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'Rising Stars' Overcame Odds Through Education

MIAMI - Outstanding students from across the country joined an all-star line-up of professional athletes, front-line nonprofit organizations serving at-risk youth, corporate leaders and nationally recognized educators at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, FL this weekend to address critically important education issues affecting high school students at the Sun Life Rising Star Awards National Summit.


The 22 students and community-based organizations who advocate on their behalf were invited to participate as representatives of the inaugural class of Sun Life Rising Stars, having been recognized by the leading financial services organization in 2010 for overcoming the odds by furthering their education.

Sun Life developed the Summit to provide a forum for education stakeholders to discuss the state of public education in America’s major metropolitan areas, tackle socio-economic issues causing the precipitous decline in graduation rates among urban high school students, and present new ideas and approaches that will ensure at-risk youth receive the requisite resources and information to finish high school and continue their education.

Tennis Champion and Miami Dolphins Limited Partner Venus Williams; Dolphins Wide Receiver Davone Bess; Quarterback Chad Pennington; and Vice President Nat Moore; Sun Life US President Wes Thompsonand Vice President and Head of US Marketing Priscilla Brown represented the Miami Dolphins Foundation and Sun Life Financial respectively.

The weekend’s break-out sessions were led by the Sun Life Rising Star National Advisory Board, a panel of distinguished education thought leaders including National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) President and CEO Ted Beck; Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP) Director Jason R. Klugman; The Elon Academy Director Deborah Long; Educational Testing Service’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center Senior Research Scientist Catherine M. Millett; and Steven H. Prigohzy, education advocate and developer of one of the country’s first open magnet schools,.

Themes included “Sharing College Experiences: Lessons Learned, Expectations & Anxieties and Building Educational Goals;” “Train the Trainer: How to Incorporate Financial Literacy into Existing Community/Education Programs;” and “Challenges to Evaluation: Best Practices on Collecting, Analyzing and Reporting Data.” Attendees divided into small groups to discuss barriers to college enrollment and declining graduation rates.

“We developed the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program because it’s critical to provide educational opportunities for America’s underserved youth,” said Sun Life Financial US President Wes Thompson. “The National Summit presents an opportunity for us to better understand the challenges facing our students and creates a forum to share ideas and best practices, and discuss solutions,” he continued. “And who better to lead the dialogue than our outstanding Sun Life Rising Stars, who persevered in the face of adversity and understand the obstacles standing in the way of their peer’s college aspirations.”

The students entered Sun Life Stadium in grand style by walking the Dolphin’s famed ‘Orange Carpet’ as they were applauded by Bess, Pennington, the Dolphins front office and the Dolphins cheerleaders. The students were then escorted into Sun Life Stadium for a special welcome reception in the Dolphins locker room. Bess was a member of the South Florida Sun Life Rising Star Awards judging panel. Thompson kicked off the Summit with opening remarks followed by an inspirational speech by Moore and the Dolphins players. Day one concluded with a team building meeting and formal dinner in the Dolphins’ Gallery of Legends.

Day two featured discussions on program models and strategies to incorporate financial literacy into existing community programs and the steps students and parents can take to budget and prepare for post-secondary education. The event concluded with a luncheon and keynote speech by Venus Williams, who shared her personal story of overcoming the odds as an at-risk student during a 20-minute question and answer session.

“The Sun Life Rising Star Award recipients represent the students and organizations who inspire all of us to succeed in life,” said Williams. “I am honored to share this special occasion with these amazing students, and the community groups that helped them realize their dreams.” 

In 2010, Sun Life Financial provided more than $1 million in grants and scholarships through the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program, rewarding 22 at-risk youth and their 22 supporting nonprofits in Boston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, and South Florida. Each nonprofit organization received a $50,000 grant, along with training, materials and curriculum infrastructure to develop and provide financial education for youth in its program. Each student received a $5,000 scholarship to help finance their post-secondary education.  

The Sun Life Rising Star Awards is the educational cornerstone program of the Miami Dolphins Foundation, devoted to providing and supporting signature Education, Health, Youth Athletic Programs and Volunteer Activities that inspire and engage communities throughout Florida.

“Events like the Sun Life Rising Stars National Summit are a realization of our vision of Sun Life Stadium as a true community asset,” said Miami Dolphins CEO Mike Dee. “We are honored to host these exceptional students and non-profit organizations from across the country who are committed to success in the classroom.”

Priscilla Elizalde, a San Diego, California graduate of Kearny High School’s Construction Tech Academy, and HANDY, Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Florida nonprofit organization, won the inaugural national award for the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program, announced in advance of the Summit. Sun Life awarded Ms. Elizalde, now a freshman at San José State University, an additional $50,000 toward college tuition and HANDY, Inc., an additional $50,000 in grants. The students were judged on an essay competition that addressed the impact of their life experiences on shaping their goals and ambitions; their plans to succeed in post-secondary education; and practical advice they could provide to other at-risk students. Nonprofit organizations were judged on plans to effectively utilize the funds in their support of at-risk youth.

Following is a list of the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program nonprofit organization grant and student scholarship recipients who were in attendance:

Boston: Mattaya Fitts and Artists for Humanity; Rueben Bailey and City Year Boston; and Christophanie Julien and School on Wheels; Detroit: Tamal Sikder and Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan; Myriha Burton and InsideOut Literary Arts; and Cherry Tolbert and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit; New York: Travis Lawson and East Harlem Tutorial Program, Inc.; Narita Shelton and Publicolor; and Mariama Diallo and The Urban Dove, Inc.; Philadelphia: Fernando Morales and LEAD; David Buckholtz and Urban Affairs Coalition; and Bintu Sherif and Philadelphia Futures; San Diego: Priscilla Elizalde and Barrio Logan College Institute; Eric Jackson and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego; and Latrice Brown and Home Start, Inc.; Seattle: Bikram Subba and New Futures; Raphael Diallo and Rainer Scholars; and Sabas Rousseau and Treehouse; South Florida: Warren Charles Coley and College Summit; LaGary Roberson and HANDY, Inc; Kou Sua and Boys & Girls Clubs of Lee County; and Miranda Stackhouse and Urban Youth Impact.

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