Marie Cirelli Thornsberry


Alumna volunteers to help schoolchildren in Guam at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a time when it seemed like much of the world went into hiding due to COVID-19, alumna Dominique Cruz ’17 was preparing to launch an outreach event in her community.

Cruz said the idea for her service project came after reading an article about how a business in Las Vegas served schoolchildren meals during the pandemic. In the first few days after many schools announced closures, children missed receiving their free- or reduced-price school lunches, which in some situations may have been their only meal of the day.

“That sparked an interest for me,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘so what happens to our kids here.’”

Today, the 2017 criminal justice graduate lives with her husband, Christopher, and daughter, Draya, in Guam, a U.S. territory located in the northern Pacific Ocean. The island is 35-miles long and home to more than 16,700 people. Just as in the mainland, the schools in Guam had closed during the pandemic, leaving children without their school lunches.

Cruz, who has worked as a victim rights advocate for the Office of the Attorney General of Guam for the past three years, said she has always had a desire to help others, which is what led her to pursue the career she enjoys today and come up with the idea for an outreach event.

So instead of letting go of her concern for the children in Guam, Cruz connected with work colleague Mariana Crisostomo and decided to take action. Crisostomo’s mother, Leann, owned the restaurant Fizz & Co., known for serving gourmet hot dogs with a variety of toppings, and so the pair approached her about organizing an event to feed children and families in need. They posted information about the event on social media and soon had growing interest from others who wanted to help. Even The Guam Daily Post covered the event in advance.

Cruz and Crisostomo distribute free lunches.

On March 19, Cruz, Crisostomo, and her mother organized the lunch event, giving away free 50 bagged lunches that day, which included a hot dog, bag of chips, bottled water, and fruit.

“We had people driving from the end of the island all the way up to get the lunch,” Cruz said.

After the event, the pair gave away an additional 50 to 60 lunches by curbside delivery and then partnered with nonprofit Mañelu, which provides mentoring programs for youth and families, to deliver an additional 150 meals to children in need across Guam.

Cruz said that the experience was incredibly rewarding. “The people who came out were really appreciative and thoughtful,” Cruz said. “They asked if they could bring some meals back to other members of their families.”

While the event was a one-time endeavor, Cruz said it served as an inspiration to others in the community. Shortly after, she noticed that other restaurants and businesses started to do similar events to help the community. It also was not too long after that the Guam Department of Education opened its own grab-and-go lunch program for students.

Cruz said that her desire to help others has always been a part of who she is a person. During her time at Saint Leo University, she interned at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to learn more about the work of being a victim advocate and even volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for the child development center at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Land O’ Lakes, FL. 

Today, she is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice through the university’s Center for Online Learning. Her goal is to advance into a career that will allow her to work in forensics and criminal investigations.

While work, family, and studies occupy much of Cruz’s time today, her spirit of service is still present. Cruz shared that she and her husband have recently started a new outreach effort: Every Sunday at noon they go around to different areas of the island and hand out lunches to the homeless.

“My husband and I recognized that there is a need for the homeless on the island,” Cruz said. “It is a difficult time for everyone right now, but by giving out free lunch to those in need, it lifts a small burden off of their shoulders.”

Human TraffickingA grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation provides Saint Leo University with the opportunity to educate Catholic sisters fighting human trafficking in Africa.

In the global battle against human trafficking, there is an unlikely seeming superhero. She does not wear a badge or carry a gun. Nor does she hold a position as a government leader. Instead, this superhero works for a greater authority. She is a sister of the Catholic Church.

Human trafficking, a crime that involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to lure victims into labor or commercial sex acts, has claimed more than 24.9 million victims around the world, according to the U.S. Department of State. There are different types of trafficking, ranging from forced labor and marriages, to debt bondage and sexual exploitation. In some of the most horrifying cases, traffickers have targeted children, turning them into soldiers to fight in war, or they have used their victims for organ harvesting.

Catholic sisters who work in some of the poorest communities across the world often find this crime in their midst. They meet trafficking victims who need help re-entering society, or they work in positions where they can help influence the narrative about trafficking in the community.

Because of the influential role that Catholic sisters possess, nonprofit organizations and foundations are collaborating with them. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is one such organization. It was created in 1944 by international business pioneer Conrad N. Hilton, who founded Hilton Hotels and left his fortune to help individuals throughout the world living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage.

Today, the foundation partners with TalithaKum, a global network of sisters focused on eradicating human trafficking.

