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Student turns down ACLU's scholarship

Not sharing the group's stance on abortion and prayer in schools, the FAMU-bound graduate decides to decline $1,000.

Published July 31, 2005

As a child, Helena Aldridge developed a passion for defending the rights of others.

Now on the brink of adulthood, the 18-year-old finds herself in disagreement with a group that ardently defends individual rights: the American Civil Liberties Union.

Aldridge, who lives in Largo, graduated in May from East Lake High School. Faced with the prospect of paying for a five-year stint in the pharmacy program at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, she gratefully accepted a $450 scholarship from the Elks Lodge and two $500 scholarships from the NAACP.

She was thrilled this summer when she learned she was one of three Florida teens to receive a $1,000 Norman Elliot Kent Youth Activist Scholarship from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The group, based in Miami, offers the awards to graduating seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties and civil rights through student activism.

Then Aldridge read up on the organization.

While she found much to applaud - the ACLU has been protecting rights guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights since 1920 - she was dismayed at what she perceived as the group's abortion rights stance on abortion and its opposition to prayer in public schools.

Aldridge, who is a member of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Clearwater, is opposed to abortion. She supports prayer in schools.

"They want you to be able to choose whether you can get an abortion," Aldridge said. "I don't think it's the right thing to do. And if someone in the classroom decides they want the class to pray, I think they should be able to do that."

She called the ACLU last week and left a message saying she had decided to decline the scholarship.

Alessandra Meetze, a spokeswoman for the ACLU, expressed surprise at Aldridge's decision.

"It's a first for us," she said. "We regret that she made that decision, but we certainly respect it."

Meetze, reached Friday in Miami, said she has been trying to contact Aldridge. She wants to make sure she understands the ACLU is not antireligious.

"It's a misunderstanding that a lot of people have," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We have a long history of standing up for religious liberty."

Aldridge's mother, Joyce, supported her daughter's decision.

"We respect their positions, but it was just difficult to align with them in reference to receiving money from them," she said.

Aldridge's activist history dates back to the days when she began tagging along with her older sister, Shana, who was president of the Clearwater youth branch of the NAACP. She began attending rallies to encourage young people to sign up to vote. She became a member of the youth branch when she was about 12.

At 14, she was one of a few dozen people who joined NAACP activists who took part in a rally outside the Adam's Mark Hotel on Clearwater Beach. The rally was one of several organized around the state in response to complaints of mistreatment of black students at the 1999 Black College Reunion, an unofficial spring break party for black students, held two years earlier at the Daytona Beach Adam's Mark.

The students had said the hotel treated them with suspicion, which led to a July 2001 decision by the NAACP for the mass demonstration and continued boycott of the 24-hotel chain.

"I just wanted to basically show the Adam's Mark that it wasn't fair how they were treating people," Aldridge said. "I wanted to let them know that people do notice, and that their actions affected more people than the ones they were treating that way."

At the beginning of her junior year at East Lake, Aldridge was appointed to the county's Youth Advisory Council. She went to Tallahassee recently with other youth advisory council members to support a bill that would require high schools to hold annual assemblies to inform students of their option to register to vote at 17.

The bill never made it to the floor, but Aldridge said she learned a lot about the legislative process.

Aldridge also learned a great deal as a member of the East Lake High multicultural committee.

She already had firsthand experience with racial prejudice at the nearly all-white school.

"White people would say slick comments," she said. "They would use the N-word and then look at me to see if I would say something. Of course I would. Then they would deny saying it."

As she heads to Florida A&M, a school that is predominantly black, she expects she'll experience "culture shock" at being a member of the majority race. She hopes to use her experience in a positive way to demonstrate tolerance to the school's minority population.

She and her mother are philosophical about turning down the $1,000 the ACLU scholarship would have provided.

"We know the bottom line is that there are always ways to go to school," Mrs. Aldridge said. "There are a million sources out there for scholarships. It's just a matter of applying."

[Last modified July 31, 2005, 01:32:21]

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