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VIA’s Statler Center Trains People for Heroic Work

You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.

For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.

The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.

211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.

“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”

a woman seated at a computer

Sharell B., a Statler Center graduate, working at the 211WNY Call Center.

Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.

“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”

People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.

More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.

“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”

That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

A Johnson Scholar Comes Full-Circle

After high school, I felt a true calling to attend a private Christian college. But coming from a single-parent home and living in a trailer, it was a stretch for me to be able to afford a school like Palm Beach Atlantic College. (Side note – Palm Beach Atlantic did not receive university status until after I graduated, so all past references refer to PBA College.) Though my mom worked hard for our family and wanted to see me succeed, like many families, we had limited funds available for college tuition. As I attended community college and worked a full time sales job, the dream of finishing my undergraduate degree at a private Christian school slowly started to slip away.

During the fall of 1996, I researched scholarship opportunities and decided that I was going to take the necessary steps to achieve my goal. Over the course of the following months, I applied to Palm Beach Atlantic College, was accepted for the spring semester and prepared to make the big move. The university provided scholarships and helped me through the financial aid process, making it affordable for me to enroll. The largest gift I received that enabled me to start at PBA was from the Ted/Vivian Johnson Foundation Scholarship. (Side note- I wrote Ted/Vivian Johnson Foundation Scholarship because that’s exactly how it is printed on my student account record that I recently pulled to review.) I continued to receive that same gift for the following few semesters.

At PBA, I met faculty members who cared about me and my future, and I met some of the very best friends I still have today. I also met my future wife, Rachel, at PBA, and we have been married now for almost 20 years. I grew spiritually, too. Through lots of prayer and perseverance, I graduated in 1999 with a clear plan for my future career in banking and non-profit fundraising. Fast forward 20 years, and I am now working for PBA as Director of Alumni Relations.

Students are concerned about the affordability of college tuition and student debt. They want to have clear direction and the ability to get a good job after graduation. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s gifts help students pursue their dreams, and I believe Palm Beach Atlantic University plays a huge role in shaping their futures. PBA and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation certainly did that for me.


Steve Eshelman is Director of Alumni Relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University

Doubting Helen Keller: Where we go from here

The following article first appeared in the Boston Globe, and is shared with permission from Perkins School for the Blind.

What TikTok users who dispute her accomplishments can learn about disability inclusion

After TikTok users spent the past year spreading viral conspiracies labeling Helen Keller as a fraud, the first film to star an actor who is deafblind is up for an Oscar. “Feeling Through,” nominated for Best Live-Action Short, follows the connection that forms between a teenager and a man who is deafblind during a chance meeting late at night in New York City.

The film, as well as the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” beautifully refutes ableist misperceptions that undermine the potential of individuals with disabilities. Those discriminatory beliefs emerged on TikTok last year, when scores of the app’s users ignited a trend denying the long list of achievements Helen Keller accumulated throughout her remarkable life. Their flawed logic concluded that Keller could not have authored books, spoken multiple languages, displayed good handwriting, or graduated from college because she did not have sight or hearing.

Such assumptions are dangerous because they perpetuate the false belief that people with disabilities are less capable of success than their peers. Discrediting their accomplishments can insidiously lower others’ expectations for them — or worse, the expectations they have of themselves.

Please read the remainder of the article here.


Dave Power is President and CEO of Perkins School for the Blind

High Need, High Achievement and Core Values are Keys to Developing Change-Makers

The Elevation Scholars program mines Central Florida’s Title I high schools for students exhibiting the non-profit’s core values of kindness, service, leadership, and discipline. It sets them on a course to become change-makers.

When the organization was in its foundational stages of turning concepts into an education-focused program, it couldn’t have found a better model for the kind of student it wanted to help than its first scholar – Revel Lubin.

Elevation Scholars’ founder learned about him from a news story on the Thanksgiving food drive he and other student government leaders had put together for homeless families of students at his school.

The backstory was the attention-grabber, though. Lubin and three of his siblings were being raised by their sister following their mother’s passing from an aneurysm seven years earlier. He had quit sports to get a job to help his sister pay the bills after their electricity had been cut off. He also happened to be student government president.

Kindness. Service. Leadership. Discipline.

“He had everything we were looking for,” said Scott Lee, Elevation Foundation President. “The only question we didn’t know was did he have the academics.”

