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Flagler County Kids Benefit From Education Foundation Mission

Joe Rizzo, executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation, and his team of four paid staff and about 150 volunteers in each of the foundation’s specific programs, are on a mission.
The mission statement: That every kid in Flagler County has the same opportunity to be successful in education whether what they need is shoes or clothing or school supplies or literacy support to improve reading and writing skills to a classroom competency level, as Rizzo explained.
“Sixty-four percent of school kids in Flagler County are on the free and reduced lunch program,” was how Rizzo answered the question of the depth of need the foundation faces day-in and day-out. “The need is great.”
Indeed. Here are a few other statistics to help put the economic situation of Flagler County’s school children in focus.
Poverty rates are classified two ways: One rating for those born in the United States and another for those calling the United States home, yet who were not born here. For both categories, the federal government sets the same poverty standard: A one person home earning less than $12,140 is considered to be living in poverty. An additional $4,320 is added for each other member of the household.
A family of four is considered to be living at the poverty line if total household income is $25,100 or less. In Flagler County, the percentage of U.S. born residents considered in poverty was 13.3 percent last year. For residents not born in the United States, the Flagler County rate was 13.6 percent.
Those rather dry numbers transform into a steady stream when the families of school children come to the foundation seeking supplies.
On Aug. 8, the foundation gave out more than 500 backpacks stuffed with all the supplies – things such as pencils, erasers, scissors, rulers, crayons, markers, school glue and filler paper – a student needs to support classroom learning.
Basic footwear – including shoes and socks – was also made available.
“Children should not have to go to school being worried about having holes in their shoes,” Rizzo said.

The Foundation’s Purpose

This is a bit of a laundry list, but the following gives as brief as possible, yet as concise as possible, overview of the numerous programs created and supported by the foundation – a 501 (c) (3) not for profit arm of the Flagler County Public Schools.

Senior Scholarships

The foundation annually administers 190 different scholarships aimed at helping the school district’s graduating seniors to attend college as well as a significant number of scholarships specifically committed to funding trades training. These scholarships are funded by more than 100 organizations within Flagler County. In 2021, $445,000 went to support Flagler County graduating seniors.
Take Stock in Children

Added two years to foundation programming, this mentoring program came to the foundation via the United Way of Volusia and Flagler Counties based in Daytona Beach.
The motto here: It’s all about time, talent and treasure.
Community professionals with a dedicated and sincere interest in helping children learn about career opportunities and professional development are matched with school kids seeking to learn more about a potential career path.
For instance, nurses of all levels from CNA to RN, are paired with a student interested in the medical career. Does a kiddo have an interest in law enforcement? That’s an easy match – many police officers both serving actively and retired contact Rizzo with a desire to help kids learn about policing. In fact, right before our interview with Rizzo, a retired police officer came to his office asking how to become a mentor. The mentors agree to meet with the child mentee once per month for the eight months of the school year.
“It really is that opportunity to be a meaningful adult professional in the life of a student who is seeking direction,” Rizzo said.
And sometimes the mentoring relationship brings life changes that neither the mentor or the mentee could have dreamt of at the start of the relationship.
Such is the case of one non-verbal student who simply sat quietly making no comment and showing only minimal interest for much of the first year of mentoring sessions.
“But the mentor never gave up,” Rizzo said. “She just kept faithfully showing up and meeting with the student encouraging him to try.”
In the process, the mentor and foundation staff found out that the student’s family was homeless. They found a donor willing to purchase the family a camper – their first semblance of a home in years.
The student began to speak up. It wasn’t that he could not verbally communicate, he just chose not to do so. He was so embarrassed by his situation that he had become an airtight closed shell.
But then the mentor found him a job at a restaurant in Palm Coast where she knew the kitchen manager. He started working as a line cook. Now, he’s an expeditor on busy Saturday mornings – a position that requires excellent verbal skills communicating between cooks and servers to ensure that food dishes are properly prepared and presented. Rizzo and his family are frequent patrons of the restaurant and he’s watched the mentee in action.
“It truly is a rags to riches story just in terms of his abilities to communicate and the confidence this has given him,” Rizzo said. “He talks about starting his own franchise.”

