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Cinderella for a night

Ours is not a traditional debutante ball, says the president of the black sorority sponsoring it. Still, in a nod to tradition, these young "Roses'' are groomed, recognized and encouraged to bloom.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Amber Tanille Woolfolk]
Bilon Schultz hugs her godfather, Frederick C. Coward, who was Bilon's presenter this night.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The walk across the Coliseum floor is less than 200 feet, but it can seem to stretch forever if you are a young woman encumbered by the unfamiliar billows of a white ball gown. Or by loss.

Debutante status, usually conferred as a privilege of birth or wealth, was earned by Bilon and Tequetta Schultz and 30 other high school students. Their five-month journey culminated in this walk, in long white dresses, during their presentation to about 600 family and friends at the Essence of Ebony Roses Debutante Cotillion on Saturday night.

The journey was almost cut short for the Schultz sisters.

"When our mother died, we didn't know if we could do it," Bilon said.

The ball was sponsored by the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority and one of the most prestigious.

"Ours is not a traditional debutante ball," said Lena Wilfalk, president of the Zeta Upsilon Omega Chapter of AKA. "Our debutantes were recommended by school counselors and teachers. They were required to attend monthly classes that ranged from teen pregnancy education and sexually transmitted diseases to proper dining and presentation of oneself."

Bilon and Tequetta Schultz fit the profile of most of the debs, who come from lower-income, single-parent households.

Just 10 months apart, both are juniors at Osceola High School. Bilon has a 3.76 grade point average. Tequetta, with a GPA of 2.3, admits she is not the academic sister.

"My mom said as long as I do my best, it's okay. I'm an average student."

Their mother, Jacqueline Schultz, heard about the deb program in the early fall and encouraged her daughters to apply.

"Our mom really wanted this for us," Tequetta said.

Mrs. Schultz lived in a comfortable, four-bedroom house on 20th Street S, with Bilon, 17, and Tequetta, 16, a block from St. Joseph's Catholic Church, where the family worships weekly.

Until a few years ago when she injured her back, she routinely worked two jobs as a licensed practical nurse to support herself and her daughters. Mrs. Schultz was divorced years ago from their father, who lives in Orlando and does not see his children.

"My mom built this house for us so we'd always have a place to come home to," Bilon said.

Her daughters and her sister, Teresa Quarterman, said Mrs. Schultz was diabetic and developed an open sore on her foot that did not heal.

"On Jan. 5, we took her to the hospital," Tequetta said.

The family said she was given medicine and sent home.

By the time she went back to a hospital, the foot had apparently become gangrenous. Her leg was amputated at the knee. She seemed to improve. Then her condition worsened.

"She lost a limb, her kidneys failed, she had pneumonia, her liver failed, she went blind," said Teresa Quarterman.

To the shock of her family and friends, Jacqueline Schultz, 52, died on March 4, "the same day we took deb pictures," said Bilon.

"She was my best friend," she said. "When you lose a mother, no one can replace her."

Aretishia Barker, who also has a daughter in the deb program, was going to try.

"I woke up one morning and decided that day I was going to get the dresses donated," she said. "So I started calling bridal shops."

She bought each sister a string of pearls. Friends bought long white gloves.

Still, Bilon and Tequetta, grieving, wanted to drop out.

"I called Mrs. Wilfalk," Bilon said. "We had decided not to continue."

At 5 p.m. Saturday, the Coliseum, in downtown St. Petersburg, swirls with activity. The debutantes are enduring a final rehearsal, pausing to snack on chicken wings, and sitting patiently as about a dozen AKA women fuss over them and issue instructions.

Bilon and Tequetta are among them.

"I really believe in dreams," Ms. Barker says. "And Bilon and Tequetta really wanted to fulfill this dream of their mother's."

Bilon, who took the SAT that morning, is tired. "I think I'll be glad when this is over," she says.

At 6:30 p.m. the young women are shepherded to the Coliseum balcony, where their gowns wait on rolling racks. More volunteers are there to help with hair and makeup.

As they slip on their dresses, the disparate group of hiply clad teens becomes a flock of swans. Tequetta's dress is a mass of ruffles. Bilon's beaded gown is more subdued.

Downstairs at 7:30 p.m., more AKA members are trying to organize the debs' teenage escorts. The young men are dressed in tails and white gloves. Background music plays, and when an instrumental version of Stevie Wonder's Ribbon in the Sky begins, several break into a gentle, unscripted line dance. Others join in.

Lena Wilfalk, who has changed from day clothes into a sequined black evening dress, glides by, dealing with flower issues and last-minute seating changes. The cavernous room begins to fill up with guests dressed in formal wear.

The debs' presenters, some of whom are fathers, many others relatives or family friends, gather at the bottom of the balcony stairs, which the debs will descend for their presentation.

Before her death, Mrs. Schultz had asked Bilon's godfather, Frederick C. Coward, to be her presenter.

"I've known the family for 30 years," he said. "They are fine young ladies."

Todd Pierce, the school resource officer at Osceola until a recent transfer, is Tequetta's presenter.

"It's become like a father-daughter relationship. I drove them to the hospital when their mom got sick. My wife and I, our hearts went out to them."

The sisters stand together at the balcony railing moments before the ball begins, looking down toward their family table, populated by their aunt, brothers and friends from St. Joseph's. Tequetta waves to her oldest brother, Lynford Schultz, and his wife, Yulonda. She smiles for the first time that evening.

One by one, the Essence of Ebony Roses Debutantes descend the steps, aided by AKA members who deliver them to their presenters.

"Bilon Schultz," says the announcer, "an Essence of Ebony Rose." Applause, as Bilon steps into the spotlight and glides across the polished wooden floor with her godfather. Her escort bows deeply and leads her to her chair.

Tequetta watches from the back as women fluff her full skirt.

"Tequetta Schultz," says the announcer, "an Essence of Ebony Rose." She holds back for a moment, remembers to smile and begins her walk.

Later, they waltz side by side with their escorts.

When the presentation ends, the dance floor fills with well-wishers who hug the debs and snap photos. The party goes on until midnight, fueled by a late-night buffet. Neither sister dances again until the last dance, a line dance with their fellow debs.

"I'm glad I did this," says Bilon, finally relaxing, as people surround her. "I wish my mother had been here."

"She is here," says Tequetta.

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