Former homeless 16-year-old leads non-profit operated by students


When Lynden Simmons was in the eighth grade, his family moved into a homeless shelter. It was the longest three months of his life.

At school, he smiled like he always did and joked with friends. At the shelter, Lynden kept to himself. He had chores, like the rest of his family, and a curfew. Homework became a refuge.

“I just did what I had to do,’’ he said.

Instead of letting the experience disrupt his life, Lynden called upon it for motivation. That year was among his best, academically.

“It encouraged him to work harder,’’ said the teen’s mom, Linda Jones, a sporadically-employed housekeeper from the Bahamas who battles Lupus and struggles to read and write English. “It pushed him.’’

Lynden went from a high-performing public middle school to Christopher Columbus High School, a prestigious Catholic school in Miami with a student roster made up of some of the city’s wealthiest and most notable families.

He made it there – and has stayed there – due to a tremendous work ethic and a little extra help, including a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students. Now he’s the junior class vice president vying for a coveted spot on the varsity basketball team.

And at just 16, Lynden also helps lead 305-United, a nonprofit founded and operated by students predominately from Catholic schools across South Florida. Their mission: to help less fortunate families by doing good deeds like raising money to buy toys for children in shelters.

For Lynden, the outreach is especially poignant.

“It makes me remember to never forget where I came from,’’ he said. “And I was there.’’

Lynden is one of about 16,000 students in Miami-Dade and nearly 70,000 students from across the state receiving a scholarship this school year from Step Up For Students. The Tampa-based nonprofit helps administer the Florida Tax Credit program, which was created by the Legislature in 2001 to help provide educational opportunities to low-income children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Since then, Step Up has awarded nearly 399,000 scholarships, empowering families to choose school options based on their children’s needs – not their ZIP codes.

The program is funded by corporations that earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits when they redirect up to 100 percent of their Florida income tax liability. For some students, the award helps pay for transportation to another public school outside their district. For others, like Lynden, it’s the ticket to a private school education that, otherwise, would be out of reach.

Lynden wants to be a lawyer someday. This year, he plans to buckle down and improve his 3.0 GPA at Christopher Columbus, an all-male college-preparatory school where about 142 other students are Step Up scholars.

“I’m pushing for all A’s with honors classes,’’ Lynden said.

Those who know him best say he will give this effort and every effort his all because he believes he must. He owes it to the people who believe in him.

“He’s one of those kids who completely understands the opportunities he has been given,’’ said Jose Mas, one of Lynden’s former basketball coaches and president and chief executive officer of MasTec, an engineering and construction company in Coral Gables. “He gets it 100 percent.’’

The two met about three years ago, when Mas’ travel basketball team, which included his son, Jose Miguel, merged with Lynden’s team. The two boys became fast friends, so it didn’t take long for Mas Sr. to become a fan of Lynden, too.

“He’s a very, very special kid,’’ Mas said. “Something drew me to him. I think he was yearning for an opportunity.’’

And Mas, an alumnus of Christopher Columbus, was just the man to help. When it came time for Lynden to head to high school, Mas, his “silent role model,’’ talked with the teen and his mother about school options. Christopher Columbus offered a structured environment with small classes, an excellent academic program and a camaraderie that encouraged students.

Lynden welcomed the idea.

“All of my friends (including Mas’ son) were going to private schools,’’ he said. “What this school had to offer was too good to pass up.’’

Despite her difficulties, Lynden’s mother tries to lead her son and his three siblings, ages 4 to 21, by example.

“It’s not about me or my pride,’’ said Jones, who was able to save enough money to find a home for her family. When it came time to choose a school for her eldest son, one he badly wanted to attend, she turned to Step Up for assistance. Because the scholarship doesn’t cover the whole cost of tuition, Jones graciously accepted more help from Mas and others in the community.

“What I love about (Linda) is her values … ,’’ Mas said. “They are absolutely fantastic. She’s super engaged and super involved.’’

And what Jones loves about the Mases and other Christopher Columbus families, who have given so much of their time and more to her family, is that “they show Lynden a different life.’’

One where he will succeed.

Sherri Ackerman is a public relations manager with Step Up For Students. To find out if your child qualifies for an income-based scholarship, call Step Up For Students at (877) 735-7837 or go to Step Up also helps administer a new scholarship for children with special needs, the Personal Learning Scholarship Account. Visit our website for more information.

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