When Pierson High School guidance counselor Margaret Motto pulled Iaiela Saldivar-Tellez into her office near the end of the school year, Iaiela was initially worried she’d done something wrong. It was the look on Ms. Motto’s face, she said, that had her thinking bad news was about to be delivered.
“She looked so serious,” Iaiela recalled, saying Ms. Motto asked her if she’d checked her voicemail recently. She said no, adding, “I told her if I did anything wrong, it’s not my fault.”
So Iaiela checked her messages. There was one from someone associated with the Sag Harbor Lions Club. Ms. Motto urged Iaiela to return the call. That’s when she got the news, and it certainly wasn’t bad. The Pierson High School senior learned that she’d earned a $2,000 scholarship from the club, which had created a Special Award category just for her, after reviewing the application she’d sent in for one of the three scholarships handed out by the organization to Pierson students each year. Ms. Motto congratulated Iaiela, and that was a strange feeling, she said.
“She started praising me, and I got really emotional, because I’ve never really been praised before,” Iaiela said in an interview earlier this week. “I was just speechless. I couldn’t even say thank you, so Ms. Motto took the phone and said thank you for me. It might not seem like a lot of money for some people, but for me it’s an incredible amount of money.”
Right away, Iaiela called both her brother and cousin to share the news. They represent the closest family members she has, and that fact is part of the reason why the Lions Club scholarship committee went out of its way to create the special award for her this year. Iaiela’s achievements during her time as a student at Pierson are nothing short of remarkable, considering her circumstances. She was a member of the varsity girls soccer team as a senior, was a three-year member of the varsity girls volleyball team, and a four-year varsity track and field athlete. She was vice president in student government, a member of the quiz bowl and robotics teams, and a co-founder of the Asian Cultural Club. Iaiela also produced a short film about the perils of drug abuse and addiction that was featured at Guild Hall and at the Parrash Art Museum, and on top of all that, has consistently worked multiple jobs, at Wölffer Estate Vineyards on weekends, and with the charity organization, Hamptons Community Outreach. She’s also interned with the Latino advocacy organization OLA, helping serve as a translator. She’s done it all with no parental support. Iaiela’s mother has not been a part of her life since she was an infant, and her father was incarcerated when she was 16, marking a period of personal trauma and transition in her life that was incredibly hard to navigate.
There was time spent in foster care, the loss of other family members, and other personal traumas and challenges during that time as well, Iaiela said, which made the seemingly simple act of going to school and finding the energy to focus on her work every day feel almost insurmountable at times.
“It was just me and my brother and my cousin, who I see as a brother,” she said in speaking about that recent history. “That’s my own little family, and we’re there to support each other. I had to just try to focus on what I had to do, and overcome what happened. Along the years, a lot has happened. My mindset was just that I needed to survive.”
Iaiela did more than survive. To ensure she was filling out her college applications and financial aid forms correctly, she watched countless YouTube videos, and asked for help from Ms. Motto, taking on tasks that often stymie even the most organized parents. Iaiela will head to the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and will try to earn her associate’s degree in one year, hoping to start taking classes this summer. Continuing to work as much as she possibly can will remain key to making sure she can stay in college, and it’s part of the reason why she’s so grateful for the scholarship money. The stresses she endured prior to her senior year made it hard for Iaiela to achieve the kind of academic success that typically leads to scholarship dollars.
In recent years, the Lions Club has been making an effort to be more inclusive and open when choosing its scholarship recipients, and to pack a more powerful financial punch behind the awards it does hand out each year. Over the last three years, the club has gone from splitting somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 between three recipients (broken down into yearly installments), to this year awarding a top prize of $15,000 for its first-place award, adding two more awards of $7,500 each, and, for the first time this year, setting money aside for someone like Iaiela, a candidate who may not meet every single one of the application requirements on paper but is deserving of recognition and assistance.
Iaiela’s story is compelling, and in earning a Lions Club scholarship, she joined a group of Pierson graduates who are all impressive and deserving in many ways.
