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  1. Education

Only two years old, charity for autism siblings continues to grow

TAMPA — Fifteen-year-old Regan Black came to the awards ceremony prepared with words written on a lined slip of paper. Then she promptly went off script as she addressed the finalists for the Sydney Has a Sister Scholarship.

"I don't know where this is going," her mother said with a grin as Regan launched into a scattered diatribe of fragmented sentences that ended with the lilting thought that "The sun will come out tomorrow."

Then it was time to yield the spotlight to Regan's older sister, Sydney, 16, so she could announce the winners.

To be sure, it was an understanding crowd that had gathered to show their appreciation to kids like Sydney who have been affected by a sibling's disability.

As with Regan, some in attendance have been diagnosed with autism. Others — a blending of family and supportive friends — have a pretty good idea of the sacrifices that are often made by their siblings.

Giving recognition to those kids in the shadows is the mission of the Sydney Has a Sister Scholarship Foundation. The nonprofit program, created by Ernie and Becky Black of Land O'Lakes, is an optimistic offshoot of their own experience — an idea that sprung from a wistful notion when Becky Black, 44, a career specialist at Sunlake High in Land O'Lakes, went looking for scholarship money for her eldest daughter.

She discovered there were no scholarships for kids like Sydney, a bright and bubbly teen who had long embraced the role of sister, best friend and caretaker to Regan.

So in 2013 the Blacks created one.

In two years, the family has raised close to $40,000, doling out six $1,000 scholarships in 2014 and another 14 this year totaling $13,000. Funds were also allocated for classroom supplies for students with disabilities at Lake Myrtle Elementary in Land O'Lakes and at Weightman Middle in Wesley Chapel. In addition, a cash donation was made to purchase holiday gifts for adults with autism.

Sydney, a junior at Sunlake High, has been a pivotal presence at fundraising events and voicing her experiences to help recruit business donors.

"It's mind blowing to see how the foundation has grown," she said.

Sydney also has the honor of announcing the scholarship winners in person and through video chats for those who cannot attend the annual scholarship dinner.

"That was so much fun," she said. "It was so easy to talk with them. I had to think, 'These kids are just like me.' "

Applications came from throughout Florida and, surprisingly, other states, prompting the Blacks to push up the time line so they could expand their reach. Six of the 14 scholarships went to out-of-state college-bound seniors, all whom spent time volunteering or furthering autism awareness in their communities.

"We were really, really impressed with this year's applicants," said Ernie Black, 44, noting the students had to write an essay, create a video about their sibling and provide teacher recommendations.

"I think the one interesting thing about their submissions is the variability of their siblings' function," Becky Black said. "Some had siblings that were high functioning. Others were not. But the trials and tribulations they have gone through have been similar."

Local winners included Caroline Brady, 18, a 2015 graduate of Clearwater Central Catholic who is now attending Florida State University. She wrote about her brother, William, 20, an avid film buff who counts To Kill a Mockingbird as his favorite. She was president and he served as an influential and well-spoken ambassador of a local chapter of Best Buddies International, a program that promotes the message of forging friendships with people with disabilities.

"Growing up, William always had trouble making friends," his sister said. "(Best Buddies) made William's high school years so much better."

Winners Domenico and Samuele Adamita, 18, two of four quadruplets who graduated from Mitchell High in New Port Richey, have volunteered with Pasco Special Olympics with their brother, Salvatore Jr., who was diagnosed with autism. Domenico will attend Pasco-Hernando State College; Samuele will study in the College of Music at Florida State. Salvatore Jr. will attend Marchman Technical College.

Mitch McCurnin, 17, showed up wearing a suit jacket with his brother and "partner in crime" Jon, 19, both of whom graduated from Pasco High in early June. The two worked together during the school year designing and selling T-shirts to raise $1,700 for Autism Speaks. While Jon is high-functioning, doing well enough in math to take college-level algebra, Mitch has been a constant presence, offering advice on social skills and how to dress.

The brothers will now take separate paths, with Mitch attending the University of Tampa and Jon taking classes at Pasco-Hernando State College.

Other local winners included Maria Jose, 17, Bloomingdale High; John Rivera, 17, Sunlake High; and Megan Sanchez, 18, Wesley Chapel High.

The Blacks are looking to expand the program by applying for grants and hosting annual fundraising events, such as a scavenger hunt in September in Ybor City and a golf tournament in October.

"I'd like to give out 50 scholarships," said Ernie Black.

That's a number Becky Black might find plausible.

"It's always been in Ernie's head that this was going to be big," she said. "To me, it was surprising to see it grow so fast and go nationwide. It makes me a little nervous, but also excited about what we might grow into."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.

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