Story written by Amy Roberts and Raven Phillips.
It was 20 years ago last April that the Ruby Rutnik Memorial Softball Tournament for high school girls was held for the first time.
Since then, almost $170,000 has been raised to provide scholarships for young college-bound women from St. John as well as for female softball players from throughout the territory.
This year’s winners, Larisma Maduro and Vela Culbert, are both 2017 graduates of the Gifft Hill School on St. John. Larisma will be studying graphic design at Seminole State College of Florida, and Vela Culbert will be engaging in interdisciplinary studies at Goucher College near Baltimore, Maryland.
The tournament was founded by Andy Rutnik and Janet Cook-Rutnik, whose daughter Ruby was a star pitcher at Antilles School known for her wicked windmill pitch.
Ruby was in her senior year at American University when she died in a car accident on an icy December night in 1996. Establishing a softball tournament the following spring to commemorate Ruby’s birthday on April 9 was a way to channel their grief into opportunity, as well as to bring together Virgin Islanders to cheer for their young, female athletes.
Community members sponsored innings as teams from St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix and Tortola competed over the course of a weekend.
Scholarships were then given to a member of the winning girls softball team and to a St. John student who demonstrated academic excellence, compassion and community spirit, qualities Ruby embodied.
“The scholarship is open to all female St. John students,” said Janet Cook-Rutnik. “All schools are given applications, and generally there’s good representation.”
In 2014, the Rutnik family decided to end the tournaments and use the funds already raised to establish an endowment for the Gifft Hill School on St. John. This was especially appropriate as Ruby was one of the four original preschool students when it was founded as the Pine Peace School in 1978.
“We really want to thank the community for all of their support over the last 20 years,” said Cook-Rutnik. “We really hope it will continue to grow.
This year’s recipients plan to put the scholarship to good use. After obtaining her associate’s degree, Maduro plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida. “I chose Seminole State College because of its wonderful arts program, and because it has direct connections to the University of Central Florida.”
Vela Culbert’s choice of Goucher college was heavily grounded in a love of freedom and flexibility. “I chose this school because it gave me good financial aid and had interdisciplinary studies as a major, which allows me to have a looser schedule and take courses unrelated to any specific major. I may transfer majors later if I find one I really am interested in.”
Both students are ecstatic to experience the growth and opportunities offered by their respective colleges. “I hope to make new friends and break out of my shell, try new things, and to better my skill in art to help my career in the future,” explained Maduro with hope.
Culbert is excited about travel opportunities offered by Goucher. “Goucher students are required to study abroad. I love traveling and going abroad has been a dream of mine. The fact that I can go abroad and get credits is amazing to me.”
Culbert further explained that, “Goucher is an ideal location to be because there’s a lot to do in the city. I’m hoping to make connections with businesses that will help me decide what I want to do for a career and maybe even help me get my career started. I believe that education is the foundation for a good career, and you should never stop learning, so I hope Goucher will help me grow both academically, while also making me more worldly. I am also excited to go somewhere that experiences seasons!”
Maduro and Culbert heavily expressed their gratitude for the scholarship. “I am thankful to be awarded this scholarship, because it will help me on my path to not only pay for college, but also to following my dreams,” said Maduro.
“I am very happy to have received this scholarship. I come from a single parent household and getting this helps a lot. I’m also very happy Larisma got the other scholarship because she is my good friend and like Mrs. Rutnik, an artist,” shared Culbert.
Donations to the scholarship fund are still being gratefully accepted and may be sent to the Gifft Hill School at P.O. Box 1657, St. John, VI 00831. Please write “Ruby Rutnik Scholarship Fund” on the memo line.