Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Rebecca Werner Is Helping To Change Our World

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Age is just a number — I often walk into a room, and I am closer in age to the high school students in our program than I am to my co-workers or partners we work with, I am almost always the youngest person at meetings. I am extremely lucky that Student ACES has thrown me into situations like this and I am grateful for the experiences. I have gotten to the point that I really don’t think about age anymore, but this was one of the biggest “mindset” obstacles that I had to figure out early on.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca ‘Tucker’ Werner.

Rebecca Werner is the Chief Operating Officer for Student ACES (ACE), a non-profit based out of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida which focuses on developing leadership skills and building character in high school student-athletes with a mission of developing students into young men and women of honor, character, and integrity. Rebecca has been with ACE since she was a student in the program during high school. Her favorite aspect of working with ACE is creating an environment where students can learn and develop to be the best versions of themselves.

Rebecca graduated from the University of South Carolina with degrees in Public Relations and Psychology. A proud Gamecock sports fan, Rebecca travels to South Carolina as often as possible. Rebecca lives in Palm Beach Gardens, FL with her husband. In her free time, Rebecca enjoys kickboxing fitness, baking cookies and sneaking her nephew ice cream before dinner.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in West Palm Beach, FL, as the only girl in a family of football playing brothers. I was very blessed to grow up in a great family where my parents made sure that my brothers and I had a well-rounded childhood where we were exposed to many different ideas and cultures. My parents used sports and travel to introduce us to people from all walks of life which allowed us to experience worlds that were much different than ours. I attended small catholic schools up until I went to college — there were 115 kids in my graduating high school class. After spending so many years with the same kids in my class in very familiar settings, I chose to attend the University of South Carolina. I didn’t know a single person who lived in the entire state of South Carolina when I left for college, it was amazingly scary but one of the best decisions I have ever made. I graduated from UofSC in 2018 and moved back home.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Student ACES (ACE = Athletics, Community and Education) was founded in 2013 by father- daughter team Buck Martinez and Krissy Webb to create a pathway for young men and women to achieve the highest standards of leadership. The inspiration for ACE stemmed from their desire to see every student achieve a foundation of leadership that would generate positive outcomes and tremendous success in the students’ lives.

One day, Krissy asked her father, “Who will my kids look up to?” Through the ensuing conversation, Buck realized that his most memorable and rewarding experiences were attained when teaching and/or coaching his three daughters and their peers. Dedicated to the idea that every student deserves access to character education to succeed, he and Krissy embarked upon a journey to form an organization that would help put the future of the country in prepared, capable hands.

ACE is a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring every student to achieve a foundation of honor, character and integrity that will leave a positive and permanent impression on their teams, schools and communities. By believing in future generations’ ability to be great, we create an environment that builds off their strengths as students, athletes, and community members. They aspire to be leaders; we provide the building blocks to get them there. ACE is dedicated to meeting students where they are, acknowledging the barriers they face while believing in their innate ability to overcome those challenges and achieve success. ACE started with 32 students and to date has served 50,000+ high school student athletes in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. To support the work of ACE, Bank of America donated their bank building in Belle Glade for complete renovation in turning it into The Student ACES Center or The SAC, our only physical location, which is open daily to serve local high school students in Belle Glade, FL.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Student ACES hosted its first full year of programming in the 2014–2015 school year. I was a senior in high school and was chosen to be a part of the program. It is funny; I had scheduled a meeting with my high school principal at the beginning of my senior year to try and convince her to switch me into a class with my favorite history teacher. She denied my request to switch classes but handed me a registration packet for Student ACES instead. As a student, I felt that the teachings of the class were important and helpful, but to me the best part of the program was the opportunity to connect with students from schools across South Florida. Student ACES’ flagship program takes students from all over the county and brings them into one setting for class, this was something I had never experienced before. I had played volleyball and basketball with girls from other schools, but I had never been connected to students from so many different backgrounds on such a large level. I really felt (and still feel that) everyone needs to have experiences like this often.

