Janie Swanko Souaid is surrounded by Atlantic High seniors during a college football signing day event at the Opal Grand Oceanfront Resort & Spa in December. Souaid started a program that provided them with blazers for the occasion. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
It was four years ago that a chance meeting at a cocktail party put Janie Swanko Souaid on a path that has since turned into her life’s mission.
The Gulf Stream woman was at a party in Ocean Ridge in early 2016 when she was approached by Kevin Logan, then the athletic director at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, who asked whether she could use her skills as a motivational speaker on the Atlantic football team.
When she arrived, she learned the coach of the team was Tavarius “T.J.” Jackson, who had worked with her two children on their lacrosse skills a few years before.
“Two days later T.J. showed up at my door and said, ‘The kids love you, come back,’” she said. “I said I’d do my best, and I tried to come once a month. But when you get involved with these kids. …”
Souaid quickly learned that the environment in which these teenagers live is extremely challenging. Eighty percent of Atlantic’s students live at or below the poverty level. The vast majority of the players she deals with come from one-parent homes, which in many cases is a grandparent. At least a few of those kids are homeless.
But what really drew her in was Jackson, or more specifically the standards he set for his program. Players had to earn mostly A’s or B’s to play for him, with the honor roll as the target — and 85% of his roster achieved that in 2018. Tutoring help was provided to prepare players for ACT and SAT testing; 98% of the same group met or surpassed NCAA requirements in that area.
And when someone did something nice for the players, Jackson made it clear a thank-you note was in order, courtesy of an etiquette class that he made mandatory.
Souaid got a taste of that this past fall when defensive end Henry Bryant, the No. 2 area recruit on the Palm Beach Post’s Big Board, came to her for help after making a visit to the University of Louisville. He later signed with the Cardinals during the early signing period in December and is taking classes as an early enrollee.
“He came back from his visit and said, ‘I need to write a thank-you note to my head coach,’” Souaid recalled, referring to the Louisville coach. “‘Could you help me write it?’”
“I said, ‘No, you write it and we’ll look at it together.’ He did and it was perfect. Later on Henry sent me a text the Louisville coach had sent him that said, ‘I just got your letter and of all our offers that was the only one I got. Welcome to our family.’
“Henry came to me four years ago and asked me to pray for him. He said to me a couple weeks ago, ‘Do you realize what’s happened to me since then?’
“I probably work 70 hours a week if not more, but I don’t even feel it. At least 20-30 hours of that is with this program.”
One product of all that work is the Blue Blazer program. Recognizing that players want to look their best on signing day, she went to Macy’s and arranged that every senior on the team would have one. Macy’s put up all but $100 for each coat last year; for this school year it was the full cost.
Then the community joined in. Real estate attorney Gary Lachman provided Tommy Hilfiger shirts. Macy’s donated belts. Hanes recently called Souaid, promising to participate next year.
On the field, Allstate’s Dave Beaumont came through with a year’s supply of Gatorade. Publix supplies breakfast for video review sessions on Saturdays, Bud’s Chicken a postgame meal on Fridays. When Jackson runs his summer workouts four mornings a week followed by afternoon tutoring, he has three restaurants — Carrabba’s, Bud’s Chicken and Anthony’s Pizza — taking care of lunch on three of them, and hopes to add a fourth by this summer.
And when the team needed a site for the signing day ceremony in December, the Opal Grand Oceanfront Resort & Spa, formerly the Delray Beach Marriott, offered a conference room.
“You start with one thing and it’s, ‘They need this, they need that,’” Souaid said. “I worked for IMG and I’m good at this. I know how to partner businesses with athletes.”
The Atlantic program, meanwhile, is in full flower, being named the “Team of the Year” by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission in 2018 while sending 20 of its 32 athletes to college on either athletic or academic scholarships. Eleven members of this year’s senior class already have commitments for the fall.
Souaid, who is also an author, and her husband, Bob, an attorney and health care consultant, have two children: Bailey, 21, who is with a branding firm in New York, and Bob Jr., 20, a junior at the University of Alabama.
Souaid teamed with cinematographer John Sturdy to produce a 12-minute video on Jackson and the Atlantic program that she hopes can be a template for other programs around the country.
“I was looking at the film the other day and turned to (Sturdy) and he said, ‘Everybody’s happy.’ These kids are always smiling. We have 150 hours of film and keep looking at it, and everybody’s smiling.”
— Brian Biggane
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I grew up in Coral Gables and was one of 10 children; there were a lot of large families in our neighborhood. Everyone knew each other and to this day many are still very close. I have been a co-chair for all of Coral Gables Senior High School’s reunions, which are often attended by folks who didn’t go to school with us. We’ve always been told we had the best class and we did. As a result, other classes joined ours for the reunions, which usually last four days. The influence has literally lasted a lifetime. Everyone is there for each other in so many ways. The influence, an even larger extended family.
My parents studied at the University of Miami and I graduated from there as well. I attended UM during the school’s reign as national champions. My father … and I went to a lot of the Hurricanes’ football games.
Q. What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. I worked as a paralegal while attending school at the University of Miami. My senior year, I helped start a legal newspaper and covered Miami’s legal beat. I also wrote a weekly column entitled “Inter Alia.”
After graduation, I started a PR firm representing the top lawyers in Miami, publicizing their wins and the legal impact they made. I also represented IMG’s tennis division in South Florida, the Dreyfus Management Group and brokered several deals including one with Wayne Huizenga.
I used all my legal stories to write for television, creating three pilots that were entertained by Fox and USA television.
I published my first book, Just Ask, in 2005, which garnered me a stint producing special features for Fox’s affiliate in Miami, WSVN Channel 7. I became a motivational speaker and am currently producing a documentary on Atlantic Community High School’s football program.
My most proud professional accomplishment (so far) was a deal I worked on selling off Wayne Huizenga’s medical waste division. Wayne was an absolute genius and I considered myself very fortunate to have had the opportunities I had to work with him.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A. Keep moving forward. Learn a trade, get a job or an internship that teaches you a skill, and impress the boss. It makes for a stellar résumé, and a strong letter from the head of a company speaks volumes.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Gulf Stream?
A. Gulf Stream reminded me of the then-small town I grew up in, Coral Gables.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Gulf Stream?
A. Gulf Stream is nestled between the blues and greens — the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal and The Little Club and the Gulf Stream Golf Club. It’s a great town to raise your children in, and the best part is continuing to see all your children’s friends grow up and visit with them on holidays.
Q. What music do you listen to when you want to relax? When you want to be inspired?
A. For relaxation and inspiration, I work out. A minimum of an hour. It clears my head and when you wake up at 4 a.m., a good night’s sleep is necessary.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Faith has always been my inspiration, but my parents helped me understand early on the importance of an education and putting others first. I was on a swimming team as far back as I can remember and started playing water polo at age 13. In two years, I excelled to the nationals. Having children definitely puts life into perspective — family is everything and coupled with education and structure is a solid foundation for a good head start in life.
Q. If your life story were to be made into a movie, who would play you?
A. Melanie Griffith as in Working Girl.
Q. Who/what makes you laugh?
A. I love to laugh and laugh so hard until my stomach hurts. I’m up for any humor.
Q. Do you have a favorite cause? If so, why is it important to you?
A. Encourage education in an effort to eradicate poverty. And that’s not just a line … I really mean that.