The Woodson Warriors Scholarship program is now in its fourth year of helping local Black high school students achieve their dreams of attending college – and the program’s creators are announcing a new class of outstanding youth Saturday.
The program is the brainchild of artist Jane Bunker and was established in partnership with Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida, in 2018. The program awards recurring scholarships of $5,000 to highly-qualified students in St. Petersburg through the duration of their college tenures.
On Saturday (May 7) at Eckerd College, Bunker and Lipsey Scott are welcoming 11 new scholars into the Woodson Warriors family, and it may be the most decorated class yet.
“We have Boca Ciega’s (High School) first African American male salutatorian in our new class,” said Lipsey Scott. “We have a kid going off to Columbia (University) – the kids we selected this year, their average GPA is 4.1.
“It is amazing.”
Bunker explained the plan is to cap the number of recipients at 40 to ensure the program has enough funding to support the kids through their college careers. Each Warrior has the potential to receive $20,000 over four years in higher education.
“Even though it’s almost impossible to turn these applications down because they’re all really outstanding,” added Bunker.
Bunker explained that students must reapply every year and earn a 3.0 or better GPA to maintain eligibility. Not only has every Woodson Warrior met the criteria, but she said there was an extra scholarship this year because a student from the inaugural class is graduating in three years rather than four.
“So far, we haven’t had anyone not qualify for the next year of their scholarships,” said Bunker. “And we’ve had no dropouts.”
Bunker said the students are practical in picking majors that correlate to an in-demand field of employment. She maintains a close relationship with the scholars and views everyone involved as one big family. She also called the Warriors the most appreciative group of young people she has ever met.
“They just don’t feel like they are entitled to any of this,” said Bunker. “They just feel grateful.”
Bunker has led a wonderful life, she said, but called watching the success of the Woodson Warriors a “life highlight.”
“I was just thinking about it today,” said Bunker. “I was a psychologist for many years, and I’ve painted most of my life, and I have a wonderful family, but this kind of brings everything together and makes my heart happy.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.”
The inaugural Woodson Warrior class featured 11 students, and auctioning Bunker’s artwork funded the first scholarships. When Covid canceled the 2020 art auction, Bunker again sold several paintings privately to help continue the program. Positive word of mouth then permeated the surrounding community, and an outpouring of generosity followed. The Woodson Warrior program raised $43,000 that year – almost matching the amount from 2019.
After reading an interview with Bunker on the program’s plight in 2020, local philanthropists Jeanne and Kevin Milkey of the Milkey Family Foundation rose to the occasion. The Milkeys pledged $50,000 annually over 10 years to help ensure the success of the Woodson Warriors.
In addition to the Milkeys’ recurring generosity, the Tampa Bay Rays, BayCare, Valspar and Copperheads Charities, Healthy Start, Premier Eye Care, ASALH, Tombolo Books and many private individuals are also key contributors to the Woodson Warriors and donate regularly.
In March of 2021, the art auction returned, and Bunker enlisted the help of several notable local artists to raise money for the program. The program also made up for lost time, as 20 new students received scholarships.
“It was somewhat complicated, but we did make a fair amount of money,” said Bunker. “We were able to give away $137,000.”
In place of an art auction this year, the Woodson Warrior Scholarship fund held a public fundraising gala at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg March 27. The event featured “a pretty big star” as a keynote speaker that helped draw a large audience – Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The New York Times’ The 1619 Project.
The fundraising gala featured the services of auctioneer Jason Alpert, who led the 2021 art auction. Instead of a traditional auction, Alpert led a “bid from the heart” fundraising event. The asking price for donations began at $50,000 and worked down to $100.
“And we do have some people that are giving $50,000,” said Bunker.
Bunker said organizers offer a special gift to the last person donating $100, usually a stay at a local resort. She said this often creates somewhat of a bidding war to see who can be the last to donate $100.
Bunker relayed that at one event, the organization received around $10,000 solely from small donations that were under $100. She believes the most important aspect of the program is everyone coming together to make a difference in their own way.
“This is a community effort,” said Bunker. “While it may look like we’re just giving to the scholars, the scholars are giving back to us.
“It can’t work without everybody coming together.”
Lipsey Scott said the Woodson Warrior Scholarship program raised over $300,000 during the gala in March, and the organization’s leadership will present $200,000 Saturday to 40 local Black students.
“It demonstrates the care and compassion that our community has for ensuring the success of African American scholars who need us the most,” said Lipsey Scott.
The 2022 Woodson Warrior class includes Jeremiah B. Daniels IV, Boca Ciega High School’s first Black male salutatorian; Ciera Larae Marion; London Starks; Diamond M. Brown; Nia Tomalin; Yamira Patterson; Kyla Tearett; Zoe Webster; Zaniya Biddines; Haydn Charles Kelly; and Jasmine Maria Oliphant.
The Woodson Warriors chosen in May 2021 included Aaliyah Austin-Williams; Andra Walters Jr; Bree Wilson; Carlos Walker; Chessidy Lester; Collis McKenzie; Daijanae Adams; Jaiden Jones; Jamilya Lee; Janae Terrell; Jordan Bolds; Kendrick Gordon; Marnika Hancock; Menia Neal; Michael Barfield; Richelle Still; Sariah Willson; Shakenya Clark; Sydney Martin; and Taj Josiah Naiem Fleming.
The inaugural Woodson Warriors included Amya Ellison; Aniyah Willis; Chandrahasa Srinivasa; Charnecia Cummings; Daniel Sanders; Demetrius Williams; Diamond Scrivens; Kaila Priester; Lauryn Latimer; Tori Roberts; and Zakaria White.
The invitation-only Woodson Warriors Scholarship Luncheon takes place Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Fox Hall at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg. For more information, contact Terri Lipsey Scott at (727) 434-0777 or Larry Biddle at (813) 417-1225; learn more about the Woodson Warriors program here.