When Christine Garner was born, doctors predicted her death twice before she was even 2 weeks old. She had a host of problems, including cerebral palsy and PVL – Periventricular Leukomalacia, a type of brain damage that causes tight muscles and limbs that do not bend easily. But she didn’t die. In fact, she began to thrive, armed with a steel will, a big heart and devoted friends and family. Last March, after entering the first pageant she’s ever entered, the St. Petersburg College student was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2019. Garner says she’s going to take that crown and use it to fight for inclusion for people with disabilities.

Garner, now 22, grew up in house with a single mom and a lot of kids: she has two sisters and two brothers, all of them older than she. But her disabilities didn’t mean she got special treatment, which is one thing she attributes to her successes.

“I’ve had such a wonderful life,.” She said. “I’m very blessed, and I thank my mom and siblings. They never treated me like I was disabled. We would roughhouse just like all brothers and sisters.”

At the age of 10, she began a series of what would total seven surgeries to correct hip problems, which led to years of recovery. Still, Garner graduated Valedictorian from Enterprise High School in Clearwater. She followed her brothers to SPC and just finished her second semester at the Seminole Campus. She’s in the FUSE program, which guarantees her a seat at the University of South Florida after earning her associate degree in biology, where she will pursue her dream of becoming a neonatologist. She says SPC has been a great fit for her.

“I love SPC very much,” she said. “They’re community-based, and teachers and staff do everything in their power to make sure their students succeed. A school where they value student success just felt like home to me.”

In addition to her classes, Garner volunteers every Tuesday at the Disability Achievement Center in Clearwater. She’s also very active in her church, Sacred Heart Catholic, where she has been a member since the age of 3. She also does motivational speaking, and is active in groups for people with disabilities.

SPC Professor Sharon Olsen, who taught Garner in her General Psychology class, says Garner is dedicated to her education, but what stands out to her is how driven she is to serve others.

“She always has a smile to share,” she said. “Her positive outlook on life and service to others are qualities that stand out in my mind as driving her path to success.”

It was at a Family Café conference in Orlando, which is a trade show for families and people with disabilities, where Garner and her mother, Tricia, met 2016 Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Heather Quinn.

“We talked for a while,” Garner said. “She told me she thought I’d be perfect for the pageant.”

Garner’s mother – always her biggest cheerleader- quickly jumped on board and encouraged her to enter. Though Garner had never even considered a pageant, she finally relented.

“I told myself, ‘I’m just going to be myself, and whatever happens, happens,’” she said.

She wanted to use the pageant to bring to light an issue she had faced in college. Throughout high school, she always had a companion to help her with things she couldn’t reach or do by herself in her chair. When she got to college, despite the accommodations provided her, she missed that assistance.

“The people in Accessibility Services at SPC genuinely care, Garner said. “They are accommodating for people with disabilities. But people with disabilities could do so much more if they were provided a companion.”

When she finally got to the competition, she was nervous, but she made friends quickly, which helped.

“I was doing it with my girls, at that point,” she said. “Winning is great, but entering the contest wasn’t about that. I loved being in a room full of women who were advocating for the disabled community.”

The night of the pageant, with family and friends on hand, clad in an evening gown with her hair and makeup on point, she gave her platform speech, advocating helping individuals gain independence through a companion.

“My biggest thing is to bring awareness and educate,” she said. “I am Miss Independent, and I will try to overcome all barriers, but I still need help.”

In the end, when her name was called as the 2019 Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Garners said she started crying instantly.

“I asked the announcer, ‘Are you sure?’ I could hear my family and friends screaming.”

Garner said she would do it all again in a minute if it will move the needle on accessibility.

“All of it was worth it,” she said. “I’ll fight for inclusion. Everyone, disabled or not, should be able to achieve their dreams, and I want to give support to those who need it.”


Graduates of St. Petersburg College’s PITCH program were recently recognized at the St. Petersburg City Council meeting at City Hall for their achievement.

