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Mary McCoy

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Lacrosse alumni share their knowledge with college and high school players on the field and off.

Saint Leo University’s lacrosse programs are producing alumni who still are racking up accomplishments on the field, but they now are experiencing it from a coach’s vantage point. Building relationships and connecting with young people are just two of the benefits coaches reap while guiding athletic teams.

“When players join our team, there is a mutual investment,” said Brad Jorgensen, men’s lacrosse head coach. “We are counting on them helping us win games and represent Saint Leo, and they are counting on Saint Leo preparing them for the rest of their lives.”

Today, several Lions, now living across the country, are making the most of what they learned on the lacrosse field and in the classroom at the university.

Alumnus Anthony Biondo serves as the head men’s lacrosse coach at Hendrix College in Conway, AR, where in his first year as head coach in 2017, the Warriors set a school record with eight wins. Biondo earned his bachelor’s degree in middle grades education from Saint Leo in 2009.

“My education background helps with my approach to everything we do here,” Biondo said of his coaching experience at Hendrix. As he learned at Saint Leo, reaching young people can take several different approaches.

“It is my goal to ensure we are teaching our young men, and finding ways to break it down into little nuggets,” he said. “We try to reach our players in different ways; whether it is hands-on [field application], visual, or audio, we try and make sure we hit everything as a staff to ensure the information reaches the players.”

Not only does Biondo coach on the lacrosse field, but he also runs the leadership council and manages the budget for the program. “The job of being the coach is truly being a jack-of-all-trades,” said Biondo, who also maintains his team’s social media presence and recruits new players.

One of his biggest takeaways from his time in a Saint Leo uniform is that details matter.

“Coach Jorgensen was always on us about the little things, and making sure we did them, and teaching us to do them the right way,” Biondo said. “During my time there, I was able to grow and find my focus for my career. My professors in the education department taught me so much about how to connect with my students/players and to always approach it with a fresh mind every day.”

Linsey Hoskins ’14 has come full circle as she graduated from J.W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey, FL, and now is the head girls lacrosse coach for the Mustangs. She also coaches the Tampa Tribe club team.

Hoskins earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in forensics/criminology. Now, she is teaching biology at Mitchell as well as teaching a new forensics class.

“I use my degree every day,” Hoskins said, “Since I teach the subjects that I studied. It is great just having the background knowledge. I use my real-life experiences and my different lab experiences.”

Hoskins was a walk-on player for the Saint Leo women’s lacrosse team, and she credits athletics for getting her through school. “I chose Saint Leo first and the sport came secondary,” she said. “It kept me focused. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in college if I hadn’t played a sport. Having the resources that Saint Leo offered to keep me focused, kept me in school. I may not have got those [resources] at a bigger university.”

As a coach, Hoskins said, she loves “just being able to bring the game that took me through college to other girls.

“It is important for those of us who did play at a high level to pass that along,” she continued.  “We need more role models for these young women. I love it.”

Saint Leo women’s lacrosse head coach Caitlin Hansen could not agree more. “I view coaching as an investment in growing the game,” Hansen said. “Lacrosse is a rapidly growing sport, and it’s one where we always are looking for people who have played to join the coaching ranks and give back. I think that investment in the future of the game is important.”

Two alumni who played on the Saint Leo men’s lacrosse national championship runners-up team are Kyle Pauwels and Jake Gilmour. Both earned their bachelor’s degrees in management in 2018, both are pursuing master’s in business administration, and both are coaching.

Pauwels is an assistant men’s lacrosse coach at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. “With my undergrad degree being in management, there are a lot of concepts that apply to the business side of things along with coaching,” he said. “When managing a company or team, you come across dealing with different people and how you can lead them to success. There is also a lot of business and finance that comes with coaching, so my degree helped me prepare for the behind-the-scenes stuff in regard to booking hotels, ordering food and equipment, and more.”

As a coach, Pauwels said he loves giving back what he learned during his playing days. “I enjoy being around this age group and having an impact on them in any way possible,” he said. Like Biondo, Pauwels said taking pride in doing the right thing and doing something well were values instilled in him by Jorgensen, the Lions coach.

Gilmour was drafted by the Denver Outlaws to play professional lacrosse and plays for Major Series Lacrosse League in the summer. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he is waiting to hear about this year’s schedule. He also is a graduate assistant for Career Services at Saint Leo and co-head coach for the Wesley Chapel (FL) High School boys lacrosse team.

In addition, he helped with Lions lacrosse. “It was really cool and fun to be a part of all the other aspects and see it from a different perspective,” Gilmour said.

“I’ve actually been coaching for several years, as I coached summer clinics for the team I played for [in Canada],” he added. But while that coaching experience was only for a weekend, he enjoys coaching the Wildcats high school team.

“I enjoy being able to see the development of the players as they progress, and how their love of the game grows,” Gilmour said. “And obviously, I still have a passion for the game.”

In Career Services, Gilmour helps students discover what they need to be career-ready and what different work environments are like and also helps with their internships. During this time of online learning, Career Services also moved online, and Gilmour hosts virtual workshops and drop-ins for Saint Leo students.

His Saint Leo degree provided a solid foundation, Gilmour said. “A lot of what I learned is time management,” he said. “I handle my everyday job and balance high-school coaching and college coaching on the side. You have to get your act together pretty quickly!”

Pauwels and Gilmour share a favorite Saint Leo memory—playing for a national championship. “Really my whole senior year,” Pauwels said. “From being unranked to making it to a national championship was surreal. Our team came together so much on and off the field over the year. That whole season is still as clear as day.”

For Saint Leo’s Jorgensen and Hansen, coaching future coaches is rewarding.

“Having former players get into coaching is one of the highest compliments I can receive,” Jorgensen said. “To know that guys thought highly enough of the experience here at Saint Leo to want to spend their lives involved in lacrosse is really rewarding.”

Hansen said she thinks coaching is an investment in developing future leaders. “If you can build relationships and connect with these high school and college players, you can really push them to not only be their best selves on the field but in all other aspects of their lives as well.”

Those lessons have paid off for the alumni who are coaching. All said they want to continue coaching, teaching, or being involved in lacrosse and sports in some way.

Gilmour summed up Saint Leo’s culture and its effect on him: “It’s based on respect,” he said. “The world is a lot bigger than lacrosse, but it all begins with respect.”

 

Photos courtesy of Anthony Biondo and Hendrix College; Kyle Pauwels and Lincoln Memorial University; and Linsey Hoskins

Michele Naughton ’10 ’13 ’18 uses her Saint Leo education to invest in her community through her work with the Norfolk Police Department.

Michele Naughton is a survivor who overcame being homeless, raising children as a single mother, suffering a serious injury, and fighting cancer on her journey to becoming a police captain with the Norfolk (VA) Police Department.

A triple Saint Leo graduate, Naughton studied at education centers in Virginia, and earned an associate degree in 2010, a bachelor’s degree in business administration-management in 2013, and a master’s degree in criminal justice in 2018. She also is a graduate of Saint Leo’s Command Officer Management program.

A self-proclaimed “Army brat,” Naughton lived in Oklahoma, Germany, Texas, California, and New York prior to moving to Virginia. “I lived in the Louis Armstrong projects in Bedford Stuyvesant,” she said. “My parents had six kids, and when I was 15, my mom decided to move from Sacramento to Brooklyn to reunite with my dad. He was an Army veteran and an alcoholic. His addiction forced my mother to leave. With six kids in tow, we walked the streets of Brooklyn. We were homeless at times.”

But the strength of her mother encouraged her. “She loved us and ensured that our education was a top priority,” Naughton said. However, her educational journey stalled when she became pregnant at 19. She became pregnant again with twin sons and soon followed her mother to Norfolk so she could have her support.

“I originally became a police officer because my mom told me to!” Naughton said. “It was that simple. But once I became an officer, and I realized that every day is different and there are many opportunities, I really enjoyed it.”

She faced more challenges as she tore her meniscus after entering the police academy, delaying graduation for two years until 2002. In 2005, while pregnant, she was diagnosed with cancer. She has been in remission since 2006.

Naughton said, “I have dealt with adversity throughout my career and this accomplishment [being named captain] answered the questions I posed to God such as why I survived cancer, but my 3-year-old nephew did not, why did I get injured in the academy so completion took almost two years, why did my mom get shot and survive, and why did I meet Officer Sheila Herring in the academy, who was killed in the line of duty in 2003? I finally realized that God had a purpose for me. I believe I can inspire others to achieve their goals and to keep going even when the going gets tough.”

Norfolk Police Department Captain Michele Naughton receives a Community Heroes award from the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce
Saint Leo alumna, Norfolk Police Department Captain Michele Naughton, center, receives a Community Heroes award from the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

In 2007, she became a community resource officer assigned to the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. “I could relate to the concerns of the community as I had been a resident of the New York Housing Authority. I wanted to truly help make a safe community for the families, especially the children. I saw myself in the women in that community. I am a single mother, and I faced a lot of the same challenges as the residents. I was able to connect with them.”

Prior to being promoted to captain, she served in the patrol, detective, training, and vice-narcotics divisions throughout her career with the NPD.

Learning Curve

Naughton learned about Saint Leo University from other Norfolk police officers. “I was drawn to Saint Leo primarily because of the flexible schedule, affordable cost, and numerous degree programs,” she said. “I was a single mother of three, and when I started my educational journey, all my children were in elementary school.”