He had the grades too, but he lacked the test scores and required classes that colleges typically look for.  Helping students develop a “college-going” culture would become a core tenant of Elevation Scholars’ program. The best investment would be money up front – a program that would begin when students are in 9th grade– with high-quality counseling and “intrusive advising and support.”

“We would spend a little money up front, like a down payment, and the colleges would come along and pay them many thousands in scholarships,” Lee says. “If we pick the right kid, this stuff will happen every single time. Those were our early realizations.”

Since its founding in 2013, Elevation Scholars has expanded to working with four Title I high schools where 92 percent of the students are considered low-income. Outreach to students begins with Elevation Club when students are in 9th grade. The monthly club meetings introduce them to everything they’ll need to compete for spots at some of the nation’s most selective universities.  Their goal is not just a college education but an education at one of the nation’s top 100 universities – an arena sorely lacking in college applicants who are the first in their families to attend, so-called first-generation college students.

The Elevation Scholar Award  is given to select students in their junior year – a five-year investment in the students not only to help them get to college but to guide them while they attend.

“The research is pretty clear,” Lee says. “It’s not the academics that cause first-gen kids not to succeed. It’s the idea of imposter syndrome – they feel like they don’t belong, along with limits on family financial support due to the implications of generational poverty. Little problems are impossible to overcome without outside support.”

The Elevation Scholars Award includes some earmarks not typically found in scholarship awards, like winter clothing – for a Florida kid who might get a full ride to Wake Forrest in North Carolina like the program’s second award winner – or professional clothing for joining professional organizations, travel money to ensure they have the ability to get back home for the holidays, and even gear they’ll need for dorm life. In summers, students will participate in paid internships at businesses and organizations in partnership with Elevation Scholars.

Over the next four years, Elevation Scholars, a new grantee partner of Johnson Scholarship Foundation, expects to expand into four additional schools and award 92 additional Elevation Scholar Awards by 2025.

Revel Lubin

To win an Elevation Scholar Award, it’s more than a matter of high achieving and high need, Lee says. The students selected also must exhibit Elevation Scholars’ core values – kindness, service, leadership, and discipline. “These kids have a unique set of strengths, and already are demonstrating positive community impact, and that’s really what we’re investing in,” Lee says. “The idea is ultimately to see our investment increase their capacity to impact their community.”

Since the program’s founding, seven cohorts of scholars have attended prestigious universities across the country.  And that first scholar, Revel Lubin, continues the journey he plotted under the guidance of Elevation Scholars. He’s a finalist for Central Floridian of the Year, and he attends Yale Divinity School.

“It’s amazing how many high-achieving leaders there are at our Title I schools,” Lee says.



Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

 

How One School Offers an Education in Equity to a Whole City

As headlines across the country and data from a range of sources revealed this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted everyone in the same way. In addition to disparate impacts on employment, food security, and health, communities of color have often also been impacted by unequal access to remote learning technology or in-person instruction and support.

While Nativity Prep’s students, families, and alumni have certainly faced significant challenges this past year, our school community is not new to the issue of inequity. For 30 years, Nativity has been providing a tuition-free, high-quality private educational opportunity to precisely the Boston communities that have been hit hardest in this past year.

However, it is our “from classroom to career” approach – providing an intensive extended-day, extended-year program for our fourth through eighth grade students and then lifetime graduate support programming to our alumni – that has made Nativity ready to address far more than educational inequity. In the wake of the racial unrest last summer, businesses and industries across the country have made public commitments to improving workforce diversity and building a more equitable business world. Our 30-year history has taught us that addressing economic inequity and workforce diversity starts much earlier than the hiring process. It is the combination of our rigorous educational program and extensive Graduate Support programming – made possible by support from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and partners – that prepares our students not just to access opportunities at top high schools on full scholarship, but also to gain the tools, character, and commitment needed to thrive in a business world that is not always equitable.

In a recent NBC10 Boston/NECN special feature, “An Education in Equity,” this connection between educational equity and workforce diversity was explored more deeply through the lens of Nativity Prep’s experience. The program featured prominent Black leaders in Boston: Lee Pelton, President of Emerson University and CEO-elect of the Boston Foundation; Linda Dorcena Forry. former state representative and VP for Diversity & Inclusion at Suffolk Construction; Michael Holley, NBC Sports Reporter; and several Nativity alumni, faculty, and students in conversation about Nativity Prep’s “from classroom to career” approach, which offers one valuable model for addressing the inequities that are more apparent today than ever.

Watch the entire segment by clicking the link here.


Brian Maher is President of Nativity Prep Academy.

