Champions for Christ

September 20, 2013

Alumnus works as player development coach for NBA champion Miami Heat

Octavio De La GranaOctavio De La Grana, a 1993 graduate of Liberty University’s Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), feels fortunate to have worked in the NBA for the past seven seasons as a player development coach and advance scout for the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

But he still considers himself a high school coach at heart. After winning 434 games and leading his alma mater, Florida Christian School, to a Class 2A state championship in 1996, he established Coach D’s Basketball Camp, a summer outlet for youth in the Miami area. He coached high school for 18 years and served as athletic director for six, while completing his general studies degree from Liberty.

De La Grana’s connection with the Heat organization started through coaching the daughter of Miami Heat President Pat Riley at Florida Christian School. He was hired by the Heat in 2006 and spends much of his time training and scouting developmental players.

“Occasionally, I do part of the scouting (of Miami’s upcoming opponents). Mostly I work the young guys out. It’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s a great opportunity,” De La Grana said. “I’m very honored to be involved in the NBA, but by no means have I reinvented the game. I’m a very small part of this big machine. The majority of my involvement is developing guys that don’t even dress. My whole life has been in high school, where you have an impact on kids’ lives and are able to coach guys on a daily basis.”

De La Grana was impressed with the quality of distance education he received through Liberty, with support from current Dean of the School of Education Karen Parker and her husband, education professor Leonard Parker. The Parkers both taught De La Grana when he was a student at Florida Christian.

“They gave me tremendous support, anytime I needed questions answered,” De La Grana said. “(Distance learning) was not as high-tech as it is today, but Liberty was the blueprint for it (online education).”

The discipline it took to complete his degree while working as a physical education teacher, coach, and athletic director taught him the importance of being detail-oriented and diligent.

“God’s given everybody different talents, different abilities,” he said. “To me, it’s not the job you have, it’s how you do your job.”

He said mutual respect has played a large part in Miami’s recent success, and that it’s not all due to having LeBron James on the floor.

“We have some great leaders from top to bottom,” De La Grana said. “From (General Manager) Micky Arison to our coach (Erik Spoelstra), to our trainers, people in the weight room, our strength coaches, our scouts … it’s a collective effort.

“You aspire every year for a championship and you do all you can,” he added. “Whatever it takes, you do it and you hope you can end it like we have the past couple years. It took a lot of people putting in a lot of work.”

Youngest U.S. pro swimmer enrolls in Liberty Online Academy

Michael Andrew portraitMichael Andrew, who recently broke one of Michael Phelps’ records and is the youngest American swimmer to sign a professional endorsement deal, has joined the more than 2,000 students enrolled in Liberty University Online Academy, which provides online education to students in grades 3-12.

Andrew, a 14-year-old Kansas resident, was featured on and in the June issue of Sports Illustrated after becoming the youngest American swimmer to go pro, signing with South Africa-based P2Life nutritional supplements. He drew immediate comparisons to 18-time Olympic gold medalist Phelps, who turned pro at the age of 16 in 2001.

On Aug. 9, Andrew smashed two National Age Group records on the last night of the USA Swimming Junior National Championships in Irvine, Calif. He slashed nearly a second and a half off Phelps’ 200-meter Individual Medley mark, set in 2000. Andrew now holds 12 National Age Group records.

Both Andrew and his younger sister Michaela, who also enrolled in Liberty Online Academy this summer, are seeking to accelerate their home-school education. Studying online enables Michael to pursue his dreams of making the United States team for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, affording him time to travel around the world for international meets and train at home.

Already a year ahead of his peers, Michael is entering 10th grade and plans to finish high school by the time he is 16. Additionally, with the program’s dual enrollment option, he can start taking college courses as soon as next year.

Liberty Online Academy Dean Jay Spencer said the program’s flexibility allows students to manage their time more effectively through independent study.

“Students come in with us and they realize they’re now in control of their education,” he said, noting a typical school day spans three to five hours. “There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in there. That is why an athlete like Michael sees the benefit of the program because he can schedule his schooling around his swim training, rather than the other way around.”

For similar reasons, the program has attracted other elite athletes, including 15-year-old triathlete Stone Dyson, who also recently enrolled after competing in last month’s Junior National Championships in Ohio, and middle school gymnast Alexis Stokes, as well as budding actors and actresses.

