The dream was born for Neice Schafer 25 years ago when she read an article about a California woman who “adopted” a kindergarten class in a poor section of Oakland and promised the students a college education.
Schafer remembers thinking, “Someday I hope to do that.” But she tucked away the dream and went about her busy life as high school coach, wife, mother, community volunteer.
The years passed for Schafer, but the dream never passed away. When she retired from coaching, when her two boys flew the nest, when Schafer hungered to do more, she remembered the example of her father, a lawyer who practiced in East Los Angeles for 62 years, championing the rights of poor people who often paid him in chickens, fruits, vegetables and handmade leather purses. Her father was the first in his extended family to go to college, and once he walked the path, the rest of the family members felt comfortable to walk it, too.
About five or six years ago, Schafer resurrected the dream and began to dream it with another person, her buddy Patsy Etter, who had long worked with at-risk kids, first as a teacher and then as a counselor. Etter’s grandparents came through Ellis Island, and education became their assimilation ticket. Etter’s mother grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and lost her father and stepfather in mining accidents. Etter’s mother loved school, but during the Depression, she had to quit to work in a sewing factory.
“She would be there with tears running down her eyes because she wasn’t in school,” Etter says. “She finally went back to high school. She finished two years in one and graduated as valedictorian. She got a scholarship for nursing and graduated top in her class at Jefferson Medical College (in Philadelphia) and ended up being a nurse anesthetist.”
Schafer and Etter knew that the first child in a family who goes to college possesses the power to change a family’s history. So during their morning workouts and afterward while drinking lattes, the dreams of Schafer and Etter united. They brainstormed for a year. What exactly should they do? Open a group home for foster kids? A college program for single moms?
Then, on May 23, 2004, “60 Minutes” aired a segment on Eugene Lang, who started the I Have a Dream Foundation. In that program, community members “adopt” classrooms of low-income school children and promise them college education, as well as a volunteer commitment to help them acquire the skills to get there.
The women found the focus of their shared dream. They would adopt a classroom in Spokane and promise college. The women began talking up their united dream, and people Schafer and Etter have known throughout their busy lives stepped forward to share in it – lawyers, teachers, coaches, fundraising-savvy women and Gonzaga University alumni.
The women were in contact with the I Have a Dream Foundation, and the foundation was helpful – it has assisted in the launch of 200 programs in 27 states – but it was reorganizing, and its officials wanted the women to wait a year. But Schafer and Etter were ready to go.
So they went on their own, called their dream “Reach for the Future” and chose the two second-grade classrooms at Lidgerwood Elementary School. In late September, the parents of Lidgerwood’s second-graders received a flier in the mail. Come to school for a special announcement, the flier said; pizza will be served.
Pieces fall into place
The pizza flier arrived in the busy home of Corey and Trisha Christian, both now 29. They had two Lidgerwood second-graders – Marquita and Austyn – and a newborn, Brookelynn.
Trisha, a Shadle Park High School graduate, once dreamed of being a prosecuting attorney. She had the smarts. But Trisha knew she would have to pay for college herself, and she didn’t want to go into debt to pursue a dream she mostly kept to herself.
She met Corey her senior year at Shadle. A soft-spoken young man who lived in five houses in high school, he had transferred from Rogers. His parents were completely out of his life; the grandparents who helped raise him hadn’t finished middle school. Aspirations of college never entered Corey’s imagination.
Trisha encouraged Corey to finish high school with her. He did. Trisha’s family cheered as Corey accepted his diploma on graduation night. Only one member of his family, an aunt, attended.
The high school sweethearts married Oct. 8, 2000, and before their first child, Austyn, arrived, they dared to dream about college for him, though no one had done so for them. When Austyn was little, Corey and Trisha became foster parents. One child, Marquita, who joined the family when she was 4, felt like a keeper, and they were offered the opportunity to adopt her. But Trisha worried. She remembers thinking: “I can give her a life, but I can’t promise her an educational future.” She talked to Corey. “We decided if it was meant to be, something would work out.”
Trisha has child development certification through the Spokane Regional Health District and works in a therapeutic child care center. Corey, recently unemployed due to the economy, worked for a life insurance company for eight years.
In 2007 and early 2008, the Christians wanted to move to Everett because relatives offered them land to build on. They tried to sell their north Spokane home, but it didn’t move, though the housing market here was still OK. Corey looked for a job in Everett, but nothing materialized. Well, they thought, we’ll start the kids in second grade and move when the school year finishes.
The Christians walked into that pizza meeting Sept. 24. Schafer and Etter stood in front of the parents of Lidgerwood’s second-graders and said: Our dream is to send your children to college, to tutor them along the way, to help them get scholarships and grants and then pay for whatever remains. We are doing this, they explained, with lots of help. The united dream of these two women had evolved into a collective dream, shared by hundreds of Spokane folks.
Trisha looked at Corey. She burst into tears. The dream for their children – college – could now become reality. They wonder now what might have happened to their college dreams if they had moved to Everett. They wonder how they would feel now if they had turned down the chance to adopt Marquita because of their college worries. They never take for granted the fact that Marquita and Austyn are the first in their families to be walking the path to college. They never take for granted that Marquita and Austyn are not walking alone.
Lives changing already
The classroom in the Boys & Girls Club in north Spokane is wild today. The Lidgerwood second-graders come four days a week after school for tutoring and recreation, under the guidance of project coordinator Lauren Umbdenstock.
Dreams, no matter how warm and fuzzy, take work. Umbdenstock sits at a table with five second-graders and gently but firmly explains why their rowdy behavior on the bus was disrespectful. Marquita and Austyn sit at another table and talk dreams.
The siblings are about 4 feet tall and weigh about 60 pounds each. They are both 7 years old. Marquita has lost eight teeth so far; Austyn’s lost four. They look enough alike that Corey and Trisha are often asked about their “twins.” Austyn’s good at math; Marquita’s good at reading. At home, they help each other.
Marquita says she dreams about being a singer, a veterinarian, a professional roller skater, a writer, a hockey player and a submarine mechanic because “you get around $3,000 a year.”
Austyn says, “I want to be a famous hockey player. I want to be a lacrosse player, too. I want to be a soccer player, too. I want to sell cars and I want to own the place and I hope we get around $1 million.”
They have been told many times, especially by their parents, how lucky they are to be Lidgerwood second-graders destined for college. Marquita has obviously internalized the message. She says, in a burst of words: “This thing is going to change our whole life! I’m getting a one-in-a-lifetime chance to do anything I want! I can grow up to be anything!”
She points to the framed photos of her, Austyn and the other Lidgerwood students lining the bookcases. These photos will be updated each year, with the hope that someday, the children in these photos will wear graduation caps and gowns. The lives of these little ones are changing already, thanks to a dream that began for Schafer 25 years ago.
Schafer and Etter give talks throughout the Inland Northwest about Reach for the Future, and they always mention that every other Inland Northwest classroom is open for a similar “adoption.”
“Dreams are important,” Marquita says, with the confidence of a much older child. “You can dream wild things that no one ever dreamed of, and it’s really, really fun.”