Green at St. Petersburg City Council meeting

“When I heard about the medical assistant program in January, I thought, ‘It’s time to get back to school,’” said Luther Green, who graduated from SPC’s Certified Medical Assistant program in May. “I’ve come a long way since January.”

The City Council presented plaques to Green and other graduates from the city’s Cohort of Champions program, which, through community partners including SPC, provides workforce training and mentorship to African American boys and young men. Graduates and other cohort participants enjoyed a reception after the presentation.

“History and statistics would tell you if you are born black, male in St. Petersburg, Fla., that your options are few,” said Deputy Mayor and City Administrator Dr. Kanika Tomalin as she addressed the graduates at the City Council meeting. “All sorts of labels will have been assigned to you before you even enter kindergarten. Well, we want to give you some different labels: exemplar, scholar, leader, graduate. You earned every single one of those labels. Wear them proudly every day of your lives.”

Now in its third year of grant funding from the Cohort of Champions initiative, PITCH (Persistence Incorporated inTo College, Hired) focuses on helping low income students obtain industry certifications that enable them to move towards economic mobility through higher wage jobs or continuing their education.

Green works at St. Anthony’s Hospital in the housekeeping department, and had been looking into options to enter the medical field when he found out about PITCH.

PITCH provided the financial assistance he needed to go to school. “It would have taken me a lot longer to save up for the program. I couldn’t be more thankful for it,” he said.

The flexible schedule allowed him to continue working while going to school. Both he and his brother De’Montae completed the certification in May and are currently gaining hands-on experience through externships at Bayfront Convenient Care Clinic and Baycare Medical Group, respectively. Green plans to continue his education and pursue a degree in sports medicine.

Thus far, PITCH has served more than 100 students, and has exceeded its enrollment and outcome goals, with 22 percent already placed in jobs and many still enrolled in longer-term certification or degree programs.

“Seeing students succeed – that’s my passion,” said PITCH Coordinator Ernest Gant. Gant provides ongoing guidance for students, checking in with them throughout their classes and offering help or connecting them to resources wherever needed. “Life happens. I try to get students the help they need so they can be successful in their classes. Seeing students like Luther walk across the stage; that’s what it’s all about.”

When 2019 St. Petersburg College graduates Mirah and Stanley Robles walked into class in Fall 2014, neither suspected that one short month later, they’d be married to one of their classmates and, a little over four years later, receiving their diplomas together at SPC’s Spring 2019 Commencement.

Mirah, an education major, said there was an instant attraction.

“He was cute, so we started talking and exchanged contact info,” she said.

The two married one month later, Stanley said, and now are the parents of a 6-year-old daughter from Stanley’s previous relationship, and their son, who is 3.

The Robles shared a lot of the same classes, though Stanley, who finished an associate degree in Education, made the switch to Information Technology.

“It has been amazing doing this together,” Stanley said. “We’ve helped each other out along the way, and since we were on the same path, we could debate ideas about teaching and education.”

More than 2,000 degrees and certificates

The couple received their diplomas at SPC’s 139th graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 18 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. With this graduating class, SPC has awarded 176,808 degrees since the college was founded in 1927.

SPC President Dr. Tonjua Williams welcomed students, families and friends of graduates as well as faculty and staff, and the invocation was given by the Rev. Esther Robinson from Pasadena Community Church. Hannah White, a 2019 graduate, sang the National Anthem before Jesse Turtle, Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Executive Director of the Foundation, announced the winners of the 2019 Apollo and Alumni Achievement awards.

Graduates and award winners

SPC Spring 2019 GraduationLorena Hmelas, an international student from Croatia, was named the 2019 Apollo Award Winner, the highest honor for an associate degree graduate. Hmelas earned an associate degree in Business Administration but couldn’t attend the ceremony due to a family emergency. She wrote in the speech she had prepared that, though she was far from home, SPC became her second home.

