A world-traveled performer, accomplished educator, and leader promoting community growth and diversity, Dr. Vincent Miller brings his talent from the stage to the board of Theatre Winter Haven.
Dr. Miller was born in Winter Haven. “My grandmother’s roots are here, my great grandfather and grandmother’s roots are here, so this is home,” he said of the Chain of Lakes city. While in high school at Lake Region, Miller figured his path would be sports. “My brother was a football player, so I thought I was going to become a football player. I was great at it; I was great at athletics,” he said. But he was also great on the stage. Miller came from a musically inclined family and grew up singing in the church choir. His first performing gig outside of high school productions and the church was with Disney, recording the Candlelight Processional and Massed Choir Program with Louis Gossett, Jr. Signing that contract with Disney gave Miller a different perspective on his future, one that would take him around the world.
Miller attended the University of South Florida, studying Vocal Performance under Annetta Monroe. Monroe suggested he audition for a show at Busch Gardens. Miller took her advice and landed the lead role. After that, he started working for the company Choozi Entertainment, which took him from Dubai to Africa and many places in between. Miller has performed on every continent but Antarctica. The arts are a continued passion for the globe-trotting performer, though that passion has found other avenues for expression that don’t always involve a spotlight.
Miller’s grandmother babysat many neighborhood kids out of her house. Hers was a home that parents knew they could drop off their children, and they would be fed and well taken care of. A young Vincent Miller took note of the loving environment his grandmother created. At 98 years old, Miller’s grandmother passed away. Many of those who at one time or another were in her care spoke about Miller’s grandmother. “Listening to the youth that she directly impacted, now grown men and women, saying how she was the reason why they were at the point in their life with success in their lives, means a lot,” he said.
His grandparents’ love and stewardship of community instilled the same within him. Growing up, Miller would volunteer in summer programs, even earning awards for his service. Stepping into the role of educator was natural for Miller. “Growing up in that environment … and seeing the appreciation that the people have for my grandmother and my grandfather – I think that’s why I’m here today.”
His father passed away five years ago while Miller was in South Africa, bringing him back to Florida, where he finished his PhD and entered the education field with Polk County Public Schools. Dr. Miller teaches secondary math at Winter Haven High School and dual enrollment for Southeastern in Winter Haven. Miller leans into his entertainment background for his work in the classroom and the community. “I always say that being art-minded… allows me to be able to see the diversity in our world, to be able to communicate with people better. It allows me in my current profession to build relationships with my students because I’m well-rounded and open to all conversations that kids or students or people, in general, may have.”
Filling the Lane
In 2007, Miller started the non-profit organization Filling the Lane with the mission to “Bridge the gaps between education, sports, arts, and community.” According to a press release by Theatre Winter Haven, of which Miller now sits on the board, “Dr. Miller works with at-risk youth to engage them in various activities, such as STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) through basketball.”
“Filling the Lane is my baby,” said Miller. The organization was born after a summer team under the Police Athletic League (PAL), with whom Miller had been working with through his job at Denison Middle School, lost funding. Students on the defunct summer team were left asking Coach Miller if they’d get to play the next year. “I told them, ‘You come up with a name, and we can do something. We’ll figure it out,’” he said. The kids came up with the name, Filling the Lane. He thought, “How can we tie that to education, and how can we tie that to growth? [...] That was that goal. If I was going to create something or build something, how do we tie this into growth in our community and growth for our youth?” The students came up with their mission to “Bridge the gaps between education, sports, and community.” Miller was insistent on adding the arts into that mission.
“The goal is to bridge the gap between students who are in middle school and high school to get them into college,” said Miller. Through the program, economically disadvantaged students travel across the country to play basketball.
“Everywhere we go when we play a tournament, whether we’re in Oklahoma, Tennessee, New York, California, we take a tour of the city. We do a history piece of the city, we do a fine dining experience,” said Miller. The goal, he says, is to give his FTL kids experiences they might not otherwise have.
The program has gifted Miller memorable moments over the years. One, in particular, stands out in his mind. He took a student to the Florida State University football field. The field was empty, and the boy asked, ‘Coach Miller, do you feel that?’ Miller didn’t understand what the student meant at the moment. “It wasn’t until I got back into the hotel, and I realized he was talking about feeling the experience of the crowd yelling his name when he got on the field.” The realization solidified the unique brand of good that Filling the Lane was doing in the lives of its students.