Liberty Online Academy started in 2007 with 35 students. It ended this past academic year with 2,100 enrolled in the United States and abroad.

Graduate injured in Boston Marathon bombing finds hope in midst of tragedy

DiMartino shares time with friends as she recovers in a Boston hospital.

DiMartino shares time with friends as she recovers in a Boston hospital.

What began as a fun family trip quickly became a life-changing experience for alumna Gina DiMartino (’07, M.B.A.). DiMartino, of Rochester, N.Y., and several members of her family traveled to Boston to watch her mother run in the Boston Marathon on April 15.

As DiMartino eagerly tracked her mother’s progress via a smartphone app, she and three other loved ones were caught in one of two blasts that claimed the lives of three and wounded at least 264 near the finish line.

DiMartino was only 10-15 feet away when the bomb went off, sending her and the other spectators flying through the air. The trauma caused her to teeter in and out of consciousness, so she only remembers the event in pieces: the sound of the explosion, being lifted off the ground, her sister binding a sweatshirt around her bleeding leg, being ushered into an ambulance, and waking up in the hospital a day later.

Her injuries included a large gash near her right knee, resulting in severe nerve damage that caused her to lose feeling from the knee down. Thankfully, she is expected to fully regain feeling in her leg and foot, but the process may take up to 400 days. Her brother, Peter, his girlfriend, and her son were also injured but are all expected to recover sooner.

DiMartino was released from the hospital on May 9, after three weeks in a hospital room and another stint at a rehab center. Now she is living on the first floor of her parents’ Rochester home as she recovers. She has limited mobility and goes to physical therapy three days a week.

Through this experience, DiMartino has found strength and encouragement in the Lord. She clings to the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “God’s power is made perfect in weakness” (paraphrase).

“Laying in the hospital bed, I could feel God’s strength,” she said. “I knew that I had absolutely no strength to get through all the surgeries and everything that was going on, and dealing with it. I could feel God’s strength, and I could feel He was with me.”

She said even in her darkest moments, God never fails to bring encouragement, often in the form of a text or email. In addition to tremendous support from family, friends, and her church, she has also received encouragement from a number of people she has never met, many of them fellow believers.

“It is an amazing feeling to be so surrounded and protected by God and prayer and just feeling His promises fulfilled in you,” she said. “There have been so many people that have been so encouraging to me, many that I don’t even know.”

Alumnus serves globally with humanitarian organization

John JohnsonAlumnus John Johnson (’01) serves with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), a French organization, on various humanitarian projects. He is currently working in Madagascar but has served in the Sudan and many other third-world locations.

Johnson has been affiliated with Liberty since its inception. His father and mother, John and Paula Johnson, were part of Liberty’s first class. His grandfather is the late Doug Oldham, the popular gospel music singer who sang for the Old Time Gospel Hour at Thomas Road Baptist Church and traveled with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. to raise money for the new Lynchburg Baptist College in the summer of 1971. Oldham is buried near Liberty’s Prayer Chapel.

Johnson earned a B.S. in communication with a specialization in graphic design. However, after going on mission trips to Slovakia and India with Thomas Road Baptist Church, he said he realized the dire need for medical care around the world.

He enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s accelerated nursing program and graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in Nursing. He finished his M.A. in Adult Primary Care from VCU in 2012.

Even before nursing school, Johnson’s dream was to work with MSF. After he was hired by the organization, he spent six months in Nigeria on a nutrition project. While serving there, Johnson and his team would drive to various towns and set up clinics to treat malnourished children. One clinic could see up to 5,000 malnourished children a week.

“It was way more responsibility than I had ever had before, and I learned a lot about being a manager, saying no with a smile, and learning how to motivate people,” Johnson said.

Last year, Johnson was in South Sudan with MSF, where he ran a small hospital in a refugee camp. When he arrived, there were only 16 beds in the hospital. Johnson and his team were able to build a new hospital with 100 beds, start a nutrition project, a mobile clinic, a blood bank, and a community education program.

Johnson has been on his latest humanitarian trip in Madagascar with MSF since March, where he is managing the staff at a small hospital. He will be there until early 2014.

