Start with a bed of leafy greens. Add black beans and garbanzos. Toss with tomatoes, green onions, cheese, and dressing. Top with cashews and walnuts, and, voila! The harvest grown by students is more than a delicious, healthy salad. It’s a recipe for success in education. And this is PEP Up Education’s recipe.

illustration by Anushka van Huyssteen

Audrey Nettlow is serving a heaping helping of innovation in education. Kids hungry for knowledge who find it difficult to learn when their stomachs are growling get a helping hand from the volunteer executive director of the Winter Haven Public Education Partnership at the After School Tutoring and Enrichment Center in Florence Villa.

“Even though the kids aren’t used to eating a salad made with arugula, kale, collards, and other dark greens, they love it and own it because they grew it themselves,” says Nettlow, who credits volunteer Phoebe O’Neill for creating the Healthy Eating Program a year ago. “It’s a sneaky learning tool that increases their vocabulary. They learn the names of different nuts and why fat in nuts is good for them. It’s very rewarding.”

Reading the label on a carton of chocolate milk sparked the light bulb moment when O’Neill, an All Saints Academy senior who grew up being taught that you are what you eat, suggested replacing prepackaged snacks with healthy foods.

“The snacks weren’t balanced to give kids the nutrients they need to help their brains develop so they can be successful as students. One carton of chocolate milk has 22 grams of sugar, and a prepackaged slice of banana bread has 30 grams. A kid should not have that much sugar in one snack. I saw that as something we could change. I’m really grateful that I grew up in a home where we ate lots of fruits and vegetables and I gained an appreciation for healthy foods. Not all kids are that lucky,” says O’Neill.

As O’Neill tears up lettuce in the center’s newly renovated kitchen, Nettlow sings her praises. “Not only did she raise nearly $9,000 in a letter-writing campaign last summer, but this 18-year-old orchestrated a fundraiser with food, music, games, and a silent auction that took place on April 6th at Outback Oasis. I turned it all over to her and she ran with it.”

“We served our most popular ‘kid tried and approved’ snacks,” says O’Neill, who is writing a cookbook with recipes for smoothies, black bean salad, quinoa chips, and other snacks. “I fell in love with volunteering and the kids. They’re easy to love. Plus, I learned how to cook, and the recipes helped me eat healthier and be more conscious of a plant-based diet.”

The event was designed to share the experience of what it’s like to be a student at the center, with games including: Do You Know Your Nuts? and Can You Do Fifth-Grade Math?

“People may have come to see the two pet kangaroos, Joey and Auzzie, but we hope they left with a better appreciation of what PEP is all about,” says O’Neill, whose goal was to raise enough money to ensure the future of the program when she attends New York University this fall.

Many of Nettlow’s friends, including Peterson & Myers attorney Doug Lockwood, Polk State President Dr. Eileen Holden, and Nat West, former Winter Haven Hospital vice president, were members of the Educational Outcomes Steering Committee that founded the nonprofit organization to ensure that Winter Haven’s schools are unequaled in quality, relevance, and student performance.

“I was looking and praying for what I was supposed to do when I sent my last daughter off to college,” says Nettlow when encouraged to join the PEP team in 2010. “I feel really strongly about education. That’s my heart. My kids had every opportunity. Now I get to work with kids that are shooting for Harvard and kids that don’t have many opportunities. I knew I loved working with little kids, but didn’t realize how much I would love working with teenagers.”

The first center opened at 203 Ave. R, NE in March 2014. From 30 to 50 students who attend Title-1 schools and live below the poverty line come to the center from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Tutors and mentors offer help with homework; celebrity guests and authors attend quarterly parties; students receive free books and improve reading skills through Reading Pals and Relax and Read; they enjoy playing popular games like Pie Face; win a raffle for a ham or turkey; learn how to grow a green thumb in the garden run by Beverly Butler; and eat healthy snacks they grew themselves.

PEP also offers Career Connection that matches hundreds of high school students with people working in a career that interests them.

“Some days it feels like a drop in the bucket that’s leaking and some days you have big wins,” confesses Nettlow, who earned a B.S. degree in food science and nutrition from the University of Florida. “Our goal is to open a center in every neighborhood that has this need.” She plans to serve healthy snacks in schools and PEP centers in Wahneta and Inwood. “We are building a successful prototype that can be duplicated through collaborative efforts.”

O’Neill started volunteering with her school art club’s sidewalk chalk art project when she was 16. “It’s the little things that really make a difference when you see kids improve and become more open to eating a salad,” she says. “The more you engage them in the process, the more excited they are to participate and try new things. The first time, they’re like, ‘Ew, gross!’ Now they’re excited about eating a green salad because they took one bite and realized it’s not poisonous.”

A catalyst behind the Cambridge International School at Winter Haven High School, Nettlow is excited about the success of the program internationally recognized by colleges and universities around the globe. “We’re giving 900 tests the next month and a half, and there’s a waiting list for enrollment. Students also have the option of choosing AP and dual enrollment courses at Polk State College with this flexible advanced curriculum program.”

If Nettlow could wave a magic wand, her wish would be to attract more teachers by increasing salaries, especially Cambridge coordinator Nikki Jordan, paid as a WHHS math teacher. “Others working at her level receive the salary of an assistant principal,” she says.

“Having qualified teachers in the classroom who want to be there is probably our number-one challenge,” she adds, concerned about the county’s teacher shortage of 600 positions unfilled this year and estimated to be 1,000 this fall.

Another of her goals is to shine a light on the “30 million word gap.” Called “The Early Catastrophe,” the 1960s War on Poverty study revealed how children from professional families hear 30 million more words by age three than children born in poverty. “It’s almost impossible for them to catch up.”

“My fondest wish is to encourage people to do just one small thing for teachers. Buy a gift card for a teacher incentive; volunteer for a lunch for teachers; spend an hour reading to a class once a week. It doesn’t have to be big. If you help a teacher, you help a student.”

Named Winter Haven High School’s Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and the Banker’s Cup Woman of the Year in 2015, Nettlow is a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer, serves as a director on the boards of Heart 4 Winter Haven and Winter Haven Montessori, and provides paddleboards for Special Olympics in partnership with her former company, Paddleboard Winter Haven.

“I’ve learned so much from her,” O’Neill states. “She leads by example and is just a giving person who is so positive and never utters a bad word about anything. She’s so humble and never seeks nor accepts praise or applause.”

Taking a cue from Nettlow, O’Neill applauds her fellow volunteers: sisters Chantel, Chelsey, and Dionne Ross, and their brother, Keyshawn. “I get a lot of attention for the healthy snacks, but they do much more. The dedication they show is phenomenal. They’re here every day and deserve to have a light shine on them,” says O’Neill.

“[Nettlow] believes that everything she does on this earth should be in service to others and to God,” says Katie Worthington, Great Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.

Nat West, who donated 23 dulcimers to Inwood Elementary School students when PEP noted a lack of music education in schools, says that Nettlow “is fulfilling our vision to make Winter Haven’s public school system the ‘hallmark’ of education in the nation.”

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