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Center of Excellence Hall of Fame

Below are testimonies from Center of Excellence students who have graduated or are pursuing a college education in the state of Florida. The success of these students will demonstrate the value of the Center’s sustainability and how it has made a difference in the lives of children and families in Hillsborough County.


Jacqueline Coffie LeeksAs a student at Hillsborough High School my focus was always on academic achievement. I had family and many teachers encouraging me to grasp as many positive opportunities as I could and prepare for college. I began to hear the name Dr. Lindsey and Dr. Tribble in and around the school. Everything about them said success. When our guidance counselor Mrs. Smith told me I had been chosen to be a part of the McKnight Achievers I had no idea what that meant. I remember putting on that black jacket and feeling very distinguished. I would soon find out that it meant life changing educational and social opportunities throughout the state of Florida. The Center of Excellence staff and members became family, we supported each other in reaching our goals, and we served in various capacities in our community. We were expected to maintain academic excellence. In 1986, as a junior in high school, I participated on the winning team in the Brain Bowl competition and all seven members of the team received a full 4 year scholarship to the university of our choice. I utilize daily the expectations of excellence that were instilled in me through the Center of Excellence. I am forever grateful for the vision and the work that is done by this organization. I am proud mother of 3 beautiful children; I am an Associate Pastor at 34th Street Church of God with a Bachelor’s Degree from Moody Bible Institute and Master’s Certificate in Non-Profit Management from the University of Tampa. I serve as member of the City of Tampa’s Mayor’s African American Advisory Council and Chair of the Derrick Brooks Charities Task Force and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women, Inc.

Jacqueline Coffie Leeks, Associate Pastor
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 1985
Brain Bowl Winner 1986
University of Florida 1987 – 1990


April GilyardI am writing this letter to the director of the Hillsborough County Center of Excellence, Dr. Mary Lindsey, to express how grateful I am to the Center of Excellence for charting my path through life. I graduated from the University of Tampa and have been in public school education since August 1997. I’ve worked as a teacher, basketball coach, assistant principal, and principal. I am currently the principal at Roland Park K-8 Magnet School. I was inducted into the Center of Excellence in 1986 at the age of 11 years old. The Center of Excellence has taught me public speaking skills; how to work with students in an educational setting; and most importantly how to be excellent in everything I do. I went to college because of the Center of Excellence because it gave me confidence to go after my dreams and work hard for the things you want in life. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up in the Center of Excellence and it has shaped my life in such a positive manner. Thank you to Dr. Lindsey for her vision of this program, which is to inspire children.

April Gillyard, Principal Roland Park K-8 Magnet School, IB World School
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 1986
National Achievers Society (formerly the McKnight Achievers Society)


Tia DixonIt is with great honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of Center of Excellence achievers. Since a young girl, I’ve always admired Dr. Lindsey, and Dr. Tribble for the accomplishments they and other center of excellence staff have made with youth all over Tampa Bay. I can remember attending summer camps at the University of Tampa each year, going on trips to places I’d never imagine I would go and meeting some awesome people and mentors like Lee Roy Salmon. I even sang for plenty of the COE events throughout the years, singing Dr. Lindsey’s favorite song, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” As I grew up and went about my life, through trials and tribulations I faced, I thought about the values Center of Excellence taught me: to always have a sense of excellence. No matter what I was faced with in life I held those values and remembered what I was taught and applied them to my everyday decisions i made. I can always remember Dr. Mary Lindsey when I would ask her how her day was, she would say “excellent”.  Every day I strive to be excellent because of great inspiration I’ve received daily from wonderful people and mentors in my life like Dr. Lindsey. As CEO of Posimoto – Changing Faces, a nonprofit mentoring program for youth offering mentoring before, after school, & Saturday, proud honors graduate of The University South Florida, and Selected Outstanding Alumni of the USF Department of Sociology, I stand proud to have been a part of the Center of Excellence, which will always be a great influence on who and what I am today.

Tia Dixon, CEO of Posimoto – Changing Faces
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 1990
National Achievers Society
University of South Florida 2012 – 2015
Tallahassee Community College 2010 – 2012


Chef MaxChef Max began his culinary experience in the Culinary Arts Program at Wharton High School in Tampa, FL. Working under the program’s Executive Chef, Edward Bujarski, Chef Max began catering events in the Tampa community. Recognized for his exceptional culinary skills and his talent on and off the basketball court, Chef Max was awarded a scholarship to attend Johnson & Wales University in Miami, FL. From 2009 – 2014 Chef Max was the full-time personal chef for NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire. During Chef Max Hardy’s tenure with Amar’e Stoudemire, he co-authored a cookbook with Stoudemire released June 2014 called Cooking with Amar’e – 100 Easy Recipes for Pros and Rookies in the Kitchen. Chef Max established the One Chef Can 86 Hunger Foundation in 2011 to help the hunger crisis in America.  Its mission is to educate people in understanding and maintaining healthy and cost effective eating habits.  Chef Max understands the importance of giving back to the community and volunteered to participate in the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr Day of Service event in Tampa, Florida.  A product of the Hillsborough County Center of Excellence gave Chef Max an opportunity to support the Center and to prepare a delicious meal for families residing North Boulevard Homes an inner city housing community.

Chef Maxcel Hardy
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 1997
National Achievers Society
Johnson & Wales University


Fred RussFred Russ is the fourth of five siblings. He graduated from Tampa Bay Tech High School with a 3.0 GPA. He received a football scholarship to Florida International University as a linebacker and the captain of the football team. Fred participated in the Navy ROTC at his high school. Now a sophomore at Florida International University, Fred is majoring in Sport’s Medicine. Fred exhibits an equal amount of compassion for his love of football as he does for his love of family and service to others. He credits his mother and her role in the Center of Excellence as being motivating factors in his academic and athletic success. Fred’s long term aspiration is to become a Professional Football Player and serve as a positive role model to young boys and girls around the country.

Fred Russ
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 2013
National Achievers Society
Florida International University 2015 – Current


Reggi NelsonReggi Nelson is the Treasurer of the Statewide National Achievers Society and President of the Hillsborough County Center of Excellence. Reggi graduated from Tampa Bay Technical High School with a 4.6 GPA. Reggi is very passionate about sports and played on the Girls’ Varsity Basketball team throughout high school. She received an academic scholarship to Florida State University, where she currently attends pursuing a degree in Athletic Training. Reggi served as the captain and organizer of the Center’s Mathematics Bowl team. The mathematics team was tested to solve challenging problem questions derived from the FCAT and the SAT.

Video of Reggi’s Farewell Speech at the State Summit

Reggi Nelson
Inducted into the Center of Excellence 2012
Treasurer of the Statewide National Achievers Society
President of the Hillsborough County Center of Excellence
Florida State University 2016 – Current


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