Filling the Lane currently serves about 150 male and female students, providing a sports and education outlet and community outreach opportunities. Last year in response to the pandemic, FTL fed about 3000 healthcare workers at Winter Haven Hospital. They’ve done a Back to School Bash, where they give away shoes and school supplies, volunteered at nursing homes, and have donated clothing, shoes, and other necessities to the Clothes Closet at Miller’s school. “It’s about being able to be big in the community and do what’s right in the community and teach the youth in the program to give back,” Miller said.
Teacher of the Year
Dr. Miller’s work in and out of the classroom earned him recognition in 2020 as Polk County Teacher of the Year. Of the accolade, he said, “It’s a platform. It’s a platform that you can use to spread positive messages, or it’s a platform you use to grow and help people see the benefit of growth and how to grow, especially inside education. [...] Being named Polk County Teacher of the Year was definitely an honor.”
Miller takes mentorship from the 2020 Florida Teacher of the Year, Dr. Dre Graham. “His platform to me was so inspiring. I always saw him in the community, always doing something, and that motivated me. I took that and said, ‘You know what, if I’m going to be Polk County Teacher of the Year, I want to be that motivation piece too,’” said Miller. Every chance he gets, Miller awards fellow Polk County teachers for outstanding service in education. He wants to do anything he can to motivate his colleagues to excel inside their classrooms.
Now the question is, says Miller, “What’s next?” For the acclaimed performer and community leader, Dr. Vincent Miller, “My ultimate goal is, I want to be president of a major college, and I want my program, FTL, to expand into whatever college I’m working into.”
Diversity at Theatre Winter Haven
Last month, Dr. Vincent Miller was welcomed to Theatre Winter Haven’s Board of Trustees, tasked with chairing the board’s subcommittee on diversity. “Any organization would be lucky to have Dr. Miller on its team. We have been lucky to have him in our Theatre Family since childhood,” said Producing Director of Theatre Winter Haven, Dan Chesnicka.
According to a press release from the theatre welcoming him to their board, “For the past five years, Dr. Miller has led Theatre Winter Haven’s efforts to celebrate black voices in the arts and has planned our Black History Month events. In June, Dr. Miller brought the community together in song and spearheaded Theatre Winter Haven’s UNITY Concert, with all the proceeds being donated to six local black charities.”
Having lived in countries and cultures worldwide, Dr. Miller emphasizes the value of and need for diversity. “Diversity in our county is much needed,” he said. “When I go to downtown Winter Haven or downtown Lakeland, and I’m one of the only Black Americans in the restaurant, to me, it’s not because the means are not there, there’s a lack of something somewhere – a lack of trust, a lack of knowledge – more so a lack of trust.”
Growing up in Winter Haven, Miller was involved in many facets of the community, from church and volunteering to education and the arts. Being so niched into groups of every ethnicity, Dr. Miller felt he could be “that glue to bring everybody together.” It started with Brothers United – a program composed of four brothers at Lake Region High School. The concept became a show at Theatre Winter Haven to raised funds for Moffitt Cancer Center.
“Growing up in Theatre Winter Haven, again, I was one of the only Black male performers in the theatre, and most of the audience was white, but when we did this show [Brothers United], there were diverse people in the theatre.” He asked himself, “Why can’t this happen all the time? Why does it take my show to diversify the theatre when we should be diverse all the time?”
That show went on annually for some ten years, eventually turning into a show series called Voices. “We started doing a show that was very diverse in African American music and African American history to teach how important that piece is to know about in our community,” said Dr. Miller. He invites performers from all over the world to come to Theatre Winter Haven for a one-day show featuring anything from Motown and Gospel to Black musicals telling a story. He always likes to have a story “of why the African culture is so important, moving from the past and moving to the future and what we brought to the theatre, what Black culture brought to the theatre.”
“Dr. Miller is a leader in our community and has been part of the Theatre Winter Haven family for the better part of two decades,” said Chesnicka. “We are equally as proud of his accomplishments as we are excited to welcome him to our leadership team in our quest to serve our WHOLE community – especially those parts of our community that are historically underserved.”
“My goals are to do different shows like Voices, to produce different things, and invite people to see the good work we’re doing at Theatre Winter Haven. The goal is to get it exposed and visible, so youth are not scared to come in and say ‘I want to be a part of that.’”