Saint Leo University offers a number of degree programs through which graduates can find ways to serve their communities. From human services to social work to business, many of these programs empower alumni in unique ways to find their niche in a helping profession.

A perfect example of this are the four Saint Leo alumni who are behind Inspire to Rise, Inc., a nonprofit with three locations around the Jacksonville, FL area. Inspire to Rise offers a multitude of services to adults, children, and families with a holistic approach to bettering oneself. The nonprofit employs 40 total staff members, including medical personnel, program assistants, community service coordinators, peer community advocates, and community educators. To date, it has already served over 10,000 people.

Each of these four individuals has taken a unique educational and career path to get to this point, but they have all contributed to the multifaceted work this organization does to help community members in countless ways. Let’s meet each of these four alumni.

Aida Seeraj – Co-Founder and CEO of Inspire to Rise, Inc.

Selecting the MBA Program at Saint Leo University

Aida Seeraj earned an MBA from Saint Leo University after completing a bachelor’s in biology with a pre-medicine focus from the University of Dallas.

“I pursued an MBA because of my husband,” Seeraj explains. “He said many human services organizations don’t know how to manage the business side of things, so he thought an MBA would help me in many ways.”

Her husband, Michael, had already begun his Saint Leo degree program at the time.

“I enjoyed the flexibility of the online classes and being able to do them at night and on weekends,” she explains.

A class on professional etiquette still sticks in her mind today.

“I still have the textbook for it,” she says with a laugh. “With the fact that I am a minority woman in the business world, I have to be better than others to be taken seriously in leadership roles. I really appreciated the tips and tricks this class provided for entering the business world in my circumstances. I reduced the size of the earrings I wore and started wearing suits. People started taking me more seriously. I know I’ve been able to navigate my career path more effectively because of what that class taught me.”

She also found a marketing course to be very practical and has applied strategies from it in the nonprofit. She completed the graduate degree program in 2006.

Career Considerations

Seeraj has held numerous positions in the helping professions space. She served as a regional administrator for foster care licensing at the Department of Children and Families (DCF). She even won a few awards for the organization. She also worked at the Sulzbacher Center, a shelter for women and families in Jacksonville. Plus, she ran a foster care center at which she grew the staff from five to 35.

“Getting my master’s degree gave me confidence to take on other fields I was afraid to take on,” she confides.

Launching Inspire to Rise, Inc.

A photo of the ribbon-cutting ceremony when Inspire to Rise, Inc. officially opened its doors in April of 2019; there are four Saint Leo alumni who have helped build this nonprofit organization based in the Jacksonville, FL area

In April of 2018, she and her husband finally put everything together to launch Inspire to Rise, Inc.

“We literally went from being an idea to now having 40 total staff members with three locations,” she says.

They officially opened the doors to their first location a year later in April of 2019. Bearing witness to life-changing moments is what she finds to be most impactful about operating such an organization.

“The transformation I get to see when a staff member or client finally ‘gets it’ is so rewarding. To me, instances like those give me great joy.”

A recent case comes to mind about how Inspire to Rise helped a mother regain custody of her children after a difficult time in her life.

“A mom was using drugs and had her kids taken away from her. She started out at a detox center and then went into our outpatient treatment program. She recently graduated from this program and told her case manager that our organization had changed her life and that most of the other programs she tried didn’t seem to be interested in supporting her.”

Michael Seeraj – Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer

A Perfect Fit for His Educational Needs

Michael Seeraj completed his bachelor’s in accounting from Saint Leo University in 2005. He says the Saint Leo online program was a perfect fit for his learning style.

“Instead of sitting in a class for an hour, I would read the material for 10 minutes and then get up and walk around. I also watched DVDs of lectures they would send me back in the day. I could pause a lecture to stop and think. For me, this was a great way to learn. I retained a lot more than I would have in a brick-and-mortar setting.”

A class on business communication pleasantly surprised him as a student.

“I was so skeptical of the class at first,” he says. “I thought I knew how to speak and write emails. I realized this was a great class with lots of practical skills for us. Now I don’t take an email as seriously if it is poorly written.”