“For the past three years,” Hmelas wrote, “St. Petersburg College has truly been my home away from home. I was lucky to have support from many amazing staff and faculty. The environment and the people are so welcoming and helpful that you don’t feel away from home.”

Savannah Strandlof was awarded the 2019 Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor a bachelor’s graduate can achieve. In her acceptance, she thanked the SPC Alumni Association, her fellow graduates, and the faculty and staff who saw her through her program. Noting the importance of those connections, she named one special professor, Dr. Bruce Brodney, a beloved Education professor who passed away earlier in the year.

“His legacy has continued to live through me and other students and teachers each day in the classroom,” she said. “I emulate him in how I connect with my students. I look for my students’ passions. When I see that, I can connect with them in one hundred different ways.”

Graduation by the numbers

Some fun facts about Spring 2019 graduates:

  • The youngest graduate was 17 years old; the oldest was 75.
  • SPC awarded:
    • 978 Associate in Arts degrees
    • 459 Associate in Science degrees
    • 303 Bachelor of Applied Science degrees
    • 223 Bachelor of Science degrees
    • 208 Certifications

Family time, a new job and USF bound

When the diplomas were all handed out and the pomp and circumstance behind them, Stanley and Mirah celebrated their accomplishments by taking their kids to the Tampa Zoo on Saturday afternoon. He will begin a job with Pinellas County Schools as a substitute teacher in the next school year, and Mirah is headed to the University of South Florida to get her bachelor’s degree in Education.

“SPC has been amazing,” Stanley said. “And we’re excited to share this milestone together, so our kids will see it and be inspired.”

St. Petersburg College will honor its top graduates and alumnus during commencement ceremonies May 18 at Tropicana Field. Lorena Hmelas was selected as the Apollo Award winner, the highest honor an associate degree graduate can achieve. Savannah Strandlof will receive the Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor a bachelor’s graduate can achieve.

The Apollo Award is presented annually by the SPC Alumni Association. Winners are chosen for their outstanding leadership abilities, scholastic standing, community service, honors and awards. It has been presented each year since 1966.

This year’s finalists are:

“Without St. Petersburg College I wouldn’t be where I am today and who I am today. This school has changed my life positively in so many ways, and what past year has taught me is that if I really want to accomplish something I just have to work really hard for it.”

Lorena Hmelas, St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus, Winner

Hmelas will receive an A.A. degree in Business Administration and Management and currently has a 4.0 G.P.A.

She is has served roles in the Student Government Association as Vice President, Historian, Public Relations and Senator. She served as a member of the International Student Club, Latinos United, Phi Theta Kappa, Women on the Way and was a Student Assistant in the Associate Provost’s office on the St. Pete/Gibbs Campus.

Her accomplishments include 2017 & 2018 Servant Leadership Award, 2017 Certificate of Completion of the Management and Supervision of Campus-Wide Student Government Association Skills and a 2017 Letter of Recommendation from Dr. Law for her achievements in managing a budget that exceeded $239,000 and devotion to the Student Government Association.

Hmelas served her community as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, and through the Student Government Association collected food, books and toys for people in need and helped many homeless children learn to read and develop a love of books. She volunteered through Student Life and Leadership and Women on the Way to organize events and fundraisers.

She plans to transfer to the University of South Florida to eventually earn her master’s degree in Global Business. Her goal is to find a career that will combine both business and the different languages that she speaks such as working at the UN or NATO.

“When I first arrived at SPC, I was a GED recipient with hardly any academic or life skills. SPC took me in when my life looked bleak and turned me into the person I am today, a college student on his way to university, pursuing a career and a love for the community. Like a big family, everyone at SPC was invested in my success.”

Stanley Edward Kordecki III, St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus

Kordecki will receive an A.A. in Biology and currently has a G.P.A of 3.9.

He was Student Government Senator in 2016, a member of the Outdoors Club, Harambe, Campus Community Service Committee Chair, Intervarsity Club and Intramural Sports Coordinator Assistant. He served as short time as SPC’s mascot – Titus the Titan.

