Scholarship winners David DeGenaro, left, won the $2,000 scholarship, Briah Thomas, center, won the $3,000 scholarship, and Ansley Selander, right, won the $4,000 scholarship Monday during the annual Alan Jay Automotive Network and Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Awards and Recognition Banquet at Island View Restaurant., KILE BREWER/STAFF
SEBRING - Ten high school seniors, eight from Sebring High School and two from Heartland Christian Academy, were recognized Monday at the 23rd annual Scholarship Awards & Recognition Banquet presented by the Alan Jay Automotive Network and the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce.
Three Sebring High seniors were presented with scholarships: Ansley Selander, $4,000; Briah Thomas, $3,000, and David DeGenaro, $2,000.
Alan Jay Wildstein said college is expensive and it takes a community to raise these kids.
In 23 years, the scholarship awards effort has provided $140,000 in scholarship funds, he said. "For a small community, we have people with big hearts."
The ultimate goal is to have a self-funded scholarship program, Wildstein said.
The event was held at the Island View Lakefront Restaurant at Sun 'n Lake where attendees donated $5,526 for scholarships, which was doubled to $11,052 by Wildstein, who then rounded the total up to $15,000.
The other seniors who were recognized from Sebring High are: Olivia Colangelo, Amelia Ritenour, Luke Smith, Kaley Terrell and Rachel Todd.
The two seniors who were recognized from Heartland Christian Academy are: Caitlin Conrad and Shayne Fassler.
Courtesy of Highlands Today - 2015
SEBRING - At one time, he planned to take to the skies as an indoctrinated and staunch believer and supporter of the cause and commitment promised by the doctrine of shared education, healthcare and wealth.
But now, Alejandro Roque said he is a grounded, staunch supporter and avid believer in the democracy and the idealogies of opportunities and freedoms for all.
Roque currently spends his workdays as a porter and car detailer at Alan Jay Toyota, Sebring, where he shuttles cars from different ports and makes their interiors and bodies gleam. But over two decades ago, Roque was an his way to a military career as a Soviet Union-trained jet pilot fighter ready to protect the Cuban Caribbean epicenter of Communism - and in the process, he literally became a prisoner of a political system.
Now living in Sebring for about eight months with his wife, Ingrid, Roque's life is a lot more steady and leveled than the time he spent flying 50,000 feet in the air. It's also more liberating than the one year he spent of an 18-year sentence toiling in one of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's incarceration camps in San Antonio, Cuba, for repealing his allegiance to the dogma of a dictatorship.
"By merely facing the communist lie in its various forms, one way or another, I ended up sent to Castro's prisons and hard labor camps, repealing my rights, freedom of opinion, assembly, association, and to express my religious or political beliefs," Roque, 51, wrote in an autobiographical newsletter article. "That's the system I left behind in 1994, when freed from the false mirage of socialism."
Roque's path from Havana, Cuba, to the former Soviet Union, back to Cuba and on to America and a Sebring car sales lot began as a child, where he said he grew up as part of "Castro's experiment" - "brainwashing" programmed by a the Communist idealists.
Sitting at a bench for lunch Wednesday at Alan Jay Toyota, 404 North U.S. 27, Roque - the youngest of four brothers - Roque recalled the once-lofty, idealized goals he had as a 17-year-old boy ready to soar the skies. He said his family, like others in Cuba at the time, "was completely linked to the revolutionary process" until a communist state was declared in 1959, leading most of his family into exile in Miami.
Shortly after high school, the same link led Roque into an indoctrination into Marxism and by 1981 into Soviet jet fighter training, including complex psychological and visual reflexive tests and training in "the Barocámara," a metal chamber and operational Russian spaceflight capsule which cosmonauts used when returning to earth.
"All those who overcame them (tests) ... were then suited to be added to the group of cadets who will be going to the Soviet Union and to begin their careers at the Air Force Military Institute in the city of Krasnodar, close to the Kuban River and not far from the Black Sea," he said.
Roque spent time flying in MIG-23BN Soviet fighter-bombers at supersonic speeds, preparing for a career in the Cuban military until he decided to face what he called the "Communist lie" and repeal his allegiance, causing his court-martial in 1986. He went back home, under constant surveillance, and in 1991 tried to leave Cuba for the U.S. by raft, where he was intercepted in the Straits of Florida by Cuban officials.
That's when Roque said he ended up giving up his rights, opinions and freedoms to express his religious and political beliefs and being thrown into jail for five months and into a labor camp for a half year.
"Since I was little, they told me to be against the 'imperial' forces and there was no way to know about the outside world at that time," he said.
In 1994, through a U.S. government program for political refugees, Roque was finally able to leave Cuba for Miami. Since then, he said he received a bachelor degree from Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, and master's degree from Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale and went on to found an online book sales company, "Alejandro's Libros." He even authored an autobiography, "Born Motherland or Death."
Roque's story of tenacity was so inspiring to Alan Jay's transportation manager Sam Dunn, a Vietnam war veteran, that he featured him in the company's Fourth of July issue newsletter. He said he found Roque's background and will to overcome political and social repression and his gratefulness for democracy needed to be shared as July 4 approaches.
"Here's a guy that exemplifies the American dream. It's a great story and I'm proud of him for doing what he did. I thought his background was fascinating," he said.