$500,000 gift from Mary Kay and Joe Henson to USF funds tutoring, mentorship program at Sarasota middle school

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” - Frederick Douglass

Dec. 5, 2022

Ensuring young students can read, so they are free to accomplish their dreams, is a goal of a literacy program based at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus that matches USF students with middle schoolers needing support to boost their reading skills — and to set a course for brighter futures.

“I cannot imagine the terror it must be to try to manage life without being able to read,” Mary Kay Henson recently told USF students during an orientation session for the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative. “You’re going to be able to give something that you do without even thinking about it, reading, and you are going to be able to change a life.”

The USF students are tutoring and mentoring students at Sarasota’s most economically disadvantaged middle school as part of the initiative, which is funded by a $500,000 gift from Henson and her husband, Joe, noted Sarasota philanthropists. Beyond helping to improve the students’ reading skills, the USF students —only some of whom are considering careers as teachers — are embedding themselves into the children’s lives to provide them with positive role models and new opportunities for success.

Mary Kay and Joe Henson
Mary Kay and Joe Henson visit Booker Middle School

The literacy project, led by College of Education professors Cheryl Ellerbrock and Lindsay Persohn in partnership with Booker academic intervention specialists Holly Ard and Grace Schaeffer, is a passion for the Hensons, prolific funders of numerous community-based projects, including others addressing school shortfalls in reading proficiency.

“The Hensons are an extraordinarily generous couple with genuine love and concern for the children they are reaching through the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative, and all children in the community,” said Brett Kemker, the Sarasota-Manatee campus’s regional vice chancellor and vice provost for academic affairs and student success. “Their gift to USF has created a unique opportunity for our professors and Booker teachers to develop strategies that benefit not only those middle schoolers with whom our students are working, but with all children needing support to become better readers.”

Booker Principal LaShawn Frost called the USF students working at her school each Friday “brain surgeons.”

"Their goal is to not only accelerate learning for our scholars, but they are going to stimulate brain cells and help them to achieve academic goals,” Frost said. “I am totally confident that the work we are doing here will be a model for the country.”

The USF students are embracing that challenge.

Sejal Keshvara has already graduated from USF with a degree in psychology, but she is taking additional science classes in preparation for dental school.

“I genuinely love to read. It was a big part of my reason to do this,” Keshvara said. “I want to make a difference.”

The Hensons are trying to address the link they see between low literacy rates among some children in Sarasota County and poverty. About half of the students enrolled in Sarasota County public schools come from households below the poverty line, according to the school district. Booker is the only Title I middle school in the Sarasota County School District. About four out of five students receive a free or reduced-price lunch each day. Both a magnet and a community school, it draws students of varying reading abilities from across Sarasota County.

The couple funded the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative through the Joe and Mary Kay Henson Foundation, a Sarasota-based 12-year-old private fund dedicated to helping children of poverty through early education programs and partnerships with the school district. The foundation established and funded the Gocio School Pre-K program, now in its fourth year and slated to roll out to additional elementary schools The foundation also established and funded the Alta Vista Eagle Academy, absorbed by the county and now known as the Summer Learning Academy.

The Hensons’ gift will support other programs at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, including a clinical health project for Hispanic families in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The literacy program kicked off Oct. 15 with a daylong orientation for the USF students. A week later, they attended a professional development day focused on reading strategies and mentoring. Then they met their mentees. The program will run through the end of the 2024-25 school year.

“You have much to give back,” Joe Henson told the USF students. “One of the things you can take from this program is the lifetime satisfaction of knowing that you influenced the life trajectory of someone else. So, we’re pleased to be partners with you, to support you, and we are committed to seeing that this is going to be successful. It will be successful because of you.”


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