Sun Life Financial Inc. and the Miami Dolphins announced that nine South Florida community and education leaders were to  serve as judges for the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program, the financial services company’s signature national philanthropic initiative now in its second year.

The judges helped to decide who will get more than $220,000 in grants and scholarships that will go to youth and nonprofit organizations to reduce the achievement gap faced by low-income students.

 In 2011, Sun Life will donate more than $1 million to outstanding students and nonprofit organizations affiliated with large urban school districts across the country, including South Florida.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess was named to the judging panel that also included James Champion, president and CEO of Champion Services Group, and Wallis Tinnie, city of Miami Protocol Officer.

Bess played a significant role in last year’s program, addressing students at the inaugural Sun Life Rising Star National Summit, volunteering to serve as a mentor to one of the winning students and helping select the program scholarship recipients.

The other judges were Mary Chance, president, Consortium of Florida Education Foundations; Ada Cole, philanthropist; Judy Green, president, Florida College System Foundation; Stacy Ostrau, publisher, Sun Sentinel “Society Scene”; Rachel Sapoznik, founder, president and CEO, Sapoznik Insurance & Associates; and Jeanette Sparano, wife of Miami Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano.

Each winning South Florida organization will receive a $50,000 grant, while an exemplary student nominated by each organization will receive a $5,000 Sun Life Rising Star scholarship towards financing a college education.

Sun Life was set to surprise winning students with their $5,000 scholarships at separate area award presentations led by Miami Dolphins players, cheerleaders and front office staff, as well as prominent local community members, at South Florida Times press time. The Sun Life Rising Star Awards program is the educational cornerstone program of the Miami Dolphins Foundation.

 The program also seeks to promote financial literacy as a means to achieve long-term financial wellness and stability.

 “We are thrilled to have some of South Florida’s foremost community and education leaders help us shape the Sun Life Rising Star Awards program in South Florida” said Sun Life Financial U.S. President Wes Thompson. “Their keen understanding of the local educational landscape will be invaluable as we create sustainable programming that helps bridge the achievement gap by promoting financial literacy, a critical factor in helping our Rising Stars embark on the path towards a sound financial future.”

Miami Dolphins Chief Executive Officer Mike Dee echoed those sentiments.

“These individuals understand the challenges facing our local students and their expertise and commitment to improving the lives of students is critical to helping us select this year’s honorees,” Dee said.

Photo: Davonne Bess