“Their interconnectedness around the world provides the ideal circumstances for strong networks to help combat human trafficking,” said Sister Jane Wakahiu, associate vice president of program operations and the head of the Catholic Sisters Initiative with the Hilton Foundation. “They provide a safe and loving space for survivors of human trafficking, a healing presence, and skills-building for reintegration in communities.”

To help aid their cause, the foundation awarded Saint Leo University a grant valued at $420,000 in 2017 to provide sisters with training focused on addressing human trafficking.

“As a Catholic university, we were incredibly honored to receive this grant in support of such a critical cause,” said Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs at Saint Leo University. “With our experience in online learning and faculty expertise in social work, criminal justice, and management, we have been able to develop a unique program that is proving to be truly useful to Catholic sisters across the globe.”

Thanks to the grant, Saint Leo University has now educated 80 sisters through the online certificate program in human trafficking. The last cohort will convene this fall.

Real and Relevant Learning

The online program is comprised of two courses: project management and human trafficking. Faculty in criminal justice, management, and social work all contributed to its development, and the university’s learning and design team put the material into an online format.

Human Trafficking Course screenshot
A scenario-based lesson from the course on human trafficking.

Keeping the sisters in mind, the course employs parables, a method of teaching used in African culture and the Bible. The sisters are introduced to stories about victims of human trafficking and are asked to think critically about how to help them. The course even uses familiar Bible stories to illustrate information.

The course also is incredibly practical. For homework, the sisters are tasked with assembling a training manual that, once complete, can be used by themselves and others to help victims of human trafficking.

The sisters also have the opportunity to network and exchange information and resources with one another. Course instructors created a group through WhatsApp so the sisters can continue to stay in touch and network. The program has become more than just training. It has become a network for good.

Global Impact

With Saint Leo University’s history of excellence in online learning, the sisters engage in the course from where they live and work. A majority of the sisters live in Nigeria and Kenya, but the course has also served sisters living in Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Italy, and Mauritania.

The sisters are college-educated women who hold jobs, often relating to their degrees. Their educational backgrounds range from law and business to psychology, education, and medicine. By occupation, many of the sisters work as teachers, social workers, counselors, or missionaries. Some also work in a business setting or for non-governmental organizations.

Sister Hedwig Muse – Uganda

Sister Hedwig Muse

Sister Hedwig Muse belongs to the institute of The Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate, founded by Comboni missionaries in Northern Uganda in 1936. By profession, she is a lawyer and teacher, which has led her to do work in peace and justice issues at the national level in Uganda, as well as through the Association of Religious in Uganda (ARU).

Through her work with ARU, Muse has guided others working in the peace and justice forum to be equipped with skills and knowledge through anti-trafficking campaigns. She also served on a committee tasked with reviewing employment laws in Uganda, allowing the government to criminalize trafficking and establish punitive measures.

Muse was part of the first cohort of students in the online certificate program.

“With the knowledge l acquired, l was able to form a group at the village level to sensitize the community,” Muse said. She invited leaders from all religious denominations to spread the message as widely as possible. “They were so delighted that l was doing a course on a crucial issue that they were battling with at the time.”

Sister Gloria Aniebonam, DC Swansea

Sister Gloria Aniebonam

As a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul community, Sister Gloria Aniebonam serves people living in poverty both physically and spiritually. At the time she was enrolled in the course, Aniebonam served as the provincial leader of the order’s Province of Nigeria, a position that involved working with sisters in Burkina Faso and Ghana to ensure the vitality of their services and faithfulness to their charism. (The order’s province takes in the three West African countries: Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.) A central part of her role also included engaging members and collaborators of the congregation in professional and spiritual formation.

“The course was of huge help to me and my congregation, especially for serving persons who have experienced any form of poverty either by being trafficked or other forms of slavery that have emerged and seem to be ever-emerging,” Aniebonam said.

Since 2015, her congregation, in collaboration with the Conference of Women Religious of Nigeria, has been coordinating the service for people who are trafficked, she said. The congregation works with children and youth, most of whom experienced child labor and other forms of slavery in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and other countries across the world.

“The course helped me particularly in becoming aware of the subtle forms of slavery or trafficking, which are often within our vicinity,” Aniebonam said. “Yet one can be oblivious or inattentive due to ignorance.”

Sister Philomena Okwu, DC Nigeria

Sister Philomena Okwu

Working in the Province of Nigeria as a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sister Philomena Okwu has served in a variety of capacities on several missions. Through her missionary work in Kumasi, Ghana, she worked with the street children in the community, and on efforts to generate awareness about human trafficking.