 

San Carlos Apache Small Business Plan Competition Produces Sweet Success

Earlier this summer, I accepted an invitation to serve as one of five judges for the 2nd Annual San Carlos Apache Tribe Small Business Plan Competition. JSF supported this exercise as part of a two-year grant to the Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) at Northern Arizona University in January of 2020.

Due to the pandemic, the competition was conducted over Zoom. During the week of October 12th, the judges received written business plans for the competing proposals. Contestants would pitch their proposals to judges on October 15th. Presentations were rated on marketing, product or service, competence, management capability, financial understanding and investment potential. Judges were further asked to provide written comments to the applicants. The format of the contest was modeled after the TV series “Shark Tank.”

The business ventures were varied in their industries, stages and development. They included a document scan and shred business, a coin laundromat, a children’s book proposal, a Native sewing business, a bead supply company and a sweet bread baker. Contestants were given 15 minutes to present their proposals and answer questions from the judges. All of the participants were well prepared, and the exercise was conducted well. The competition effectively promoted the intended purpose of encouraging entrepreneurial activity and education.

I was particularly struck by the resourcefulness and creativity of the applicants. The current pandemic has required them to pivot their work, and all of them had some measure of a successful testimony of adaptation. I was also struck by the resonating theme of community in all of their proposals. Many of them spoke of the benefit to others more than they addressed the viability or financial opportunity of their business. The winner was the Beaded Edge Supply with a business expansion proposal. You can see their business at www.beadededgesupply.com.

I was asked to forward a grateful thank you from the San Carlos Apache Tribe to JSF and all who participated. All participants received some remuneration. First place received $6,000 and sixth place received $100. Beaded Edge Supply will use the winning proceeds to offset the cost of a new facility to accommodate their growing business. For me, I left inspired, encouraged and appreciative for the opportunity to represent the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

But what happened next to one of the presenters makes it doubly rewarding. Frankie Holmes, the participant who made strawberry sweet bread, landed a major contract with Freeport McMoRan to provide his desserts to their employees. One of the judges works for Freeport, and was instrumental in making it happen.

Here’s Frankie’s story:

“I had heard of the business plan competition from the year before. Baking wasn’t even my thing. But writing a business plan is nothing new for me. I’ve done it numerous times.

“I hear back from the competition. They say, ‘You’re going to be presenting.’ But I didn’t get picked. I got a phone call saying I got, like fourth place. But prior to that, one of the judges reached out to me and said, ‘Your presentation was flawless. We’d like to place an order.’ I’m thinking she’s going to order like four or five loaves. No! She put in a giant order for her whole department! Now I have a contract with them for six months for their team building activities,” he said.

“Then, she put it on Facebook, and things just took off! Prior to the competition, I was doing like a few hundred (in sales) a week. Then, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had sales galore! Thanksgiving alone was over $3,000!

“Word of mouth is very viable down here,” said Holmes, who works in Globe-Miami, an area of sister cities east of Phoenix and west of the San Carlos Reservation with a population of less than 10,000.

Holmes is a personal banker with Wells Fargo who got into baking when COVID-19 hit the town, he said.

“It hit our little town big-time,” he said. “Our whole town shut down. The banks shut down. I was out of work. I figured I could sit here, sulk and cry, or be the guy I’ve always been and find a muse. I never heard of anybody making a strawberry sweet bread, so in one weekend, I did it.”

Congratulations, Frankie Holmes!


Robert Krause is CEO of Johnson Scholarship Foundation

Planning the College Search – Contemporary Considerations for an Exciting Next Step

This article first appeared in Mainstream News, a publication of JSF grantee partner Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, and is shared with permission.

Applying to colleges can be a stressful, busy time for students — and a pandemic hasn’t made it any simpler. This year, the process has changed considerably to accommodate health precautions. Campus tours, in-person interviews, college fairs and visits from college representatives are on permanent hiatus. But with a little extra planning, students heading to college can still get all the information they need to make an informed decision.

Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech alum Max Collins, a high school senior and student athlete, has experience with the college search during a pandemic.

We spoke with Max Collins, a Clarke Philadelphia alum and current high school senior about what he learned during his recent college search experience. He also shared his advice for other students who are deaf or hard of hearing planning their own transitions to higher education.

Different Formats, Similar Results

Max’s junior year was marked by a challenging academic load and the cancellation of most of his spring track season. As a student athlete, running track and cross country, he’d gotten an early start on his college selection process in order to target schools with programs that would match his goals.

