In the third grade, Danielle Dito wrote an essay describing her dream of becoming a pediatrician.
That year, Danielle was given the chance to make those dreams a reality. She became a Doorways scholar, part of a program that awards scholarships to students who might not otherwise go to college.
On Thursday, Danielle stood before more than 4,000 Doorways scholars, parents, schoolteachers, administrators and program sponsors at the 10th Annual Doorways Celebration at Tropicana Field and described the obstacles she has faced in staying on her path to medicine.
Danielle, who is 13 now, said she was grateful for the award when she got it but is just now beginning to understand what it could mean for her future.
"Without college you can't do very much," Danielle said. "I would tell kids who are getting the scholarship now that even though it doesn't mean something big now, it's going to be something really big for them when they get to high school and they have to choose a college."
The Doorways scholarship program began in 1992, when Pinellas School District superintendent Howard Hinesley had the idea to help promising schoolchildren reach and be able to afford college _ children who otherwise might not have had a chance at a post-high school education. The $6,500 scholarship goes toward four years at a Florida college or technical school and is funded by donations from area businesses that are matched by money from the state. The scholarships are funded by the Pinellas County Education Foundation.
The selection process varies from school to school, but students in low-income families who have good grades and good attitudes toward education are identified by teachers and recommended for a program. The students then sign a contract saying they will maintain above-average grades and remain drug- and crime-free.
Not only does the scholarship not come easily, Danielle said, but it takes hard work to keep it.
The eighth-grader at Bay Point Middle School said she is working hard to "stay on the right path" after she faced a difficult transition in the seventh grade. Last year Dito's father, John Dito, was injured at work and was on worker's compensation. Her stepmother, Mary Dito, suffered a brain aneurism and was also forced to stop working.
These difficulties, said John Dito, brought the harsh realities of life to the forefront of Danielle's life _ something she did not initially handle very well. Danielle's grades dropped, her teachers complained and she often skipped school.
But the threat of losing the scholarship helped her pick herself back up, John Dito said.
"Other children look up to her now. She's gained a lot of respect from teachers," he said. "For us the scholarship is kind of like a deep breath _ it takes a lot of pressure off the parent when we don't have to worry about all this money right now."
The relief from that worry is a "blessing," said Brenda Boykins, mother of 15-year-old Johnny Boykins, who also received a Doorways scholarship when he was in the third grade. Both mother and son shared their experiences at Thursday's event.
Brenda Boykins, a single mother of three boys ages 15, 13 and 1, said getting her children through college has always been a huge concern for her.
That's true "especially for Johnny, because he has so many goals and things he wants to do," she said.
A 10th-grader at Gibbs High School, Johnny Boykins is enrolled in the Pinellas County Center for the Arts' vocal music program. But music is not his final destination, he said. He wants to be an FBI negotiator.
His road toward college has also been rough at times, he said. When his grandfather died in 1994, Boykins said he was angry and rebelled.
"I didn't do anything. I didn't do any work," he said. "One day something told me I have to move on."
Helping children in adverse situations succeed in the path to college is precisely what the Doorways scholarship program is about, said Doorways chairman Bill Johnson.
"You take a kid who has no chance of going to college and you get them through it," he said.
Johnson, who has personally sponsored scholarships for more than 400 Doorways students, is the leading spokesman for the program and has worked to involve local organizations and businesses such as Aon Consulting, Catalina Marketing, First Union National Bank, Florida Power, Kane's Furniture, Bank of America and Franklin Templeton. Every dollar donated to the program goes directly toward a student's scholarship and is matched by state funds.
These businesses not only donate their money to the program, but many help to provide some of the thousands of mentors who meet weekly with scholarship recipients to monitor their progress.
With more than $11-million of scholarship money donated in the past 10 years, the program is growing rapidly, said Doorways director Maria Kadau.
With every dollar donated going toward a scholarship, Johnson said, the program sells itself.
"If you give me the money for Doorways, I'll give you a kid," he said.
With a 94 percent retention rate and more than 200 Doorways graduates at Florida colleges and universities, the program's success has caught the attention of similar efforts throughout the United States, Johnson said.
The more than 2,000 bright-eyed children who stared at Thursday's speakers, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, eagerly clapped and shouted encouragement to their fellow Doorways scholars Danielle Dito and Johnny Boykins.
The children weren't disappointed.
"Never give up," Johnny Boykins said. "Set your goals high, have fun and be open to new people and new things. I know anybody can do it _ if you set your mind to do it, you can."