In 2007, she returned to Nigeria and assumed a new role managing a girls’ high school, a position she held until 2013. During this time, Okwu was appointed project coordinator of the Daughters of Charity services in Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. While serving in these roles, she found herself on the front lines of human trafficking, working with street children in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Because of her work, Okwu had already participated in workshops on human trafficking, before enrolling in the online human trafficking course at Saint Leo. Still, she found the course helpful in reinvigorating her work.

“The course helps one to understand human trafficking and what it is all about, the types of human trafficking, causes—the push and pull factors, the agents, the magnitude of the problem and its devastating consequences, not only on the victims but also on their families and the larger society,” Okwu said. “It also exposes the unrelenting tricks and tactics of the traffickers to trap their preys.”

In January 2020, Okwu was appointed to a committee with a special focus on Benin City, a Nigerian city known as an origin point of most trafficking. It also has the highest population of returnees.

This unique role has increased the amount of work Okwu is performing to help victims of human trafficking. Her organization provides temporary shelter, counseling, medical care, food, pastoral care, social rehabilitation, and much more for victims. The organization is so crucial, that Okwu recalls helping two trafficking victims her first day on the job.  Both were mentally ill.

“I was confronted face to face with the evil and aftermath of human trafficking,” Okwu said. “These human beings have been destroyed for life by fellow human beings and never to rise again. I felt like Pope Francis, who said, ‘this cannot continue,’ but the task is enormous. It calls for a concerted effort and collaboration of stakeholders and governments.”

To Help

Human trafficking is a crime happening in communities across the world. To learn more about human trafficking, or if you or someone you know may be the victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or visit .

Photos courtesy of Sister Hedwig Muse, Sister Gloria Aniebonam, and Sister Philomena Okwu

Work is underway to build a center for mind, body, and spirit at University Campus.

When construction on the Wellness Center at University Campus is completed in Fall 2021, it will be a physical representation of Saint Leo’s mission, serving students and the greater community in mind, body, and spirit. The center, located on the west end of campus, will provide a variety of features, making it a one-of-a-kind building and possibly the envy of other colleges and universities.

Wellness Center Pool PerspectiveMajestic Views
Sitting 17 feet from the ground, the patio and pool deck will offer a 180-degree view of Lake Jovita.

Resort-Style Pool
The pool will offer two lap lanes, an area to play volleyball and basketball, and a shallow area for lounging. It will be the largest infinity-edge pool at any university or college in Florida.

Healthy Nourishment
A cafe will feature healthy options, including smoothies, salads, wraps, and snacks. An outdoor poolside barbecue and seating area will include a large gas grill and firepit.

Mind, Body, and Spirit
Students will be able to receive services from University Ministry, Counseling & Prevention Services, and Recreation, in addition to routine medical care through a community health care provider.

Fitness Floor
The fitness area on the second floor will provide cardio equipment, free weights and machines, as well as a dance studio with a variety of scheduled class programming.Wellness Center Fitness Floor

Community Health
At the front of the building on the first floor, a community health care provider will offer services to Saint Leo students, employees, and potentially the greater community.Wellness Center Community Health

Functional Space
A large multi-purpose gymnasium overlooking the lake boasts an indoor walking track, and it can be converted for a variety of events—from basketball games and meetings to wedding receptions and formal galas.Wellness Center Functional Space

Renderings courtesy of S3 Design, Inc.

Give to Wellness

Building this new facility on campus will require the financial support of generous donors. If you would like to make a gift in support of the Wellness Center, contact Carla Willis, vice president of University Advancement, Marketing, and Communications, at (352) 588-8644 or

Alumni of the fraternity start a new tradition in giving.

With the 30th anniversary of their founding approaching, members of the Rho Xi Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion.

The chapter was founded at Saint Leo College in the spring of 1989 by a group of 10 students. The organization would provide leadership and a brotherhood experience within the frame work of Greek life to minority students. On November 11, 1989, under the guidance of Terrence Hood, the Rho Xi Chapter became nationally recognized and chartered. 

The fraternity places a strong emphasis on service and helping minorities and disadvantaged individuals achieve success. “Since its founding, the chapter has been providing educational and social opportunities to the campus and the local community,” said Stuart Hart ’98 ’15, who helped reinvigorate the chapter at the university in 1995.

