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A young Fort Lauderdale resident who escaped a troubled background to enter college won national attention recently and a scholarship valued at $5,000.

The organization that helped him put his life together also won acclaim and $100,000 for its programs.

LaGary Roberson, 20, who grew up without his parents and was raised by a grandmother, used to get into fights and dropped out of school. He is now enrolled in Broward College. Roberson was among four Florida students who received the first Sun Life Financial Rising Star Award, presented to at-risk students with good educational potential.

HANDY, a Fort Lauderdale-based non-profit organization, which stands for Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth, nominated Roberson for the award. The group has been serving youth for more than 25 years, helping thousands, like Roberson, to turn their lives around.

HANDY was named non-profit organization of the year, beating out 21 other non-profits from around the U.S. All of them received $50,000 grants each, but HANDY got an additional $50,000, for a total of $100,000, all from Sun Life Financial.

“HANDY was chosen by our national advisory board to receive an additional $50,000 grant because of their commitment to youth education and because of the exceptional way that they support their students and work with other organizations in their community to provide all that their students need,” said Kaitlin Jaquez, senior philanthropy program manager at Sun Life Financial U.S. “They really build such a village around their students that’s just inspirational.”

The inaugural Sun Life Rising Star National Summit took place Feb. 25-26.  Tennis superstar Venus Williams, a limited partner in the Miami Dophins football team, gave the keynote address at a luncheon saluting the Rising Stars. She encouraged the students to give back to their communities.

In all, 22 Rising Stars were selected from 22 non-profits across the nation to receive scholarships and walk the “orange” carpet with Miami Dolphins Quarterback Chad Pennington and receiver Davone Bess. They were greeted in the Dolphins locker room with team jerseys bearing their names.

Sun Life Financial’s overall national Rising Star winner was Priscilla Elizalde of California. Other Florida winners were Miranda Stackhouse of Urban Youth Impact, West Palm Beach; LaGary Roberson of HANDY, Fort Lauderdale; Kou Sua of Boys and Girls Club of Lee County; and Warren Coley of Miami-based College Summit Florida, who was not at the summit.

Other Florida non-profits recognized were Urban Youth Impact of West Palm Beach, College Summit, and Boys and Girls Clubs of Lee County.

HANDY serves youth aged 10-23, many of whom are referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice and other agencies or by other young people. Many of them were abused or battered and some are in the foster care system.

More than 98 percent of those in the HANDY program graduate from high school and almost all of those go to college or some other post-secondary institution, said Director of Programs Kirk Brown. 

At Broward College, Roberson has a 3.0 GPA and is pursuing an associate’s degree in Sports Medicine before going to a four-year university.

HANDY has a scholarship program at the college that pays students’ tuition fees and provides them with $500 per semester for books. Overall, HANDY students have been attending 27 colleges around the country.

HANDY also provides independent living services, mentoring services and employment services, as well as case management for each child. Landlords who work with the group provide apartments for independent living for some of the students, Brown said.
Brown, along with the mentors and sponsors from the other non-profits, accompanied Roberson and their winning students for the National Summit weekend.

Brown said he has followed the transformation in Roberson since the teen entered the program at age 14. He said HANDY put Roberson in boxing to channel his aggression. He is now an amateur boxer hoping to turn pro.