Emily Lester stood out among the applicants for the 2008 Barnes Scholarships. She was fifth in her class of 430 at Seminole High School. She earned a grade point average of 3.89 unweighted. She was accepted to Duke University.
And she was a two-time cancer survivor.
"I appreciate each new day as not only a gift, but an opportunity to excel," said Lester, 18.
She is one of the winners of a 2008 Barnes Scholarship. She got the news at St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis, where she is being treated for a recurrence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It's her third battle with cancer, and she's hoping for a successful bone marrow transplant so she can start college in the fall.
Her personal experiences and her desire to give back spurred her volunteer work with the American Cancer Society and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"Knowing how many children I am fighting for pushes me to succeed in all that I do," Lester wrote in her essay for the scholarship.
It was such stories that made the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc. award five Barnes Scholarships this year, a first in the history of the program.
In addition to Lester, who is from Pinellas, the winners announced today by the fund are Lotiffa Colibao of King High School in Hillsborough, Camille McAvoy of Springstead High School in Hernando, Khalid Pagan of Durant High School in Hillsborough, and James Walmer of Pasco High School in Pasco.
The students were selected from among 10 finalists interviewed at the newspaper's St. Petersburg office in January. In all, 264 students applied from public and private high schools in the St. Petersburg Times' circulation area – Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
"Every year, this process reveals some extraordinary young people, and this year our selections were especially difficult," said Paul C. Tash, chairman, chief executive and editor of the St. Petersburg Times and president of the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc. "In their lives you see the difficult challenges that many families face, but you also see the triumph of talent and determination. To give them a boost as they head off to college is a profound pleasure."
Every year, the winners of the Barnes Scholarships inspire others through their stories of personal courage and perseverance. That is especially true this year.
Lester was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001. She went into remission after chemotherapy and entered St. Petersburg High School as a freshman in the International Baccalaureate program.
The next year, Lester relapsed. Chemo didn't work this time, so doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant. Lester's younger sister, Catherine — "my best friend and hero" — stepped up to be the donor. Months and many medical challenges later, Lester was back in class at Seminole High School.
This past January, Lester had another relapse and now needs to find a donor through the National Bone Marrow Registry.
"In fighting this disease, I have come to realize that hope is essential to life; a driving force, powering the dreams and goals directing my future. Without hope, I would have never made sense of this obstacle," she wrote. "Cancer is now a part of my biography. I have been given a second chance at life and apply this concept in all that I do."
Lester has led fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and St. Jude's Hospital. She and her "Chemo Crew" raised more than $40,000 over the last six years through Relay for Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
From 2005 to 2007, she also helped organize the Bay to Bay Bone Marrow Drive and brought in more than 200 people to the bone marrow registry.
At school, she is a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta math club, Key Club, and Interact Club. She also is involved with the St. Petersburg Juniorettes and the St. Jerome Catholic Church Youth Group.
"Thank you so much for this honor," Emily wrote Feb. 22 in an e-mail from her hospital bed. "I am extremely excited about the Barnes Scholarship and the opportunities it will provide. … For the third time, I am determined to triumph over this disease and begin study at Duke this fall."
(A free bone marrow registry drive for Emily will take place March 14-15 at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, 3200 First Ave. S, from noon to 6 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Potential registrants must be between the ages of 18 and 60 and in general good health. Call 727-421-3436 for details.)
James Walmer, 17, Pasco
The Pasco High School student also has faced adult issues head-on. His mother, Jody, was ill for years and, in 2003, was diagnosed with hepatitis C. His father, Harold, who injured his back in an auto accident, has been unable to work. To help his family financially, Walmer has worked part time for the past two years. When he got his driver's license, he became the family's sole source of transportation. He also took on other responsibilities: paying bills, buying groceries, running errands, taking his parents to their doctors' appointments.
In October, Jody Walmer became very ill one day while her son was in school. So her husband drove his wife to the doctor, but was jailed for driving without a valid license. Jody Walmer died unexpectedly on Nov. 15 while Harold Walmer was still in jail. His son had to break the news to his father and then plan the funeral. Harold Walmer was released from jail in December, but his health is declining now, too.
Despite these challenges outside of school, James Walmer ranks 26th in his class of 217 at Pasco High, with a 3.52 unweighted GPA. He also has volunteered at the thrift store operated by Sunrise of Pasco County Inc.
He would like to attend Georgetown University and wants to be a lawyer. He quotes Henry David Thoreau when talking about his goals: "I know of no more encouraging fact than the ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor."
Camille McAvoy, 18, Hernando
This Springstead High School student has grown up in a household with limited financial means. She and her mother, a social worker with Hernando County schools, live with her grandmother in Spring Hill.
"This is why the hope of a college education is so … important to me," she wrote in her essay. "I genuinely believe in the power of education, a force capable of allowing me to foster passions and interests in the pursuit of a rewarding lifelong career."
McAvoy has been an academic powerhouse at her school. She is the valedictorian of a class of 243, with an unweighted GPA of 4.0, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist and an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction. In January, she finished second in the Region 3 Sunshine State Scholar competition in math and science.
She is aiming high in her college and career goals: to attend Harvard University to study biomedical engineering. Eventually, she wants to be involved in cancer research.
Beyond academics, McAvoy has been involved in a variety of activities at school and in the community. She has volunteered for the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville, Relay for Life and Teen Trend Setters. In 2007, she attended Florida Girls State and summer study programs at Duke and Harvard. She has tutored students in math and other subjects since 2004 and won academic awards in science, math, language arts, Spanish and history. She is editor of her high school newspaper.
Khalid Pagan, 17, Hillsborough
Pagan loves history and politics and plans to major in history in college. The Durant High School student has been accepted to Yale University.
His guidance counselor describes Pagan as "the complete package: He has it all — academic prowess, the respect of peers and faculty, leadership, a history of community service, goals and a cosmopolitan view of the world."
Pagan moved to Florida from New York City when he was 13 with his mother, stepfather and younger sisters. His father still lives in New York.
"Moving to Florida taught me that I can effectively adapt to changes," he wrote in his essay. "I believe that this experience will help me adjust to college, which is a completely different environment with absolutely no familiar people."
Pagan ranks eighth in his class of 584 with an unweighted GPA of 3.85. He is a National Merit Scholarship commended scholar and a National Achievement Scholarship semifinalist. He is president of the Beta Club and has been a member of the School Advisory Council, Key Club, National Honor Society, and Junior Civitan. He also volunteers at Nelson Elementary School and tutors students.
Lotiffa Colibao, 18, Hillsborough
The King High School student was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States when she was 5. Her parents came to America to find jobs before they sent for Colibao and her older siblings.
Colibao parents have relied on her to be their English teacher and translator.
"I like to think I matured sooner than my peers because of my experiences in a bilingual, immigrant family," she wrote in her essay. Her siblings now provide financial support for Colibao and her parents. She also has a part-time job.
Colibao has challenged herself academically in high school and hopes to study medicine in college. She would like to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and work in impoverished countries.
She is in the IB program at King High School and ranks in the top 1 percent, with an unweighted GPA of 3.98. She is an Advanced Placement Scholar with Honor. She has been on the principal's honor roll throughout high school.
Colibao is vice president of the Spanish Honor Society, a member of the National Honor Society, an ambassador in the Model United Nations, and a member of the debate club and the Junior Statesmen of America. She also is active in the Philippine Cultural Foundation in Hillsborough.
Her college choices include the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Florida, where she has been accepted.