“We wanted to celebrate our 30 years in a special way,” said James Cummings ’09, who was one of the alumni members who helped organize the effort. “We thought, ‘why not create a scholarship to help this group of individuals.’” Working in partnership with the university’s Alumni Engagement and Sustained Giving office, they did just that, establishing the Alpha Phi Alpha Outstanding Leadership Scholarship to benefit student leaders with financial need.

As part of the 2019 homecoming weekend, fraternity members came together and hosted a scholarship ball at University Campus. At the festivities, they presented the university with a check for $28,080, permanently establishing the fund and creating a new philanthropic tradition for the fraternity.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was exciting, though,” Cummings said. “We were more than excited to start something we felt would leave a legacy at our alma mater.”

Hart said strong fraternities enjoy active engagement from alumni, so it is important for alumni members to stay connected with current students. “Celebrating this milestone reunion and establishing the scholarship would help in this area,” he said.

The reunion weekend brought together Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity members dating back to 1989, including members of the current chapter as well as friends, advisors, and family.

Photo by Renee Gerstein

Saint Leo College Preparatory School alumnus drives his motorcycle from Florida to Canada to go fly-fishing, see Shakespeare’s plays performed, and connect with a longtime friend from Saint Leo.

It is summertime, and alumnus Bud McKechnie ’52 is about to set out on his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle with the symphonies of Beethoven filling his ears. He will drive thousands of miles from his home in the suburbs of Orlando, FL, to Stratford, a city in southwest Ontario, Canada. Once there, he will go fly-fishing, attend the annual William Shakespeare festival, and connect with a friend from his days at Saint Leo College Preparatory School.

The 85-year-old has been making the trip on his motorcycle for the past 38 years. He is a lover of English literature, classical music, and motorcycles, which is an interest that runs in the family. McKechnie’s father and grandfather were motorcycle owners, too.

“When you’re in a car, you’re surrounded by all four sides of the car,” McKechnie shared. “But in a motorcycle, you’re exposed to the open air. You’re free and alive.”

McKechnie, who is a business owner and professor of English at Seminole State College (FL), makes the trip to Stratford 400 miles at a time, stopping for visits along the way. It usually takes him three weeks. He will stop to see three of his six children who live in Virginia and Connecticut. He’ll also visit a Benedictine monk he met at Saint Leo, Father Leo, who now lives in Pennsylvania.

But when he finally arrives in Stratford, he will make it a priority to enjoy the original works of Shakespeare performed by famous actors, in a city named after the playwright’s birthplace. 

“Shakespeare is the best poet and writer in the English language, and other scholars would agree,” McKechnie said. “He put a lot of poetry into his plays and is also the author of 154 sonnets.”

McKechnie counts Shakespeare as his favorite writer. Second, he is an admirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, followed by William Wordsworth. It’s the profundity of the word that McKechnie admires.

“All art is an imitation of life,” McKechnie says. “Literature, and many others would agree, comes the closest to imitating life.” Art and music, he says, come a close second.

While Shakespeare and fly-fishing are two motivations for McKechnie’s trip, the other motivation is the opportunity for him to catch up with fellow alumnus John Meyer ’52. The pair met in 1946 while in the seventh grade at Saint Leo College Preparatory School. They attended classes together, shared meals, and lodged in the same room. That level of closeness created a bond that has lasted through the years.

“The prep grads are close because we grew up together,” McKechnie said. “We were all roommates and grew up like brothers. We even treat each other like we are blood-related, if not better.”

McKechnie and Meyer also stay in touch through other ways. Every winter, Meyer comes to Florida to take in the warmer weather and welcomes McKechnie and his wife, Arlene, a 1988 graduate of Saint Leo College, to stay with him at his beach condo in Ocean Ridge, FL.

Meyer said that after Saint Leo, he stayed in touch with McKechnie for some time, but had lost touch. It wasn’t until early in the 2000s that they rekindled their friendship. McKechnie had reached out to him about attending the Saint Leo Prep reunion, which now takes place during homecoming every fall.

Meyer admires many of McKechnie’s attributes: his uplifting personality, compassionate nature, and innate ability to connect with people. “He makes people feel good and takes the time to ask them about themselves,” Meyer said.

While it has been more than 60 years since McKechnie was a student at Saint Leo, he says the institution had a profound impact on his life. The people he met as student continue to be an integral part of his life’s story.

It was during his junior year that alumnus Jorge Burgos ’07 learned to dance salsa. A chance meeting with a Tampa-area dance instructor inspired Burgos to take lessons. It was something he was motivated to pursue on top of his studies, playing on the baseball team, and serving as a resident assistant.

