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School bids farewell to first kids in Reach for the Future program

Sun., June 9, 2013

Lidgerwood Elementary School sixth-graders will graduate Wednesday.

In September 2008, when the children started second grade, their parents received astonishing news. Their children’s college tuition would be paid for through a new program called Reach for the Future.

And in the years leading up to college, the second-graders would receive after-school tutoring and mentoring.

In the Sept. 26, 2008, story announcing the ambitious Reach for the Future effort, Spokesman-Review reporter Dan Hansen wrote: “This is a feel good story that will get better with age.”

It has gotten better. More complicated, too. But the program thrives because the focus remains on the prize: these students’ future.

“Not many kids get this chance,” said Alex Olmos, 12. “It’s going to be a very good change of my life.”

The prime movers

Patsy Etter and Neice Schafer – the women who started Reach for the Future – were tired but exhilarated one recent Friday. The night before, the program held its annual fundraising auction.

Etter, 68, and Schafer, 63, began dreaming of this college plan more than a decade before it happened. Etter had worked with at-risk students as a teacher and counselor. Schafer had worked as a coach.

They enlisted their husbands’ support, raised money in advance from their own savings and from donations, and called upon their friends to act as lunch-buddy mentors and as after-school tutors.

They chose the north Spokane school because 84 percent of its students qualified for subsidized lunches, and most of the parents earned less than $36,000 a year. Only 9 percent of children whose parents earn under $36,000 ever make it to college.

One month after Reach was launched, the U.S. economy collapsed.

“We were doing well with the fundraising, but some of the people who had pledged just couldn’t do it, and it was understandable,” Etter said.

Fortunately, everything was in place: the lunch buddies, the four days a week after-school tutoring in a classroom at the Boys and Girls Club near Lidgerwood.

And they had hired Lauren Umbdenstock Garske as project coordinator, a woman Etter and Schafer call “our rock.”

The women did their homework before launching Reach. They expected to lose many of the second-graders, because turnover is high in low-income schools. They were warned that only about 15 of the original students would likely still be at Lidgerwood by sixth-grade graduation. The program beat those odds; 23 of the original 45 are still there.

They didn’t expect the Washington State Guaranteed Education Tuition funds that they have established for the children to more than double in cost in just four years.

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“It was $74 a unit when we started, and it’s $172 now, and it’s going up again,” Etter said.

They did expect the hard work. They devote at least 20 hours a week to the program, double that in auction season.

But they are at the ages when men and women, retiring from their work lives, their families raised, sometimes wonder who they are. It’s easy to get caught up in regrets, aches, pains and resentments, but these women have no time for that.

“It’s a developmental task psychologically to give back to the next generation,” Etter said. “We’re doing what is important, and intended, for our psyches at this time in our lives.”

They never wavered in their commitment to a project that will consume another six years of their lives – and beyond – when the students go off to college. The students anchor them in commitment.

“I was at a baseball game for one of my grandsons and all of a sudden, from far away, I hear: ‘Neice! Neice!” I turn and it’s Marquita and she runs up to me, gives me a hug. I had knee surgery and hadn’t been (around) for a couple of weeks. She said, ‘Where have you been? I have missed you!’ ”

The rock

Lauren Umbdenstock Garske has a degree in school counseling, but in this job she is counselor, teacher, friend.

Garske, 30, sees the Reach students four days a week after school for the tutoring program. She plans activities with them in the summers. She oversees the volunteers.

She lunches every month with the original Reach second-graders who transferred to other schools but no longer have lunch buddies. She stays in touch with families who have left Spokane. With a detective’s determination, she’s confident she’ll find the two students now completely out of contact.

“Following these students for so long, I’ve learned their strengths and their weaknesses, what works well, and what doesn’t,” she said. “Each year gets a little easier to manage and to help them, not only academically, but social and emotionally.

“I have the best job in the world, which sounds cliché, but is so true. Reach is more than a job, it’s family.”

She’s not kidding about the family part. Listen to what happened one day in December 2009.

