Campaign raises $33.6M for Challenge Scholars program


The Bissell Treehouse at John Ball Zoo hosted last week’s event, which saw many of the Challenge Scholars donors in attendance. Photo by Rachel Weick

Funding for an innovative program developed by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools has surpassed the $32 million goal.

The program, Challenge Scholars, provides academic support and health and social services to students living on the west side of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Community Foundation announced last week that $33.6 million was raised during the year-long Rise With Us campaign to fund the first phase of developing a scholarship endowment for the Challenge Scholars program.

Diana Sieger, president of the foundation, said it has been a rewarding and challenging campaign, but it has facilitated relationships with donors and brought people to a greater understanding of the issues first-generation college students face.

“We are grateful to this generous community and the donors who stepped up to show their belief in the Challenge Scholars students, our public schools and in the Community Foundation,” said Sieger.

Meg Willit, co-chair for the campaign, said it is exciting to think it was nearly a year ago when the $32 million public campaign was announced, which was to build the first half of the scholarship endowment for Challenge Scholars and provide funding for the first few years of the program.

“It was a huge amount of money, but this program is so important and the case for it was so great, we knew we could do it. This group spent hundreds of hours visiting with people from the community, visiting with corporations, foundations, and colleges and universities,” said Willit.

“It took a lot of time to raise this money, and we knew this concept — and more importantly, Challenge Scholars — was a deserving effort.”

The campaign was co-chaired by four community leaders: Paul Doyle, founder and CEO of Inclusive Performance Strategies; Greg Willit, president of Benefits Resource Group; Meg Willit, community volunteer; and Kate Wolters, president of the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation and member of the board of directors for the Steelcase Foundation.

More than 400 donors contributed financial gifts ranging from $25 up to $2 million during the public campaign. Nearly 60 percent of the funding came from individuals, foundations and corporations, while college and university contributions accounted for approximately 40 percent of the total.

Several local colleges and universities committed to provide funds for Challenge Scholars in addition to cash and planned gifts, including Aquinas College, Cornerstone University, Davenport University, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University. The University of Michigan also recently launched fundraising efforts for the program for Challenge Scholars interested in attending the university, according to a press release.

“The higher education partners have not only brought resources to our schools, to our students and to our families, but also they have brought with them scholarship promises of their own to our own Challenge Scholars,” said Willit.

“Every scholarship that has been provided has a corresponding impact on our campaign, and the total impact of this is $13 million.”

Although the commitments from colleges and universities vary, Sieger said the examples include providing additional funding per student to attend the institution or a full-ride scholarship for students who qualify for enrollment.

“There are different arrangements depending on the resources of the university or college,” said Sieger. “Colleges and universities really do want to have students who are prepared to go to college, so that is why they are making that investment.”

Challenge Scholars was developed by GRCF in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools to provide ongoing support for students at Harrison Park and Westwood middle schools from sixth grade through graduation from Union High School. The program not only incorporates in-school social support, instructional coaches to increase academic achievement, and summer enrichment programs, but also scholarships to earn a degree or vocational certificate from a Michigan-based public college or university and three private schools, according to the Challenge Scholars 2013-2014 update report.

“We are really trying to build an endowment so when students do graduate, there will be resources there for them to go on to either learn a trade or go on to college,” said Sieger. “This is more about making sure we can remove barriers for those students so they can, indeed, succeed at school.”

Due to the services provided through the innovative program and its partners, and the hard work from students, parents and teachers, Sieger said student attendance, grades and enthusiasm are growing.

“You can feel it when you walk through the halls in the schools and see it on the faces of the students,” said Sieger. “We now have nearly 300 students who are enrolled in sixth and seventh grades at Westwood Middle and in Harrison Park, and we’ll continue to add 150 sixth grade students each and every year.”

The number of students who were chronically absent at Harrison Park declined from 43 percent in the 2011-2012 academic year to 32 percent in the 2013-2014 year, while college and career readiness in math increased from 23 percent to 31 percent during the same timeframe, according to the 2013-2014 program report.

As the Rise With Us campaign surpasses its first goal, Sieger said the next phase will take place in another three years and will focus on building success and proving that the support provided to the students from elementary school through high school makes a difference.

“It goes beyond the posters we have plastered on all the walls. Teachers are really talking about why it is important to study for a science test, why it is important to consider the courses needed to take in high school — and that is where the school system has been so committed,” said Sieger.

“I want to see these students return to Grand Rapids, build their homes, raise their families, start a business. This is really an economic development issue, as well as making sure they achieve academically.”

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