Football's D.J. Walton and Rowing's Sarah Guilfoyle are Making a Difference

By Peter Casella, JU Public Affairs

Three Jacksonville University communications majors are venturing into the cyberworld to create a new outreach program for troubled teenagers and young adults. Senior D.J. Walton and juniors Sarah Guilfoyle and Jessica Battle have formed the non-profit group "Frum Tha Ground Up," a web-based celebrity outreach and mentoring program for teens and young adults.

Walton, a senior communications major, actually developed the idea more than a year ago after reflecting how the twists and turns of his life led him to JU. Frum Tha Ground Up is his vision, and he is the key player. Born in Queens, N.Y., Walton grew up in Miami as the son of a single mother often brushing the edges of homelessness. A troublemaker who was once thrown out of middle school, he says it was only after a coach took him under his wing that he straightened up.

At JU, Walton earned a CBS Foundation scholarship and a JU Trustee award. A wide receiver on the football team, he was earned second team All-Academic honors in the Pioneer Football League. The 23-year-old plans to match the star power of famous athletes and pop stars with the wide reach of the World Wide Web as a way to touch troubled youngsters. Frum Tha Ground Up recruits the celebrities to be role models for turning lives around and finding success.

"Josh Evans of the Tennessee Titans, for example," Walton notes. "His rough childhood led to a drug problem. He's fighting his way through it. When a guy like that tells his story to kids, it's a powerful message."

Along with Evans, Walton has already lined up NFL stars Ty Law, Tom Brady, Derrick Brooks and R&B sensation Alicia Keys, who won five Grammy Awards this year including Song of the Year and Best New Artist. He's able to gain access to such celebrities in a variety of ways - basic business networking techniques, friends who know friends who know friends, and by simply picking up the telephone and making calls. Guilfoyle, the group's director of media relations, says these celebrities are young enough to still identify with their target audience.

"By the time you reach your late teens and early '20s, there are fewer resources if you fall off the path or even just need some guidance or mentoring," said Guilfoyle. "It's a critical time. This is the age when you start making decisions that will determine the direction of your life. We're trying to fill that need."

In addition to fellow students Guilfoyle and Battles, the group's director of community development, Walton has recruited a faculty member and an administrator for important leadership positions. Dennis Stouse, chair of the communications department, is chair of Frum Tha Ground Up's board of directors, while Carl Meirose, JU's executive vice president for planning, marketing and communication, is the board's vice chair.

Meirose, who has worked with for-profit organizations all of his life, volunteered his expertise when he heard details of the mission and vision of Frum Tha Ground Up. Not only does he see it as his opportunity to 'give back,' he believes its an opportunity to make a significant impact.

"I think it's got enormous potential," Meirose said. "I can't believe it won't succeed."

Meirose has been instrumental in making sure all the requirements for legal non-profit status are met and outlining fundraising strategies. One element is access to business executives. Walton will speak to a Jacksonville Rotary Club this month, an appearance set up by another supporter, JU head football coach Steve Gilbert. But the most important person in Frum Tha Ground Up, says Meirose, is Walton himself.

"He just knows what he's doing," Meirose said. "He doesn't like to be the center of attention, but his story is what makes this whole thing believable. For a senior in college to plan something this big, with so many high-profile people involved, and to get other students excited about it is a credit to him and to the University to do this as part of his education."