Fourteen of Booker T. Washington High School’s best and brightest took their seats Friday to find out which one of them would win a coveted fully paid ride through college.
But the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club, a community service organization that has awarded the single scholarship for the last seven years, had a surprise in store — not one, but two of the graduating seniors were going to be winners.
There was a reason for that, said scholarship committee chair Rick Freedman. After the club sorted through 420 pages of applications, two students — 18-year-olds Janiyah Kennedy and Alexander Castillo — stood out. So the committee decided to award both of them scholarships, worth up to $30,000 each, but kept that decision quiet until the dramatic end.
Kennedy and Castillo sat next to each other in the front row as Freedman praised the 14 students who made the final cut, noting that only one would receive the scholarship. Then, another Kiwanis club member theatrically tapped on his arm and whispered to him.
“Really? Really? Really? Really?” Freedman replied, loudly enough for the microphone to hear him. There would be, he announced, two scholarships! The audience erupted in applause. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Castillo kept their hands folded on their laps as Freedman read a list of accomplishments that hinted at who the winners might be.
When Freedman mentioned House of God Miracle Temple, the church Kennedy grew up in, she covered her face with her hands, crying and wiped tears away with her cardigan. Castillo said he knew he was the second student when Freedman mentioned the University of Central Florida, where he will study business administration and management and sports management.
When Castillo’s name was called, he jumped from his seat and did the sign of the cross before walking on stage. He plans to combine his passions of business and sports after he graduates from college.
“I’m really grateful to Kiwanis for believing in me,” Castillo said. “I felt like a lot of times people in general didn’t believe in me, but this makes me proud that they’re acknowledging my efforts.”
Castillo didn’t know how he would pay for college. His sister Lucia Solano, 22, said they talked about his fear of not getting a scholarship and prayed about it together last night.
Freedman said the organization was able to afford both scholarships after an anonymous donor gave enough money to purchase two scholarships from the Florida Prepaid program during a fund-raising gala last year. The money, he said, will ease one huge concern for many students — how to afford tuition.
“All you have to focus on is your education, setting your goals and making your future,” Freedman said in an interview.
Kennedy and Castillo, who were both raised in single-parent homes and will be first-generation college students, completed hundreds of hours in community service and were involved in several clubs and organizations, including student government and the National Honor Society. They are both within the top 5% of their class and will graduate in June with GPAs higher than 4.3.
When Kennedy walked off the stage, her best friend Unique Sitton was there to give her a hug since her mother couldn’t make it to the ceremony because of work. Mayela Mejia, Castillo’s mother, held her son in her arms.
Mejia, 42, who moved to the United States from Nicaragua in 1993, said she is happy her son can follow his dreams.
“Es un alivio muy grande para él y para mí que puede estudiar sin preocupación ninguna,” she said. (“It’s a huge relief for him, and for me, that he can study without any worries.”)
After Kennedy graduates from Fort Valley State University in Georgia, she said she will return to her hometown to open an engineering firm to build bridges and roads in Overtown. If Kennedy did not receive the scholarship, she said she would work through college to pay for tuition. Now, she said she can focus on becoming a civil engineer.
“At first that was a big worry, but my mom would always tell me, ‘God got us,” Kennedy said.