For the business administration major, dance had become a passion, and it was for good reason.

In 2008, after Burgos graduated from Saint Leo, he and a peer at the dance studio decided to go into business together. “I wanted to be my own boss and control my own life, and that’s what really inspired me to bring business and dance together,” Burgos said.

In that first year, the pair taught dance workshops, and Burgos found a dance partner to help him teach and perform at dance conventions around the world. But all it took was one YouTube video to turn his small business into an international success. Burgos and his dance partner Tanja Kensinger made the decision to transition from dancing salsa to bachata, a social dance style originating from the Dominican Republic. It was not an overly saturated area of dance—a space where they could make a name for themselves.

And that is exactly what they did. Burgos and Kensinger recorded a video of their routine and posted it on YouTube. The video went viral. Today it has received nearly 100 million views.

Watching Burgos and Kensinger dance, it is evident that they have natural chemistry. Their technical skills are mere background to the passion and emotion displayed in every fluid movement. Burgos attributes their connectedness to why the video became so popular.

As the number of video views increased, so did the requests for Burgos to perform. Dance conferences, events, workshops—the opportunities kept coming. For 11 years, Burgos and his partners lived in five different states—New York, Virginia, California, New Jersey, and Florida—and traveled the world, introducing their business and bachata to new people.

It was during these travels that Burgos received the opportunity of a lifetime. A movie producer encouraged him to audition for Shine, a Forgiven Films picture about two Puerto Rican brothers who end up on opposing sides of a gentrification effort in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Salsa is interwoven in the plot, which helped Burgos to secure a starring role as Ralphi Matas.

“It was something I always dreamed of doing,” Burgos said. “It was an exciting and extremely challenging process, but at the end of the day, it was beautiful. It really opened so many doors for me.”

Today Burgos sits at the top of a successful Latin dance brand—Island Touch Dance Academy—that not only provides in-person workshops, but also has expanded to offer online and virtual seminars, branded merchandise, franchised dance teams, and dance conferences. The brand established its own convention in Tampa, FL, and Chicago, with plans to bring it to the Dominican Republic and New York in the coming years. Burgos also is engaged to Kensinger.

In reflecting on his time at Saint Leo, Burgos is grateful for the foundational knowledge and experience he received at the university. As a student, he was even able to have early exposure to what it would be like to run a business when the university allowed him to open a barbershop on University Campus. Burgos ran the shop for three years while he attended classes. 

“I was there at Saint Leo to study business administration because I always wanted to own my own business,” Burgos said. “In thinking back, it was kind of ironic that Saint Leo gave me the opportunity to do it while I was there. I was able to take something I learned that day in class, and in the afternoon, test it out at the barbershop.”

More than 10 years later, Burgos is still using the expertise that he gained from Saint Leo to build a business based on his passion. He credits his passion and business-savvy to much of his success.

“I think what really motivates me is that we’ve been able to transform how people approach dance as career by integrating our business perspective,” Burgos said. “You can make money and be successful as a dancer when you approach it with love and passion, combined with a smart business perspective.”

Alumna Arlene Johnston is co-founder of Burger 21, a popular and growing restaurant franchise.

In 2009, after her twin boys Joseph and Jared were old enough to start school and her stepsons Robby and Ryan were away at college, Johnston and her husband Mark decided to expand his established restaurant brands and enter into the growing fast-casual restaurant segment. The American appetite for quality, creative burger flavor combinations was growing, and at the time, it seemed there was potential for a burger restaurant concept to do well.

That year, the couple opened their first Burger 21 location in Tampa, FL, and set their sights on growing.

“Since there was experience with franchising a restaurant brand in the family, we decided to franchise Burger 21 after the successful opening of our first location,” Johnston said.

Burger 21 offers chef-crafted burgers in a variety of flavor combinations. The menu features classics like the Cheesy and the Bacon Cheesy, made with 100 percent Certified Angus Beef®, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and their special 21 sauce, on a brioche bun.

Then there are burgers that offer something a little different, like the popular Tex-Mex Haystack—a burger with applewood smoked bacon, onion strings, smoked Gouda, chipotle-jalapeño sauce, guacamole, lettuce, and tomato. In addition to beef burgers, that first store offered 21 chef-created recipes, highlighting a unique burger variety: turkey, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian. Other favorites are The Skinny and The Ahi Tuna burgers. The number of burgers has continued to grow as new recipes and seasonal burgers are introduced. They range in price from $5.79 to $9.99 depending on type and location. 

