CLEARWATER — Growing up, Valiece Long grew accustomed to the way her older sisters' hand-me-down clothing fit her small frame.
The 17-year-old recalls using common household items to create games with her siblings.
There often wasn't enough money for Christmas gifts.
But the five children understood that their mother was doing her best to support the family after their father's death in a tragic accident, Valiece said.
That's why the Clearwater High senior is especially proud of winning one of five $40,000 "Leaders 4 Life" scholarships awarded this year by the statewide nonprofit group Take Stock in Children.
The scholarship, for low-income or at-risk children who have shown promise, will cover miscellaneous college expenses such as housing, meals and books for four years. Valiece's tuition will be covered by a combination of scholarships from Take Stock in Children and the state's Bright Futures program.
"Now my mom has one less child to worry about," said Valiece, an aspiring neurosurgeon who plans to attend the University of Florida this fall. "I never thought anything like that would happen to me because a lot of kids don't get this opportunity. It's just a blessing."
It's a blessing shaped largely out of the family's darkest hours.
Valiece was 2 1/2 and her oldest sibling was 8 when their father, Victor Long, dived off a boat near the Courtney Campbell Parkway into Old Tampa Bay and struck his head on a rock.
The May 1996 incident left Valiece's then-26-year-old stay-at-home mom, Sadreta Wagner, alone with five children, no job and no college degree. She temporarily moved her family into a cramped, two-bedroom duplex with her grandmother and an uncle and found clerical and home aide work at an assisted living facility.
"There were times we had to maintain with candles," said Wagner, who also has worked in retail and recently began working at a bank after being unemployed for two years.
"But I tried to raise them to be grateful for what we had," she said, "so they never acted out when they had to do without."
That attitude stuck with Valiece while growing up.
She is on track to graduate June 9 with a grade point average of 4.5 that she earned while juggling college and advanced placement high school classes, cheerleading, running track, mentoring and tutoring elementary school children, serving on various academic clubs and volunteering at church.
"I know what I'm capable of, and I want to make my mom proud," she said. "There's too much I've overcome to stop now."
Guidance counselors, coaches, teachers and acquaintances describe Valiece as hardworking, enthusiastic and bright.
"I've seen a lot of students come through in my 19 years, and she really is top shelf in spite of the adversity she's gone through," said assistant principal Leslie Hopkins. "That's the reason why we come to work — because of students like Valiece. That's what keeps us doing what we do."
This marked the first year that the Delray Beach-based Asofsky Family Foundation partnered with Take Stock in Children to offer Leaders 4 Life fellowships.
The funds are meant to supplement the tuition-only scholarships offered through Take Stock in Children, which identifies students in middle school and provides mentors to help them stay on track to meet the program's graduation requirements.
Valiece — who applied through Doorways, the Pinellas Education Foundation's branch of the Take Stock program — was among five scholarship recipients chosen from a pool of 150 applicants.
"Even though they're given a tuition-only scholarship, students often can't afford everything that goes along with it or they have to choose to go to their local community college because they can't afford housing or meal plans or whatever," said foundation director Mark Asofsky.
"We felt it was a great opportunity to help encourage and develop leadership potential within our state, particularly for kids who in most of these cases are the first in their family to attend college," he said.
Valiece said her brother and two older sisters, who are at community colleges in Tallahassee and Chattahoochee, are proud of her accomplishments and for telling their story in a way they didn't know how.
Their mother says Valiece's persistence has made her a role model for her younger sister, who is in eighth grade.
Valiece paused recently while reflecting on her father's death, which partly inspired her decision to pursue a medical degree. Yes, she said, she believes he also would be proud of her accomplishments, as well as of her plan to one day offer scholarships through her own nonprofit.
"I want to give back the way (the Asofsky Family Foundation) gave back to me," she said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.