When Joe Rizzo talked about helping Flagler County's students he would get emotional.
“It’s because that was his passion,” said Flagler Schools information specialist Jason Wheeler.
Rizzo, the Flagler County Education Foundation's executive director for the past five years, died unexpectedly on March 6. He was 47.
“Joe was one of those special people,” said Jacob Oliva, the Florida Department of Education's senior chancellor and a former Flagler Schools superintendent. “When you run across someone like him you feel like you’ve known him your whole life. He was just super relatable. You’d see his passion for helping students and families first-hand.”
Rizzo was a private business owner who was a partner in the local Woody's Bar-B-Q among other ventures. He grew up in Flagler County, graduated from Flagler Palm Coast High School in 1994 and graduated from Mars Hill University in North Carolina where he played football and met his wife, Teresa.
He joined the Ed Foundation’s board of directors at the request of former Flagler superintendent Bill Delbrugge, eventually becoming the board's president.
When he applied for the foundation's executive director position, many people were surprised.
“Everybody was, ‘What? Why would you want to do that?’” Wheeler said. “He wanted to make the foundation grow. He strived to fill in the gaps where other funding wasn't there.”
During his tenure, the Ed Foundation's overall assets more than tripled and the number of students and mentors participating in the Take Stock in Children program went from 30 kids to over 100 kids. All of the students participating in the program were awarded a full-tuition scholarship.
“Those were scholarships granted to kids who never would have had the chance to go to college,” said Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin, who worked closely with Rizzo as a past president of the foundation.
“Joe was instrumental in creating a vision and moving the Flagler County Education Foundation forward to become the significant direct support organization that it is today,” Alfin said.
Flagler Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said if you look up the word “iconic” in the dictionary, “Joe's picture would be smiling back at you.”
Mittelstadt said “Joe was Flagler County.” In a statement released by the school district, Mittelstadt cited Rizzo's ability to relate to people from any background, his larger-than-life personality and his passion for helping everyone associated with Flagler Schools.
“This is a huge blow, not only for us within our district, but for all of Flagler County."
CATHY MITTELSTADT, Flagler Schools superintendent
“This is a huge blow, not only for us within our district, but for all of Flagler County,” she said.
Oliva said Rizzo's passion for helping children in Flagler County grew from his history here.
“He always had a heart and passion for supporting schools,” Oliva said. “When you talk about how special Flagler County is, the families who grew up here well before the boom know the past and what's happening now and also know how to set a vision for the future.”
Wheeler said if you were a friend of his, you were a friend for life.
“He knew everybody, and everybody knew Joe,” Wheeler said.
“He was my best friend,” Alfin said. “Flagler has lost a best friend.”
Rizzo is survived by his wife Teresa, son Joseph, daughter Caroline, and sister Krista. According to the Ed Foundation's news release, details about services will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that all donations be made to the Flagler County Education Foundation.
Joe Rizzo, executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation for the past five years, has died.
"First and foremost, my heart goes out to Teresa, Joseph, and Caroline," Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said in a Flagler Schools press release. "I know they have so many people in our community who have already stepped in to help where they can. Joe was Flagler County.
"His ability to speak with people, no matter their background or upbringing, his larger-than-life personality, and his passion for Flagler Schools," Mittelstadt continued. "If you look up the word ‘iconic,’ Joe’s picture would be smiling back at you. I had the opportunity to watch Joe hand out grant checks to our teachers. It was easy to see in those moments that his passion was in helping everyone associated with Flagler Schools. This is a huge blow not only for us within our district but for all of Flagler County.”
Flagler County School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker added: “I, as well as the other members of the School Board, am stunned by this news and lift up Teresa, Joseph, and Caroline in our prayers. Joe’s legacy has a far-reaching impact. If there was an opportunity to support a program in Flagler Schools over the past two decades, Joe Rizzo had a hand in it. His work with Carla Cline in creating the Josh Crews Writing Project has given so many of our students a voice. Joe and the team he built within the Flagler County Education Foundation became a vital role in the success of our district. Personally, I am honored to have called him ‘my friend.'”
The Ed Foundation also released a statement, which is as follows:
"The Flagler County Education Foundation is heartbroken to announce the sudden passing of Joe Rizzo. He not only led the Foundation but transformed the organization in his five-year tenure more than tripling the Foundation's overall assets, and doubling the number of students in the Take Stock in Children Mentoring Program. His passion for helping the entire Flagler County community, but especially the students and teachers of Flagler Schools, seeped through his pores and was evident in everything he did. Joe not only dedicated his time at the Foundation to increase its assets and influence on students' lives, but he also taught and led a team that would stand by him to achieve his goals.
"Joe is one of the rare few who grew up in Flagler County, graduating from Flagler-Palm Coast High School in 1994. Joe graduated from Mars Hill University in North Carolina where he played football and met his wife, Teresa. He returned to Flagler County in 1999 and began his first of many business ventures as a partner in the local Woody's Bar-B-Que.
"He first sat on the Flagler County Education Board of Directors at the request of former Flagler Schools Superintendent Bill Delbrugge, eventually becoming the Board President. Joe's tenure has seen five presidents including our current president, Dr. Jennifer Thornton also a graduate of Flagler Palm Coast High School. All of whom were inspired by Joe to give back to his beloved hometown.
"As a member of the 18th Leadership Flagler class he, along with Carla Cline, launched the Josh Crews Writing Project which is now in its tenth year. This project has made it possible for close to 1000 Flagler Schools' students to be published.
"Joe is survived by his wife Teresa, son Joseph, daughter Caroline, and sister Krista. The family asks for your support as they grieve. Additional details about services will be released at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that all donations be made to the Flagler County Education Foundation."