Today, Johnston’s twin boys are juniors in high school, and her stepsons help run their businesses. Burger 21 has grown to 25 locations in eight states, including two locations at Tampa International Airport. Their largest concentration of restaurants is in Florida, and they have 10 restaurants in development.

As co-founder, Johnston’s day-to-day work involves managing the Burger 21 franchisee committee and the brand’s annual conference, which provides franchisees with education and insights on achieving success with their restaurants. She also oversees strategic planning and goal-setting for the burger brand, as well as for Grillsmith, a group of Tampa casual restaurants offering American comfort dishes, where she serves as principal.

“I am immensely proud of our Burger 21 brand and the high-quality, fast-casual product we offer,” Johnston said. “I love how the creation of an idea can then provide job opportunities and a family culture for our teams.”

Alumna Arlene Johnston and her husband, Mark, present at a Burger 21 brand conference for franchisees.

Defining Success
While some may say she has achieved remarkable success, Johnston points out that career success is only one part of the equation. In her opinion, true success should not be measured solely by monetary means.

“Surely, we all need money to live; however, making sure we are content with our education, career, family, and friends completes the success equation.” 
For Johnston, building strong relationships with the people in her life is incredibly important. Her advice for those looking to advance in their careers is to treat everyone with respect and demonstrate respect in all aspects of life—from how you park your car to the cleanliness of your desk. She advises maintaining a humble spirit and checking egos at the door. 

“There is nothing better than to work together as a team,” Johnston said. “So many great possibilities blossom. Smart leaders know that teamwork is the key to succeed.”

Another important piece of advice from Johnston: never assume you are supposed to know everything. Johnston recommends reaching out to others who are experts in their fields to gain additional knowledge and insight before making important decisions.

“Making a rushed decision, which results in the wrong choice, in my honest opinion, makes you lose credibility as a knowledgeable and competent professional,” she said.

The importance Johnston places on respect and relationships translates into her personal life as well. She wanted deeply for her sons to have a worldly upbringing and made it a priority to introduce them to different cultures and languages. Through this exposure and their hard work, they are fluent in three languages—English, Spanish, and French—and have unique experiences that help shape how they approach life.

“My biggest accomplishment is becoming a mother of twin boys, who are now 17, and teaching them about life and the world,” Johnston said.

Where it All Started
Johnston moved to the Tampa Bay area 30 years ago from her home in Puerto Rico to attend Saint Leo University. She had learned about Saint Leo from friends and enrolled in classes at University Campus. However, after securing a full-time job at a hotel in Tampa, Johnston took her remaining classes at the education center located on MacDill Air Force Base. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Johnston admired the spirit of togetherness that existed throughout the university community. She recalls how everyone was always willing to help one another. Saint Leo’s core values still resonate with her.

“Today, I can say there are several value takeaways from my time at Saint Leo—one being respect, and the other integrity,” Johnston said. “Both values continue to shape my life, and I cherish how they were a part of my Saint Leo experience.”

Families form in a variety of ways. Some members are born, while others are sought. Some members are inherited, and some are a surprise.

Within the Saint Leo community is an array of blended families. There are faculty and staff who commit to taking students under their wings, ensuring their success and well-being, and students who take care of one another.

Here, we profile the matriarchs of three such families in the Saint Leo community.

Ms. Evon, giver of hugs, drier of tears, Lions cheerleader

Ms. Evon

Great people, great children come through the doors of Saint Leo, said Ephonia McCobb, or “Ms. Evon” as she’s known to the Saint Leo community. A housekeeper in Facilities Management, McCobb takes care of the Marion Bowman Activities Center and its many student-athletes, coaches, and staff.

No one is a stranger to McCobb. Everyone is greeted with a hug and wished well with a “have a blessed day.”

At the Marion Bowman Activities Center, where she began working in 2006, McCobb does more than take care of housekeeping. She takes care of Saint Leo’s student-athletes as if they were her own children. And she takes care of their families, too, reassuring them that their children will be just fine at Saint Leo.

“There is one student, Mary, and her parents dropped her off in August,” McCobb recalled. “They were in the hallway crying. Her daddy was crying harder than her mama. I asked why. He said, ‘We’re dropping off my daughter.’ He said, ‘I just dropped my son off to the Marines last month.’”

“I told them they had done a wonderful job!” she continued. “They got their children to a good place. I asked if we could pray about it, and we did. And then I told them to go get their date night back!”