In 2017 he was awarded by the Social and Behavioral Science and the Humanities and Fine Arts Department for academic excellence.

Kordecki has served his community by volunteering at the St. Pete Free Clinic, at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, the Habitat for Humanity and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

His future plans are to attend USF in fall 2019 and eventually pursue a career in environmental conservation.

“My experiences at a young age taught me the value of life and the importance of utilizing life’s opportunities. My experience at SPC has taught me to lead with excellence, integrity and honor.”

Ronelia Bailey, Clearwater Campus

Bailey will receive an A.A. degree in Business and currently has a G.P.A. of 3.9.

Among her collegiate activities is membership in the Honors Program Student Consortium, Student Government Association, BSU Badeya Club, Multicultural Club, National Council for Black American Affairs, Phi Theta Kappa Tau Zeta, Golden Key International Honor Society, Women2STEM, and the Annual Collegiate Research Conference.

In 2018, Bailey received the Dr. Theodore J. Mazza Student of the Year Award and the Most Engaged Study Abroad Student Award. In 2017 she received the award for Outstanding Student in Fine Arts and Humanities.

She volunteered as a Peer Leader for the 2019 Florida International Leadership Conference, at the Eckerd Connects Raising Hope’s distribution center, for the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, the Salvation Army and various events on campus.

Bailey’s goal is to transfer to USF and major in both Global Business and Spanish. She would like to become a teacher in an under-resourced public school for a few years and then get a master’s degree in International Relations and Business Administration to fulfill her dream as an Ambassador of the United States or pursue a career in Global Banking.

“My enthusiasm for life in general and especially as it relates to animals is infectious and I know that as a SPC Veterinary Nursing graduate, I WILL make a difference. SPC has allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and follow my passion.”

Michelle M. Werden, Veterinary Nursing Center

Werden will receive an A.S. degree in Veterinary Nursing and currently has a G.P.A of 3.7.

She is an active member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and the Florida Veterinary Technicians Association. She received the P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education Grant and was the recipient of the Pinellas County Veterinary Medical Association Scholarship.

She has been a volunteer since 2016 with the Pet Pal Animal Shelter where she assists with community events and educates the community on the importance of spaying and neutering their pets.  Through Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, she helped organize activities and meals for the guest of the Ronald McDonald House.

Werden’s future plans include taking a full-time position at the Pet Pal Veterinary Clinic and to continue her education by pursuing the Human-Animal Bond and Pet Nutritional Certifications.

Alumni Achievement Award Finalists

Four outstanding St. Petersburg College students have been selected as finalists for the annual Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor a bachelor’s graduate can achieve.

The Alumni Achievement Award is presented annually by the SPC Alumni Association. Winners are chosen for their outstanding leadership abilities, scholastic standing, community service, honors and awards.

This year’s finalists are:

“SPC instilled a passion in me for community service and always striving toward the goals that I have set. The College has overwhelmingly equipped me for life after college as I have listened and learned in constructive environments with life-changing professors and inspiring colleagues. The guidance of everyone I have come in contact with at SPC has impacted me in the way that I hope to impact each and every one of the students in my future classrooms for years to come.”

Savannah Strandlof, Clearwater Campus, Winner

Strandlof will receive a B.S. degree in Elementary Education (K-6) with Reading and ESOL Endorsement and currently has a 4.0 G.P.A.

Strandlof is a member of the Kappa Delta Pi International Education Society – Education society which promotes excellence in teaching and fellowship. She is also a member of the Student Florida Education Association.

She participated as a member on the Model United Nations Academic team and attended the National Model United Nations conference in New York to represent the country of Bolivia. Ms. Strandlof was recognized by the National Collegiate Conference Association at the NMUN New York Conference as a Distinguished Delegate for her representation for Bolivia on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Strandlof served as the Chair of Model UN Women at the Pinellas County Model United Nations conference held by SPC where she led and monitored sessions and discussed issues affecting women globally.