Teacher Grant Program

For school year 2020-21, the foundation provided $105,000 in grants of direct financial support for in-classroom learning activities and program.
“Our teacher create a wish list that documents what they would do if they were granted a certain amount of money,” Rizzo explained. “As long as it aligns with state learning standards, it is considered and often funded. The curriculum department of the school district ranks the applications on a rubric and gives us its recommendations.”

S.T.U.F.F. the Bus

Yes, stuff is in all caps. It is an acronym for, “Supplying Things You Find Fundamental.”
What does that mean? According to Rizzo, it means whatever a student needs.
The program is run by the district’s program for special needs students aged out of the tradition 12-year school program but still receiving career and cognitive/emotional/social skills training.
Here’s another win-win. As the special needs students rub shoulders with managers at big box retail and department stores, they are often pegged for an entry level position within one of those companies.
“The managers see the skills our student have in terms of inventorying to provide the store with an accurate accounting of the donations it is making and preparing donations for transportation and they see they have experience and ready to go as capable employees already with at least one leg up in training,” Rizzo said. “We’ve seen several students placed in a career path through this.”

Josh Crews Writing Project

This project – named in memory of local son, Josh Crews, a graduate of Flagler Palm Coast High School who was a voracious reader and avid writer and died in a car collision in 2010 – employs a teacher/mentor in each writing club to guide students in creative writing.
The foundation offers the program at each of Flagler County’s public schools and since the program’s inception, has published more than 10,000 student authors.
A reading recital is held and the students sign copies of their books for attendees to purchase to help financially support the program.
One student has gone on to publish outside the program and another received a full ride to a reading and writing camp at Oxford University. Yet another student produced her own television show that was picked up by a kid’s-oriented channel.
Rizzo finds this program particularly fulfilling.
“When you get to hear these students who were once so shy and found it very hard to read in public present their books having now become confident public speakers, it is amazing to see,” he said.

Connect Bus

Need a mobile classroom to come to your location in Flagler County? No problem. The foundation operates this flexible learning space complete with wireless access and multiple device options allowing users access to information on-site. It helps level the playing field for those lacking internet access at home or the ability to easily commute to wired locations.
It isn’t just for the kids. Parents wanting to check their children’s academic progress online and senior citizens needing help to prepare taxes or register to vote or sign up for activities can do so at the Connect Bus.

Classroom to Careers Flagship Programs

Starting at the elementary level, Classroom to Careers participants get hands-on experience in agriscience, computer science, engineering, green technology, marine science and robotics. At the middle school level, agronomy, applied robotics, business and computer education, entrepreneurial leadership and outdoor sciences are added. High school students receive training in aerospace, construction technology, culinary arts, finance and corporate services, fire leadership, law and justice, medical and teaching and learning and veterinary medicine.

Yearly Starting Budget Always Needs Help

Through the combination of two state funding sources, the foundation starts each budgetary year with approximately $130,000. From there, they work to fundraise the rest of what is needed for the school year.
That became a challenge with COVID-19 restrictions.
As pandemic restrictions ease, one of the foundation’s first public events in a mentor mixer on September 1.
The foundation recently received a large donation in the form of a sculpture by well-known local artist, Paul Baliker whose self-named gallery is located on N. Oceashore Blvd in Palm Coast.
The sculpture easily could net upwards of $40,000. Rizzo said he’s happy to meet with interested buyers that might be ready to write a check for an amount slightly smaller.
It’s not that Rizzo doesn’t want to get folks together for a fundraising event and an opportunity to show off the foundation’s accomplishments.
It’s just that it’s been a tough year and right now pushing the easy button on securing funds from this unexpected, yet valuable, donation would significantly help the foundation move past COVID-19.

Why Kids Education Matters in a Retirement Community

While Palm Coast has long been known as a retirees’ mecca, the number of young families opting to live there continues to increase.
But the reason why the education of the area’s youth matters is about much more, Rizzo asserts.
“The one thing people of all ages need to understand is that enhancing children’s education is the purest form of economic development that exists,” Rizzo said. He notes that at least 65 percent of the needs an aging population has such as financial management and medical care are met by highly-educated people.
“To prosper as a community, we need to get our children out of the cycle of poverty and the only way to end poverty is through education. If we really want to live in one of the greatest places in America – and I believe that we can and do – then I believe having the ability to educate the next generation is the number one thing we can do to ensure that happens.”


Learn more about the Flagler County Education Foundation online at www.flaglercountyedfoundation.org.