In addition to his undergraduate work, he earned an MBA in accounting from the University of North Florida.

Making His Mark in Accounting and Finance Roles

While he was already working in accounting before the Saint Leo bachelor’s degree program, he wanted to advance in his career.

“This degree helped skyrocket my career from being a staff accountant to auditing to ultimately becoming the CFO for several nonprofits,” he says.

As the CFO of Inspire to Rise, he handles accounting, finance, and even some occasional IT work.

“As a finance person, it’s more of a support role. However, for me, I really feel the nonprofit world does more to help people. We have to stretch that dollar and make sure we are more efficient with our finances. I find it to be more challenging but also more rewarding at the end of the day.”

While his job entails crunching lots of numbers, he still recognizes the impact of his behind-the-scenes work.

“As a support person to this nonprofit, I have helped answer prayers from those in our community. We are one of their last resorts. That is a big part of my job I am proud to do each day. Back-office staff need to understand the impact they have on their clients, even if they aren’t in a client-facing role.”

Marcela Kelley-Hansen - Chief Operating Officer

Earning a Sociology Degree

It was Christian Barton, a former Inspire to Rise board treasurer, who referred Kelley-Hansen to Saint Leo. She earned a bachelor’s in sociology, graduating in 2012.

“My sociology degree opened my eyes to so many social justice issues and government bureaucracy,” Kelley-Hansen says.

The convenience of the program also made education accessible.

“The online format was a big help for me,” she says. “I was a single mom at the time, so the flexibility of the online structure option helped me achieve my goal of getting a degree.”

Kelley-Hansen later earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Missouri.

Her Path to Inspire to Rise

She and Aida Seeraj worked together at the Department of Children and Families where she climbed the ladder through multiple roles. This connection led her to join the Inspire to Rise team as its chief operating officer.

“I handle a little bit of everything. This includes overseeing programs, policies, procedures, quality assurance, and helping build new programs.”

Like her colleagues, she is so passionate about the mission of the organization.

“Positively impacting the community is great,” she says. “We get to help people avoid government bureaucracy, keep their families intact, and avoid criminal justice.”

Christian ‘Christi’ Barton – Former Board Treasurer and Current Volunteer

Selecting Saint Leo

A head shot of Christian ‘Christi’ Barton, a former board treasurer for Inspire to Rise, Inc. who still volunteers for the organization; she is one of four Saint Leo alumni who helped build this nonprofit in the Jacksonville, FL area

Christian Barton shares what led her to pursue her education from Saint Leo University.

“I was searching for an accredited program,” Barton explains. “Michael Seeraj had told me about the university. I was definitely looking for an online program since I had young kids and worked full time. I liked how they offered eight-week terms.”

She was happy with how it all worked out for her.

“It worked well for my lifestyle. There is no way I could have done a degree program that was not online. It made it very easy and quick to complete my education, and the instructors were really good.”

She earned her bachelor’s in accounting in 2012. She then went on for a master’s in accounting, completing the graduate program in 2018. She recalls a Cost accounting class and an ethics project she did in an accounting theory course, both of which were memorable to her.

Supporting the Inspire to Rise Mission

Barton says she has known her fellow Saint Leo alumni since they were in middle school. She was honored to join the team as board treasurer in 2019 to play a role in supporting such an impactful nonprofit like Inspire to Rise

“Aida genuinely cares about what she is doing which is very inspiring,” she says. “She gathered her friends and family to help lift this organization off the ground.”

While she recently moved on to a new role as an accounting manager for a medical practice in Jacksonville, she continues to volunteer with the nonprofit when she has the opportunity.

Learn More about Inspire to Rise, Inc.

Learn more about this nonprofit organization and all of the services these four Saint Leo alumni and their staff are providing on the Inspire to Rise homepage. Follow Inspire to Rise on Facebook and Instagram.

Photo credit: The photograph(s) included in this blog article were provided by Inspire to Rise, Inc. and are used with permission.