“It was a Friday afternoon, and I was in my office at the club working. I heard a knock on the door. It was one of my students holding a rose, and the student said something like, ‘Thank you Ms. Lauren.’ Then he turned around and shut the door.

“Again, another knock, another one of my students with a rose. This continued until I had about half a dozen roses, then the last student brought me a card and told me to open it.

“It said, ‘We, the Reach students, grant you, Lauren, permission to marry Griffin Garske.’ They had all signed the card, and there was Griffin down on bended knee, surrounded by all of my students.”

The prize

Three Reach students, self-described “good talkers,” sit around a large conference table in a room across from the Boys & Girls Club classroom where Reach students go for tutoring after school.

Without Reach, two of them say, they would be failing almost every class.

And after school, rather than be in the Reach tutoring classroom, “I’d probably be playing video games at home,” said Connor Halonen, 11.

In second grade, when the students were told their destiny, Connor said: “I didn’t understand what college meant. Then in third grade, our music teacher told us how grateful we should be for the opportunity. He said ‘Cherish every moment at Reach. Make sure you go to college.’ ”

They all have college plans. For Marquita Christian, 12, it’s University of California Los Angeles. For Connor , University of Georgia or University of Alabama.

Alex Olmos, 12, is unsure what college, but he has career plans. First, he was going to be a veterinarian, then a lawyer and now, he’s pondering his options again. “There’s so much stuff I can do,” he said.

Alex joined the Lidgerwood students in the fourth grade. Reach founders anticipated children joining the original second-graders throughout the Lidgerwood years, as new families moved into the neighborhood.

So they adopted a guideline. Newcomers could participate in the tutoring and mentoring, but they wouldn’t be eligible for college benefits. Parents of the newcomers could opt in or out of the tutoring and mentoring offered to their children.

Alex’s mom, Shawnee Olmos, opted in though it would have been easier not to.

Olmos, mother of six, works a graveyard shift at a factory. Picking up her son each day at the Boys & Girls Club would be a major hassle, but she said yes.

So Alex joined the “promised” classmates after school, and his mother bent her busy schedule to pick him up each afternoon.

Last year, Olmos was told that her son and three other students who joined the promised classmates later in the game would be included in the college plan, after all.

“I was shocked,” Olmos said. She told her son: Now you won’t have to work in a factory like me.

These three sixth-graders talk of college and career plans with such eloquence, you forget they are just 11 and 12.

Then Marquita tells you the question she wished you’d asked: “If you could be any animal in the world, what would it be?”

Two of the three say the same “animal.”

They wish to be unicorns.

The future

Everyone is nervous about middle school.

The students worry about getting lost, locker combinations, grades, peer pressure, drugs.

Some of the students have significant learning challenges. Some live in homes of chaos and unrelenting poverty.

Most of the students will go to Garry Middle School. The others will scatter to Salk, Glover, Northwood, Chase, Shaw and East Valley middle schools, but all Reach kids will have a home base at Garry where Garske will set up her after-school classroom for tutoring and mentoring.

The lunch buddies and volunteers will remain in the students’ lives, too.

Lidgerwood administrators, teachers and staff supported the program from the get-go, though it was the first in the Inland Northwest.

Garry already has an office waiting for Garske.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger visited the Reach after-school program and attended the auction.

“I couldn’t believe these individuals wanted to spend their time and energy to help a whole class graduate from college and pay for it,” she said. “I commend them for their passion and commitment.”

Redinger said the district is considering using Reach’s mentoring concept for other mentor programs now getting started.

Etter and Schafer – whose long-ago dream will lead to Wednesday’s graduation day – are nervous and excited, too.

“They are going into puberty, it’s going to be a wild ride,” Schafer said.

Etter added: “We’ve gotten kind of comfortable, but now we’ll have to do a lot of thinking and adapting – again.”

But the women are confident the students will possess what every middle-schooler needs.

“They have to feel they belong somewhere,” Schafer said. “Reach provides belonging.”

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