Before Alexandra Zayas started investigating abuse in unlicensed religious children's homes in Florida, she hadn't imagined that soggy vegetables swimming in vinegar would ever be on her menu.
But in the course of her year-long research, the Tampa Bay Times reporter found herself choking down a whole bowl full of sour veggies--an experience that not only caused her three days of aggressive heartburn, but made her learn firsthand what so-called "bizarre punishment" in those facilities tasted like.
Her reporting led to a three-part series published last October titled "In God's Name." With help from photographer Kathleen Flynn and researcher John Martin, Zayas created a multimedia story presenting numerous cases of mistreatment--including assault, neglect and sexual abuse --in more than a dozen religious homes throughout the state.
Last month, the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism honored the 30-year-old Zayas with the prestigious 2013 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.
First presented in 1990, the Selden Ring Award, which includes a $35,000 stipend for the winner, honors outstanding pieces of reporting that have positive results, says Geneva Overholser, director of USC Annenberg's journalism school.
Zayas' series "was very brave because it reported on a topic not many people are willing to look at," Overholser says. "Religion is always a dicey one."
Tom Negrete, director of innovation and news operations at the Sacramento Bee and chair of this year's Selden Ring judging panel, says the series' "originality, the great writing, the powerfulness and the compelling multimedia component" made it a winner.
"We had a lot of great stories," Negrete says of the more than 70 entries the judges reviewed. "But it was outstanding to see the Times' commitment to the series by giving one reporter all the resources she needed."
Says Zayas, "I think this is pretty incredible. I do not even have a fancy title here." She adds that she was "thrilled..and felt humbled" when she got the news of her victory. "I did not even know I was nominated."
And it all goes back to an e-mail that reached her mailbox in mid-2011, the trigger for her blockbuster series.
"A reporter forwarded me a tip from a woman who was concerned about a family member at a military academy," Zayas recalls. "She had heard about rumors of abuse." Zayas talked to the woman and then started exploring the regulations that govern Florida's children's homes.
She found that in 1984 lawmakers had passed "religious exemptions," meaning that, under the aegis of religious freedom, homes could circumvent accreditation with the state Department of Children and Families and instead seek a license with the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a nonprofit organization. The association required fewer inspections of the homes and had more flexibility regarding punishment for subpar treatment, Zayas found.
In addition, Zayas says, facilities lacking accreditation could register as boarding schools with the state Department of Education, an interim status allowing them to remain open for three years while trying to attain accreditation.
Then the reporter went to work in earnest, gathering thousands of documents, including lawsuits and accreditation reports, and browsing through Facebook pages searching for survivor groups. "I used a lot of social networking to reach out to people and to learn about their experiences," she says. "They were very interested in sharing their stories."
The first article spotlighted Samson Lehman, who was a resident of the Gateway Christian Military Academy in Bonifay when he was 15. In 2008, Lehman was taken to a hospital with multiple instances of organ failure caused by forced physical exercises that nearly cost him his life.
"I was on dialysis for a long time," he told Zayas. "If I had died, maybe they would have been shut down immediately. Maybe people would have woken up more about this. But since I am alive, it's easier to hush up."
The academy, which was operating without accreditation at the time, had been the subject of more than 20 state investigations since 2001 in regards to possible abuse.
Part two of the series presented the case of the Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie, a home that had been the subject of more than 30 abuse investigations since the mid-1990s. Zayas was more than eight months into her investigation when the director, Alan Weierman, finally let her visit the facility and granted her a three-hour interview. "I had to do a lot of research until they took me seriously," she recalls. "But then they felt like they had to respond to it."
Her story uncovered a system of regulative loopholes that allowed the academy to remain open despite myriad allegations of abuse.
For the last part of her series, Zayas talked to former residents of the Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, a FACCCA-licensed home for girls, which had undergone 13 investigations of abuse since 1996 and where, according to allegations, a punishment called "flooring" was frequently used.
"They sat on me like I was their mattress and they were having a slumber party," Lindsay Brooks, a 15-year-old resident in 2007, was quoted as saying as she described how six or seven girls were forced to sit on her for hours. "My body would go numb after a while." Russell Cookston, head pastor at Lighthouse, countered that the girls were sitting on each other without direction of the home.
After the series ran, reader reaction was overwhelmingly positive, Zayas says. "Many people thanked me for the story." One mother, whose son had attended Southeastern Military Academy, moved him to a home outside Florida after reading the series, Zayas adds.
Florida officials have launched a statewide review of unaccredited children's homes in the wake of Zayas' series. "That was a very quick response," she says.
The Southeastern Military Academy has been ordered to obtain a license by June 2014 or shut down. The Lighthouse of Northwest Florida is going out of business, having announced in February that it was selling its property.
"I think winning the award put the investigation into national spotlight, raising a lot more awareness about those lacks of regulations," Zayas says.
Zayas, who has been devoted to journalism since her early childhood, found her way to the Tampa Bay Times in 2005 after freelancing for the Miami Herald and interning with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
Born and raised in Florida, the University of Miami graduate says she has always been fascinated by the "crazy news city" of Miami.
Although the Selden Ring Award was not her first honor--in 2012 the Florida Society of News Editors named her live tweets from a rape trial as "best use of social media in breaking news" --the reporter feels this award is something special. "Selden Ring promotes real journalism," she says. "I want to live up to the ideal that it embodies."
"And," she adds, "things happen when nobody's watching. It is rewarding that the stories of these young people are finally heard."