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Tampa year in review: Whatever happened to these people and places?

Monica Sierra, who married banker Doug Schaefer, still intends to work in ministry and will practice law in Connecticut.

Courtesy of Monica Sierra

Monica Sierra, who married banker Doug Schaefer, still intends to work in ministry and will practice law in Connecticut.

City Times has written about some interesting people and projects in the past year. In some cases, we know you've been wondering what happened after the story. So, just for you, we decided to find out.

The school? Enduring.

DOWNTOWN — Year after year, St. Peter Claver Catholic School seems on the verge of closing, yet somehow the school squeaks by with late-year donations.

Same thing this year.

In September, the school, considered the oldest active black parochial school in Florida, reported a staggering $400,000 budget shortfall. The 115-year-old school at the corner of Scott and Governor streets downtown has struggled since the Roman Catholic Diocese stopped subsidizing its private schools in 2007.

Additionally, Central Park Village, a 484-unit public housing complex next door, was demolished. It had been a major source of students, whose tuition is $4,000 a year.

For the second year in a row, the school and nearby St. Peter Claver Catholic Church raised enough money to keep going. A Nov. 7 fundraising dinner and silent auction raised about $30,000. A company bought the school textbooks and athletic uniforms.

The school has enough money to finish the calendar year and hopes to secure grants in 2010 to keep running.

About 10 new students have enrolled for a total of 94 students.

Sister Maria Babatunde, St. Peter Claver's principal, hopes to recruit more children and has restarted a basketball and track team for the first time in about five years. The school has also started science, gardening and drama clubs.

"This is something that appeals to the students that we serve," Babatunde said. "In addition to academics, we want the students to excel in other areas."

Justin George, Times staff writer

… Former Judge Monica Sierra? Baby on the way.

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough Circuit Judge Monica Sierra happily follows the path the Lord puts in front of her. But her life sure has taken some surprising turns since she resigned from the bench to minister to Palestinian refugees.

A March 21 wedding at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort was one unexpected event. Marriage was never near the top of her goals, she told City Times in June.

Until Doug Schaefer came along.

The Connecticut banker visited the Living Bread International Church ministry in Jerusalem and Hebron in the West Bank, where Sierra was organizing food distributions in refugee camps and handling administrative duties for the mission.

During the short time he was there, just a week in July 2008, Schaefer told her it was God's will for them to marry.

And now, to their delight, the couple will become parents in March.

"Talk about a life turning around,'' said Sierra, 42. "Being a mom is an unexpected and wonderful surprise."

Morning sickness has passed, and she swims every morning. "I feel great even though I've gained 20 pounds," she said.

At one time Hillsborough's youngest elected judge, Sierra quit without completing her first term. A three-month sabbatical that began in Christmas 2007 to spread the Gospel was extended indefinitely.

Schaefer, 46, is the father of two sons, 11 and 13, and is hoping for a girl this time. Sierra said they postponed a summer trip to Israel until after the baby is born.

Meanwhile, Sierra still intends to work in ministry with the nondenominational Living Bread church. She also passed the state bar exam in Connecticut, where she and Schaefer now live, and in November was sworn in to practice law there.

"I'm trying not to take on too many clients now so I can spend time with the baby."

Amy Scherzer, Times staff writer

… Big John's? Fired up for a January opening.

EAST TAMPA — Rumor on the street had the restaurant closing for good.

But it's coming back, promises Beth Major, who runs Big John's Alabama Barbecue with her brother, Fred Stephens.

The grand opening of the new 2,200-square-foot building at 5707 N 40th St. is set for mid January, she says.

Tampa's oldest continuously family-owned barbecue joint closed March 31 and was razed days later to make way for the widening of 40th Street, one of East Tampa's main roads. It was first scheduled to reopen yards away from its former spot in September.

And while former customers are fired up for Southern-style ribs and chopped pork, the open-fire grill still hasn't fired up.

"Believe me, baby, people are driving me crazy everywhere I go," said Major. "They all say: 'When you opening?' "

Major's father, the Rev. John Andrew Stephens, started the restaurant in 1968 and, with his 10 children, served carry-out, all the while refusing to reveal the ingredients in his secret tangy sauce. He died in 1994 at age 72 after a heart attack.

Stephens was a big man with a humble heart, Major said.

Which is how patron Paula Mathis remembers him.

She and her toddler daughter, Cindy, were regulars in the '70s.

Big John, as Stephens was known, would pick Cindy up and sit her on the counter where they would talk eye to eye, Mathis said.

"The essence of Big John's Alabama Barbecue was so much more than wonderful food," she said.

Elisabeth Parker, Times staff writer

Adrian White? He's waiting for a chance at football.

TAMPA — This past summer, as Adrian White's classmates at Chamberlain High School prepared to go off to college, he went searching for a job.

His dreams of playing college football were put on hold because his grades and test scores were too low to get into the colleges he had dreamed of attending.

Since graduation, Adrian has been working at Mike's Pies near Waters Avenue and Dale Mabry while plotting his next move.

He has applied to Alabama State and Grambling State (in Louisiana) and hopes to get an answer soon.

Mike's Pies' owner, Mike Martin, described Adrian as a hard worker and "very quiet person." So quiet that Martin had no idea Adrian had dreams of playing college football until a reporter told him.

Martin, who was a linebacker at Kentucky and a ninth-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1978, walked straight over to Adrian and asked him about it.

He discovered that Adrian, a strong safety, played against Martin's boys while they were at Plant High School. One son is now a wide receiver at Michigan State. Another is a safety at Elon University in North Carolina.

Martin asked Adrian for a highlight video so he can show it to a nephew who runs a scouting service for schools. Universities pay recruiting services for these highlight tapes in order to find good players.