Strandlof serves her community actively as a volunteer for Belcher Elementary’s Ninja Warrior Fun Run Family Day, Calvary Baptist Church preparing meals for families in need and Champions for Life Kids Camp as a buddy for abused, abandoned and neglected children.

She plans to obtain a Masters degree in Gifted Education and a Doctorates in Curriculum and Instruction or Educational Leadership.

“I invested my time and resources into this college and I have managed to make a second home here at SPC. I’ve built new relationships, developed new skills and actively served to spread the knowledge and blessing that SPC has to offer.”

Jerrick Rivera, Seminole Campus

Rivera will receive a B. A. degree in Management and Organizational Leadership and currently has a 3.5 G.P.A.

He has served as the 2018-2019 President of the SPC Student Government Association on the Seminole Campus and has served as an officer with SGA since 2013.

Rivera is active within his community serving as a volunteer for such organizations as Habitats for Humanity. Every Sunday he commits seven hours or more to his church’s production team as the lighting director, programming lights and commanding lighting queues. He also serves as a vocalist during worship and services. Mr. Rivera has also volunteered with several local 5K Marathons.

One of his most proud moments was being chosen to deliver the “2017-2018 Student Life and Leadership Annual Budget” presentation to the SPC Board of Trustees at their monthly BOT meeting.

Rivera plans to continue his education and obtain a Masters in Business Administration. His aspiration is to one day to earn a position as a CEO and serve his community as a city council member.

“I felt so proud of myself for attempting and succeeding in college. I am the first in my family to attend college and it has impacted my life greatly. SPC has taught me things about teaching and working with students I feel like I would have never learned anywhere else. It has allowed me to make close connections with great professors, advisers, and peers.”

Allison Rae Thompson, Tarpon Springs Campus

Thompson will receive a B.S. degree in Educational Studies and Community Leadership and currently has a 3.89 G.P.A.

She became a member of Phi Theta Kappa in September of 2015. Ms. Thompson served as a member of the Elite Educators which is a group of teachers/students who learn together in the same classes and workshops to become better leaders and teachers of the future.

Ms. Thompson serves her community as a volunteer for many nonprofit organization. Through Feeding Children Everywhere-Hunger Project she helped package several bags of food to families all around the world. She also volunteers at Heritage United Methodist Church in the nursery.

Ms. Thompson was the recipient of the Juvenile Welfare Board Scholarship and Helios Education Foundation First Generation Scholarship.

She plans to become a VPK teacher in a Pinellas County School and giving back to the community through her love for learning. Thompson plans on continuing her education and enroll in additional classes at SPC to further enrich her learning within the field of Education.

“My experience here at SPC has had a profound impact on my life. I have found the desire to advocate on issues relating to veterans. Because of my experience as a student veteran, I have developed a desire to assist future student veterans in succeeding throughout their transition and academic careers.”

Eric Tsai, Clearwater Campus

Tsai will receive a B.S. degree in Public Policy and Administration and currently has a 3.62 G.P.A.

Tsai has been very active at St. Petersburg College serving as a member of Student Veterans Association, International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Alpha Phi Sigma National Criminal Justice Honors Society, Golden Key International Honors Society and St. Petersburg College Underwater Research Society (SURS).

He obtained his A.A. degree with Honors and was the recipient of the 2017 Veteran Scholar Award, an award that recognizes Student Veteran Scholars who have demonstrated exceptional work in their courses.

Tsai is active within his community. He volunteers with the Avian Veterans Alliance assisting with the care and handling of bird of prey at The Narrows. He also volunteers with Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch and assists the organization through photography and setup of event displays and has participated in the Great American Teach-In as a guest speaker addressing 5th-grade classes of Blanton Elementary School.

Tsai’s goal is to obtain a meaningful career as a Law Enforcement Officer where he can continue to make a difference in the lives of the people he meets and continue his work in veteran advocacy where he can influence policies related to veteran issues. Academically, Tsai would like to obtain a Juris Doctor degree.