She completed most of her undergraduate degree at the South Hampton Roads Education Center at JEB-Little Creek, and also took classes online and at the Norfolk and Oceana offices. Her graduate degree program and Command Officer Management program were completed at the Chesapeake Education Center. “I enjoyed blended classes because I was able to manage the amount of time away from work and family and still able to receive classroom instruction,” she said.

Through Saint Leo, she learned skills to assist her as she moved into a command position. “Certain classes like accounting, budgeting, management, and policy courses provided the knowledge to understand the business and legal aspect of policing and the administrative side of law enforcement. I believe that, coupled with my experience, has made me a better officer today.”

Empowering Women

Captain Michele Naughton at Richard Bowling Elementary School's Black History Month presentation on March 5, 2020
Captain Michele Naughton at Richard Bowling Elementary School’s Black History Month presentation

Law enforcement needs more women, Naughton said. Women possess many special characteristics such as emotional intelligence, she said. “My advice would be that sometimes we [women and women of color] may doubt ourselves because we don’t see people who look like us in positions of authority in law enforcement, but there is a place for you. I would say, ‘you are smart enough, you are strong enough, and you are good enough. You are enough!”

While she said law enforcement is not an easy career path, it is rewarding. “Whoever made the glass ceiling wanted it to be broken—if not, it would have been made of concrete or steel.”

Naughton is motivated by the sense that she can change people’s perception of police officers. “I can truly be part of the solution,” she said. “I am motivated by knowing that I am a part of an organization that believes in fostering positive relationships and inclusivity. I am motivated because I see the example of leadership through authentic community engagement that results in crime reduction and building trust set by Chief Larry Boone.”

In turn, the Norfolk chief has great things to say about Naughton. “Not only is she an inspiration to young women, she is also an outstanding model for leadership,” Boone said. “Having overcome personal, professional, and health challenges during her career, Captain Naughton’s background authentically resonates with citizens, as she is an example of endurance and fortitude for anyone facing difficulties in their life. I am certain her legacy will impact/influence the future of recruitment for women and minorities in law enforcement by her example and mentorship.”

The Gig

In her position as captain, Naughton is the commanding officer of the Office of PRIME Affairs. PRIME is public relations, information, marketing, and engagement. She oversees the Public Information Office, Community Affairs Sections, and Community Outreach.

Naughton attributes her success and ability to move up the ranks within the police department to “the support and love of the community, co-workers, and family,” she said.

She volunteers weekly as a literacy tutor, co-hosts the bi-weekly radio talk show We Are One – NPD and You, and serves on the Cops & Curls Committee and the Fair and Impartial Policing work group. “I make time as it is important to me,” she said. “One encounter can change the path of a person’s life.”

And Naughton knows she does not do it alone. The support of her family, the Norfolk Police Department, the community, and God have encouraged her on this journey.

Photos by RGB Imaging

Educating students where they live and work is a core part of Saint Leo. Since 1973, the university has taught students at education centers and other teaching locations, in addition to University Campus. 

Center students for the most part are older and nontraditional students, meaning they may not enter college at age 18, immediately after graduating from high school. They often are working full time and juggling family commitments with studying. Saint Leo’s centers focus on offering classes when students need them. 

Making education center students feel a part of the university is crucial to their success. The centers sponsor many activities and clubs to bring students together, including participating in Saint Leo Serves projects in their communities. Saint Leo changes our students’ lives and makes a difference in the communities where centers are located.

University administration continuously monitors center locations to make sure they are meeting the needs of current and prospective students. In the past few years, Saint Leo has opened new locations and expanded others to better provide educational opportunities for the surrounding communities. Soon, the university will better serve the Charleston, SC, region with the opening of a new center in Summerville, SC, and a second one on the Naval Weapons Station Charleston at Joint Base Charleston. Here’s a look at some of Saint Leo’s new and expanded education centers.

Florida

Tampa

– MacDill Air Force Base

East Pasco Education Center 
at University Campus

Brooksville Pasco-Hernando

State College Office

New Port Richey PHSC Office

Spring Hill PHSC Office

Gainesville

Lakeland

Lake City 

Key West
at Naval Air Station Key West

Jacksonville

Naval Station Mayport Office

The Jacksonville center moved in December 2017 to a new location in the Oakleaf Town Center, an open-air regional shopping center. The 8,400-square-foot center gives students access to five classrooms, administrative staff, and a computer lab, as well as Saint Leo’s online library collection, online tutoring, and personalized career services.

Madison

Ocala

Saint Leo’s Ocala location opened in the fall of 2016. Its 9,172 square feet features 10 classrooms that include the latest technology, a computer lab, and student lounges.

Tallahassee

Georgia

Atlanta

Classes began in January 2019 at the new Atlanta Education Center at Lindbergh City Center. The centers in Morrow and Marietta, GA, ceased operations in December. Saint Leo occupies the entire second floor of the new Atlanta center with more than 23,000 square feet. It features eight classrooms with plans to develop more, a Learning Resource Center, cybersecurity lab, and student lounge.

Gwinnett

Savannah

A grand opening ceremony was held in October 2018 at a new location, but Saint Leo has served the Savannah community since 1975, when it began offering classes at Hunter Army Airfield (HAAF) and Fort Stewart. The new location is 14,900 square feet. It features 13 classrooms, a “cyber bar,” Learning Resource Center, computer lab, student study room, and student lounge. In addition, the center boasts the university’s third Military Resource Center for student-veterans and military-related students.

Virginia

Fort Lee

South Hampton Roads

JEB-Little Creek Office

Naval Air Station Oceana 
Office

Naval Station Norfolk Office

Saint Leo University celebrated the grand opening of its new location in 2016 at Naval Station Norfolk.

Chesapeake

Newport News

Fort Eustis Office

Langley Air Force Base Office 

Saint Leo University celebrated the grand opening of its expanded Newport News location in April 2018. The center added 4,386 square feet to its site, enabling it to open with a fully equipped cybersecurity lab, as well as additional classroom space, a study lounge, and a Military Resource Center.

South Carolina

Charleston

Summerville area
The new location for the Charleston Education Center is in the booming Nexton area of Summerville. It opens this fall and will offer updated technology, larger classrooms, a dedicated computer lab, learning resource center, student lounge, and more support services. Moving into a stand-alone location also will provide an opportunity to build stronger business partnerships that will benefit students and alumni.

Naval Weapons 
Station Charleston

Opening this fall.

Shaw Air Force Base
Sumter Office

Texas

Corpus Christi
at Naval Air Station

Corpus Christi

Mississippi

Columbus
at Columbus Air Force Base

California

San Diego
at Naval Base
 
San Diego

A Saint Leo education program is helping to address the teacher shortage in Florida by partnering with school districts.

Saint Leo University is helping Florida school districts “grow their own” teachers via an innovative program. Through agreements with 19 school systems, paraprofessionals and noncertified school district employees, who have an associate degree, recieve the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from the university. 

The agreements vary in scope, with all providing tuition discounts. In some agreements, Saint Leo will offer classes at a school within the district, while in others, the paraprofessionals will study at one of the university’s Florida education centers and online. 

The new program allows those who work in schools to become teachers in the district where they already are employed. “This is a home-grown approach that is addressing the teacher shortage in Florida,” said Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of Saint Leo’s undergraduate education program. It takes people who are based in the community and allows them to grow, gain a degree, and become teachers. 

“You have roots there,” Atkins said of the school district employees. “You have an understanding of who the students are in the community. That leads to more success for the [school district’s] students, too.”

When district employees consider becoming teachers, the main concerns that emerge are monetary investment, time commitment—both length of the program and demand on their personal schedule—and if they will be supported by their school district and academic institution, said Jessica Starkey, director of Saint Leo’s Jacksonville (FL) Education Center. “Our para-to-pro program addresses each of those concerns.”  

Growing teachers who know the area, people, culture, and lifestyle is beneficial to Florida’s school districts—especially districts in rural areas. “It’s going to help the teachers stick and remain in the districts,” Atkins said. “We don’t want a revolving door of teachers.” 

Tackling Teaching Vacancies
Districts spend time and money recruiting teachers, and this new program will provide a guaranteed pipeline of educators. With the partnerships, districts will “know in spring of 2021, ‘We’re going to have X amount of new teachers,’” said Dr. Tammy Quick, assistant professor of education at the Ocala (FL) Education Center. “They don’t have to go out and recruit.” 

Michele Bily, instructional specialist in human resources for Clay County District Schools agrees. She says the initiative allows the district “to recruit future teachers from a talent pool that has already shown commitment to our students and the district.”  

This home-grown approach to hiring teachers appeals to school officials. The district employees already are involved with the children and the community. “That fits right in with who we are as a university and our core values,” Atkins said of Saint Leo. 

Since Saint Leo already maintains relationships with many of the school districts, the para-to-pro agreements were a natural fit. 

“We have worked with these districts for years, but now they are serious about growing their numbers since there appears to be a shortage of certified teachers in our state,” said Dr. Susan Kinsella, dean of the College of Education and Social Services.

At the Jacksonville Education Center, these partnerships are strengthened by the personal attention education students receive. “My center has been amazing,” said Dr. Alexandra Kanellis, associate chair of undergraduate education. “The students [in the para-to-pro program] know there is a person to help them. We identified roles. I handle the academics, Jessica [Starkey] handles the financials, and the assistant director of admissions helps with all the paperwork. [Education] students know who to go to for help.”

The Hernando County School District is just one district that is pleased to work with Saint Leo. 

The partnerships take down the barriers that have prevented many people from returning to college and pursuing a bachelor’s degree and qualifies them to teach in their own classroom.


