SPARTA, NJ – Sparta VFW has given scholarships to three area students in the inaugural Ralph Rojas Memorial Scholarship Award Ceremony dinner last week. On Thursday, Hunter Toburen, Mia Francis and Erika Beckmann were awarded $2,000 to assist with their education at the Sparta VFW Post 7248.
In his welcoming remarks Veteran Bill Miller shared information about the scholarship’s namesake, Rojas. U.S. Army Korean war veteran, Rojas was an active volunteer in the community. He was a member of the American Legion, Sparta Elks and Sparta VFW.
At the VFW Rojas ran the annual Christmas tree sale with his sons for fifty years.
“He had a vision and he acted on those goals,” Miller said. Miller spoke of the ‘can-do’ attitude of all involved with the fundraiser. He said he “experienced an organization of people who would carve time out of a busy schedules to help,” and “men and women carry on the ilitary tradition of sacrifice and move mountains of Christmas trees at 5 a.m., for the common good.”
Miller reminded the students and all in attendance that the people who came before them, who raised the money for the scholarships through hard work, “did so because they wanted to make a difference.”
“This is the embodiment of what Ralph stood for,” Miller said. “Can do, vision and execution. Now you are the end of this string. Your parents or grandparents served and sacrificed.”
Miller said the scholarship committee saw “that spark, that vision,” in the recipients’ essays.
The committee was comprised of Miller, Commander Pete Litchfield, Paul Corcoran, John Schoch, Stan Toriba, Doug Nobile, Ron Pace and the attorney Jackie O’Donnell who was credited as having created the scholarship.
"I had no expectation when I proposed this idea to the Sparta VFW how enthusiastically they would embrace the concept of creating the Ralph Rojas Scholarship Fund," O'Donnell said.
Money for the scholarship came from donations by O’Donnell and funds raised by the annual Christmas tree sale and clam bake.
"Our Christmas tree sales raised an unprecedented amount of money and now we can continue this scholarship annually to assist military veterans and their families with educational expenses," O'Donnell said.
Chris Hayden of Hayden’s Service Center on Demarest Road in Sparta donates the clams for the VFW event. This year the clam bake is scheduled for September 15.
Litchfield announced the three winners and calling them up asked that they read their essays.
Toburen’s step father is on active duty and was en route to Yuma, Arizona and not able to attend. Toburen said he had gone to nine different schools in five states so was able to adapt to different situations.
“I’ve learned to be accepting of everyone,” Toburen said. “I adapt.”
He said the scholarship will help him to be able to concentrate on his career after graduation “so I don’t have to worry about debt.”
Toburen said he will attend Virginia Tech in the fall to study engineering.
Francis spoke about generations who have served in the military before her. Beginning with “great, great grandfather, an Italian American” who served in World War II and ending with her mother Susannah Ollivierre who “enlisted when she was 18-years-old,” most of her comments were about ‘Grandpa Billy.’”
Dorr William “Billy” Powers was drafted on June 19, 1966. He trained at Fort Dix and Fort Polk before being shipped to Vietnam to serve with the 25th infantry.
“Because of his slender build at 5’8” Grandpa Billy was a tunnel rat. Armed with a knife, flashlight and pistol he navigated the tunnels of the Viet Cong,” Fransic said.
Francis said she learned a lot about fighting for right from her grandfather, having won the battle with the Veteran’s Administration to have is lung cancer accepted as due to his service. Grandpa Billy lost his fight with lung cancer leukemia from being exposed to Agent Orange.
“I will continue his model of fighter for others,” Francis said. “I will honor Grandpa Billy’s memory with the help of the Rojas scholarship.”
Francis plans to attend Udica College to study criminal justice and human rights advocacy as a political science major.
“I want to fight for those without a voice,” Francis said.
Erika Beckmann was represented by her parents Rudy and Celeste Beckmann as she was taking her final exams at George Washington University. Her father served for 43 years in the U.S. Army after having fled Nazi Germany. In her essay she said she learned about serving the underserved from him.
She is going on as a graduate student at George Washington University studying international economic policy. She currently works with the Foreign Service Association where she writes on policy issues. She said she will continue in the Foreign Service using her studies in “data and regression analytics” to help “mitigate conflict through diplomacy.”
“I will use the funds from the scholarship to enroll in more advanced level analytics classes to fortify my undergraduate work,” Beckmann said.
Hayden said “next year we look to give out more scholarships.”
“The committee said it was a difficult decision,” having to decide from among all of the submitted essays,Litchfield said,
Litchfield also thanked O’Donnell for “putting this all together.”
O'Donnell said. "The members of the Sparta VFW are an incredibly generous adn philanthropic group of people and I'm honored to be a part of the good that they do."
Rojas’ widow Dolores and sons attended the event. They had been married for 60 years, Dolores said.
“He was a generous man,” Rojas said. “I never expected something like this. I know he was special to me but never realized how many people thought he was special too. I’m amazed at how many people miss him.”