The Matlacha Mariners handed out $15,000 worth of scholarships to six hard-working students during its annual scholarship awards presentation at the community center on Thursday.
Not only was that the most the Mariners have ever given out, but never had the competition been so fierce. Yet, in the end, a brother/sister tandem took home scholarships, while others earned them for the third or fourth time.
Ross Stornello, Mariners' scholarship committee chairman, said the process started in April and they received 21 applications for the six scholarships, more than they ever got before.
The Matlacha Marniers’ scholarship winners included, from left, Evan Berlanti, Brandi Schulte, Monique Classen, Monica Ditch, Cindy Bernal. The sixth scholarship recipient, Caleb Davis, was not present.
And the program has exploded under Stornello's watch.
"When I got started as chairman, we gave away one scholarship for $1,000. Now we have grown that to six for $2,500," Stornello said. "We continue to be successful in our fund-raising and this is as valuable a program as we have for donations."
Unlike many programs which base their scholarships on need, the Mariners base theirs on scholastic merit and community service, among other things. Each applicant's name is redacted so those on the committee don't know who earns one.
And since there are multiple winners, the process isn't limited to high school seniors.
The winners were:
n Brandi Schulte: senior at the University of South Florida, pursuing degrees in criminology and sociology. It was her third scholarship win.
n Caleb Davis: Edison State College, preparing for a career in medicine. He won the scholarship for the fourth time.
n Evan Berlanti: attends Palm Beach Atlantic University, studying history, political science and communications. It's his second scholarship.
n Monique Classen: will be attending Palm Beach Atlantic University, where she plans to study communications and psychology.
n Monica Ditch: will be entering the University of Florida, where she will work toward a degree in aerospace engineering.
n Cindy Bernal: will attend Southwest Florida College to attain a degree in nursing, and eventually become a doctor.
For Schulte, winning for the third time demonstrated not only her commitment to her studies, but the community's commitment to her.
"Without the support of the island, I wouldn't have made it through. It's not just the money, I've gotten the support and backing and that alone makes me want to come back and show I've achieved something," Schulte said.
For Berlanti and his adopted sister Classen, the support from the community has been nothing short of fantastic.
"To be supported in an area where I thought was never possible is mind-boggling," Classen said, who was 10 when she was adopted. "My parents are the support I needed."
"Everyone knows how expensive college is. All the students are trying to find the funds to get there, but it's also a big step," Berlanti said. "This is an opportunity I hoped it would be but wasn't sure, and it's great to see my friends do it."