“This is a home-grown approach that is addressing the teacher shortage in Florida.”
— Dr. Holly Atkins, chair, Undergraduate Education


“We are excited about this partnership and what it could potentially do for our district’s recruitment and retention efforts,” said Michael Maine, the district’s senior recruiter. Maine is the district’s first senior recruiter, a position created in 2019 to fill frequent teaching vacancies and retain teachers for longer periods.

“By partnering with Saint Leo, we hope to bridge the gap and strengthen our pool of teacher applicants who are ready and prepared to be teachers,” Maine said. “The great thing about the program is that these individuals are already our employees and are already in our classrooms. They have a love for students and in many ways are already heavily assisting the teachers who they serve by helping to boost student achievement. Why not help them with their personal development and future goals of becoming teachers? It is a win-win situation!”

The para-to-pro programs allow the new Saint Leo students to complete their field placements in the school in which they work; however, they must teach in a different classroom to meet the state’s internship requirements. They also must complete their final field placement outside of the school district in which they are employed.

The districts all make a commitment to the students, helping with tuition, allowing the time for classes, and providing health insurance. “The HR staff and the district can say this is a benefit of employment,” Atkins said. “We [the university] provide a flat-rate on tuition, additional professional development opportunities, and additional support for the three state tests.”

Hernando’s Maine considers the para-to-pro partnership with Saint Leo to be a benefit to the district’s employees.  “It is an opportunity for us to create clear pathways for our current employees to move up within the organization,” he said. “If an employee knows that they have an opportunity to increase their influence within an organization and feel valued while doing it, they will stay. It’s all about retention of these great employees.”

School districts identify and recommend employees eligible for admission and provide placement for internships, and other support. “The additional support has been unique to each district,” Starkey said. “Some school districts will provide textbooks, laptops, and financial reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. Many districts also are working to keep participating para-to-pro students paid during their final internship and keep their health benefits.” 

In Clay County, the district collaborated with the Clay Education Foundation to provide computers for each cohort member to ensure they had the necessary technology to complete their degrees, Bily said. 

Helping Florida’s Future Teachers
Saint Leo is working with districts to meet their needs, too. “We listen to what they want,” Kanellis said. “We go to them and say ‘What do you need from us?’ We stay connected to what is going on in education and what districts need. We have to stay current and flexible.”

“We’re flexible enough to make adjustments to the current program and still have the high expectations and standards,” Atkins added.

Some of the new Saint Leo education students have been paraprofessionals for years, Atkins said. “They have a wide array of teaching skills,” she said. “The program builds on that.”

Most are nontraditional-age students, who are juggling families and employed in demanding full-time jobs. “That’s what we specialize in at our centers,” Atkins said of the adult learners. “It’s not a learning curve for Saint Leo to have a mom come in as a student, who is holding down a full-time job and now going back to school full time. That’s who we work with.”

Many paraprofessionals think, “‘I can’t go to college because of time and money,’” Quick added. But the para-to-pro program with Saint Leo is changing that with the tuition discount, and by offering classes at district offices and schools, at nearby Saint Leo centers, and online. 

The partnerships take down the barriers that have prevented many people from returning to college and pursuing a bachelor’s degree and qualifies them to teach in their own classroom. Paraprofessionals complete most of their field placements right in their place of work. Districts then commit to hiring the paraprofessionals upon successful completion of the program. 

The para-to-pro program covers a wide range of employees, Atkins said. “It could be a classroom teacher wanting to take an undergraduate class for recertification or enroll in one of the graduate education programs. It can be someone who is working in the school district on a temporary certificate, who graduated with a non-education degree, but wants to get an education degree. Some districts have included noninstructional staff, who have strong ties to their school—a front-office secretary, for example.” 

The program has provided support for employees “with the hope that they can complete their education and be a lead teacher in a classroom,” said Brenda Troutman, director of instructional personnel for Clay County District Schools. “Many of those enrolled in the program would not have had the opportunity to accomplish this otherwise.” 

The Duval County Public Schools’ partnership with Saint Leo is called the Supporting Talent and Recruiting Teachers (START) program, and it launched in December.

“There was quite a ceremony at the Jacksonville district office welcoming the new cohort,” said Kinsella. “Families were invited and students were met by their superintendent and myself while they learned about Saint Leo University and the expectations of their school district. There is plenty of support for this program from Saint Leo and the school district, so we are certain these students will be successful. There is also the added component of including the families as it is so important to have their support.”

Several of the agreements with Saint Leo require the districts to hire the students once they graduate, pass the Florida General Knowledge Test, and the state certification exam. This will allow those who previously were making minimum wage to begin making a certified teacher’s salary, Kinsella noted. 

The partnership with Saint Leo University allows current Clay County support staff, who hold an associate degree to complete a bachelor’s in education in two years, Bily said. “Upon successful completion of the program, each graduate will be guaranteed a teaching position within the district.”

Collaborating for Strong Teacher Cohorts
“The biggest support system is what they create through their cohort,” Kanellis said of the new education students. “The para-to-pro cohorts come in, and they realize that all the students are feeling the same; they have the same dreams. It’s pretty amazing to see how they keep each other going. They pray together; they have dinner together; they study together.”

Clay County’s collaboration with Saint Leo “has created a strong support system to assist those enrolled, to encourage them through the process, and to simply be their cheerleader when things become tough,” Troutman said. “Clay County is excited to have this new partnership and looks forward to building great teachers for Clay.”

Saint Leo’s commitment to its education students doesn’t end when they walk across the stage at commencement. “The Department of Education tracks and assesses our program based on the performance of our graduates,” Atkins said. “They are evaluated in a large part on the standardized test scores of their students. These are long-term partnerships with our graduates.” 

Mario Conte counts Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake as shareholders in his company. The 2006 Saint Leo graduate shares a passion for golf with the celebrities, which he has translated into a national-reaching business. 

Conte double majored in international tourism and hospitality management as well as business administration with a specialization in management. One year after graduating from the university, he founded and became executive director of the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. 

“I did it pretty quickly,” Conte said of the business endeavor. “I started in the restaurant business after graduating from Saint Leo. But I decided I didn’t want to do that at all! I had a little money in the bank, so I went for it and never looked back.”

The Hurricane Junior Golf Tour (www.hjgt.org) hosts events for aspiring junior golfers who are looking to play on the collegiate level. Conte started HJGT in Tampa, FL, and lived in the same house as he did when he attended Saint Leo. “We started with 25 events in year one, and 12 years later, we are at 300 events in 28 states.”

Now based in Orlando, FL, Hurricane Junior Golf Tour serves youngsters who are serious about the game. “We start at [age] 10 and work up to 18,” Conte said. “Most are 14 to 18, and they are more serious about the next level and playing college golf. Of course, they all would like to play professionally, too.”

Florida also is home to most of the tour’s events as well as its biggest. “We can play year-round here,” Conte said of the Sunshine State.

That sunshine drew the Chicago native to attend Saint Leo. Conte played junior golf and in tournaments throughout the country. He enjoyed making trips to Florida for golf. “I had a family friend who was an alumnus of Saint Leo,” Conte said. “And I wanted to get to warmer weather, golf, and a life change. I always wanted to live in Florida.”

Conte met his best friend Mike Barbato ’06 at Saint Leo, where they became Kappa Theta fraternity brothers. With a degree in sport management, Barbato went on to work for sports teams and companies around the nation. Now, Conte has hired his fellow alumnus as the chief operating officer for Hurricane Junior Golf Tour.

Like Barbato, Conte has used his degrees to further his career. “I had some really great teachers and mentors at Saint Leo,” Conte said. “It was not only what I learned from a textbook, but I developed really great relationships, too. Stan McGahey [professor of international tourism] was instrumental in my wanting to travel. I took that degree and parlayed it with what I love, which is golf.”

Hard work also is a part of Conte’s DNA, and while he was at Saint Leo, he worked full time at Kafe Kokopelli in Dade City, FL. “It was owned then by the Greenfelders [Glen E. Greenfelder ’61, ’63, ’09 and trustee emeritus, and his wife, Gail],” Conte said. “They were a big part of my growth, and helped inspire me.”

As the executive director of HJGT, Conte does a little bit of everything. “You name it; I do it,” he said. “I started the business from the ground up. I do everything from helping manage the tournaments, the logistics, the sales and marketing, to our big relationships. Now, I’m looking forward and focusing on our two-year and five-year plans.” 

Among those big relationships is the one with NEXUS Luxury Collection, an international hospitality, real estate development, and asset management company, which boasts pro-golfer Woods and actor-musician Timberlake as lead partners. In 2017, Nexus became a shareholder in Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. 

“The success of junior golf is an important element in growing the game,” Woods said in a press release. “Helping boys and girls compete, and being involved in golf, will benefit the kids and help strengthen our sport.”

Growing the game is an integral part of Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. “That is a big initiative that we do on a daily basis,” Conte said. “Kids start off at local golf courses and then come to us. It’s our job to keep them engaged. We’re very forward thinking, and we use technology to keep them engaged.”

The biggest thing with Hurricane Junior Golf Tour is, “We want to be remembered as someone who changed the game,” Conte said. “We do things outside of the box. A lot of kids are uptight, and they get a lot of pressure from their parents. We want to make it fun. We want to make it a game again.” 

Passion. Joy. Inspiration. Those are words Salvatore DiBenedetto ’12 takes to heart and drops into his conversations. To be successful, you have to follow your passion, DiBenedetto advises.