St. Petersburg College will hold its 139th commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 18 at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Dr., St. Petersburg.

The college’s youngest graduate is 17 years old, the oldest is 75 years old and 28 graduates are over the age of 60.

With this graduating class, SPC will have awarded 176,808 degrees since the college – Florida’s first community college – was founded in 1927.

SPC will award:

  • 978 Associate in Arts degrees
  • 459 Associate in Science degrees
  • 303 Bachelor of Applied Science degrees
  • 223 Bachelor of Science degrees
  • 208 Certifications

Savannah Strandlof and Lorena Hmelas will address fellow graduates and guests. Strandlof is the Alumni Achievement Award Winner, which is the highest honor a bachelor’s graduate can achieve. Hmelas is the Apollo Award Winner, which is the highest honor an associate degree graduate can achieve.

In an effort to restore the popular “Hurricane Hole” near Bay Pines and protect Tampa Bay estuary waters and habitats, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) has awarded St. Petersburg College (SPC) a grant that will be used to create a living shoreline.

The $10,071.47 grant focuses on restoration and rehabilitation of a living shoreline at the SPC Bay Pines STEM Center, part of the Tampa Bay estuary known as Hurricane Hole. TBEP believes empowering citizens through programs such as this helps foster an environmental ethic and promote community stewardship of the bay.

This project – low-cost, long-term alternative to repairing and/or replacing the dilapidated seawall at the site – will fill in gaps in the deteriorating structure, restore native habitation and create a living shoreline. SPC students from various ecological classes will engage in restoration efforts and ongoing monitoring of the environment.

“The TBEP grant will allow our faculty and students the opportunity to create a living shoreline that will provide wildlife habitat, as well as the natural interface between the water and the land here on the property,” SPC STEM Center Director Erica Moulton said. “While still relatively a new concept, living shorelines are innovative and cost-effective techniques for coastal management and will provide us with a demonstration site that is welcoming to both the students and faculty here, but also the native flora and fauna.”

Coastal engineering planning with TBEP and coastal engineer consultants will help develop a long-range restoration plan for the site. For future projects, they’ll also provide advice and recommendations as needed about removing and deconstructing sections of the seawall.  Enhancement at the site will focus on preserving the present salt tern habitat to preserve the hypersaline environment. Native plants will be installed in this area as well.

This one-year project is in partnership with Florida Native Plant Society, Keep Pinellas Beautiful and Madeira Beach Fundamental School.

St. Petersburg College (SPC) was honored with two awards from the Association of Florida College (AFC) at the College Teaching and Learning Conference in St. Petersburg this month. Professor Sharon Olsen was presented the Distinguished Faculty Award, and SPC’s Veterinary Technology associate degree program was presented the Teaching and Learning Center Award.

The Distinguished Faculty Award honors a faculty member who best exhibits a dedication to academic teaching and scholarship. The award is designed to pay tribute to educators who are guiding 21st-century students into the future with new pedagogical techniques and creative thinking.

Olsen is an associate professor for the department of Social/Behavioral Sciences & Human Services at SPC. Her experiences include teaching undergraduate Psychology and Student Life Skills courses. During her tenure, she has had numerous accomplishments. Additionally, she consistently has high student success rates and a strong degree of rapport with her students. She is committed to academic excellence and community engagement.

SPC’s Veterinary Technology associate degree program received AFC’s newest award, the Teaching and Learning Center Award. This award pays tribute to exemplary teaching and learning centers that inspire and advance teaching and learning. It highlights exemplary institutional programs and the accomplishments of college centers that have demonstrated their impact on student success, retention and graduation rates.

Also, Dr. John Kurnik, a professor in the College of Business, was a finalist for the Boyer Award. The Boyer Award is in honor of the late Ernest L. Boyer, former chancellor of the State University of New York and the United States commissioner of education. The award honors educator contributions that have a broad, significantly positive effect on student learning, motivation, and creativity beyond their own departments and institutions.