EAST ST. LOUIS — Instead of going before U.S. District Judge William D. Stiehl to be sentenced to prison for committing a federal crime, a group of talented East St. Louis Senior High School students went before him Friday to receive college scholarships.
Carlos Brown Jr., Alex Hopkins, Kayla Coates, Kayla Loveless and Kevin Baker all received scholarships from the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund. Hopkins was unable to attend the ceremony, but his mother accepted the scholarship on his behalf.
In all, $20,000 worth of scholarships were handed out.
The students received the scholarships based on their academic achievements, character and essays, said Pamela Coaxum, executive director of the trust fund.
The fund was started in 1991 by Stiehl to help East St. Louis and Washington Park residents when he imposed a community service sentence of $6 million against a bond firm convicted in federal court.
Brown said he is going to attend Northern Illinois University to study jazz. He is a former member of the East St. Louis Senior High School jazz band.
His mother, Ann Brown, and his father, Carlos Brown Sr., sat in the jurors box smiling as their son walked to the podium to receive his scholarship.
"It will help him to further his education," she said.
Ann Brown said there's so much negative in East St. Louis and the Community Fund is a bright spot.
"It makes you feel like we are a part of a village family and they do care about us and our children."
Loveless plans to study psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Loveless smiled as she talked about what lies ahead of her.
"I'm excited and I am happy to have this scholarship money. It is much needed. Judge Stiehl is very generous and concerned. He thinks about those people in the community who want a better life and who want to attend college," she said.
Coates will study music at Lincoln University. She plays the drums and played them in the high school band.
She called Stiehl "a kind and concerned man."
"The money will help me buy my band uniforms and some drumsticks and maybe a few other things I need to start my first year of college," Coates said.
Speaking about Stiehl starting the community fund for the residents and students, Coates said: "It was a great idea. You have many students here who want to go to college, but they can't because they do not have the money."
Hopkins is going to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has not declared a major.
Baker is going to Illinois State University where he will major in animation.
He said he would not be where he is today without the love and support he's received from his mother, Deborah White.
Fund board member Vanessa Brown asked the students to describe themselves using two words and to let those two words be ones that would sustain them when they faced tough decisions to make, stress, life's obstacles or difficulties with their studies.
Coates said she will always remember that she's "talented and smart." Loveless said "determined and potential." Kevin Baker said "honor and respect." Carlos Brown Jr. said "determined and creative."
Asking the students to turn toward Stiehl, Vanessa Brown said: "The only time you want to see Judge Stiehl is to receive a scholarship ... As the judge said, this courtroom is normally the place where those who've made bad decisions that have consequences come."
Brown urged the students to enjoy college, but to do well with their studies so they could earn their chosen degrees and make themselves proud, productive citizens of society. She said with their success, they could let those who have stood by and with them know how truly grateful they are to them.
"You all have a good story to tell and you are going to tell it," she said.
Julie Fix Meyer, Stiehl's law clerk, said the trust fund has given out hundreds of scholarships.
"Many of the students go on to do great things," she said. "Over 20 of the recipients have gotten their master's and one has gotten a Ph.D. The students have attended Fisk, University of Tennessee, Alabama, University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and other great institutions."
Along with college scholarships, the fund paid for East St. Louis' 911 system and trash cleanup and tire removals from the city. Also, the fund operates an eye clinic in cooperation with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
In 1997, the fund received a settlement from another case prosecuted in Stiehl's courtroom. That money was earmarked for the residents of Brooklyn. The fund has purchased a fire truck and paid for a community park in Brooklyn.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 239-2503.