DiBenedetto has parlayed his passion for food, travel, and communication into success. As The Grubfather, he is a social media influencer, and food and travel content producer for social media, online, broadcast, and print publications. He also founded The Connect Agency, a creative, digital branding and marketing company focusing on content creation for the hospitality industry, brand building, and digital marketing. 

One glance at his social media channels, and the salivating and envy begins. There are photos of DiBenedetto posing with a gigantic slice of pizza monopolizing the table; toasting with Chef Eric Ripert in the Grand Cayman; floating in paradise with a drink in each hand in beautiful Kauai; juggling a bratwurst and a plate of schnitzel in Germany; and sharing the food and flavors that make his Long Island home special. There are photos of food, more food, and even more food!

Becoming The Grubfather
So how did a guy with dual bachelor’s degrees from Saint Leo in history and international studies and a minor in cultural anthropology transform into The Grubfather?

“A lot of people wrote it [history and international studies] off as not going to be valuable later in life,” DiBenedetto said. “I believe people should follow their passions. I was passionate about traveling. And, I am interested in why people act the way they do. So I use the cultural anthropology minor, too. That is how I run my Instagram and social media.” 

DiBenedetto received scholarships to attend Saint Leo. “I feel like Saint Leo is a place for a certain person; you have to understand what you are getting into,” he said. “It’s in a small town, rural area. I didn’t want to be a little fish in a big pond. I wanted to be a big fish.”

Being involved is another of DiBenedetto’s passions, and he dove into activities at Saint Leo, serving as a class president, bringing new energy to the Sigma Lambda fraternity, and serving as the president of the Interfraternity Council. “I wanted to create a name for myself that I wasn’t able to do in high school,” he said. “Saint Leo gave me the confidence to excel and thrive in a place like Brooklyn and New York as a whole.”

The restaurant business long has been a part of DiBenedetto’s life. He started as a bus boy at the age of 13 and became a waiter at 15. “I’ve been a waiter my whole life,” he said. “I continued through college. I worked in Dade City [in Pasco County, FL] at Francesco’s [Restaurant & Pizzeria], Garden Café, and City Market Bistro. I fell in love with the hospitality industry.”

After graduating from Saint Leo, he accepted a job as a marketing director for a tattoo school in Brooklyn. “I quickly realized that I had no passion for it, and I didn’t want to work for someone else’s dream when I had big dreams of my own,” DiBenedetto said. 

So he left and went back to being a waiter. “The rents are high in New York, and I was thinking, ‘This is a risk,’ but if you’re going to do anything in life, you have to be willing to take the risk,” DiBenedetto said.

He began working at Brooklyn Commune, a café in his neighborhood. Chef Chris Scott, an alumnus of the Top Chef TV competition, had started a dinner program there, and DiBenedetto became the head waiter for the program. 

Food Network chef and Chopped judge Scott Conant and Sal DiBenedetto sample some of Conant’s dishes at Cellaio, his Italian-inspired steakhouse at Resorts World Catskills.

“It was there that I really fell in love with the culinary arts,” he said. “Unfortunately, the dinner program didn’t take off. But it gave me my biggest gift. They let me start their Instagram.”

Instagram, the popular photo and video-sharing social networking service owned by Facebook Inc., gave DiBenedetto a platform on which to shine. He promoted the food and culture of Brooklyn Commune via that platform. “Over and over, I would ask [guests] where they heard about us, and people said they found us on Instagram,” he said. With that, a business was born.

Potential clients reached out to him, and when he had seven clients, he thought, “I can do this full time.” He created his company, The Connect Agency. From that came The Grubfather. 

Named with a nod to the movie The Godfather and DiBenedetto’s Sicilian roots, The Grubfather and his team, including Saint Leo alumni, create and share information about restaurants, hotels, travel destinations, and lifestyle brands. According to www.thegrubfather.world, his work has been featured in a variety of social channel publications and websites such as INSIDER Travel, Travel + Leisure, Complex magazine, and LADbible, among others.

Now, The Grubfather is one of the fastest growing food, travel, and lifestyle blogs on Instagram, DiBenedetto said. It shows where to stay and what to eat and drink, along with photos of a smiling DiBenedetto. The Grubfather has close to 115,000 Instagram followers and 12,000 on Facebook. 

“I grew the brand [The Grubfather] through strategic partnerships and being consistent and staying on brand at all times,” DiBenedetto said. “For me, ‘on brand’ is anything I feel passionate about. I refuse to limit myself. If I’m inspired by it, and a person is a follower [on social media], then they are going to find appreciation in what I’m sharing. This is what makes me feel alive.”

The GrubfatherSaint Leo Ties That Bind
When DiBenedetto started The Connect Agency and The Grubfather, it was important to give back to people who were part of his community, including his Saint Leo family. “When you join a fraternity, and they tell you these people are going to take care of you for life, I took that to heart,” he said. He has hired Saint Leo alumni and loves giving them opportunities.

“The more wins we have for Saint Leo, the better it is for everybody,” he said. “I was able to hire somebody that I went to school with and, for me, that was very much a marker of success.”

Working with DiBenedetto is Peter Valcarcel ’14, whom DiBenedetto describes as his right-hand man. 

Future Looks Bright
DiBenedetto hopes to grow his business “in all directions and work on creative campaigns for brands that I’m super passionate about.” And the Saint Leo alumnus hopes to host his own food and travel show. “I want to grow The Grubfather brand exponentially. I’m in the process of starting a clothing line,” he said.

For The Grubfather, success means finding something you are happy doing, maintaining a positive outlook, and always following your dream. 


Sal DiBenedetto, The Grubfather

Age:
28

Hometown:
Long Island, NY

Favorite food:
I’m extremely partial to Italian food, and I’m a huge fan of Japanese cuisine.

Travel list:
Japan!

Favorite restaurant in the world:
My cousin’s little hidden restaurant in the hills of Sicily. It’s Ristorante L’Albero in Porto Empedocle, Agrigento, Italy.

Best dish:
Nero di seppia (black squid ink pasta)

How do you eat all the food in your photos?
I try everything that I post! But I did lose weight from college to now. I’m consistent about running and portion control. There may be a huge slice of pizza, but I share it with everyone on the photo shoot.

Advice for future entrepreneurs:
If someone closes a door on you, build your own. When someone tells you no, find the inspiration in it. Let other people’s negativity fuel your positivity.

Follow The Grubfather
@TheGrubfather on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

Learning is a lifetime endeavor. And at 81, Lottie Boone is a great example of someone who doesn’t let the years get in the way of her education. 

Boone is a student at Saint Leo University’s South Hampton Roads Education Center. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. 

“Sitting around doing nothing is when you get old,” Boone said. “Take the time and study. Your brain is still working.”

Her grandson Nicholas Franklin graduated from Saint Leo in 2015 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice. “Then he went back and got his master’s [graduating in 2017 with a master’s in criminal justice-legal studies],” Boone said. “I told him, ‘I’m going back to school.’ And he said, ‘Baba, you’ve got to go to Saint Leo.’ ” Baba is what Franklin calls his grandmother.

“I had such a wonderful experience—finishing my bachelor’s and getting my master’s at Saint Leo,” Franklin said. “I knew that if I could do it, she could do it. She’s smarter than me; she has to be because she’s the one I always go to for advice—her and my mom, who I am working on getting her degree next! But everything I have done in life has aimed to make Baba proud.” 

Franklin said he will be waiting when she someday crosses the commencement stage with flowers and a big, proud hug. 

Boone’s higher education was delayed by life—a life that started on July 12, 1937, in Mobile, AL. Born at 2½ pounds and delivered at home by a midwife, Boone said she was so tiny, her mother placed her in a shoe box. “She fed me with a medicine dropper,” Boone said. “I must have been strong enough to say, ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to stay here.’ ”

Following high school graduation, she enrolled at Alabama State University-Mobile and then transferred to Alabama State University in Montgomery to pursue a degree in home economics with a minor in sociology. She studied there for a year and a half and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. 

“Then I got married,” she said. “My husband promised that we were not going to have children right away.” But along came a daughter, Pamela. As her husband was in the U.S. Navy, they traveled, and his last assignment was at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.

“I have three daughters,” Boone said with pride. “Pamela Franklin, Lottie Smith, and Jada Lee.”

Her love of home economics served her well as she worked as a manager for Sewing Circle Fabrics and a department store for several years. She also would go to schools and teach children how to sew. 

“Then my husband became deathly ill and passed away,” Boone said. “I had three little girls to take care of.  I had to work more than one or two jobs, and I still was taking in sewing [jobs].”

She started her own business, The Finishing Touches, creating crafts to sell. Then in 1978, she started working at the Virginia Beach Police Department, as a precinct desk officer. She retired after 28 years with the department. 

“I did entering into the computer, searching women when the officers brought them in, fingerprinting, and taking photo IDs of the people who were arrested,” she said. “I did quite a bit to keep the people calm when they were brought in. They are not in the best temper. I spent a lot of time just talking to them and explaining ‘this isn’t the end of your world.’ ” 

After she retired, “I became a wedding planner,” she said. “I make clothes, and I do flower arrangements. I’m quitting all of that so I can concentrate on all my classes.”

As for her girls, “Pamela went in the Army. Lottie got a scholarship to Virginia Tech, and Jada graduated from high school and now works in 911 communications,” Boone said. “I did not allow my girls to say ‘I can’t.’ They said, ‘I’ll try.’ ”

She said her daughters were not in favor of her returning to school at first as they thought it was too much for her to tackle. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It wasn’t what I had planned to do,” Boone said. “I had to go through chemo, radiation, the whole works. I am now cancer free.”

