ORLANDO, Fla. – Tucked near the back of the Metro Place Apartments, in what looks like the former complex clubhouse, you’ll find Soldiers To Scholars.
The nonprofit gives veterans, who have either exhausted or want to save their VA Educational Benefits, an opportunity to have their college tuition paid for in exchange for volunteering.
An American flag flaps in the breeze and if you listen closely, you can hear the chorus of children inside singing the gospel song “How Excellent Is Thy Name.” Program director, Malvin Williams-Tyson, a U.S. Army veteran of 27 years, leads the group of about 20 elementary school age children through the presentation.
“We’re going to show our guests what we’ve been doing all summer long,” she says. “Let’s show them how good we are.”
The uplifting and inspirational song was performed as part of a summer camp skit teaching the kids how to deal with adversity. Army veteran, Ruben Butler III, looked on as the kids performed.
“A lot of our kids don’t have role models,” he said. “We look out for the children. We help them with their grades, help them with their social skills. We try to encourage them and instill a little confidence in them.”
Butler III is one of a handful of military veteran volunteers who spend at least seven hours a week at Soldiers To Scholars.
“I did have the G.I. Bill when I first got out of the military,” said Butler III, who served from 2008 to 2012 with a tour in Iraq. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I dabbled in different careers, real estate, nursing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and exhausted my time.”
Now he’s in his junior year at Valencia College studying information technology.
Butler III said he enjoys his time with the kids and said the leadership skills he learned in the military translate well to the mentorship program.
“I was surprised when I first heard about this,” he said. “It’s a blessing that they’re able to help pay for our school. It’s a blessing to reach out to the next generation.”
Williams-Tyson explained that military personnel who served before the post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008 may not have education benefits.
“You had to put money into the GI Bill,” Williams-Tyson explained. “But when you are enlisted, you’re not making that much so you really can’t afford to contribute.”
Edgar Castillo is in the Army Reserve. Castillo is also studying information technology at Valencia College.
“It definitely helps,” Castillo said, when asked how the program benefits him. “But that’s not the main reason I do it,” he continued. “The main reason why I do it is helping the youth. Helping them grow, helping them develop into better leaders. Helping them see the people they want to be in the future.”
Joshua Cotter, agreed. Cotter spent five years in the Navy and was enrolled in UCF when he learned about the program.
“I looked into it and I really enjoy working with the younger generation,” he said.
“It’s a great opportunity if you want to go back to school,” Cotter said. “And it’s a great opportunity for these kids to see good mentorship and leadership in their life. That’s why I do it.”
The nonprofit was started by Dr. Alzo J Riddick (U.S. Army 61-64). Riddick approached UCF with the idea in 1991. His concept was to create a unique program designed to recruit honorably discharged veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and have them work with inner-city youth.
By 1993, the program started with the help of a grant. It was officially funded by UCF in 1995.
“We provide stability and a frame of reference for children who may not have that at home,” Riddick, the now retired former UCF administrator, said by phone.
“The idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” Riddick said. “We eliminate that workshop.”
Riddick said he’s proud of what he calls the “Walking School Bus.” Soldiers To Scholars mentors safely escort school kids to and from the Metro West apartment community to nearby Eagle’s Nest Elementary School. Riddick said he started the service after courtesy bussing was eliminated by the school district.
“We provide protection for those kids at some of the most dangerous intersections,” he said.
“As a military veteran I know the training I got. I know my integrity and know everything I learned in the military I can instill into these kids,” Williams-Tyson said.
Williams-Tyson listed a number of success stories. Kids have been inspired by the guest speakers and field trips they’ve taken and it’s influenced their career choices. Some former participants have enlisted and come back to volunteer themselves.
Veterans who have earned their degrees and now work in fields as diverse as first responders to NASA.
Soldiers To Scholars is accepting applications for mentorship positions. More information can be found on the UCF/STS website.
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