Max was able to visit two colleges before most schools closed to in-person visits. For the other schools, his visits consisted of a mix of virtual tours and Zoom-based question and answer sessions.

Despite the change in format, both Max and his dad, Danny Collins, feel they gained a good sense of all the colleges. “The virtual visits were actually a good way to learn more about the schools,” says Max. He felt that colleges with virtual tours were better able to individualize the information they shared in a way that wasn’t possible during in-person group tours.

Max wasn’t able to attend some of the traditional in-person events schools have for student athletes, but he was able to reach out directly to coaches who put him in touch with other athletes in his sport. Talking with them gave him a feel for potential future teammates and their routines.

Danny agrees. “Being there in person does give you a good sense of what the campus and atmosphere are like, but with the pandemic-related changes, we still had a chance to speak one-on-one with people and get to learn more about the nuts and bolts of things,” he says.

Assessing Priorities, Making Requests

As a student with hearing loss evaluating potential colleges, Max had to weigh all the usual factors in addition to assessing how well each school could accommodate his listening needs — not an easy task virtually.

Max first narrowed down his list of schools by those that felt like a good fit for his academic and athletic goals as well as being able to accommodate his hearing loss. “I had to ask myself: Do I want to go to a big school with a lecture hall of 300 students, or one with smaller classes of 10-15 students?” Max shares. “And I made sure they had a good office of accessibility, that I could get proper accommodations, and the website had a good explanation of what they offer [and] how they do it.”

The good news: Max says he hasn’t had any significant issues securing the accommodations he’ll need in future classes. He also notes that his in-person and virtual visits didn’t present any hearing-related challenges.

“The best advice I can give is to find each school’s office of accessibility, know where it is, exactly what services they offer and what you have to do to get those services,” says Danny. “It’s extremely beneficial to have that information.”

Danny also notes that while 504s and Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) don’t apply in college, some schools will use them as an accommodations guide, and some won’t. “You have to have your ducks lined up and be willing to advocate for what the student needs,” he says. “Max’s ability to do that, and why he started this process so early, all goes back to Clarke and the way they instilled those self-advocacy skills in him.”

Learn more about things to consider when planning the college search by visiting: http://www.clarkeschools.org/services/mainstreamnews.


 Clarke provides children who are deaf or hard of hearing with the listening, learning and spoken language skills they need to succeed.

Achieve Palm Beach County Offers Online Workshops to Help College Students Destress and Find Success

Stress and online struggles are recurring themes among young people navigating a future that seems uncertain today and unimaginable just a year ago.

In fact, the same topics came up so frequently that an organization whose mission is to ensure post-graduate success for students in Palm Beach County has created a series of workshops as an immediate resource to those students.

Achieve Palm Beach County’s Achieve Your Success series begins on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, with a program titled, Techniques to Maintain Your Mental Health.

The series of five workshops is open to any college-age student in Palm Beach County, whether they’re enrolled, looking to enroll, or taking a break from education all together right now.

Achieve PBC is a collective impact initiative with more than 80 nonprofit, education, and corporate partners, including Johnson Scholarship Foundation, who work toward the common mission of helping students access and complete an education beyond high school. Achieve PBC’s vision is to see all students in Palm Beach County earn a credential or degree that leads to a job with a sustainable wage within six years of high school graduation.

“Students face challenges all the time. With the pandemic and social unrest, mental health is one of the large issues we’re hearing about – whether it’s financial strains, feelings of loneliness, or stress of online learning,” said Jennifer Bebergal, Associate Dean for Retention and Academic Support at FAU and co-chair of Achieve PBC’s Post-High School Advising & Guidance strategy team. “We put together this calendar of workshops, and our hope is for students to understand that what they’re going through is what a whole lot of students are experiencing. We’ll also talk about some strategies and resources available to them.”

The workshops will take place at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays every other week through April 13. Each one-hour workshop will be offered via Zoom, and there is no cost to attend. The full schedule and topics are:

Feb. 9 – Techniques to Maintain Your Mental Health

Feb. 23 – How to be Successful in Science, Math and Other Online Courses

March 9 – Self Care for Our Mental Health

March 23 – Ask an Advisor and Resource Fair

April 13 – Tips for Getting A Job and Jump-Starting Your Career

The first workshop will be conducted by Dr. Kathryn Kominars, Director of Counseling from Florida Atlantic University and Sandra Obas of Educate Tomorrow, a nonprofit that facilitates individualized coaching to improve students’ academics and economic stability. It will include strategies and resources available for dealing with mental health issues.