Lottie Boone and her criminal justice instructor Johnny Gandy, a captain with the Virginia Beach Police Department.

She wanted to get that bachelor’s degree. “I wanted to go back; I enjoyed it,” she said. “It was so hard. But being my age at the time, I needed more help.”

Mathematics faculty member Edmond Frost assisted her by arranging for a math tutor. She had to take last semester off, but is back at her studies with some help from faculty and staff. 

“I’m not too old,” Boone said. “I work out. I take care of me. But I can’t stay away from chocolate. I grab a Tootsie Roll in the morning.”

Her dream is to encourage other older people to become students. “I want to talk to seniors and let them know it’s never too late. I trust God. God is my source. I was a chaplain at Unity Church of Tidewater. Even when I go to church, people say, ‘I heard you were going back to school.’ You’ve got that right!”

What she may do with her degree remains unknown, but she does enjoy mentoring young people. One thing is for sure for Boone: “I am going to put my diploma on the wall by my family’s pictures and thank God every day that I finished.”  

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.”

The natural desire for families to do things together makes it unsurprising that many often choose to learn together, too. Each year, Saint Leo serves as the choice university for myriad families. There are generations who have studied here and others who have gone to school together at the same time.

In this story, we profile just some of Saint Leo’s family connections.

Family overcomes obstacles to achieve education goals

Family plays a pivotal role in the lives of Mercy and Luis Figueroa, of Spring Hill, FL. The couple juggled military deployments, work, family commitments, and studying while earning their degrees at Saint Leo.

“My story starts rough, but ends in the American dream,” Mercy said.

Mercy and Luis in military
Mercy and Luis Figueroa served in the U.S. Army.

Mercy was born in Havana, Cuba, where her father was held as a political prisoner. Helped by the Catholic Church, her family made their way first to Spain and then to New York, leaving Cuba when Mercy was a toddler.

“The Catholic Church has been involved in my whole life,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome I got to go to Saint Leo.”

She grew up in Brooklyn while Luis grew up in the Bronx. “I took a long train ride to find a boyfriend,” she said. “He was a tall football player with a lot of hair, but I destroyed all the hair!”

Luis joined the U.S. Army first and then encouraged Mercy to get involved. She served in the Army for four years until her daughter Gabby was born prematurely at 24 weeks with cerebral palsy and other health issues.

“She decided as much as she loved the military, she loved her daughter more,” Luis said, and Mercy left the Army to care for Gabby.

Mercy transitioned from active duty military to being a supportive military spouse. Luis, a staff sergeant, left active duty in October 2014, and retired from the military this summer. He was often deployed, and Mercy took care not only of Gabby, but also sons Isaac, who is a junior at Saint Leo, and Connor, a high school senior. “We adopted Connor from the foster care system,” Mercy said.

Luis was stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, and while deployed in Iraq, he read about Saint Leo. “It piqued my interest,” he said. “Then I came down here and realized the campus was close [to the family home in Spring Hill].” In 2011, he began his first semester at Saint Leo, but again was deployed on a high-priority mission and had to take a break. But in fall 2014, he started again and never turned back.

Mercy tried to go to college “a million times,” she said. “Once I got Gabby medically stable, I started.” Luis encouraged her to join him at Saint Leo, and she earned her associate degree in 2016.

The university felt like home. “Once I heard about Saint Leo’s history, the diversity and inclusion, at a time when they didn’t have to accept other races, cultures, that is what made me love it,” Mercy said. “There are people from everywhere at Saint Leo. It is such a great place.”

Mercy and Luis looking at each other_LOcopy22
Mercy and Luis Figueroa enjoy a moment during their commencement ceremony in 2017, where Mercy was the student speaker.

The Figueroas not only have son Isaac studying at Saint Leo, but Mercy’s sister, Heavenly Aguilar, graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics at the Tampa commencement ceremony on May 31. She now is pursuing a master’s degree.

Mercy graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics, while Luis also graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration-technology management.

For Mercy, what’s next is pursuing a law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law, while Luis will complete his MBA at Saint Leo in December.

A family finds their home at Saint Leo

The U.S. Air Force brought the Blackman family to Florida, but Saint Leo University provided a home away from home for them. For Derrick and Kimberly Blackman and their son Elijah, Saint Leo offered the opportunity to study together, lean on each other, and cheer for each other—in the classroom and on the basketball court.

The family moved to Tampa from Colorado in 2000 when Derrick Blackman was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base. While on active duty with the Air Force, Derrick took a class at Saint Leo and enjoyed it. From there, it was on to pursuing a degree.

Derrick graduated from Saint Leo in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in religion. Next up was Elijah, who enrolled after Saint Leo representatives visited Wesley Chapel (FL) High School during his senior year there. It took a little while longer for Kimberly. “About two years later, my husband encouraged me to enroll,” she said. “He said, ‘You’ve already got your associate degree, and Saint Leo is an awesome institution for getting a quality education.’ And it was great! I’m so grateful.”

Elijah distributing ashes2
Elijah Blackman served as a University Ministry Mentor and distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Not only did Derrick encourage Kimberly, but he also pursued a master’s degree in theology. In 2017, the Blackmans graduated with Kimberly and Elijah receiving their diplomas together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement. Derrick received his master’s degree the next day during the morning graduate program commencement, where he also performed the national anthem.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be able to graduate the same year,” Derrick said. “It was even greater for me as husband and father to witness both my wife and son graduate from [Saint Leo] at the same time. The experience was extremely humbling.”

Now, Derrick teaches at Saint Leo as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology.

Kimberly graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and now is working toward a master’s in human services administration at Saint Leo.

Kimberly and Elijah Blackman
Mother and son, Kimberly and Elijah Blackman, received their degrees together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement in 2017.

Elijah, who played basketball for the Lions and served as a University Ministry Mentor, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in sport business. After completing an internship at the University of South Carolina, he now is a graduate assistant for sports strength and conditioning at the University of Arkansas.

Graduating from Saint Leo with his parents made an impression on Elijah. “I thought it was incredible to be able to sit next to my mom during graduation and see my dad walk across the very same stage less than 24 hours later,” he said. “Graduating at the same time as your parents doesn’t happen too often.”

Derrick and Kimberly’s other son, Donovan, graduated from aviation school in 2015 and is working in Arizona. And while they tried to persuade daughter Kandice to attend Saint Leo, she did not want to attend college with her parents and brother. She is enrolled Trinity College of Florida in New Port Richey.

Twin brothers choose same major and graduate together

Family Friendly theme Igbonagwam family2Two recent grads from the Class of 2018 are not only twins, but they also graduated with the same major and held equivalent jobs as residence hall advisors. In another family connection, they are the sons of Sandy and Dr. Okey Igbonagwam, a Saint Leo assistant professor of computer information systems in Virginia.

As an employee, Igbonagwam is eligible for the university’s tuition remission benefit, which is a big plus in helping families pay for college. While the financial benefit was certainly a factor in the decision, Igbonagwam said his sons were also drawn to Saint Leo by the appeal of University Campus. “First impressions matter,” according to Chidozie and Chigozie. They also liked the academics, and both have wanted to be doctors since they were small. That made the biology major with a specialization in biomedical and health sciences a natural fit. The major is offered only at University Campus.

So, the twins came to Florida and got involved with the Pre-Medical Club, the student-run fundraisers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and research projects with faculty mentors. Since graduation, both have taken the Medical College Admission Test and are hoping to be admitted to medical school.

Despite deferring their dreams, couple graduates together

DSC_9028When Sherryl Johnson-Tandy and her husband Erik Tandy walked across the commencement stage together on the evening of Friday, April 27, it was a little out of the ordinary. Sherryl, a corporal in the Pasco County (FL) Sheriff’s Office, completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice. So she was grouped with the other adult learners receiving undergraduate degrees in the evening.

Her husband Erik was also graduating with a Saint Leo degree, but his was the Master of Business Administration. The MBA grads are a big group, and are scheduled for the Saturday morning ceremony of commencement weekend, along with those who have attained graduate degrees in other disciplines. But Erik was switched to Friday night at his request so that he and Sherryl could walk across the stage together to celebrate their joint accomplishment.

It was no easy road for the two. They had long wanted to reach these educational goals, but raised a family, so they waited for everyone to be grown and out of the house. It did not quite work out that way. As they went to school, and worked, circumstances required that they also tend often to three grandchildren, ages 5, 8, and 9.

Sherryl has a memory of both the adults studying at night, and then Erik “waking me up from sleeping on my computer.” And she often did the same for him. When their finals were over, she said, it was a blessing to don their robes and receive their diplomas together.

Bill and Jeanne Fuller chose him. They came to an orphanage in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 1996, and gazed at a blond toddler in a crib. “I picked him up and he started laughing,” said Jeanne Fuller.

And at that moment, Joseph Fuller won their hearts and found his forever family.

Joseph “Joe” Fuller, now 23, graduated from Saint Leo in April 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in management. He secured a position in youth development service at Youth and Family Alternatives Inc.’s RAP House in New Port Richey, FL, where he works with children ages 10 to 17, who may be homeless, have school-related or family problems, or face other issues.

For Fuller, his life has come full circle. The child who was helped is now helping others. “I can, without a doubt, say my life has been truly blessed,” he wrote in a blog.

Joseph Fuller’s adoption/passport paperwork shows his new name in Russian.

