Chews A Puppy owners Nicholas and Crystal Grastara petitioning the Ocoee City Commission on Sept. 21, 2021, to be exempted from the Orange County ordinance against selling puppies. Part of their pitch was an annual $20,000 scholarship for Ocoee High School students to continue their studies.

Chews A Puppy quietly awarded $5,000 scholarships to four Ocoee High School students in 2021

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By
Ingrid Cotto

Special to VoxPopuli

Saturday, November 12, 2022

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Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Chews A Puppy owners Nicholas and Crystal Grastara petitioning the Ocoee City Commission on Sept. 21, 2021, to be exempted from the Orange County ordinance against selling puppies. Part of their pitch was an annual $20,000 scholarship for Ocoee High School students to continue their studies.

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On Sept. 21, 2021, Crystal Grastara, who co-owns Chews A Puppy with her husband Nicholas, pledged to create “an annual scholarship program in Ocoee, in the amount of $20,000” in an effort to persuade city lawmakers that the puppy store was worth protecting in the face of Orange County’s recently passed ordinance banning puppy sales. A month later, the Ocoee City Commission passed an ordinance that effectively made Chews A Puppy the only store permitted to sell puppies in the county despite evidence that the store bought animals from several puppy mills that were cited for egregious housing conditions and treatment of their animals.


However, in the weeks and months that followed, no details were released to the public about the puppy store’s annual scholarship program. But, in June, the business issued a press release that said it had fulfilled "the duties of awarding four lucky Ocoee High School Seniors a $5,000 scholarship to the school of their choice.”


According to the release, the recipients were headed for the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Florida State University, and Middlebury College. But the document had no further information on the awardees, not even their names.

Now, nearly five months after the awards were announced, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) identified the recipients in response to a public information request by VoxPopuli under Florida’s Sunshine Law. They are Tina Tong, María Soto, Jacob Smith and Jasmine Johnson.


Tong and Soto graduated at the top of Ocoee High School’s Class of 2022. Soto was also recognized as a Super Scholar at the district level.


When Chews A Puppy first announced the scholarship before the Ocoee City Commission, Crystal Grastara explained, “the eligible student must be a resident of the city of Ocoee, Ocoee High School student interested in a college education and can demonstrate financial need.”


To date, the store has shared very little information with the public about the application period or the requirements and vetting process behind the scholarship. VoxPopuli has not found any information about the scholarship on Chews A Puppy's website or its social media channels. A “scholarship” tab that had been on its website is gone.


The Grastaras did not respond to multiple requests for information via phone and email.


OCPS has no control over Chews A Puppy’s rules or regulations, or that of any scholarship, Mary Bridges, executive director of OCPS Student Services Department, said in a phone interview. The district’s role is limited to providing information on available scholarships to students through the Academic Services Team, she added.


But Rosina McVicker, vice chair of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Committee, who was at the city commission meeting when the Grastaras made the commitment last year, said that given their presentation, she expected more information about their plans.


"They put on a dog and pony show," she said in a phone interview, adding that the store’s community outreach has been disappointing. "I kept checking, but did not hear anything on the scholarship for months."


And although the store reaffirmed its commitment “to allocate $20,000 each year for its Ocoee High School scholarship program” in its June press release, as of the end of October — when high school seniors begin looking for college scholarships — Ocoee High School had no information on Chews A Puppy’s criteria or application process for the 2022-2023 school year, according to OCPS spokesperson Michael Ollendorff.

“Other than the scholarship opportunity for last year, we have not heard from them offering another scholarship this year,” he said in a phone interview.


In terms of laws and regulations, there is not much required from Chews A Puppy or other private scholarships. “Private scholarships are loosely regulated,” explained Onjila Odeneal, director of policy and advocacy at The Institute for College Access & Success.


According to the IRS website, tax-exempt educational grants must be awarded on an “objective and nondiscriminatory basis” and used for study at an institution that maintains regular faculty, a curriculum and students attending classes on campus. Beyond those very general rules, private scholarships “are usually regulated by whomever the donor is,” said Odeneal. “How private scholarships are designed and developed is up to the determination of the donor.”


Some businesses that offer private scholarships to OCPS rise above the basic requirements by publicly sharing information about the application process and award recipients.


For instance, the privately owned Baptiste Orthodontics provides scholarships through its “Bracing You for Success” program. Those scholarships have benefited Ocoee, Evans and Olympia high schools. Owner, Dr. Andre Baptiste, actively participates in special events to promote the scholarship and recognizes the award recipients on his medical practice’s  Facebook page.


But the medical practice “is not involved in the selection process,” said Cynthia Schweitzer, the practice director, in an email to VoxPopuli. Instead, Baptiste partners with Ocoee High School’s athletic department and its coaches who select the scholarship recipients, she said.


In contrast, Chews A Puppy’s scholarship application process was managed by a third party representative acting on the store’s behalf.


Ollendorff said that Ocoee High School was not even aware that Chews A Puppy was offering the scholarship until May 3, 2021, when Crystal Grastara and a store manager arrived at a school ceremony, revealing that the store was behind the awards.


OCPS identified Angel de la Portilla as the person who handled and processed student applications on behalf of Chews A Puppy. He provided a list of qualified finalists to an Ocoee High School committee that then chose the recipients “based on merit,” explained Ollendorff.


De la Portilla is president of Central Florida Strategies, a government consulting and public affairs firm in Orlando that helps private companies cut through “the red tape,” according to the company’s website. He also serves on the Valencia College District Board of Trustees.


The former Ocoee city commissioner who currently serves as the city’s economic development consultant did not respond to a VoxPopuli inquiry about his role representing Chews A Puppy’s scholarship, including whether he acted as a business adviser for the Grastaras when they appeared before the Ocoee City Commission to request an exemption for their retail puppy business or whether he helped write the city ordinance that exempted their business from Orange County's ban on selling puppies, rabbits and kittens. The city previously confirmed that the Grastaras helped draft the ordinance.


Animal rights advocate  Karen Snitz, who was present for the Grastaras’ presentation during the Ocoee Commission hearing last year and opposed the ordinance that allowed them to continue selling puppies, said she expected more transparency and accountability. “Part of their reason for being able to stay in business was this good Samaritan scholarship stuff,” she said. “Let’s make sure that they followed through on what they promoted during their public commission meeting.”