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Festival shows program's success

Kari Heideman, 17, of New Orleans, left, chats with Alonso High student Britney Ebersole, 21, of Town ’N Country at the 13th annual ChairScholars Festival on Saturday.

AMY SCHERZER | Times

Kari Heideman, 17, of New Orleans, left, chats with Alonso High student Britney Ebersole, 21, of Town ’N Country at the 13th annual ChairScholars Festival on Saturday.

The recent afternoon picnic was a bit different than most others.

Hundreds of kids sang karaoke, painted a giant mural, shot paintball targets, slurped snow cones and ate barbecue.

Many in wheelchairs.

Of those picnickers, 33 were there to receive college scholarships. Another 95 were previous recipients, back to celebrate their achievements.

The Saturday gathering was the 13th annual ChairScholars Festival at the Odessa home of retired orthopedic surgeon Hugo Keim and his wife, Alicia. The founders of the ChairScholars Foundation have one goal: to raise money to help as many disabled and disadvantaged students go to college as possible.

"Lots of organizations help with physical needs,'' said program director Carroll Vick. "We are one of the few that helps with educational needs. People don't realize the financial impact a severe disability places on a family.''

With 1,000 guests and 100 volunteers listening in a gigantic tent, Tampa Bay Buccaneer football legend LeeRoy Selmon talked about some of the obstacles he overcame to reach his potential.

Prepaid tuition to Florida schools — two years of community college, followed by two years at any university in the state's system — is awarded to elementary and middle school students in Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. Sara Gaver, 15, of Port Orange is the first Volusia County recipient.

"Sara and the others will be assigned a mentor through the Take Stock in Children program who'll meet with them weekly until they graduate from high school," Vick said.

Ask Carlos "C.J." Garcia, 13, how he'll use his scholarship and he answers, "Computer science or mechanics.'' The Turkey Creek Middle School student with spina bifida "wheels a mile in 12 minutes,'' according to his father, Carlos Sr.

"Three doctors told me to have an abortion,'' said his mother, Tammy Garcia.

National scholarships provide $5,000 a year to any U.S. four-year college. Three of those recipients attended the picnic, including Kari Heideman, 17, of New Orleans, who will attend Tulane University.

"For that, they need a very high GPA, good SAT scores, a record of community service, as well as great financial need," Vick said. "We get a couple hundred applications a year and usually take about 10 percent."

The Keims started the foundation 17 years ago in New York, when Keim was chief of spinal surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Their compassion for living with physical limitations stems from his having an artificial eye and her suffering from severe scoliosis. "We started with two students,'' said Keim, "and to date, we've sent 641 to college and raised $7 million."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at scherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

Festival shows program's success 04/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 4:30am]
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