The second workshop will begin with a brief presentation, and then offer break-out rooms so students can work on specific areas, including tutorials in math and science.

For one-click access to any of the workshops, visit https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84169727665?pwd=MVhJZE1oTzB5OTh0U3BaWjE2Tldpdz09, or use the meeting ID 841 6972 7665 and passcode 206767.

For more information about Achieve PBC’s impact, or to learn how to get involved, visit AchievePBC.org or send an email to info@achievepbc.org.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist for Johnson Scholarship Foundation

Determination Overcomes a Disrupted Journey

Jamieson Holloway, now 23, has been pursuing his passion for cooking since he was a student at Atlanta’s D.M. Therrell High School, where he took culinary classes and enrolled in the Bridges from School to Work program (Bridges). Bridges has worked with Atlanta Public Schools since 1996 to help young adults with disabilities prepare for, connect to, and succeed in good jobs. Bridges arranged for Jamieson to work part-time for two consecutive seasons at Turner Field Stadium, where he excelled at frying chicken tenders, French fries, and other stadium fare for hungry Atlanta Braves fans during the baseball season.

After high school, he continued to pursue his goal of becoming a chef, taking culinary courses at Atlanta Technical College. And like many chefs before him, Jamieson’s culinary career began in earnest through washing dishes. With help from Bridges, he got a dishwasher job at the Atlanta Hilton downtown in fall 2016, progressing from there to food prep and breakfast cook, and working through spring of 2020 until the pandemic hit. Since then, he’s been on furlough, but he landed full-time work as a line cook at a local senior living community, a job he found on his own. Jamieson’s continued employment and income have been essential for his family during the pandemic.

Jamieson hopes to return to the Hilton when the travel and tourism industry begins to rebound. He has also developed his own blend of barbeque sauce that he hopes one day to market and distribute as a successful entrepreneur.

For his hard work and determination, Jamieson was selected as the 2020 Stephen G. Marriott Youth Achievement Honoree. He shares his story in the video below:


Allen Brown is the Director of Grants and Project Development for Bridges from School to Work. He has worked with Bridges for 19 years.

The First Steps to Success – Commitment

The following is an essay from a student in the Johnson Take Stock Program. He shares his thoughts of commitment to college.

College ‒ a goal my family had set for me long before I knew how to read. College used to be something I never thought I’d reach. As a child I never thought I would be stepping out into the world without my parents’ complete guidance and assistance. Frankly the thought of transitioning into adulthood is still frightening. My name is Steven Portillo, and this is the story of my life, my aspirations, and a declaration of my future success.

College means the world to me, now more than ever. My goal since I was young was to eventually start a family, to be able to provide for my family, and to be able to put a smile on as many faces as possible. As a young boy this dream seemed nearly impossible, but yet, so many people have managed to put themselves in the position I dreamed of. How? At a young age I started listening to motivational speeches and reading novels on financial success. If I am to become those who I idolize, I must first understand what they did, and follow in their footsteps. Mankind has never achieved anything great without the information and assistance of others. Knowledge was meant to be shared for the prosperity of all. This leads to a fundamental part to my future success, and that’s the support systems I’ve been blessed with.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a JTSP scholar. Without these amazing people, I would have struggled much more with constructing a plan to go to college and to further myself in life. Support from my family, friends, and even strangers has allowed me to conquer obstacles I never believed existed. I believe it is my duty to share my support and knowledge with others. Prosperity should be something that everyone can obtain. I believe in the “Pursuit of happiness.” Success to me is so much more than money. Success is to be able to not only provide for yourself but to be able to support others through their struggles.

I am declaring now, I WILL be successful. I will work my hardest, even when others say it’s foolish.  I am determined to become my best self, and in the future I will continue to make goals, because I never want to stop growing. Motivation always starts with yourself. I remember the first time I attempted to work out. Oh my, what an experience! This was an attempt at a long term goal that required dedication and determination. I will never forget the first time I was able to lift 200 lbs. When I first started I could only lift 100. This was when I knew that these types of results could be applied to other parts of my life. Work while others are resting. Work now so that later you can enjoy the spoils of life. Your future is what you make of it. If you’re determined to make it to your destination, you’ll get there. You just have to believe in the process.

I am Steven Portillo, and this is the story of who I am, who I want to be, and the success I am sure to obtain in my future.


Steven Portillo is a senior at William T. Dwyer High School and a Johnson Take Stock Scholar.