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Making a Difference Mondays, March 3

Monday, March 3, 2014

Donor Spotlight: Annette Fuller
Student Services Assistant, JD Alexander Center

Annette Fuller

Even though neither of my parents received a formal education, they both desired better for their children. When I, the second of five siblings, received my high school diploma, my parents thought that was the greatest thing in the world. There was no college fund set aside for me, so I did not go to college immediately after graduation; instead, I got married. Even at that time, however, college was on my mind, and my parents’ desire for a better life for their children evolved into a personal challenge for me. Therefore, I applied for admission to Polk. I was accepted but never attended. Instead, I accepted a full-time job at a factory where I worked for twenty-seven years before being laid off. At the time, I was still relatively young and wanted to work and go to college. Yet, taking classes while working seemed an impossible task, even though I was employed part time at Polk State College as an OPS worker. Time passed, and I worked in this part-time position for seven years.

After receiving encouragement from some co-workers who told me about the availability of funds from the Polk State College Foundation for people in my predicament, I jumped at the opportunity to fulfill my lifelong dream. I finally enrolled in 2004, and on December 12, 2013, received an AA in Liberal Arts from Polk State College.

The road leading to this achievement was not without difficulties. There were many challenges I had to overcome in addition to the sleepless nights spent completing assignments and decreased quality time with family. But I persevered, and the financial assistance I received from the Foundation made this accomplishment possible. It is also because of the generosity of Foundation donors that I pledged to give back and help others to achieve their goals. Hopefully, the story of my struggles, as well as my determination, will encourage other adults to realize that it is never too late to pursue a college education.

Alumni Spotlight: Bob Gernert
A Life Spent Serving His Hometown

Bob Gernert

­Bob Gernert has spent the last eighteen years as the Executive Director of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. In that capacity, he has played a significant role in helping to preserve the original Cypress Gardens, bring Legoland to Florida, and secure the CSX intermodal rail terminal that will open in April.

Bob and his family moved to Winter Haven when he was eleven years old, and he graduated from Winter Haven High School in 1967. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at what was then Polk Junior College, spending his first term taking classes at the original Bartow Air Base site.

In 1970, Bob took a position at Lakeland Regional Medical Center (LRMC), a move that would change his personal and professional life forever. He started working there as a ward clerk and stopped attending Polk College just short of earning his AA degree. While living in Lakeland, he met his wife, Melea. Realizing that Melea was enrolled as a student, he decided to return to Polk so that they both would have their degrees upon starting their married life together.

Bob and Melea both graduated from Polk State College in December 1973, and married just a few weeks later. In 1998, Bob received the Polk State College Distinguished Alumnus Award for his service to the community.

Bob’s original dream was to be a cartoonist, and he took classes at Polk under the direction of former professor Bob Morrissey. He also fondly remembers learning a tremendous amount in Jim Rigterink’s Economics class.

With an interest in cartooning, Bob regularly submitted cartoons to be published in the LRMC employee newsletter. A promotion into the Management Engineering department placed him in an office next to the Community Relations department, and he was frequently recruited for his artistic skills to help them create bulletin boards and other promotional materials.

Bob eventually became a floor unit manager, a leadership position that directs handling of non-medical duties on a floor in order to allow nurses more time with patients. It was during this time that the hospital’s Director of Community Relations position opened up, and Bob applied. According to Bob, “While I did not have a lot of actual experience for the position, my knowledge of the hospital and work experience at the hospital helped me to get it.”

With no formal training in public relations, Bob joined the Florida Public Relations Association (FPRA) and worked to get the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) certification. During this time, Bob and Melea’s family would grow with the births of daughter Alyson and son Nick. In 1985, he served as president of both the Florida Public Relations Association and the Florida Society of Healthcare Public Relations. After eleven years working in public relations at the hospital, Bob became a partner at a Winter Haven public relations firm. One year later, he and Melea formed Gernert & Goddard, and eventually became the management company for the state-wide FPRA organization.

