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$2M gift ensures future of Walker’s Rising Stars arts competition in Pinellas

The program launched 19 years ago with funding from St. Petersburg physician Jeffrey Walker.
Philanthropist Jeffrey Walker, center, joins students rehearsing for the Walker’s Rising Stars competition at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Thursday, May 12, 2022. From left are Megan Bishop, Kiley Campbell, Christy Do, Luna Garcia, Walker, Pinellas Education Foundation CEO Stacy Baier, Meghan McMillin, Charlie Lane, Sophia Sapienza and Afeiyah Kamall.
Philanthropist Jeffrey Walker, center, joins students rehearsing for the Walker’s Rising Stars competition at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Thursday, May 12, 2022. From left are Megan Bishop, Kiley Campbell, Christy Do, Luna Garcia, Walker, Pinellas Education Foundation CEO Stacy Baier, Meghan McMillin, Charlie Lane, Sophia Sapienza and Afeiyah Kamall. [ Courtesy of Pinellas Education Foundation ]
Published May 12

Jeffrey Walker, the St. Petersburg neurosurgeon who helped start the Walker’s Rising Stars student arts competition 19 years ago, is ramping up his support with a $2 million gift to keep the program going “in perpetuity,” the Pinellas Education Foundation announced late Thursday.

The foundation disclosed the donation during the Walker’s Rising Stars show at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The annual event features live performances in the categories of dance, instrumental music, theater and vocal, while also showcasing student work in the visual and culinary arts. The evening culminates with an announcement of the winners and the awarding of scholarships.

“As we approach our 20th anniversary, and in thinking about how to give back, I knew I wanted to continue to support students. I love kids; they’re the future,” Walker said in a statement provided by the foundation. “I love the arts and I owe everything I have to education. This program makes a material difference in these students’ lives, and that makes me happy.”

Walker’s Rising Stars is a year-long initiative which assists Pinellas County high school juniors and seniors in the arts as they hone their audition and portfolio skills. Over the years, the program has awarded more than $800,000 in scholarships.

It also provides “more equitable access for all students to be supported in their preparation for future visual and performing art experiences, and by college scholarships connected to the arts,” foundation CEO Stacy Baier said in a news release.

The program builds confidence and supports families who have invested in their children’s arts training, Walker said in the release. “A fair number of our students have successfully used their experience on stage here in applying to competitive schools like Juilliard and the Cleveland Institute of Art,” he said.

This year’s competition includes students from East Lake, Gibbs, Hollins, Northeast, Osceola Fundamental, Palm Harbor University, Seminole, St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg Collegiate high schools.

The competition and awards show are produced by the Pinellas Education Foundation in partnership with Pinellas County Schools. The Ryan Wells Foundation presents scholarships in the culinary arts category.

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