“I think my upbringing led me to this line of work,” Johnson said. “My parents always taught me not to think about money or a career as important things to pursue, but to think in terms of quality of life and what sort of benefit you add to the world.”

Passion for ministry leads graduate to serve as tour guide in Holy Land

Mat Staver (front left), Cesar Fleitas (’08), Shawn Akers, and Rena Lindevaldsen pose with a group of Liberty students at the Garden Tomb.

Mat Staver (front left), Cesar Fleitas (’08), Shawn Akers, and Rena Lindevaldsen pose with a group of Liberty students at the Garden Tomb.

Alumnus Cesar Fleitas (’08) has had a desire to minister in Israel for as long as he can remember. Fleitas is a native of Paraguay and grew up in a Jewish community there. He came to the United States to study at Word of Life (WOL) Bible Institute, then completed his B.S. in Religion through Liberty University Online while interning for WOL.

Fleitas is now immersed in ministry in Jerusalem. Through his local church he works with people of all ages; he teaches Bible study and disciples other believers. He also works full time as a tour guide at the Garden Tomb, which many believe is the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated his own prepared tomb for Jesus’ burial, according to Scripture. Fleitas finds the job rewarding and enjoys the unique opportunity to share the Gospel with people from many nations and faiths.

In May, Fleitas had the opportunity to take a group from Liberty University School of Law through the Garden Tomb on its annual Israel study abroad trip. He said it was a blessing to meet a group from his alma mater.

“Liberty played a huge role in my education … in the ministry that I am doing here in Israel, both at the Garden Tomb and at my local church here in Jerusalem.”

As a bilingual speaker, Fleitas’ services come in handy. He gives tours in English, Spanish, and Portuguese and is the Garden Tomb’s first Spanish-speaking guide. As he continues to serve the Lord in Israel, he hopes to help grow the born-again community in Jerusalem by translating Bible study and discipleship materials into Hebrew.

Liberty pre-med grad supports impoverished children through multimillion-dollar business

Alumni Jim and Rachel Land pose with two members of World Help's Children of the World Choir at Christmastime last year.

Alumni Jim and Rachel Land pose with two members of World Help’s Children of the World Choir at Christmastime last year.

Though he grew up working for his dad’s janitorial company, Jim Land IV never dreamed he would follow his father’s career path.

“I specifically went to college to not do what I’m doing now,” said Land, who studied pre-med at Liberty, earning his bachelor’s in mathematics and biology with a minor in chemistry.

He also couldn’t have envisioned becoming the managing member of a multimillion-dollar company providing custodial services for businesses in major cities across the United States.

Nor would he have expected God to use it as a life-sustaining enterprise for close to 3,000 children — one for every client it serves — sponsored through Christian relief organizations.

But Land has learned that the Lord can work in wondrous ways through His willing servants.

Starting at Liberty in 2001, Land worked his way through school as an optician, waiting tables at O’Charley’s, and serving in LU’s maintenance department along with his father, Jim Land III, who left his business in Pennsylvania and moved the family to Lynchburg.

He fully intended to go on to medical school after graduating in the spring of 2006. However, he had a change of heart after his father died of a heart attack at the age of 53 that fall. Answering a clear calling from the Lord, Land followed in his father’s footsteps and launched a new janitorial services company called Image. The company is now headquartered in Houston, Texas.

“It was an obvious prompting,” Land said. “For whatever reason, God was pushing me to do something with the business.”

From its inception, Land didn’t want to be lured into the worldly mindset of endlessly pursuing monetary gain at the expense of his very soul, asking God, “How do I meld building a business and not fall into the trap of more, more, more?”

“God put a burden on my heart to do child sponsorship and link it to the business,” he said.

After setting up his first seven clients, Land prayed about which relief organization to support. At the same time, he was planning to go on a mission trip to Mongolia and seeking to assist two members of his team who were short on funding.

One night at the restaurant, he waited on then-Liberty Chancellor Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. and asked him about hosting a fundraising effort for the trip. Falwell agreed to let him set up a station between services the following Sunday at Thomas Road Baptist Church. There, he met the head of another area ministry who offered a helping hand.

