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By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- For 24 years, Mable Smith worked as a certified nurse's aide at Suncoast Manor, a retirement community in Pinellas Point.
But the 47-year-old graduate of Lakewood High School wanted more. She got it, in large part because of a scholarship program for employees funded by donations from Suncoast Manor residents. Ms. Smith took computer classes at Pinellas Technical Education Centers, paid for with $140 in scholarship money, that allowed her to advance to a job in the supply office.
Karen Williams, 23, a waitress in the community's dining room for six years, wanted more too. Scholarship funds totaling almost $3,500 have paid for her college education, first at St. Petersburg Junior College and now at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, where she is finishing her junior year majoring in accounting. She expects to graduate in August 2001. The Irving G. Foster Scholarship Fund of Suncoast Manor was started in 1997 by Foster, a retired Eckerd College professor who lived at Suncoast Manor. He died earlier in the year. Since it began, 14 employees have received money for higher education from more than 100 donors at Suncoast Manor. This year, eight employees have scholarships totaling almost $12,000 to PTEC, SPJC and USF. Their studies range from certification in medical transcription to degrees in music and fine arts.
"They can go into pure academic programs or vocational ones," said Frank Corbett, who became the chairman of the scholarship committee after Foster's death. "We do not put any limits or requirements on them other than maintaining their grades. If we can, we also pay for all their books."
Suncoast Manor, which sits on 30 well-manicured acres, is home to about 300 residents who live independently, with assistance or in a nursing facility. They are served 24 hours a day by 200 employees. Like Mable Smith, many have worked there for years.
"Dr. Foster wanted people to have an education," said Ms. Smith, who took the computer classes. "It's meant a lot to me."
"If it wasn't for the residents giving this money, I wouldn't have gotten this far," said Karen Miller. "I wanted a college education, but it's hard to save money. They offered it so I could better myself."
Both women say they have loved going back to school.
"I didn't miss a single class," said Ms. Smith, who plans to apply for scholarship money for more computer classes at SPJC.
"Computers are the future. I really want to learn as much as I can. And it's interesting to know you can do it," said Ms. Smith, who had not been back to school since she graduated from high school in 1971.
Ms. Miller, a graduate of Dixie Hollins High School, works a full week at Suncoast Manor and takes four courses at USF, but seems unfazed by the work load.
"This stuff is interesting," said Ms. Miller, who has a 2.5 grade point average.
The only eligibility requirements for scholarships, said Corbett, are that the employee has worked there for at least nine months, works at least 16 hours a week and has been accepted for admission at one of the three participating schools. The scholarships cover all tuition and fees.
Corbett, the chairman, said the scholarship committee has not turned away any qualified applicants. He anticipates more applicants next year, now that word is getting around, and a need for at least $15,000 to pay for all the requests. An arrangement with SPJC will match any funds used at that school, which will help, he said. "And the residents continue to be generous."
Like some previous scholarship recipients, Ms. Smith and Ms. Miller say the help they have received from Suncoast Manor will allow them to get higher paying jobs. That probably means they will leave Suncoast Manor eventually.
"Other people who have gotten their training have gone on. I've stayed here because I thought I should, after getting help from them," said Ms. Smith. "They do not require that we stay for a certain amount of time like a lot of places who give you money. I would like to do something in computer programming or data processing. But Suncoast Manor has a habit of not letting you go."