Jeanne and Bill Fuller tried for 10 years to conceive a child. “We didn’t want to be childless,” Jeanne Fuller said. “So we started to look at domestic adoptions. But we didn’t want the parents to come back and claim the child.”

Jeanne Fuller attended a seminar on international adoptions and thought it was a good fit for the couple. They worked with a now-defunct agency in New Mexico that would send videos of children and provide as much history about the children as it could. At that point, Americans could still go to Russia to adopt, Jeanne said. “All of the sudden,” she said, “Joe came along. He was so cute! He was just a year old in the video, but he took control of the whole play area [of the Russian orphanage].”

At one point, the Fullers were afraid they were not going to able to adopt Joseph. “Luckily, things loosened up,” Jeanne Fuller said.

When they arrived at the orphanage, the inside was decorated with bright, primary colors. “They took us to a room with all the boys, and there he was,” she said of Joseph. “He was playing with dolls, which he denies! We got to play with him for a little while.”

After a rather informal adoption proceeding, Joe was theirs. “We brought him back to the hotel and stared at him,” Jeanne Fuller recalled. “Now what do we do? We gave him a bath! He spoke Russian to us. It was interesting to see him see a whole new world.”

Jeanne Fuller delights in her new son Joseph.

At almost 2, Alexander “Sasha” Alexandrovich Foliniykh, became Joseph Paul Alexander Fuller, who grew up in a loving, Catholic family in Sidney, Ohio. March 19 is his “Gotcha Day,” a day the Fullers have traditionally celebrated throughout the years with a chocolate chip cookie cake. “I was one of 4,491 kids adopted that day,” Fuller said. “And of those, more than 60 percent were claimed by American families.”

The Fuller family became complete when they adopted daughter Sara from Russia, too. “I was holding her when I got out of the car,” Jeanne Fuller said of Sara. “Joe wouldn’t talk to me. I had to bribe him!”

Faith played a big role in the family with the Fuller children attending Catholic elementary and high school. “When he got to high school, his faith grew,” Jeanne said of Joseph. Now he attends St. Anne Byzantine Catholic Church in New Port Richey, an Eastern Catholic church. He is a third-degree Knight in the Knights of Columbus organization.

When it came time to choose a college, Joseph Fuller said he was looking at 40 schools. “I cut them down by class size, rural vs. city, Catholic or public,” he said. And he chose Saint Leo.

Fuller earned athletic scholarships and continued pursuing his passion of running, which he started in eighth-grade cross country. As a Lion, he qualified for the NCAA Cross Country National Championships three times and was a member of two Sunshine State Conference championship teams. With his teammates, he volunteered at the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, which enjoys a good reputation statewide. Now, he serves on the organizational committee for the Gasparilla races as well as organizing the smaller Rattlesnake Run for Pasco County’s Rattlesnake Festival and the RAP River Run in New Port Richey.

When he turned 21, Fuller formed the I Play Track Foundation. The name comes from a Tweet in which someone asks, “What sport do you play?” The answer: I play track.

Fuller had been donating his cross country and track spikes to children in need. “There were a lot of kids who had shoes in disrepair,” Fuller said. “I thought it would be nice to give back to the running community that got me through college.

“On my 21st birthday, I grabbed my shoes and the shoes my sister had, and I kicked off the charity,” he said. Now, the I Play Track Foundation is awaiting 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity status.

“I usually just take gently used running shoes and track spikes,” Fuller said. “Some people give new ones. I collect at running events, road races, and other events.”

Coaches send Fuller an email or contact him through the I Play Track Facebook page and tell him what size shoes they need for their athletes. “I go through inventory, send the coach a list, and then they pick the shoe for that athlete. That’s important. I want them in the right shoe. That’s the benefit of me being an athlete. I know that there are different shoes for different athletes.”

Giving back to the community and those who have supported him is important to Fuller.

“I feel that every child, no matter who he or she is or where he or she comes from, deserves to be loved and valued.”


National Adoption Day

Saturday, November 17, 2018
Nearly 5,000 children were adopted during the National Adoption Day observance in 2017.

World Adoption Day

Friday, November 9, 2018
The overall number of adoptions to the United States in fiscal year 2017 was 4,714, a decline
of 658 from the previous year.

Source: U.S. Department of State


I Play Track Foundation
For more information, visit facebook.com/IPlayTrackFoundation or email iplaytrackfuller@icloud.com.

Feeding people and feeding young minds is Megan Hotchkiss’ life. After Hurricane Irma swept through Florida on September 10, Hotchkiss did what her family does: She fed people.

Hotchkiss—who will graduate from Saint Leo University’s Madison Education Center in 2019 with a degree in elementary education—her fiancé, and her toddler daughter evacuated their new mobile home in Hamilton County, FL, before Irma struck. “When it was all clear, we went to the house and I saw the damage,” Hotchkiss said. A large oak fell on her home and destroyed one side. “I said, ‘I can’t deal with it now.’ I had to get the restaurant open. We had food. My loss had to be pushed to the back of my mind.”

The Saint Leo junior recently had opened Crossroads Contract Food Services, a café on the North Florida Community College campus. Her parents own Crossroads Market & Grill in Jasper, FL. “We went to the restaurant, got the generators going, and set up a buffet line so the community would have a place to convene and get hot food,” Hotchkiss said.

At 5 p.m., she received a call from Henry Land, emergency management director for Hamilton County. All of the county’s emergency personnel had to stay at the headquarters. He told Hotchkiss they needed to feed 150 people breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “I told him, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ and we made spaghetti,” Hotchkiss said with a laugh. A police escort led Hotchkiss to emergency management headquarters to serve the meals.

Then at 10 p.m., Land had another request. “He said, ‘I’ve got 300 electric workers coming and staying at the elementary school,’ ” Hotchkiss recalled. “ ‘Is there any way you can handle them?’ ”

Hotchkiss readily agreed. “I didn’t talk to my parents or anything,” she said. “I just said ‘yes.’ I was still in a state of shock.”

Megan-Hotchkiss-prepping-meals-(1)
Megan Hotchkiss sets up breakfast for 300 electric workers who were trying to restore power to Hamilton County, FL, following Hurricane Irma.

She told them not to be mad, but they would be feeding breakfast to the first 300 people at 4 a.m. She headed to the restaurant at 2 a.m., and was ready to serve the first group. Meals were served around the clock to electric workers who had traveled from throughout the country to restore power, as well as to emergency personnel.

For nearly a week, Hotchkiss and her family fed those who had left their own families to help.

“We survived on one or two hours of sleep a night,” she said. “I tried to go home, but the power was still out.”

The fallen tree damaged the electric box and left a gaping hole in the roof and water damage to the bathroom. “I was so crushed and so beaten,” Hotchkiss said. “There are very few times you feel that kind of despair. You let it consume you for an hour. I only gave myself a little time. I had to get the restaurant in Madison restocked because the campus was reopening.”

As she prepared for returning to classes, she was able to reach her Saint Leo instructors. “I told them my house is gone, Internet [connection] is just a dream,” she said. “I’ve never been one to ask for handouts. I’ve never asked for extra time for assignments. But Elisabeth [Ballew, education instructor] and Christy [Roebuck, Madison Education Center director] were there for me. I caught up in two weeks. I can only imagine if I’d chosen another school. Saint Leo was there for me. I walked into Christy’s office and just cried.”

Before entering Saint Leo, Hotchkiss already had earned an associate degree, but said she made the bad decision to wait to pursue a higher degree. Her sister, Edie Hotchkiss ’13, graduated from Saint Leo and encouraged her to enroll. She learned about Saint Leo’s education program, and its field placement program. “The internships really helped me to choose Saint Leo,” she said. “I wouldn’t have seen the inside of a classroom [as a student-teacher] until my senior year. The way Saint Leo structures curriculum is so student-friendly.”

The young entrepreneur always knew she wanted to be a teacher. “I’ve trained horses, I’ve been in early education, I’ve opened businesses, but truly, education is where my heart is,” she said.

Megan-with-cooler
Megan Hotchkiss ’19, a student at the Madison (FL) Education Center, and Jennifer Ryan, shown at Crossroads Market & Grill, take meals to feed emergency personnel and electric company workers following Hurricane Irma.

As part of her Introduction to Education class, she joined a mentoring program. “I gained rapport with these kids who were in horrible situations,” Hotchkiss said. “I was able to reach five, and they graduated. I mentored 15 students in two years.”

Whether it’s feeding the community and those who help the community or teaching and mentoring youngsters, Hotchkiss embraces Saint Leo’s core values. “Every value we have in the university is essential to being a good human being,” she said.

4_Features_Writing-for-Life-2

Writing and communication have figured into many aspects of Frank Cumberland’s life. Cumberland ’80 studied at Saint Leo’s Langley Air Force Base Education Office and earned his bachelor’s degree in human resources management and sociology while he was serving in the Air Force. He retired as a colonel after 24 years.

“The Saint Leo people were so helpful,” he said of his first visit to the education office. “I was amazed at how quickly I could get started and the variety of offerings.”

He also appreciated Saint Leo’s emphasis on writing. His family—especially his mother—nurtured his love of literature, and that continued in his education at the university and throughout his career.

Cumberland served in the Air Force Medical Service Corps, and also worked as a health professions recruiter for Air Force Recruiting Service. “My team recruited physicians, dentists, health administrators, and allied health professionals,” he said. “Recruiting was a true challenge, and I learned a lot from the experience.”

4_Features_Writing-for-Life-3

Frank Cumberland and his “pop” at his Saint Leo commencement in 1980.

