Recession crushed family business but dream of quality education burns bright

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school choice
With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI – The conversations moved from the house to the garage, away from the boys, who were too young to understand their parents’ words but would have picked up on the worry in their voices.

Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy? What sense could Jonas, 6, and Jack, 4, make of those things?

It was 2008, and Frank and Helen Figuerdo did their best to shield their sons. But the real estate company the couple owned was crumbling. Then, the recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.

“We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” Helen said.

Frank went to work for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster earning $38,000 a year. The couple had cleared 10 times that with their real estate business.

“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” Frank remembers.

Yes, private school.

The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 school where yearly tuition ranges from $4,780 for preschool to $9,400 for high school – per child. The No. 1 priority that surfaced in those talks in the garage, besides how to keep a roof over the family’s head, was how to keep the boys at Westwood.

The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. The couple learned the scholarship could cover half the boys’ tuition.

Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, remembers that meeting in 2008.

“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” Thomson said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years, as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”

 Their world

Today, Jonas is 16 and a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of the Tax Credit Scholarship is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally notable.

Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band, and has qualified for the all-state band. He plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans as a volunteer for Bugles Across America.

He is ranked among the top five students in his class with a grade point average above 4.0. He is member of the National Honor Society and the debate team.

He also is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.

In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and competes nationally. He teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the classes at a women’s shelter.

He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.

His brother, Jack, is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He also plays piano and violin. He served as president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. His grade point average is above 4.0. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team for two years.

He plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association and is starting his own nonprofit, Socks and Sandwiches, to feed and clothe the homeless.

The boys have great role models in their parents. Frank and Helen started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia. When the boys were young, Helen took them with her to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.

“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

While in middle school, the brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who was then a state representative in South Florida.

“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Thomson, the head administrator, said.

 ‘You’re going to law school’

Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.

Getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.

“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”

“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”

The Figueredo boys’ options appear limitless. Frank and Helen were determined to keep them at Westwood to make sure of that.

The couple sold their luxury cars, and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and slowly began to rebuild their finances.

“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”

He works now as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.

“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”

Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes their parents have made on their behalf. They also know the role the Tax Credit Scholarship has played in their education. They are thankful for both.

“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”

“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”

The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.

“After they go to law school,” Helen said.

 About Westwood Christian School

Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on scholarships administered by Step Up For Students. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.