While working in Winter Haven, Bob joined the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. He became a board member in 1991. In addition to his involvement with the chamber, Bob and Melea also started a grassroots effort to preserve the history of Winter Haven, forming Historic Winter Haven in 1991. In 1996, when Chamber director Joyce Davis died unexpectedly, a search was performed and leaders selected Gernert as the new executive director.

Now, eighteen years later, Bob is retiring; but he still plans to devote time to projects in the community. He hopes to engage in strategic planning and consulting work with local businesses, and wants to finish his book of stories about Winter Haven: Beneath the Chinaberry Tree. He also plans to volunteer his time so that the recently renamed Bob Gernert Jr. Museum of Winter Haven History can expand its hours and serve as a showcase for the community’s heritage.

Rather than having a traditional retirement party, close friends organized a special gathering that filled the Student Center at Polk State College on January 16. Funds raised that evening were donated to the Polk State College Foundation to endow the Bob and Melea Gernert/Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce Scholarship. Said Bob, “Growing up, my father insisted that I go to college, and I was fortunate that the grocery store I was working for offered tuition assistance to me. Melea and I got our start at Polk State, and we hope that this scholarship will assist future students.”

Student Spotlight: Amrit Bipat
Music Education Strikes a Chord

Amrit BipatAmrit Bipat developed an interest in music while in middle school, where he learned to play the saxophone. His middle school band teacher fostered his appreciation of music while he was learning to play an instrument, and seeds planted with her mentoring have grown into Amrit’s career ambitions. According to Amrit, “When I was in high school, I went back and helped with the middle school band. I realized that I was good at coaching the music students, and I enjoyed it too.”

After graduating from high school in Osceola County, Amrit knew that college was the next step. The local college did not offer a music program, so he turned once again to his middle school teacher for advice. She made him aware of the music program at Polk State, where Professor John Anderson helped to carve out a course plan. “Polk was the most affordable option for me, and allowed me to have an easier transition to college.”

His family originates from Guyana, and while his parents did not go to college, Amrit, who was born in New York, has always known that college was the best way for him to get ahead. The housing crisis almost derailed Amrit’s college plans. “My family’s financial struggles caused me to reduce my course load,” said Amrit. “Were it not for the Polk State College Foundation and the Symphony Guild of Winter Haven Scholarship, I would be even further behind. Having a scholarship has made my situation a million times easier.”

Amrit hopes to take his final two classes this summer, and enroll at the University of Central Florida in the fall. He will major in Music Education. Last year, a chance meeting at the Florida Music Educators All State Conference allowed Amrit to thank the middle school teacher who sparked his initial interest in music. “My former teacher happened to walk into a rehearsal session that I was attending, and she came and tapped me on the shoulder,” recalls Amrit. “Now that I am planning to major in Music Education, I can appreciate the time she took to foster an interest in music within me. Middle school is when many students explore music and play an instrument for the first time, so it is important that teachers have a true passion for music education so they can provide a safe and productive learning environment. I look forward to making a difference like that one day.”

Executive Director’s Greetings

Greetings Colleagues!

As we embark on this year’s Employee Giving Campaign, it seems natural to connect and reflect on the theme of Polk State’s 50th Anniversary milestone. This week you will be asked, “How high will your contribution fly?”  And I dare reply, “To boundless transformational possibilities.”

Your donation to the Employee Giving Campaign, given at your comfort level, makes a meaningful impact on the lives of our students. The majority of employees’ donations are used to help where funding is most needed – for emergency scholarships that assist students who have encountered an unexpected life event and who need a small hand up to stay on course toward their college degree.  Numerous employees also choose to donate to specific scholarships or programs.  We also have several employees who give for memorial scholarships in honor of former colleagues.

Based on the past support of employees, and in celebration of the 50th year of helping students soar, we are seeking to raise $50,000 through employee giving. This significant amount will allow us to continue the Foundation’s ultimate goal of providing a scholarship to each student who needs one to achieve his or her dream of a college education.  Never underestimate the power of a small change to make a big difference.

As always, your generous support of Polk State College is so greatly appreciated. I am incredibly proud to work at an institution that has such a rich and powerful history in providing the residents of Polk County with affordable access to higher education.

All my very best,


Tracy M. Porter
Executive Director