In 1998, the Department of Defense established the TRICARE Management Activity to manage its health program for 10 million beneficiaries worldwide. A director of communications was needed to tell the TRICARE story, and Cumberland was chosen for the job.

He retired in 2017 as senior vice president for Communications, Marketing, and Business Development for Axiom. In that role, he led the firm’s proposal-writing team for 15 years.

Besides writing, another passion of Cumberland’s is baseball. The self-proclaimed “Mayor of Nats Town,” Cumberland was a strong supporter of the effort to bring baseball back to Washington, DC. He penned many columns, letters to the editor, and other materials advocating for baseball’s return to his hometown. The effort bore fruit when the Washington Nationals played their first home game in Washington in April 2005.

Hope-Comes-Home-2-(1)Cumberland was a contributor to the Nationals’ yearbook in 2015. In “Hope Comes Home: A Decade of Baseball in Washington” he writes, “It is a special thing to see your dreams come true, and to see your fondest hopes turn into reality. To me, the first decade of the Nationals has been like an unfolding miracle—for the morale of our hometown, the winning ways of our team and the everyday spirit of Nats Nation.”

He is a member of the President’s Council at Saint Leo, and a member of the Board of Governors of the National Military Family Association. He is married to Lori, father to Emily, Luke, and Tom, father-in-law to Dustin, and grandfather to Logan. He continues to write freelance stories and articles and is working on a book on the lessons of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Cumberland notes that he really should be a writer, as he is named after St. Francis de Sales, the “patron saint of teachers and authors.”

Header photo: Colonel Frank Cumberland at his desk at TRICARE Management Activity. 

Iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers often quoted his mother as saying in tough situations or emergencies, “Look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” Saint Leo alumnus Marlon Knight is one such helper.

At age 6, Knight became a caregiver. His great-grandmother came to live with him and his mother. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and her condition progressively declined to the point that she was bedridden. Young Knight came to her aid. “I would get her up, help her use a bedpan, clean her,” he said. In addition, when he was 11, he helped care for his grandfather, who had suffered a stroke.

A desire to help others led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in human services from Saint Leo University’s Savannah Education Center in 2016. “I have a giving heart,” he said. “I want to make a difference.”

Knight grew up helping older neighbors, getting them groceries and doing chores. “They said, ‘You have a spirit of discernment at an early age and a spirit to communicate with people,’” Knight recalled. His helpfulness was not limited to seniors, as he volunteered and worked with children, teens, and young adults. “At the daycare [center] my children attended, I would go and read stories, acting them out,” Knight said. “And I was Santa Claus for three years in a row.”

He was enrolled at Savannah Technical College, and friends there kept encouraging him to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “Some of my classmates were going to classes at Saint Leo at night,” he said. “When I walked in the door [of the Savannah Education Center], the staff was so welcoming. They were so helpful. I said, ‘I need to do this!’ I never stopped until I walked across the stage [at commencement].”

Human services was a good fit for Knight. As a child, his mother coached him, was strict about his penmanship, and the way in which he spoke and carried himself. She encouraged him to help others. “It was that upbringing,” he said, that led him to a degree based on aiding those in need.

He completed his internship at Park Place Outreach Inc. in Savannah, GA, working with at-risk youths. Park Place operates an emergency shelter for children ages 11 to 17, who may be runaways, placed there by the court, or in other vulnerable situations. That “real world” experience coupled with volunteer work with the Human Services Club, his classmates, and the Saint Leo faculty and staff was eye-opening. “We went out in the summertime, and the kids [from Park Place Outreach] were doing volunteering, passing out food, brown bag lunches, snacks, juices, and personal care items,” Knight said. “In human services, we were seeing the homeless, and we would count the homeless and pass out blankets. We would see babies in shelters. It was just so heartbreaking, but it was just a great experience.

“You are out in the community, and you get to see the less fortunate,” Knight continued, ‘those who look like me and you, who are going through a rough time.”

Since February 2017, he has been a probation officer with the Chatham County Juvenile Court, continuing to help youths. He recently finished working with a pilot program of Homeboy Industries. The eight-week work-readiness program paid young people a stipend and taught them work and life skills. “Their conversations were about their struggles, hardships, drugs, guns, life on the streets, life behind bars, and the people who they know who have died,” Knight said.

His key to reaching them was poetry. In addition to helping others since a young age, Knight has put pen to paper to write. He wrote rap songs at 12. Sharing those raps with young gang members helps break the ice.

In December, he spoke at the 3-on-3 basketball jamboree sponsored by the City of Savannah.

Addressing a gymnasium filled with boys and girls, he performed “Problems”, a rap song he wrote as a teen.

“I started off with that poem to show that I can relate to them,” Knight said of his rap. “Poetry is how I get people to listen.”

Problems
So many problems are chasing me,
I’m stuck with nowhere to turn,
Nobody’s concerned,
who’s the blame if I never learn,
I’m full of a lot of stress,
nobody seems to know why,
I’m pressured by pain—so I get high,
hoping I can get by,
’cause on these streets ain’t nothing to do but violence-so I try to chill,
’cause if I’m caught in the crossfire—it’s so easy to be killed,
and if I die—some gonna cry,
but still life goes on . . .

His writing led him to attend the Sandhill Writers Retreat at University Campus. Encouraged by Dr. Susan Kinsella, now dean of the School of Education and Social Services, Knight submitted his poem “My Gifts” to Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing. “What really motivated me was in the break area [of the Savannah Education Center], there is a picture of the campus,” Knight said. “I was intrigued by the beauty of the campus. I said, ‘I want to go there.’ It was one of the most beautiful sights. I wanted to get more involved with the writing, meet more writers, and learn techniques. I was excited to do something different.”

In downtime while he is sitting in court, Knight writes. “I write about life, love, spiritual growth,” he said. “The work inspires it, too.”

He translates what he sees and the stories of the young people he helps into poetry. He uses his gift of poetry to change young lives, still being the helper.

Helping-out-(1)-(2)
Marlon Knight’s children, Christopher and Christiana, are shown with Dr. Susan Kinsella, dean of the School of Education and Social Services, volunteering with the Savannah Education Center’s Human Services Club at Second Harvest Food Bank. Not pictured, Knight’s son, Marlon Jr.

Header photo: Marlon Knight ’16 and daughters Marlaya and Chistiana (wearing tiara)

From being chief of the Atlanta Police Department to serving as vice president of safety and security for the Atlanta Hawks NBA team and Philips Arena, George Turner has embraced his mission to serve his community. He was educated in the Atlanta Public Schools, and attended Clark Atlanta University to play football. “I hoped to be an engineer,” he said. “Then I thought I was going to play pro football. But life happened.”

Turner married Cathy, the woman he loved, and dropped out of Clark without his degree. “That was my journey, and I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said.

He applied for a position with the Atlanta Police Department because he needed a job. “It became a profession for me,” he said.

Turner rose through the ranks, despite failing the exam to be promoted to the rank of sergeant on his first attempt. Once he became a sergeant, he created the Gangs and Guns Unit. As a major, he commanded the Human Resources Section and the Northwest section of Atlanta, a challenging precinct.

While he progressed in the department, he knew he wanted to be chief. “I enrolled at Saint Leo with a clear vision of why my education was important,” Turner said. He chose Saint Leo because of the convenient locations—he was living in Marietta, GA, with his family and studied at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Fort Gillem, and Fort McPherson when the university offered programs at those Georgia locations.

As a working adult, he could attend one or more classes a week while raising a family. “I was a major working in a precinct in a difficult area,” Turner said. “And I had two children in college at the same time. Fortunately, the city of Atlanta helped pay for college on a policeman’s salary.”

Going back to college helped him learn to multitask, he said, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Saint Leo in 2008. “When I became a chief [in 2010], I had 3,000 employees, sworn and civilian,” Turner said. “Going to school, managing work, studies, and family, I was able to handle the job as I rose up the ranks. My courses in religion helped me focus my attention on where it needed to be. I realized where my source is.”

Turner said he was blessed to have Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as a mentor, beginning when Young was mayor of Atlanta. “He inspired me to reshape my goal and my mission,” Turner said. “He even helped me financially. He encouraged me to go back and get my master’s degree.”

Turner’s support system also includes his family—wife Cathy; children Timothy, Tiffany, Thomas, and Thaddaeus; seven grandchildren; siblings; and cousins.

The community remains a focus for Turner. “Look at where we are in America today,” he said. “Police officers have to be part of the community. They have to live and understand the concept of community. We have to do more to break down barriers.”

There are 1.2 million calls for service to the Atlanta Police Department a year, Turner said. “Police have become the one stable area in a community. They are called to solve social ills.”

Turner’s advice to those pursuing a career in criminal justice: “If you want to make a difference rather than just complaining, come in and make a difference. We need a different mind-set. The field needs to be diverse—just like the community.”

When Turner retired from the Atlanta Police Department in 2016, he was most proud of the relationship he had built with the community and businesses. The clearance in homicide cases was up to 84 percent. “This took relationship building,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”

He was looking for something new and exciting for the next chapter of his life, and his new position with the Hawks and the arena should provide it.

In April, Turner gave the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement address (left) at University Campus for students who had studied online and at education centers. Reflecting on his own journey, he told the Class of 2017, “It doesn’t matter where you start; it only matters that you keep on going.”

In 2008, at age 23, LaVita Rodriguez ’15, ’17 was paralyzed in a car accident. That transformative moment led her to change her outlook on life.

