries on Dec. 10 to thank corporate sponsors for their donations to fund K-12 scholarships for low-income families at the “Building Futures, Bridging Gaps” rally at Miami Union Academy.

The fourth annual Step Up For Students Donor Appreciation Rally was held in South Florida, where more than 4,500 children are attending a school of their parents’ choice on Step Up For Students Scholarships.

More than 500 attendees celebrated the past six years of scholarship success by thanking donors like Wachovia, CVS Caremark and Waste Management. The generosity of national corporations allows over 20,000 children to be served statewide.

Gov. Crist commended the corporations who have made this program a success and whose donations have empowered thousands of disadvantaged parents to find the school that best suits their child’s educational needs.

“These scholarships are an example of how we can adapt public education to a new century,” Governor Crist said. “Step Up for Students is one way that we are diversifying our approach to public education and school choice initiatives. By giving parents the ability to choose the education that best meets their child’s learning needs means that all students are given access to the world-class education Florida has to offer.”

Festivities included a personal story from Melody Cherfils, a graduate from Miami Union Academy and former Step Up For Students Scholarship recipient. Before receiving the scholarship, Melody had a GPA of less than 1.0 and was considering dropping out. Miami Union Academy successfully graduates 98 percent of its students and 90 percent continue on to higher education. Cherfils was among the success of her classmates and graduated in 2006. She currently attends Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala.

“The generous donors have given me a second chance at an excellent education and more importantly, a future,” Cherfils said. “Due to my academic struggles, I never imagined graduating high school let alone pursuing college. The scholarship allowed me to find a school that met my educational needs and helped me realize my full potential.”

This event celebrated donors, like Wachovia, who has been a part of this innovative program since its inception and has generously donated $12.5 million over the past six years.

“Florida’s children deserve a quality education and Wachovia is pleased to contribute to a program that helps children succeed,” said Jorge Gonzalez, Wachovia Regional President for Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward Counties.

During the event, executives from CVS Caremark and Waste Management, Inc. announced that their companies have signed on to be the newest corporate donors to the Step Up For Students program.

Scott Wasikowski, the South Florida Regional Sales Manager for CVS/pharmacy, the retail division of CVS Caremark, and Michael J. Ayotte, the Director of Government Affairs for CVS Caremark, presented an oversized check in the amount of $750,000 to Governor Crist for the Step Up For Students program. The generous donation will fund 200 scholarships for low-income children in Florida.

“Children need to be challenged in an environment that provides the most suitable education for their individual needs,” Scott Wasikowski said. “Educational options encourage creativity and student achievement and stimulate competition that drives innovation and success.”

Waste Management also announced their new partnership with Step Up For Students and celebrated building futures through the success of the scholarship program by donating $1 million to Step Up For Students, which will provide funding for more than 265 scholarships.

“As a corporate custodian, it is our responsibility to address the needs of our communities, including the education of our youth,” said Jeff Sabin, Government Affairs Manager for Waste Management, Inc. of Florida. . “Waste Management has a strong commitment to making a positive difference in our environment and our communities”

Rep. Brisé, D-Miami, was the Master of Ceremonies at the Rally and is an alumnus of Miami Union Academy where he is a member of the board of directors. Brisé continuously pledges his support of the scholarship program and honors his promise of representing his constituents’ best interest.

“Parental choice is a bold and powerful idea that I will continue to support,” Rep. Brisé said. “I am here today to celebrate the generous donations from corporations and illustrate the bipartisan support of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.”

Former Congresswoman Carrie Meek was presented with an appreciation banner from students as a thank you for supporting educational options and congratulating The Carrie Meek Foundation for partnering with Step Up For Students in distributing K-12 scholarships to economically disadvantaged students in North Miami-Dade.

“It is such an honor to be here today in the presence of all of these young, talented students who aspire to do great things with their lives,” Meek said. “The Carrie Meek Foundation believes in providing a quality education for all of Florida’s children, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

The audience also heard a heartwarming testimony by a mother, Marlenis Costa, whose two children are Step Up For Students Scholarship recipients and her older daughter benefits from the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. All three of Costa’s children attend Champagnat Catholic School of Hialeah.

In addition, the Rally attendees enjoyed a student solo by Clenol Jean, 14, who sang Hero. Clenol is a member of the Miami Union Academy Choir and has been a scholarship recipient for two and a half years.

Representatives from event sponsors Albertson’s, Chico’s Charities, Florida Crystals, Lowe’s, Tarmac, Burger King, SDE and Wachovia were pleased by the opportunity to interact with the students who receive the scholarships that the corporations are funding.

2006 Donor Appreciation Rally

On October 20, 2006, over 2,000 supporters of school choice rallied to celebrate five successful years of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and the 100 corporate sponsors that have made it possible. The Donor Appreciation Rally celebrated Central Florida’s commitment to education and thanked empowered families that make good decisions for their children, a community that embraces well-educated citizens and, most importantly, the corporate partners who make it all possible.

Step Up For Students would like to thank Governor Jeb Bush for being our distinguished keynote speaker at the Donor Appreciation Rally and our corporate partners who have contributed over $260 million to this program over the past five years, making it possible for up to 20,000 children of low-income families achieve academic success.

We also wish to thank our Title Sponsor, WellCare, and all of our Rally Sponsors – Albertson’s, Lowe’s, Progress Energy, Chico’s FAS, Mercantile Bank and SDE Solutions – for their support of this event.

On behalf of those present that day and also the thousands of low-income parents across the state who have or want school choice, we thank our corporate sponsors for helping students to STEP UP. For more information on this unique program, visit www.stepupforstudents.org.

2005 Donor Appreciation Rally

On February 14th, Governor Jeb Bush and Attorney General Crist addressed a crowd of more than 2,200 students, parents, educators and legislators gathered in Jacksonville to thank Step Up for Students’ corporate donors.

The Step Up for Students scholarship program, formally known as the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, provides scholarships to low income students in grades K-12.

This year, the legislature has raised the annual cap on the program from $50 million to $88 million. Corporations participate in this program by redirecting a portion of their Florida corporate-state income tax and receive a dollar-for dollar tax credit.

Governor Bush, noting that corporate sponsors have donated and pledged over $150 million since the program’s inception in 2001, told the audience…“I commend the companies helping these families, and I commend the families themselves for their commitment to education.”