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'Do not allow others to stop you ...'

By RYAN DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

When Sarah Sommerfeld won a conditional state scholarship in seventh grade, she knew she would meet the requirements.

To get the money from Take Stock in Children, she had to avoid pregnancy, drugs and discipline referrals. She also had to get good grades.

She did better. She graduated Friday night as Hudson High School's valedictorian.

"Do not allow others to stop you from attaining your dreams because it does not fit their ideal of a success," she told the graduates during a brief speech.

No line of a graduation speech drew more applause than senior class president Antonette DeVito's guarantee that, "One day you'll actually hear yourself say, "If I knew then what I know now . . .' "

Inside the Hudson High School gym on Friday, 279 red-clad seniors turned their tassels and became Cobra alumni. Among them were the seniors who led the high school band to more awards than it ever won before; the seniors who led the baseball team to its first district championship; senior Amanda Paulo, who won three state swimming championships; and the seniors who led the Students Against Destructive Decisions group to garner state honors.

And there were the first ever class of Take Stock in Children graduates.

The three young women were chosen in seventh grade as scholarship winners, and they all graduated: Sommerfeld, Victoria Martin and Leslie Acreman.

The scholarship, based on financial need, is awarded to seventh-grade essay winners who -- if they meet the requirements -- win two years of tuition at a community college and two at state college or university. It also pairs the winners with mentors. The Hudson trio did so well that they will use other scholarships to pay for most of their schooling.

Sommerfeld and Martin both said they won the scholarship for writing about similar tragedy. Both of their fathers died before they were 10. Martin's father died of heart failure. She remembers climbing mountains in Vermont with him. Sommerfeld's father, who she once paired with to win a dance contest, died in a 1991 sky diving accident.

He died too young to ever say it, but Sommerfeld -- who will attend University of North Florida's honors college -- said her father would have wanted her to be valedictorian. "He was always looking for me to accomplish so many things," she said. "I was thinking of mentioning my dad in my speech, but I thought, "I'll start crying.' "

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