I continued to stay in touch with Student ACES as I moved to South Carolina for college, then when I was home for summer break after my freshman year, I had asked Student ACES’ Executive Director if she knew anyone hiring for the summer. We sat down and had breakfast and she asked me if I would want to work for Student ACES for the summer. At this time, I was an early childhood education major with a minor in psychology, I thought I wanted to teach kindergarten. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, and I liked the Student ACES program, and really liked the founders as people. I made a commitment to learning as much as I could and by the end of the summer, I was asked if I could work “remote” while going to school, I did and 6 years later, I am still here. ☺

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I have spent the good part of the past year working with my team developing a new program that will launch in The Student ACES Center (The SAC) in Belle Glade this coming school year. And this program has been one of the biggest “Aha Moments” of my young career.

A little back story — in 2019, Student ACES opened an afterschool learning center in Belle Glade, FL — one of the poorest communities in the nation and the poorest in Florida with 41% of residents with an income below poverty level according to a recent study. Shortly after opening the Center, COVID struck, and the world was turned upside down. Student ACES’ leadership and program staff made the decision to keep the Center open when everything else was shut down. During this time, my co-workers and I had the unusual opportunity to get to know our students on a different level. On any given day, I went from Student ACES’ Director of Operations (at that time) to economics or geometry teacher. At one point we were working with one of our students who was being recruited to play Division 1 football in college. As we were walking through his eligibility with him, we realized that, according to NCAA eligibility requirements, he was ineligible to play D1 sports, because he was one math class short going into his senior year. We had to break it to him that even if Nick Saban literally landed his helicopter at his house and offered him a full scholarship, he still would not be eligible to play football. Not because of his GPA or his test scores, but because he was not placed in the right classes a year earlier. This was the moment it really set in for me — we have to fill the gaps; we can never let another kid fall through the cracks like that again.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I tell the high schoolers all the time to enjoy the process and do not wish away your time in high school, I am not super far removed from it and I miss it so much. I loved school, I did well in school because I naturally love to compete and thrive on performance, but I also love the process of learning. Every day, I make a commitment to learn as much possible, I am a super curious person (which some people call nosy), but I love to learn about people, things, the world. When I first started at Student ACES, I was committed to learning as much as possible and that commitment was not only the first step, but it is rooted in every step of my job.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

My favorite thing about working for Student ACES is the variety of my days and all the people and students we meet daily. Honestly, I wake up every day and never know what is going to happen. A few years ago, our Executive Director and I were visiting The SAC in Belle Glade with prospective funders. As we were there, our student scan in system, in place for purposes of safety, had malfunctioned and I was working on fixing it at the front desk. As I was sitting there, a student who I had come to know well walked very quickly into the center with a bike. I usually don’t ask questions and a kid bringing a bike inside was not the strangest thing that happens at the Center. I kept working on our scanning system when I looked over and the student was scratching the serial code off of the bike. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing until one of my co-workers called him out and asked him what he was doing. He super calmy said “ah my neighbor got picked up last night [from the police] and he doesn’t need his bike anymore, so I borrowed it” to which I said, “so you are going to return it right?” and he was adamant that yes, he borrowed it, but no he was not returning it. After a long conversation about the difference of borrowing and stealing, this student convinced me that he still needed a bike for transportation. I told him that if he promised he would return the STOLEN bike, I would find him a not-stolen bike. I knew my mom had a few bikes sitting in her garage that she would be more than happy to give him.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Yes! I still don’t laugh about this, but I learned a lesson in it. Every year, Student ACES hosts a Champions of Character event with takes on a similar vibe to the ESPYs, but instead of students being celebrated for their athletic talents, Student ACES honors them for their character traits and being leaders on and off the field. Each student’s award is presented by “celebrities” which could be community heroes to corporate executives and professional athletes. It was either the first or second year of the event, and I was creating the event program, and, in this program, we would include all the names of the celebrities who were presenting the award. This specific year, we had a recently retired NFL player who came in for the event, and his name was Colin (with only one L), but I typed (and printed) it as Collin (with 2 Ls). I have no idea if he even saw the event program that night, or if he noticed his name was misspelled, but I kept that printed program. And I triple check the spelling of everyone’s names before I send anything to print now.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Krissy and Buck, the founders of Student ACES and my bosses for the past 6 years have been the best mentors and without their belief in me, I would not be here today. But, when I was first a student in the Student ACES program, the learnings were similar to the lessons that I had learned from many people in my life. Most notably, my grandpa who has been one of my biggest mentors and cheerleaders since I was born. He was a successful business executive who made sure to instill the importance of attitude and effort in all his grandkids. I was 10 years old when we were on vacation, and he woke my cousin and I before sunrise to lecture us, little does he know that his lecturing had much less of an impact on us than the way he led through his actions. He has a servant heart and consistently and constantly gives back to his community. I think in a large part, I am in this sector of work because of him.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I love a good underdog story and will always cheer for a kid when other people count them out. A few years ago, Student ACES partnered with a local university and other community partners to host a summer camp that focused on getting students academically prepared for college, this involved ACT/ SAT practice, writing college essays, and living on the college campus for a few days. Student ACES agreed to bring students to the camp, and we would do a character education workshop — that is what we do best.