“A man came up and asked, ‘Did you hit your target?’ We had raised close to $1,000, but we needed $4,000, so he said, ‘When you’re done, see how much you need and I’ll write you the check for the difference.’ He handed me his card, and it was Vernon Brewer, president of World Help.”

Land had never heard of Brewer, who was Liberty’s first graduate in 1973, or World Help, based in nearby Forest, Va. But that was a clear sign that it was to be the first organization Land would sponsor through his budding business, which now also supports World Vision and Allow the Children (also based in Forest).

“Since that time, it has grown and grown and grown,” Land said. In less than seven years, the company employs more than 400 people in accounts that will generate $20 million in revenues in 2013. Clients include Walgreens, Cracker Barrel, Ace Hardware, Sherwin-Williams, and Tractor Supply Co. in major cities such as Atlanta, Portland, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Orlando, and New York.

Land and his wife, fellow Liberty pre-med graduate Rachel Lam, live in Houston, where she is a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital and is preparing to start a neonatology fellowship.

Land gives all of the glory to God, and more than 30 percent of Image’s $4 million annual profits to Christian ministries.

“It has very little to do with me,” Land said. “It was not my decision. As far as I’m concerned, this is God’s directive. Just being able to be involved in something that God is doing is the blessing in and of itself. That’s the reality of it.”

Doctoral student advises world’s largest public high school Bible club

JoeJoe Harmon, who is on track to begin his dissertation next year in Liberty’s Doctor of Education program, is the advisor for a Bible club at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, Pa., which has gained national attention as the largest of its kind in the world. This public school Bible club has inspired Christian high schoolers across the country to start Bible clubs at their own schools and has been featured on Christian Broadcasting Network twice.

Harmon recently began his 10th year at Redbank and teaches eighth grade civics and 10th grade U.S. history. He said the students are fully responsible for running the club, which regularly attracts about 300-350 of their classmates — more than half the school. The club meets on Mondays during the school’s activity period. In his advisory role, Harmon handles any behavior issues and works with the club’s leaders to ensure they have enough material to fill the time slot and that the material is appropriate.

The club is now an important aspect of the community, its influence extending beyond the meetings, throughout the school, into the town, and even to other states.

“For the students who are already believers, it shows them that their faith does not need to be checked at the campus door; they can bring God with them into their school,” Harmon said. “I witness students praying before they eat lunch, before games … I see kids actively reading their Bibles or devotionals in study halls. I see kids unashamed to be a believer.”

Throughout the school and the community, Harmon said the club has created “a culture of acceptance for Christianity and reverence for God.”

18-year-old alumna becomes youngest person to pass UK’s bar exam

gabrielle_turnquest-02Liberty University alumna Gabrielle Turnquest (’11), age 18, was recently featured in several major media outlets, including Time magazine and The Huffington Post, for becoming the youngest person to pass Britain’s bar exam in its 600-year history.

Turnquest graduated from Liberty University Online with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at age 16. She is the youngest individual to obtain that degree from Liberty.

“Liberty’s programs allow for a truly comprehensive educational environment, even while online, and even while still in high school,” said Turnquest, who enrolled in the Edge, Liberty’s online dual enrollment program for high school juniors and seniors. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Liberty and appreciated the fact that I and other students were encouraged to interact as much as possible, even in an online forum.”

Since it only takes one year to complete law school in the U.K., Turnquest was able to enroll at The University of Law in York at age 17 and took the bar exam this year.

Turnquest plans to return to the U.S. and study for the multistate bar exam and enroll in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California, where she will study Apparel Industry Management. Her plan is to merge that new knowledge with her law degree to specialize in Intellectual Property Law as it relates to the fashion industry.

“In the future I hope to continue employing lessons from my time at Liberty — fully taking advantage of every opportunity before me — not just in my academic pursuits, but in other areas as well,” Turnquest said. “My Liberty degree will continue to underpin my professional pursuits as it provides a strong foundation in the understanding of human behavior.”

She also encourages current Liberty students to take advantage of all that the university offers.

“There are always wonderful opportunities to accelerate or supplement education, or even to gain practical experience. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of extra work, but it is definitely worth the extra effort for all that it will give you in the long run,” she said.

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