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The Ones We Never Met

The Ones We Never Met

Last week I thought our office was throwing a party and I hadn’t been invited. Ever since we have transformed the workspace at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to a space we call The Community Hub, named for its use as the venue for roundtables, meetings with nonprofit organizations and community leaders, as well as a backdrop to exhibit the work of local artists, there has been an ongoing flurry of activity and excitement. But this meeting did not mimic an everyday sort of convening.

There was lots of laughing, cheering, even a cappella singing and an improvisational dramatic presentation. The rhythm and laughter was bouncing off the walls. In the kitchen I saw the remnants of coffee cups, donuts and fruit trays. Some of our team members were running around shooting photos and what appeared to be high school-aged students were using bright pink, purple and green colored Sharpie markers to leave messages on our community “wishing wall.”

Something was happening and the energy drew me toward the action.

There they were, the source of this midweek fun. Our scholarship interview team had taken up residence in our offices for the day. This group of community volunteers were gathered for the presentation phase of our scholarship program. You see, many of our donors have set up funds here at the Community Foundation providing nearly half a million dollars in scholarships to local students. In some cases, interviews are part of the donors’ requested selection process.

When I joined the Southwest Florida Community Foundation a little over two years ago, I learned that scholarship interview day was one of the happiest and most inspiring days of the year. By the sounds coming from the Hub, it appeared that this year’s process was living up to that reputation.

During one of the breaks, I popped in with the excuse that I wanted to see how everything was going, but really I just wanted to be small part of this extraordinary day. The scholarship reviewers rushed over to share how this year’s selections would be tougher than ever. They spoke of the students who were bright, compassionate, and motivated. They were having a great time getting to know them better and many said that they just wished there was more funding to go around.

They all expressed the sentiment that telling any of these students they were not selected would be heartbreaking. This lot of students shared their dreams of finding cures for disease, building cityscapes, performing before large audiences, starting businesses and changing the world, but they needed help making their vision a reality.

Then I took another spin around the office to say hello to some of the students who were waiting and wish them luck with their interviews.

It was at this point, that I wanted to retreat back to my office. I realized at that very moment that not only would some of these students not be receiving scholarships but there were hundreds, even thousands of kids in our region that we have never met who have fantastic potential but limited access to the resources needed to pursue post-secondary steps.

Through the Foundation’s work creating a regional college and career access network, FutureMakers, I had learned that less than 40% of our region’s high school seniors filled out the application for federal student aid (FAFSA) that would provide millions of dollars of financial support to our local students. Early results from our partners including The Education Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, indicate that our efforts to increase the number of students completing the aid application is working, but we still have much work to do across the region. Additionally, access to college and vocational institutions is just the start, as completion rates are also a struggle. We must give as much attention to students completing their course of study as we do in getting them into programs. Getting into school is just the start of the journey.

Suddenly the party in my office had taken on a whole new meaning. Not only was I thinking about the students we were meeting, but I was also considering the students who are finishing up their senior year in a few weeks who can’t afford their next step, or the adult student who is trying to get back to classes, or the first generation college student trying to become the first one in their family to navigate getting into school. But mostly, I was thinking about the student who we never reached with a mentor or with information that could change their lives forever.
I was inspired by the students in our presence. They were the proof that across this region there are future business owners, engineers, technicians, health care providers, artists, chefs and community leaders. The list is only limited by their access to the skills and training they need to make their mark on the world. Our scholarship reviewers tell me our future is in their hands, and the future is bright.

As a community we have to find them, support them and fund them. Now I can’t wait to meet the ones we haven’t met.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been supporting the communities of Lee, Charlotte, Glades, Hendry, and Collier counties since 1976. With assets over $75 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $57 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. For more information, please call 274-5900, or visit our web site at www.floridacommunity.com.

Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, President & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, leads a passionate and diverse team dedicated to driving regional change for the common good. The Foundation is committed to engaging the community in conversations and action that creates sustainable positive change and provides the funding to make those changes a reality. More