Brianna Florio, Chris Vanasse and Tayla Hall, all Warwick residents graduating high school this year, received a unique opportunity Thursday when they were each awarded $1,850 from the Cataract Fire Company No. 2 Scholarship Fund.
Florio, who will graduate from Pilgrim High School and attend the Massachusetts College of Art and Design where she will major in Illustration, said it was an honor to be selected.
“There are so many scholarships and it’s so competitive, so to be able to have your hard work recognized, it’s such an honor and it makes me want to work even harder in college,” she said. “I learned a lot, and if you want something bad enough, don’t let money stand in your way; if you work hard, you can accomplish anything.”
Vanasse, who will graduate from Bishop Hendricken High School and attend Stetson University in Florida where he will major in Business Administration, also said he was honored.
“There were a bunch of applicants, but the fact that they selected me, even though I may not necessarily be in the top of my class, I still got good grades, and I appreciate being recognized for that,” he said.
Hall, who will graduate from Prout High School and attend Salve Regina University in Newport where she will major in Psychology, said the scholarship has allowed her to attend her “dream college.”
“This means a lot. I didn’t think I would be able to pursue my dream college and afford it, but I’m happy to go there and do what I love,” she said. “I didn’t know much about the scholarship, but it’s good to know that they [Cataract] were worried about kids going to college and pursuing their dreams even back then.”
The fund was established with $10,500 in 1974 using proceeds from the sale of fire company property, now the Warwick Firefighters Club on Warwick Avenue, after the city took over responsibility for firefighting.
“The Cataract Fire Company was a volunteer company, and when the city took over responsibility in 1974, they sold the building and the equipment and used the money to endow a scholarship,” said Mike Shields, a current member on the Cataract Scholarship Committee.
Together, Otis Wyatt, past president of the Cataract Fire Company and former deputy chief with the Warwick Fire Department for 37 years, established the scholarship fund and has served on the committee with Richard McGuinn, Shields’ father-in-law and former volunteer and Cataract member who passed away in 2009.
“We had a store in the fire station and we were sitting around one night talking about what we were going to do when we sold the building,” Wyatt said. “We thought if we gave it to a charitable organization, it would be gone after a few years and we didn’t want the [Cataract] name to be forgotten.”
Shields said the scholarship exists to benefit Warwick residents who are graduating from their final year of secondary school, regardless of which high school they attend.
“The goal of the program is to help students who are good students and who show a strong desire to go to college but who aren’t necessarily the top students in their class,” he said.
Recipients are selected based on academic standing below the top 10 percent of the class who demonstrate a financial need.
Wyatt said he recently had a gentleman approach him while he was eating breakfast who expressed his thanks for the scholarship, which helped get him through his first year of college.
“We can [help] get you through the first year with this push, and if you want to proceed, we know you’ll find a way to accomplish that in the second, third and fourth year,” Wyatt said. “We’re pleased to do that. We wouldn’t select you if we didn’t think you could do it.”
Wyatt said many areas are taken into consideration when making the decision.
“The school department accumulates data from candidates, which includes class rank, extra-curricular activities, what programs students are involved in and what they’ve done,” he said.
Cataract committee member Steve Hay said many applicants are involved in extra-curricular activities and are active in their communities.
“That’s a good indicator that they can have decent grades and still be active in other areas,” Shields added.
Shields said the scholarship committee, comprised of four members, makes the final determination about who receives the scholarships. Current committee members include Ronald Caniglia, Hay, Shields and Wyatt, who will be retiring from the committee this year as he prepares to move to Florida. Richard Delgado will replace him. Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education for Warwick schools, also sits in on the committee meetings and acts as a fifth member and tie-breaking vote, if needed.
“It’s a completely blind selection process, so there’s no favoritism involved,” Shields said. “We don’t see the names until after the selection has been made.”
Wyatt said the school department gets requests from scholarship programs all over the country as to the anonymous nature of the Cataract scholarship program and how it’s run.
Shields said the program awards a minimum of three scholarships each year, with the amount determined by the earnings from the fund’s base investment and ongoing donations managed by the Rhode Island Foundation.
Shields said, one year, the total scholarship award amounted to $90 for three scholarships, but since its inception 38 years ago; the scholarship fund has awarded $143,410.
Students are encouraged to apply starting in April.
“Best of luck to the graduates,” Wyatt said. “We hope this helps you achieve your goals.”