It’s always interesting to see where a chance meeting or connection can lead. A retired New York City police officer eats Sunday breakfast with his wife at Sweet Sage Cafe & Boutique in North Redington Beach, gets to know the owner who tells him about Academy Prep, and now children’s lives are forever impacted.
When Joe Murray spoke at the annual Breakfast for Scholars that raises money for the school for low income students, he said John Messmore (who owns Sweet Sage) kept telling him he should tour Academy Prep. He finally did three years ago and was blown away by the teachers, staff and students. He signed up to volunteer.
“I am currently mentoring eight amazing, remarkable, incredible — and any other word you want to throw out there — young men,” Murray told the packed ballroom at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club.Equitable education goes beyond equal education, he said, using the analogy of a running race. If everyone begins at the starting line, they are on equal footing.
“But our students deal with trauma, unimaginable distractions. … Some are not at the same starting point, some are not even in the stadium,” Murray said. “Not only is Academy Prep closing the gap, they are launching students beyond the gap.”
In a neighborhood were fewer than 50 percent of adults have a high school degree, 99 percent of students attending the school, which goes from fifth through eighth grades, go on to graduate high school and enter college or the military. This is accomplished with hardworking students who go to school six days a week, involved family members, and dedicated staff and teachers. Murray said teachers are there to cheer for students’ success and offer a hand up every time they fail. He encouraged others to go tour the school and see how they can support it.
“Let me warn you,” he said. “Guard your heart. Lest it be stolen by a handshake, and a smile from some of the most remarkable students.”
Mentors like Murray clearly play an important role, too. A surprise video featuring the eight young men he mentors was proof of that. Murray watched through tearful eyes as the boys described what he does for them.
“Mr. Murray has helped me grow.” … “He taught us we can change and be better.” … “He taught me if we try something different we might end up liking it.” … “I’ve learned even if you have a bad reputation you can repair it by doing good deeds.” … “He taught me how to tie a tie.”
About a dozen Academy Prep students appeared at the event. They led the crowd in the school’s pledge as they do at every fundraiser. “Standing in this room are the greatest, most committed, most responsible people this world has ever known…,” it begins. The words get louder and more powerful as they continue.
I noticed Shannan Mahaffey, wife of board member Thomas Mahaffey, sitting behind me wiping her eyes as the pledge ended.
“Every time I hear it I tear up,” she told me after the breakfast. “It instills pride and makes you feel like you want to be with them and support them. You can hear that they believe what they are saying.”
Jonathan Dacres, a 2013 graduate of Academy Prep, is proof of what that pride and dedication can achieve. He received the Ben Fisher Alumni Mentoring Award, presented by Carol Fisher. After Academy Prep, Dacres went on to attend Shorecrest Preparatory School for high school and is now at The University of Tampa. Having known the impact mentoring had on his success, Dacres is involved in numerous mentor programs at UT. He’s also launching a non-profit organization called Bow Ties & Etiquette that will provide mentors for younger students in the community and raise money for formal clothing for events and interviews.