Today, Saint Leo University’s core values are an integral part of her. “I am a true believer,” she said of the core values such as community and responsible stewardship. “We studied that constantly. The core values guide me in life: I use them to stay on the right path and help others as a part of fulfilling both my personal and professional goals.”

LaVita in cap and gownAfter she graduated from high school, she worked for a law firm. “Something in me told me to go back to school,” she said. “That led to Saint Leo; you just get so much out of higher education because it provides you with the ability to make positive changes in the world around you.”

She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in business with a concentration in management in 2015 through the Center for Online Learning. She completed her MBA in December 2016 and officially will receive her degree on April 29.

The accident and her experience at Saint Leo fostered a desire to give back to her community. Rodriguez now volunteers at Tampa General Hospital (TGH) in pediatrics. It is the hospital where she was treated following her life-changing accident. “I want to give back to the hospital that saved my life that night in March [2008],” she said.

“Volunteering is my way of showing appreciation and gratitude for life and the doctors and nurses who continue to keep me healthy so that I may continue to pursue my dreams and spend time with my supportive family and close friends.”

Rodriguez is at TGH with the pediatric patients weekly. “I’m there to alleviate stress and loneliness that have the potential to generate anxiety and depression,” she said. “When the kids are there by themselves, giving them positive stimulation helps them cope with the unfortunate situation they are experiencing.”

She also takes care of the physicians and nursing staff who took care of her. “I bring them cake pops as a small gesture of my unending gratitude,” she said, laughing. “And who doesn’t love cake?”

Her love of children extends beyond the hospital setting. She has several nieces and nephews who want her undivided attention when she is not volunteering or studying. She is prepping for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and plans to attend law school so that she may “give children a voice” as a human rights, family, and health care attorney. “I believe it will be incredibly gratifying to help our future generations live a happier and healthier life by bridging gaps that have the potential to deteriorate one’s quality of life,” she said.

Rodriguez hopes to take her quest for children’s rights to Washington, DC.

The desire to help children and trips to India resulted in a visit to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Orphanage. “I love India,” she said. ”It makes me more appreciative for ancient wisdom that deepened my spiritual views. I also like to give back wherever I go. It shows humility and develops unity in diversity that fosters an abundance of love, happiness, compassion, and peace.”

LaVita (1)In the United States, “We are blessed,” Rodriguez said. “You can drive around and not see kids on the streets. [In India], you see kids begging. But many still are smiling ear to ear. Why? Because it is not a materialistic culture, but a spiritual one that focuses on values. This is not only inspiring, but also truly beautiful.”

Wherever her travels take her, Rodriguez always stops by a cathedral to pray. And she tries to do some volunteering while vacationing.

“You leave a little piece of you there whenever you do something like that,” she said. “You are supposed to help others. I will never forget these experiences.”

Almost losing her life had a tremendous impact. “It pushed me. I just have a different view of life,” she said. “[My] having a lower-level spinal cord injury is minor. I could have died. I feel like I got a second chance, and I need to use it. To waste it would be such a mistake. God has placed these dreams in my heart and is clearing my path to fulfill them while driving me to act in a way that serves others.” •

Not everyone can say his thesis made an impact on an entire country. Mpho C. Mophuting ’95 can back up that claim. Now a major general with the Botswana Defence Force, Mophuting’s topic for his 2003 thesis for his master’s degree at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, was “Expanding the Shield and Facing the Challenges: Integration of Women in Botswana Defence Force.”

At that time, Botswana was one of the few countries in the world (and the only country in the South African Development Community—SADC) where females were prohibited from joining the military. Mophuting’s thesis, which looked at the role of women in the U.S. armed services, Canadian Armed Forces, and the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF), helped set the stage for women to join the Botswana army in 2007.

At first, women joined the army as officers, Mophuting said. Then in 2015, the Botswana Defence Force began enlisting female recruits.

“I was able to see some sort of [thesis] payback,” Mophuting said, smiling.

Mophuting joined the Botswana Defence Force as a cadet officer. Following high school graduation, he was sent to Greece to serve and train. “I was about 20 years old, and I felt like I wanted to go to college next,” he said.

His superiors agreed, and offered to pay for his education if he attended a university in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia. “I wanted a place that was not cold,” he said. “I didn’t want a big university, and I wanted one a little bit away from town, and I wanted a Catholic university, too.”

Saint Leo was the perfect fit.

During his time at University Campus, he waspresident of the Black Student Union, which partnered with the University of South Florida to present famed poet, author, and actress Maya Angelou, and filmmaker and actor Spike Lee. He enjoyed the Catholic community of Saint Leo and often helped at the abbey and monastery. He played soccer for Saint Leo as a midfielder and sometimes as a forward, with current Athletic Director Fran Reidy as his coach.

Mophuting earned his bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo in physical education and sport management with a minor in business management. Dr. Frank Arnold, now professor emeritus, and Dr. Michael Moorman, professor of computer science, encouraged him to pursue a business degree.

“Saint Leo was such a big springboard for me,” Mophuting said.

After earning a master’s degree in international security and civil military relations and an MBA with a concentration in supply chain management, Mophuting now is pursuing a doctorate in political science.

During a visit to Saint Leo in January—he had not been at University Campus in 22 years—he said he “jokes back home that the U.S. gave me a wife and a daughter.”

He met his wife, Kuki, who also is from Botswana, when she was a student at Alabama A&M University, and their daughter, Natasha, was born in Alabama. “We sent her to the United States for high school,” he said. She graduated from Northern Arizona University and began her graduate studies in 2017 in Hawaii.

Mophuting, 47, hopes his son, Kagiso, now in what would be the equivalent of his sophomore year, will attend his alma mater. “I want him to come to Saint Leo so bad,” he said. Perhaps a Mophuting legacy is in the works.

Teens today face many challenges — from drug and alcohol abuse to bullying, from broken homes to domestic violence, from very real problems to imagined slights. Andy Duran ’01 has devoted his career to helping young people.

Andy Duran serves as executive director of LEAD (Linking Efforts Against Drugs). The nonprofit organization provides drug abuse and suicide prevention information to communities in the suburbs of Chicago, as well as throughout the country.

“We go into the schools, work directly with students, make class presentations, and try to get students to make healthy choices,” Duran said. “We work with parents and educators, too.” LEAD also assists churches, park districts, and local community groups.

Helping Teens Stay on Track (3)

Following a string of student suicides, LEAD began offering Text-A-Tip, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, anonymous text crisis hotline. Middle- and high-school students may text at any time with any concern they are having, Duran said.

“Text-A-Tip was first meant to be a suicide prevention system: if you were sad, or felt like you were going to hurt yourself. Students are struggling with lots of different things. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety that our young people are dealing with. It can be bullying; it can be depression.”

Text-A-Tip is now used in more than 100 school districts. Some districts use it as a bullying hotline, while others route the teens through to more intensive help.

Each text is accompanied by a locator code, Duran said. “We take those and build them into our system so that we can know essentially the region of the country a person is [texting] from,” he said. “We recruit and train licensed mental health professionals who will respond within two or three minutes.”

It is not meant to be therapy, Duran explained. “It is meant to get a student out of a dark place. We always affirm them for texting, make sure they are safe, and then help them come up with the resource they need. It might be going into a school resource office or a licensed mental health professional.”

Duran and the LEAD team also combat the opiate crisis wracking the country. A Way Out is a law enforcement-assisted diversion program, Duran explained. “Anyone addicted to opiates or any drug can go into one of our participating police departments with any drugs and paraphernalia, and they will not be prosecuted. Their stuff is taken, and a trained officer escorts them to a treatment facility.”

Andy Duran of the LEAD Agency and his staff, (left to right) Danielle Franzese Director of Policy and Outreach, Christy Grum, Director of Operations, Somali Patel, Speakup Coalition Director in their exhibit "Hiding in Plain Sight", that displays trouble signs in a teenager's room. Photography by Joel Lerner/JWC Media
Andy Duran of the LEAD Agency and his staff, (left to right) Danielle Franzese Director of Policy and Outreach, Christy Grum, Director of Operations, Somali Patel, Speakup Coalition Director in their exhibit “Hiding in Plain Sight”, that displays trouble signs in a teenager’s room.
Photography by Joel Lerner/JWC Media

In addition, LEAD is one of the few agencies that can distribute naloxone (Narcan), a prescription medication that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. LEAD can also train partner organizations in the use of the medicine.

To combine multiple services, LEAD developed Lake County Help, a mobile app. “It takes one click to call 911, Text-A-Tip, Narcan, or A Way Out,” he said. “We’re trying to look at all the services and bring them together so it is easier for people to access help.” LEAD’s efforts saves hundreds of youth each year.

Duran’s work with LEAD may not seem like a direct use of the bachelor’s degree in theology that he earned in 2001 at University Campus, but he is serving his community. After receiving his degree, the Jacksonville, FL, native headed to Chicago to work as a youth minister at a Catholic church for five years. “I’ve always been called to work with young people,” he said.

He and his wife, Lisa, have been married 12 years and are parents to daughters, ages 7 and 4.

Prior to joining LEAD, Duran served as executive director of the Peacebuilders Initiative, a leadership development program based on the South Side of Chicago that trains youth for advocacy and leadership around a variety of social justice issues.

“What I learned most at Saint Leo was leadership,” Duran said. “The academics were rigorous. But I learned how to be an ethical leader. … People were faithful; they were people who cared about students above everything else. And the Benedictine values came into play, too.”

Duran hopes to continue living those values and helping youths to make the right choices to lead healthy, productive lives.