We brought a handful of kids from Belle Glade who, even though they only lived 45 minutes west of the campus, had never heard of the school. Neither Student ACES nor the students knew exactly how stringent of an academic schedule the next few days would bring. It was a full schedule of collegiate prep from the time they woke up basically until they went to bed. Our students (and a handful of students from other programs) were not having it, and by the last night, they wanted to have a little fun. In the simplest way, this could be described as “childhood shenanigans” — they ran through the halls, put their bed sheets over their heads and pretended to be ghosts. For the first time in a few days, they were having fun. Needless to say, some chaperones were not pleased with their behavior. And, at check out the next day said that “next year, we need to find the cream of the crop kids from Belle Glade.” I drove that group of boys back home to Belle Glade after camp, and for the first 10 minutes of the drive, the car was silent. Everyone else at camp was mad at them, so they had just assumed we were too. I needed to know their side of the story, so I asked through a laugh, “which one of you is going to tell me what happened last night?” The whole car burst into laughter and all they could say was “we had so much fun.”

Last year, those boys graduated high school and enrolled in college. In between that time, they came to our Center almost every day. They weren’t perfect, they struggled, but they kept trying.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Student ACES was founded to fill the gap of character education in schools today. Teachers and administrators have so many pressures on them to ensure their students are performing to the best academic standards, there is little time to develop the “soft skills” or the character of a student. To me, the community, society and politicians can work to find a middle ground where students can still thrive academically, but there is also time to allow for the development of the whole child.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Age is just a number — I often walk into a room, and I am closer in age to the high school students in our program than I am to my co-workers or partners we work with, I am almost always the youngest person at meetings. I am extremely lucky that Student ACES has thrown me into situations like this and I am grateful for the experiences. I have gotten to the point that I really don’t think about age anymore, but this was one of the biggest “mindset” obstacles that I had to figure out early on.
  • Celebrate the little wins — Social impact work is emotionally draining in so many ways. It is hard when you are constantly dealing with kids who were born with the odds against them. I am not going to lie, there are times that it feels like our work is impossible, I am a big fan of to-do lists and sometimes I create to-do lists just to celebrate checking something off. In the same way, by splitting up daunting problems into smaller wins, it is easier to overcome.
  • Find something you love to do that isn’t related to work — For me, I go to kickboxing every day before work. I love boxing because it gives my brain something to think about other than that “to-do” list. There’s also no better way to let off steam than punching a bag!
  • Things are more fun when you are thinking “outside the box” — My job could be so much easier if we were just okay with the same old programs or ways of doing things, but that would be a whole lot less fun.
  • Enjoy the process — It may not always be fun or easy, but if you’re making a difference along the way the rewards of knowing I impacted the life of one student outweighs all hard work.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

In the world we live in today it seems like everyone wants things to get better but, at the same time, wants everything to stay the same. Everyone is so extremely uncomfortable with change, and yes, change is hard, but things cannot get better if we all keep doing what we are doing. To this day, after 6 years in the nonprofit sector, I get so extremely frustrated by people or organizations that have done the same thing for 40 years with little impact. Today, we have so much information at our fingertips that it is crazy to keep doing something and getting the same results (I am pretty sure that is the definition of insanity anyways). Our world desperately needs innovation and creativity and if we don’t do it, then who will?

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oh, this one is hard. And it is not really a single person, but I would love to have breakfast with The Bucketlist Family. They are a family of travel journalist that sold everything they owned to travel the world with their young kids and document their travels on social media. I have followed them as they have built a worldwide following and developed a remarkable business. I feel like they would have travel stories to fill a whole breakfast, but I would love to learn from them how they manage a business, travel, and spend quality time as a family.

How can our readers follow you online?

@rebecca tucker

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Rebecca Werner Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.