african-american-achievers-2011-poster_web.jpgInspiration for greatness can come from anywhere, including a television program about a child with Tourette Syndrome. The disease, which causes the affected person to uncontrollably and repeatedly move or blurt out inappropriate speech, inspired Victoria Fleury to begin paving a career path to becoming a neurobiologist.

“After I saw that boy on the episode of 7th Heaven, I joined pre-med and worked hard,” Fleury recalls. “It’s hard to imagine myself not doing some good.”

Working hard paid off. Fleury has been accepted to Florida State University this fall and the 18-year-old Palm Beach Gardens High School senior was tapped for the 2011 Jerome Edmund Gray Youth Achiever scholarship, an honor recognized at the 19th annual African American Achievement Awards, sponsored by JM Family Enterprises Inc.

It will be a free ride to college through the scholarship funded by the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at FSU. Fleury is the first in her family to attend college.

The Achievers gala, attended by more than 1,000 supporters, took place at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale.

If Fleury is on her way to greatness, on April 6, when she was presented with her award, she heard from several adults who have already been down that road and were also being honored. The “achievers” shared some common threads: strong family support; a thankfulness for God’s kindness toward them; humility for the recognition; and an entrenched desire to help others.

Fleury heard from John W. Battle III, who left behind a promising and likely lucrative football career to teach performing arts at Hallandale Magnet High School. Later he started the John Battle Theatre Ensemble Inc., a haven for inner-city youths. For his commitment, he was honored with the Arts & Culture Awarda.

“It seems John is scoring with young minds and making touchdowns in the classroom,” said WPLG Local 10 Evening News Anchor Calvin Hughes, who was master of ceremonies of the African American Achievers Awards gala for the fourth year in a row. Battle is credited with building confidence in students, a key ingredient for success, he said.

Ivana D’Souza, an 18-year-old senior at Hallandale High, said she had two left feet when she joined the ensemble. After a year and half, she had progressed so much that she went as part of the Wreckless Dance Group to California to perform on the TV show America’s Got Talent. The group placed in the top 48, D’Souza said.

D’Souza said the John Battle Theatre Ensemble helped to “expose the talent that God put inside me.”

That’s what Mr. Battle can do,” she said.

Fleury also heard Dwight and Dinah Stephenson, founders and owners of D. Stephenson Construction, speak of their initial apprehension, but determination, about building a business. But it became so successful that Dwight, an NFL Hall of Famer and former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman, and Dinah, a lawyer, who were honored with the Business and Entrepreneurism award, are able to make access to technology free to low-income youths. Another achiever, Mia Y. Merritt, an administrator with Miami-Dade Public Schools, had to change her friends and her way of thinking to succeed. Merritt, who received the Education award, believes that people face obstacles as they grow and she motivates her students to turn those obstacles into stepping stones for greatness.

Fleury had more in common with West Palm Beach firefighter Lieutenant Nathaniel Lasseur, the recipient of the Community Service award. Fleury volunteers on the weekend with Habitat for Humanity and during the week she is active in several service clubs at school.

“I love community service,” Fleury said. “I do it on Thanksgiving [Day]. I do it at Christmas.”

Lasseur and Fleury both had parents who taught them moral values and empathy. So when Lasseur visited Haiti in 2002 and saw firefighters working in street clothes and with minimal or no equipment, he founded International Firefighters Assistance Inc., an organization that provides surplus used inventory and training to fire stations less fortunate.

Lasseur was thankful to his missionary parents, who, he said, gave him the foundation of service. Fleury was thankful for her family’s support.

“My mom and my sisters keep me happy,” Fleury said. “I know no matter what, I can go to them.”

Then Fleury heard the why behind the Annual African American Achievers Awards Ceremony and Reception, first from Colin Brown, president and CEO of Deerfield-based JM Family Enterprises Inc. and then from the founder of the initiative himself, Jim Moran, posthumously.

“We are all interconnected,” Brown said. “And to those who lift up our communities … they deserve our respect and our honor.”

With the recognition comes practical help for the charities and organizations the honorees represent or chose to support. Every year, JM Family, Southeast Toyota and JM Lexus make a donation to the charitable organizations of the winners’ choosing. The 2011 charitable contribution was doubled to $40,000; with $10,000 awarded in each category. 

Organizations chosen by the honorees to receive funding were the John Battle Theatre Ensemble Inc., International Firefighters Assistance, Fred Taylor Foundation Inc., His House Children's Home, Girl Power, Lotus House Women's Shelter, The Charmettes Inc. and The Dwight Stephenson Foundation Inc., according to a post-event news release.

For those who nominated the selected achievers, $500 is sent to charities they selected.

Nominees who did not win, like Sharron Henley of the Urban League of Greater Miami, also shared the limelight of the night. They wore badges that showed that someone recognized their successes and sacrifice. Henley, who doesn’t know who nominated her, was elated.

“Thank you so much,” she said to the unknown nominator. “I am at a loss for words.”

Brown said that’s what the evening was about – recognition — and that the awards ceremony would continue according to Moran’s wishes.

Moran, who started the program in 1992, died in 2007 but attendees got a chance to hear his voice during the evening. “Recognition is so important,” he said in a multimedia


Carolyn Guniss may be reached at