She offers student-athletes advice on life, dries their tears, and gives them hugs. “I am proud of all of them,” McCobb said. “I tell them that when they leave Saint Leo, if they see someone who is going down the wrong path, they need to take five minutes to talk to them about what they need to be doing, and then tell them ‘have a blessed day.’ Perhaps you might touch someone.”

Nancy Cheek, virtual communicator, career coach extraordinaire

McCobb’s impact on the lives of student-athletes has not gone unnoticed. “Ms. Evon is the epitome of our core value of community,” said Brad Jorgensen, head men’s lacrosse coach. “Almost every young man I have recruited has been greeted with a hug and a loud ‘welcome to the Saint Leo family!’ from Ms. Evon.”

Nancy Cheek

For nearly four years, Nancy Cheek has worked to create a close-knit community where no physical community exists. As associate director of Career Services, she helps hundreds of students each year with their career needs—no matter where they live—most times never meeting face to face.

“What I look forward to is when students tell me they are coming to graduation,” Cheek said. “After having developed a relationship with them remotely, it is so exciting to finally meet them in person.”

With a large portion of Saint Leo students attending school online or at education centers across the United States, Cheek is passionate about ensuring remote students feel supported in achieving their careers goals. While not able to physically be with them, she uses email, photographs, social media, video conferencing, phone calls, and online webinars to build relationships across the Internet.

“Our goal is to make online students feel like they are part of a community without ever coming into an office,” Cheek said.

Countless students have thanked Cheek for her support. She recalls the story of a student who decided to attend Saint Leo after retiring from a 20-year career in the military. He lived in a remote part of Florida and needed help assessing career options.

“I just want to say thank you again for all the helpful guidance you gave me,” wrote the student. “You said I did all the hard work, but I never really felt like I was doing it alone.” After working together for some time, the student Cheek helped was able to land a job with a government agency.

“I live for the days when I get an email or phone call that says, ‘Hey, I just got a job offer,’” Cheek said. “That is why I do what I do.”

Dr. Joanne Roberts, professor, advisor, retired public school teacher and principal

Dr. Joanne Roberts with spring 2018 scholarship recipient, Justina Guptill.

Every spring and fall, a new group of transfer students in their 20s and 30s enroll in the education program at the Gainesville Education Center in central Florida. The future elementary and middle school teachers form cohorts as they make their way together toward their teaching degrees.

They attend rigorous classes four nights a week while holding down full- or part-time jobs to pay expenses. Luckily, they enjoy the kinship they develop within their cohorts and benefit individually and collectively from the benevolent leadership of Dr. Joanne “Tippy” Roberts, professor, advisor, and retired public school system teacher and principal. Roberts says she understands why the classes become close-knit. These young adults—often the first in their families to attend college—receive moral support from one another as they proceed through a tough curriculum.

“Our cohorts sometimes spend more time with each other than with their own families,” Roberts said. So her approach incorporates two philosophies. The first is that the program at the center will create a sense of belonging for all committed education students. The second is that the student kinship can be nurtured into professional collegiality that will serve them well in their careers.

“Family is a good word,” Roberts said of the center environment for the education students. “It’s a learning community, but it’s a learning family. We work together, and we learn together.”

Recent middle grades education graduate Justina Guptill ’18 affirms that “the education program is special all in its own because you really get to know your professors and classmates. You spend so much time as a cohort, it becomes impossible to do anything other than care for the people around you and help in their successes as well as your own. Dr. Roberts put together a very caring faculty to help create the family atmosphere throughout the entire program!” The faculty she is referring to includes adjunct instructors and professors Roberts hired and supervises to teach the education courses in Gainesville. The adjuncts are a vital part of the family, as well.

Given Roberts’ multiple responsibilities, it is difficult to quantify the impact she has made during her years at Saint Leo. By her own count, Roberts estimates she has worked with 450 undergraduate and graduate students in various educational programs at the center.

Although Roberts considers teaching the hardest job in the world, second only to being a parent, she said she cannot imagine doing anything else with her life or finding a deeper sense of fulfillment in any other learning environment.

“During the 15 years I have worked at Saint Leo, I have become a better educator and gained more from my students and colleagues than I ever learned from textbooks.”

With most Americans spending the majority of their waking hours at work, colleagues can start to become like family. There are work wives and work husbands, brothers and sisters, and even second moms and dads in the workplace.

For some Saint Leo alumni, the definition of a work family takes on added meaning. At PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), many alumni continue to experience Saint Leo’s family-like culture by working together at the Tampa location of the multinational professional services firm, which focuses on audit and assurance, tax, and consulting services. The relationship started with one student about 10 years ago.