Adrian, meanwhile, awaits an answer from the colleges where he has applied and is enjoying his job. He's picking up skills he hopes will help him if football doesn't work out.

"One day, I may want to own a restaurant," he said. "I think (my job) will give me experience I can use later on in life."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen, Times staff writer

Dad of gunshot victim? Creating awareness.

BAYSHORE BEAUTIFUL — After 19-year-old John Taylor Weber accidentally shot himself eight months ago, his parents' grief was almost unbearable.

"To lose a child is the worst," said his father, John M. Weber. "I felt stripped down to the bones."

Searching for grounding, he started going to church and stopped watching violent movies. He built a Web site to tell his son's story, thesilentbang.com, and made plans to talk to kids in schools. He will start at Plant High School in January. He hopes to save others from the pain of losing a loved one to a gun.

He wears a gold lapel pin on his jacket. When asked, he tells people it's a gift from LifeLink Foundation, given to family members of organ donors. He then tells them about John, who loved surfing, driving his Toyota XRS, his dog, Mikan, and his family and friends.

John had been about to graduate from Tampa Preparatory School when he picked up a loaded .45-caliber pistol at a friend's house. He was holding it in his lap when it went off, Tampa police detectives told his father.

His friends still post on his Facebook page and the site his father created. Recently, Kevin Plummer, headmaster at Tampa Prep, posted regards on the site, telling the family he thinks of them often.

After graduation, John's classmates planted a 20-foot magnolia tree by the senior parking lot with a marble plaque dedicated to John with the words: Give Us Strength.

John had wanted a tattoo on his back of a cross and the words "Give Me Strength."

Elisabeth Parker, Times staff writer

... Cemetery foliage? Replaced.

EAST TAMPA — To disturb the dead the way the thieves did was a crime of indecency, according to the Italian Club.

"Everybody thought it was despicable," said Sam Manna, president of the Italian Club Cemetery Committee.

The crime happened over the summer. A thief jumped the Italian Club Cemetery's fence at night, dug up about 40 yellow ixoras that lined the mausoleum, a few crotons and some other plants, and took off with the shrubbery.

It was a strange whodunit.

Here's what happened in the months that followed.

In late July, club members held a Casino Night fundraiser that raised $4,000 for the cemetery's repair.

They contacted the East Tampa Development department, which sent over a Tampa police detective who mounted a camera inside the cemetery. The Italian Club put out a few plants and bags of mulch as bait.

No one showed up, which gave the club confidence to replant.

In mid November, the Italian Club spent close to $1,000 replacing the missing shrubs and flowers.

The next day, members held their annual "Picnic with the Past" at the cemetery to celebrate. So far, so good.

"The plants have stayed in the ground as should be," Manna said.

Also staying put was a videocamera.

Plant snatchers, beware.

Justin George, Times staff writer

... The advocate? Progressing.

TAMPA — Elizabeth Davis visited Tampa in May to raise money for a training and leadership institute in Rwanda. The mayor of Bugesera and the minister of education were offering an abandoned school on 85 acres for the Akilah Institute for Women, Davis told 300 guests gathered to hear her pitch.

Executive director Davis would need $1 million to cover the first year of operations and phase one of renovation and construction. Donations that evening put her more than $30,000 toward that goal.

The eldest of four daughters of a prominent South Tampa family, Davis, 25, learned to speak Kinyarwanda and became an expert on Hutu-Tutsi genocide while a student at Vanderbilt University. She knew then that she wanted to live and work in Rwanda.

The first class of 50 girls will begin Feb. 1, Davis wrote in a recent e-mail, but not on the Bugesera campus she'd hoped to have renovated by then. Although Architecture for Humanity completed the design to accommodate 225 boarding students, numerous changes in local and state government leadership brought construction setbacks.

Rather than delay a year, Davis will proceed in a rented building in the capital of Kigali. The first year curriculum of intense English, computer skills and hospitality courses will provide young women with skills to find good jobs. Then, when the courses move to the Bugesera campus, they will earn a two-year diploma, preparing them to work in Rwanda's hospitality industry, the fastest growing sector of the economy.

To date, Davis has hired three teachers, a Rwandan operations manager and an American intern. She is interviewing prospective development directors and updates the progress of her project online at akilahinstitute.org.

Half the students will pay full tuition, and the rest will receive scholarships, she writes, so fundraising efforts continue. Donors from Hong Kong and the United States are expected to attend opening ceremonies Feb. 6.

Davis will take a break for the holidays. For Christmas, she's coming home to Tampa.

Amy Scherzer, Times staff writer

... Two fun trails? On their way.

Get ready to skate, bike or stroll on a new 1-mile asphalt trail along Manhattan Avenue.

City Times told you about the trail as it headed for a vote before the City Council in October.

Last week construction workers started marking utility lines and identifying trees in its path to either cut or move, said Laurie Potier-Brown, overseeing the project for the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

The strip, part of an 18-mile trail linking Bayshore Boulevard to the Gandy Bridge, is on track to be paved by the end of April, she said.

It will run from Interbay Boulevard to just south of Gandy Boulevard.

And while we're rolling out trail news, here's an update on the South Davis Boulevard Trail, the 1.33-mile asphalt trail on the south end of Davis Islands.

In August when we told readers about the trail, Jeffrey Siewert, president of the Davis Islands Civic Association, had hoped to be enjoying it on New Year's Day.

Bids from construction contractors started coming in last week, said Potier-Brown. The project will be awarded in about a month and then begin.

Elisabeth Parker, Times staff writer

Tampa year in review: Whatever happened to these people and places? 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 3:31am]
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