The annual Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara Community Leaders Luncheon, held last Friday at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, celebrated 50 years of the organization’s success and support for Santa Barbara County students.

Support from the Scholarship Foundation reached more than 2,300 county students in 2011 with scholarship awards totaling $7.3 million in student aid.

Guests entered a softly lit ballroom tastefully decorated with Christmas trees covered by a rainbow of lights, red poinsettias adorning each table and homemade pine wreaths embellished with clear lights hanging from the maroon drapes above the stage.

More than a dozen student volunteers, all whom were scholarship recipients, were on hand to direct attendees to their assigned tables.

As the program began, waiters served the guests tasty dishes prepared by Fess Parker’s Executive Chef Kirk DeLong and presented by Catering Director Kathy Ackley.

Over the first-course salad of wild arugula, cantaloupe, prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes with pine nuts and a tangy shallot vinaigrette, Alan Griffin, president of the Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors, welcomed the room full of donors, sponsors and board members with words of appreciation and gratitude.

“This is a tradition we look forward to every year and a chance for us to stop, reflect and to say thank you to our wonderful community of donors and friends,” Griffin said. “We feel fortunate to have your support this year, and because of you our kids will have a better future through higher education.

“If you want to keep our young people out of trouble and carry their own families to a higher place, and want our best and brightest kids to come back after college to start their careers in Santa Barbara, then look around you because this is how we do it. This room in filled with educators, philanthropists, business people, community volunteers and nonprofit executives — we all work together. You are the true community leaders.”

Since 1962, the Scholarship Foundation has granted more than 30,000 awards totaling $65 million for Santa Barbara County students in pursuit of college, graduate and vocational education through financial aid, advising and scholarships. Today the foundation is largest community-based program in the United States.

Next, student guest speaker and scholarship recipient Lorenzo Gomez rose and walked to the podium looking far younger than his 24 years of age.

Gomez’s maturity shined through with his confident demeanor, intelligent eyes and eloquent speech as he shared his life’s hardships with the crowd, including his parents’ separation, dropping out of UCLA because of illness, and the devastating death of his mentor and stepfather. However, with the Scholarship Foundation’s help, Gomez, a first-generation college student, was able to persevere and return to college despite his adversities and worked diligently to turn his life around.

Gomez said he credits the Scholarship Foundation for his current academic success and expressed how the scholarships that he received while attending Santa Monica College and UC Riverside were instrumental to pay fees, books, housing and transportation costs.

“Since I come from a low-income family, the scholarship money has helped fund my education, but for me it’s more than that,” Gomez said. “I feel each time that I receive these awards it’s a confirmation of my success, and even though I am a humble person, these scholarships and accolades constantly remind me that what I’m doing is special, and I thank you donors for making this foundation possible.”

Gomez, a C. William Schlosser Scholarship recipient, is a senior at UC Riverside majoring in computer science with a 3.8 GPA and plans to apply for graduate school next fall with his ultimate goal to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science with a focus in software engineering.

Joanne Rapp, past president of the Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors, proclaimed that the nonprofit organization is proud to be celebrating the 50 years and plans to have a celebratory fundraiser and gala in September 2012.

“The goal is to celebrate our history, our traditions and success, and raise a few more funds to bridge that persistent gap that we have every year between the number of students who qualify for scholarships and the amount of money received,” Rapp said. “We haven’t been able to sync the two, but I am confident that we will. With the of cost of higher education exceeding annually, you, the donors, are responsible for keeping us going.”

A brief informational video played next featuring former and present student scholarship recipients, sponsors and board members, as guests enjoyed Pacific salmon topped with white and green asparagus with kale pesto potatoes.

The video included cameos from local residents, such as Paula Lopez, KEYT news anchor, and Michael Towbes, founder and board chairman of premium sponsor Montecito Bank & Trust, who received a standing ovation earlier in the program.

Following the video, Past Presidents Council member and Immediate Past President Patricia MacFarlane introduced the Community Leader Speaker, Hubert Vos, a Past Presidents Council member and former senior finance executive at leading national companies.

Vos is a Santa Barbara Museum of Art trustee and Finance Committee chairman, board member for the Music Academy of the West and Investment Committee chair of the Kavli Foundation and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

As a young man, Vos said he applied for scholarships at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and was awarded a full graduate scholarship that enabled him to attend the prestigious Princeton Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where he majored in international economics.

“After I graduated, I was hired right off campus by industry and went on to a career in international business,” Vos said. “With the scholarship I was able to find and realize my full potential, but without it I would have ended up in a very modest job.”

Guests finished the last bites of panna cotta with balsamic blackberries and dark chocolate cigar twill as Scholarship Foundation Executive Director Colette Hadley shared closing remarks for the luncheon.

During her speech, Hadley noted that the foundation had to turn away 699 qualified applicants this year because the organization didn’t have enough funds.

“Joanne Rapp and I are the co-chairs for the 2012 50th Anniversary Celebration, and we are working on a celebration that raises public awareness and will hopefully raise the funds to meet the needs of the students that we have been turning away,” MacFarlane said.

Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara expresses a special thank you to the Community Leaders Luncheon sponsors:

» Platinum sponsor: Montecito Bank & Trust

» Gold sponsor: Venoco Inc.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.