LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Stephanie L. Hefner became interested in offering etiquette classes for at-risk youth after she realized her grandmother had started a charm school in Manatee County decades ago.
“She started working with young ladies and owned a boutique in Bayshore Gardens,” recalled Hefner, reminiscing about her late grandmother, Monique Semrinec.
She found articles written about her grandmother, with instructions about how to walk, how to stand properly, and proper makeup and hair, said Hefner, who recently celebrated the grand opening of a modern equivalent, The Academy for Leadership and Social Development.
“Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind; I thought: ‘How cool is that?’ We have nothing like that,” said the fourth-generation Manatee County resident.
The academy, based in Lakewood Ranch, is designed to teach confidence, respect, integrity and empowerment to at-risk, underprivileged and disadvantaged young people.
“A foundation of proper manners and etiquette, with a value of self and others, are imperative to the success of our children,” Hefner said.
The academy launched its program with a six-week pilot project at Easter Seals Southwest Florida, 350 Braden Ave., in Manatee County.
The program was subsidized with a $2,000 grant from the The Center for Faith and Freedom, she said.
The center is a Lakewood Ranch nonprofit that creates and produces DVDs, public service announcements and other multimedia items at no charge for other nonprofit organizations that help the needy, The Herald has previously reported.
Among the topics Hefner addresses are how to deal with peer pressure and bullying; setting goals; skills for job interviewing and socializing, and the importance of community.
It is not a school or an educational institution, Hefner emphasized.
“Everyone at Easter Seals is thrilled with the classes run by Stephanie Hefner, including our students,” said Ashley Canesse, Easter Seals’ vice president for philanthropy, who noted that the academy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, rather than a school and requires no accreditation.
“I’ve known Stephanie for almost nine years, as she has worked in nonprofits in this community, and have always been very impressed by her professionalism, integrity and ability to communicate with people from all backgrounds,” said Canesse.
“We invited Stephanie to conduct her classes with our VIP Academy; there are no other similar programs offered in Sarasota and Manatee County so Stephanie’s program is filling a large unmet need.”
Hefner holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Hodges University, Sarasota, and is pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling at Webster University. She took an online course to become a certified etiquette trainer for children and teens, she said.
The academy is an active, nonprofit corporation registered with the state, with Hefner, Christine Warren and Erin Duggan listed as officers.
The academy plans to offer its services at minimal cost, subsidized by foundations and individual donations, Hefner said.
She plans to offer its services in partnership with schools, non-profit organizations and after-school programs.
Hefner, 35, of Lakewood Ranch, helped eight young people with special needs between the ages of 14-22 during her program at Easter Seals, said Kameron Partridge, vice president of programs and services.
“Stephanie came to us, recognizing our focus was how to manage your life better,” said Partridge. “What she teaches is basic manners, and appropriate social skills.”
“My kids here struggle enough with being categorized by others for their disability -- if you can teach other skills, and minimize the difference, you give them so much more of a strength potential for achievement.”
For more information, e-mail Hefner at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.academyforleadership.net or call (941) 487-4076.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.