Dr. Passard Dean, professor of accounting and finance at Saint Leo, was looking for a way to provide more internship and job opportunities for students. When one student was able to secure a full-time position at PwC after graduation, he asked if she would be willing to help recommend other qualified graduates for jobs.

“All it took was one student who was willing to help make Saint Leo a better place,” Dean said. “Because of her willingness to help, countless students have benefited.”

Left to right, Kara Ennis ’18, Ashley Dudney ’18, Johana Beltran-Cantu ’15

Today Saint Leo participates in a unique internship program with PwC. Dean and Dr. Daniel Tschopp, professor of accounting, work with recruiters from PwC to identify students for its internship program, which often leads to full-time employment after graduation. Each year about eight to 10 seniors participate, receiving exposure to accounting work in a variety of sectors.

Kara Ennis ’18, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting this spring, is one of them.  After graduation, her internship led to a full-time position working with several other Saint Leo alumni.

“It is nice because we were able to come into the organization and already know some familiar faces,” Ennis said. “I didn’t feel out of place. We have each others’ backs, and everyone is so willing to help.”

Ashley Dudney ’18, who also graduated with Ennis and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, works next to Ennis in the office. She has a Saint Leo alumna as her supervisor, Johana Beltran-Cantu ’15.

“Having a supervisor who went to the same school as you is helpful,” Dudney said. “She knows the curriculum we learned and understands what it was like to go through the program. It’s also inspiring. I look at her and think, ‘That could be me in two years.’”

Beltran-Cantu, who has been with PwC for three years, agrees with Dudney about the value of working with other alumni. She says there’s something special about Saint Leo graduates when it comes to work ethic. They stand out in a crowd.

“If you earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Saint Leo, then I know you had to work hard to be where you are today,” Beltran-Cantu said.

While they may all have different job responsibilities at PwC, Ennis, Dudney, and Beltran-Cantu all agree that working with other alumni adds a special touch to their daily work.

“It’s very much like a community, which is a Saint Leo value,” Dudney said. “We’re all used to living the Saint Leo values and that translates to how we work together here.”

When Mark Reda ’73 and Stephen Garrison ’71 played on the men’s golf team at Saint Leo University, they were only acquaintances. Garrison was a senior, and Reda a sophomore. While they shared mutual friends and played golf together on occasion, their social circles did not often overlap.

It wasn’t until several years later, when they were thousands of miles away from Florida, that the two were able to form a friendship that ended up saving Reda’s life.

Garrison, who grew up in New York, moved to the same city in New Jersey as Reda. “I’m coming out of church one day, and I see this guy who looked really familiar, but I couldn’t figure out how I knew him,” Reda said.

While there wasn’t an opportunity for Reda to connect with Garrison then, he got a second chance when they ran into each other at a park. After acknowledging their Saint Leo connection, the pair became friends, meeting for dinner and playing a round of golf from time to time. It was a serendipitous meeting because little did Reda know, but Garrison would be key to saving his life. In 2016, Reda was facing health problems, and doctors told him he needed a new kidney to live.

Reda had family members and friends offer to help, including two former Saint Leo roommates. However, for one reason or another, none were an acceptable match.

Reda didn’t share much about his health problems with his friend. While Garrison knew he wasn’t doing well and needed to have surgery, he didn’t know how dire the need was until after talking to Reda’s wife, Debbie. At that point, he learned that he might just be a perfect donor match and decided to help.“To me, it was a pretty simple decision,” Garrison said. “I know that it’s not uncommon for people to donate kidneys. I knew I’d be sore for a little bit, but that I would go on to live a normal life. I would feel terrible if something happened to Mark and I didn’t help him.”

After meeting with doctors and learning more about the transplant process, Garrison was confident in his decision to move forward. Reda received his kidney, and today both men are doing well and are still close friends.To pay tribute to Garrison, three years ago the Redas created the Stephen Garrison ’71 Scholarship fund at Saint Leo to support golf student-athletes who exemplify selfless generosity.

“It’s just a very humbling experience when the people in your life volunteer to help,” Reda said. “It’s the kind of thing that chokes you up when you talk about it. Establishing the scholarship is a way for me to memorialize what he did. His grandkids can see the scholarship and be able to know what their grandfather did.”

If you are interested in learning about Saint Leo University’s scholarship program and how you can help, please contact Dawn Parisi at or (352) 588-8251.