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Four seniors named winners of Times scholarships

By NANCY WACLAWEK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

Each has overcome significant obstacles in life and demonstrated a love of learning.

Four high school seniors from the Tampa Bay area have been selected as winners of the 2003 St. Petersburg Times Scholarship.

They are Dyane Jean Francois Fils from St. Petersburg High School, Bryan Casanas from Pinellas Park High School, Jesse Ruben Pope from Wharton High School in Tampa, and Amber Bellefleur from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey.

Each will receive as much as $60,000 toward college expenses over the next four years. Established in 1999, the St. Petersburg Times Scholarships are funded through the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc., formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times Scholarship Fund, which has assisted students since 1953.

The six runnersup are Jessica Curley of Gulf High School in New Port Richey; Takita Cuthbertson and Ashley Rogers of Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg; Tadd Hale of Springstead High School in Spring Hill; Erin Maloney of Gaither High School in Tampa; and Albert Ng of Bloomingdale High School in Valrico. Each will receive one-time scholarships of $1,000.

The St. Petersburg Times Scholarships target high school seniors with academic promise who have overcome significant obstacles in their lives and who demonstrate financial need. The winners were selected from a field of 229 applicants from the Times' five-county circulation area.

"At a time when the world is in turmoil, it is a particular satisfaction to be able to support promising young people. It is the best way, perhaps the only way, to build for the future," said Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Publishing Co. and president of the nonprofit fund.

Their love of learning was the distinguishing trait of the four winning applicants. Pursuing an advanced education is a dream they have maintained throughout their academic lives.

For Amber Bellefleur, 17, school represents a place to learn about the wonders of the world.

Because her parents are divorced and her mother has been unable to work, the family has struggled financially. She does not have a computer or reliable transportation, so participating in after-school activities and completing papers for advanced placement classes presented formidable obstacles for Amber.

But she found a way around those problems by getting rides from friends or using her grandparents' computer or catching the bus early for club meetings at school.

Amber ranks ninth in her class of 354, and she has a 4.16 grade point average. She plays the flute, is a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Teen Court and Tri-M, the music honor society. She also has been a volunteer for Special Olympics, Relay for Life and Adopt-A-Road cleanups. She has not decided where she will attend college.

Bryan Casanas, 18, has drawn on his faith for strength during difficult times. Last October, his best friends, Ervis and Almarin Sefa, were killed when they were struck by a car while riding together on their bike. To help him deal with his grief, Bryan often visits his friends' parents. "It's giving me back a little of my best friends."

Bryan ranks 10th in his class of 366 with a GPA of 3.97. He dreams of being a broadcast journalist and plans to attend Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

He has been on the dean's list and honor roll throughout high school. He is on the school newspaper staff and is a member of the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, the French Club and AWARE, a multicultural club.

Dyane Jean Francois Fils, 17, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She and her mother immigrated to New York when she was 12. Because she didn't speak English, her classmates often made fun of her. So she learned English by reading voraciously and turning to the dictionary for help.

Two years ago, Dyane and her family moved to Pinellas County and she enrolled in the IB program at St. Petersburg High. She is in the top 2 percent of the program and has been on the honor roll and dean's list throughout high school.

She is a member of the National, French and Spanish honor societies and has done volunteer work with several organizations at school and with Habitat for Humanity and the Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg. She plans to attend Columbia University in New York.

Jesse Ruben Pope's world turned upside down in eighth grade when his older brother was killed by a drunken driver. It took time, but Ruben was able to overcome that loss and take up his brother's challenge to make something of himself.

Ruben, 18, is student government president at Wharton. He is involved in Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and he started a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions. Despite serious problems with his eyes -- he has had seven operations -- Ruben has maintained a 3.76 GPA while taking advanced placement courses throughout high school. He ranks 29th in his class of 498. He has applied to Princeton and Columbia universities.

The winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon May 6 at the A La Carte Event Pavilion in Tampa. Guest speaker will be Alma Ayala, executive director of the Florida Philanthropic Network.

Each year, four students from the Tampa Bay area are chosen as St. Petersburg Times Scholarship winners. Applications will be available in September in high school guidance offices, some community centers, by mail from the director of the St. Petersburg Times Fund, Inc. and on the Times' Web site ( Twelve students are receiving financial assistance through the St. Petersburg Times Scholarship.

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