This is a feel-good story that will get better with age. Give it 11 years, and the kids who are now second-graders at Lidgerwood Elementary School will be starting college.
And you can bet a lot of them will go, too, despite numbers that suggest otherwise. Numbers like 84 – the percentage of students at the north Spokane school who qualify for subsidized lunches, one indicator of poverty. Numbers like 9 – the percentage of children who go to college among families that earn less than $36,000 a year.
But the 50 kids at Lidgerwood face far better odds, thanks to a group of community angels who are taking the second-graders under their wing.
Every day after school, those children will go to the Boys & Girls Club of Spokane to be tutored by retired teachers and mentored by their benefactors, who have formed a nonprofit group called Reach for the Future. The program will evolve to meet the kids’ needs as long as they’re in Spokane schools.
After that, the group will pay any portion of the kids’ college tuition that isn’t covered by scholarships – up to the cost of attending Washington State University. The students may choose vocational training instead.
The effort could cost as much as $1.8 million, if every kid goes to a four-year school and none gets scholarships, said Neice Schafer, a Reach for the Future board member. So far, the group has raised $360,000, putting much of it into state college accounts and using the rest for program costs, like hiring a full-time project coordinator.
A lot of people are involved, but three couples have put their own finances on the line, guaranteeing that when the kids are ready for college, the money will be there.
The kids who wore graduation caps for Thursday’s announcement fidgeted and whispered and didn’t appear to understand the fuss. What does a 7-year-old know of tuition costs?
But their parents, who first learned of the offer Wednesday night when they were invited to the school for free pizza, were stunned and emotional.
“I cannot even explain how phenomenal this is,” said Paul May, whose son, Titus, has the opportunity to be the first in his family to earn a degree. “It’s like a weight just lifted off me.”
“We were sort of nervous about how we were going to do college for two,” said Corey Christian.
“Two at the same time,” added his wife, Trisha, fighting back tears.
The couple already had a son when they adopted a daughter of the same age earlier this year. They also have an infant daughter.
“This is a huge gift for our kids,” said Trisha Christian, who works at a child care center.
Schafer said the idea was hatched when she and a friend, Patsy Etter, were exercising one morning. Both had seen a television program the night before about the I Have a Dream Foundation, which helps groups sponsor students nationwide.
What followed was four years of organizing and fundraising.
The Spokane group dropped plans to work through the national foundation because it was not adding new cities this year, and they didn’t want to wait. Already, it had taken longer – and required more effort – than anyone expected.
Board members visited Spokane elementaries serving high-needs neighborhoods and selected Lidgerwood in part because it has a smaller group of second-graders than the others. It’s also within reasonable distance of the Boys & Girls Club, where many Lidgerwood students already hang out.
Now, they hope other adults will sponsor other classes, whether from Lidgerwood or elsewhere.
Board member Barb Cronin likes to think about the ripple effects.
The Lidgerwood kids who go to college may motivate their siblings to do the same. College-educated adults are more likely to send their own kids.
On Thursday, as Cronin watched still-stunned parents filing out of Lidgerwood, she speculated that the program had already made an impact, by easing a burden on the families and providing hope. Cronin, a retired nurse, denied that whatever she contributes in time or money could be called a sacrifice.
“It’s a huge commitment; it’s a 10-year commitment. But life’s a commitment,” Cronin said. “If we’re not committed to children, I don’t know where we’d be.”