Truman Yardley was the recipient of the $15,000 award. His high school resume is lengthy and impressive. He was ranked third in his class while taking AP and International Baccalureate courses; was a member of the varsity baseball and cross country teams; participated in Robotics Club, Model UN, Math League and Quiz Bowl, and, on top of all that, achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Harrison and Max, who also achieved the rank.
Truman completed a staggering 200 hours of community service with the Boy Scouts, Katy’s Courage, the American Legion, Lion’s Club, Wounded Warriors, St. Andrew’s Youth Group, Mashomack Nature Preserve, the Sag Harbor Fire Department, and, during COVID, Sag Harbor Helpers. He has also been gainfully employed since the age of 13, to help defray the cost of college for his family, in which he is the youngest of four children.
He will attend Georgia Tech University in the fall and will major in engineering, and said he hopes to return to Sag Harbor one day and continue the tradition of community service he says was fostered in him by living in a small town like Sag Harbor.
“Pierson is such a small school, but it fosters connection, and it does become like one big family,” he said. “When you volunteer for something, it feels less like volunteering and more like helping out a family member.”
Sara Schoen and Thaily Ribadeneira-Amaguay were the recipients of the other $7,500 awards, and their lists of achievements are impressive as well.
Sara, ranked fifth in her class while taking AP and full IB classes, is going to Villanova University in the fall, and plans to pursue a double major in math and education to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a math teacher. Sara put in community service hours with the Sag Harbor Ambulance and Maureen’s Haven, while also helping to raise a guide dog for the Guide Dog Foundation, and volunteering with Canine Companions for Independence. But it was a trip to Greece she took with her mother during her sophomore year that solidified her understanding of the importance of community service. Her mother, Denise Schoen, an EMT and the Sag Harboe Express Person of the Year in 2015, has made several trips to Greece to help volunteer her services to address the refugee crisis. During the trip they took together over a February break week, Sara helped her mother make food packs for refugees, and supply them with clothing, toys and other necessities and items to try and make them feel at home in a new and scary environment.
“We were able to see where they were living and it was really sad,” Sara said. “It was hard to see that and compare it to my life. I just remember coming back on the plane and thinking I need to not take for granted everything I have.”
That’s a lesson Thaily has learned as well, and she said she feels thankful every day that she was able to not only earn a scholarship but have a chance to finish her education in an American school and go on to attend college. Thaily moved to Sag Harbor with her family just two years ago, from her native Ecuador. She will attend Stony Brook University in the fall to pursue a long-term dream of becoming a doctor. Despite the difficult transition of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture and customs as a teenager, Thaily finished 10th in her class while taking AP classes, was inducted into the National Honor Society, and fulfilled community service hours by participating in food and diaper collections through the National Honor Society, and also participating in multicultural night and Model UN. Thaily has worked as well, as a library assistant, as a cashier and also alongside her mother cleaning houses.
Thaily said her main motivation for becoming a doctor is to help people in the Latino community who have health concerns and may have a hard time securing medical insurance or accessing health care.
“Some people have a hard time paying for insurance, and I don’t think that’s right,” she said. “I want to help the Latino community get the medical attention they need. That’s my dream. I hope to some day be a great doctor and a great surgeon, because your health is the most important thing you can have.”
Thaily said she is thankful to her parents for bringing her and her younger siblings — a 12-year-old brother and a 1-year-old brother — to the U.S.
Going to college has been a lifelong dream for her, she said, but acknowledged that fears about the ability to afford it always lurk around the corner, which is why she said earning the scholarship was so important. She admitted that adjusting to life in a new country hasn’t been easy, especially socially, but said it’s been worth it. Earning a scholarship from the Lions Club was just another part of an overall experience so far that had made her a believer in the quintessential American dream.
“Wherever you cam from, it doesn’t stop you from achieving what you want in this country,” she said. “There are so many opportunities here.”