Powering education

In 1923, just four years after The Winston-Salem Foundation set down roots in the community, the enterprise had an opportunity to join with citizens from across the city to bring hope out of tragedy. A Saturday football game between Reynolds High School and Charlotte Central took a dark turn in the third quarter when RJR punter Leo Caldwell attempted to block a charge from Charlotte’s Mutt Nisbet. The two players collided, and Caldwell was fatally injured.

In the immediate aftermath, shock and awe dominated. The remainder of the Reynolds season was cancelled, and Caldwell was taken to his final resting place at Salem Cemetery on Oct. 22, just two days after the fateful game. A few days later, the city responded, as Winston-Salem often does, with an outpouring of love and generosity. An anonymous letter appeared on the front page of the Twin City Sentinel asking citizens to donate to a scholarship fund through The Winston-Salem Foundation honoring the fallen player. Donations of all sizes poured in, and the fledgling Winston-Salem Foundation, which managed the fund, decided to offer low-interest loans to students so they could attend college. Since many high school students at the time couldn’t remain in school until graduation because of family financial needs, assistance for high school students was offered as well.

This was the Foundation’s entry into supporting students in their quest for higher education, and 96 years later, this commitment is stronger than ever.

Investing in the future

The Foundation’s efforts to offer opportunities for students are grounded in community, and community is still the linchpin of today’s student aid initiatives. Funding for scholarships — with 125 funds awarding $1 million annually to nearly 500 students in the community — comes from community donors in the form of named scholarships and donations to The Winston-Salem Foundation Education Fund. Community volunteers read applications to help allocate funds for merit-based scholarships. Advocates — former scholarship recipients, parents of recipients, and those passionate about the power of education — donate their time and resources to ensure that students who want to further their education have access to this resource.

Daisy Rodriguez, the Foundation’s new director of student aid, was one of those volunteers.

“I was the first in my family to go to college and the Foundation helped my daughter graduate from Appalachian State University,” she says. “I’m grateful for the help the Foundation gave my family, and I wanted to give back.”

While the initial student aid offerings came in the form of low-interest loans, in recent years the Foundation has shifted its model from a mix of loans and scholarships to solely scholarships.

“We recognized the increasing burden of debt that many students face and wanted to lift that burden as much as we could,” Rodriguez says. “Our loan program ceased in 2013, and the money students are paying back now is going into scholarship funds.”

Those scholarships come in different sizes and with a wide range of purposes. Scholarships go to students who grew up in foster care, those attending historically black colleges and universities, and those pursuing technical or community college degrees. Need-based scholarships offer aid to students from all levels of need, including students from middle-income families who often fall between the cracks of student aid programs.

And, with the increasing need for advanced education in many careers, Rodriguez points out that student aid is a great opportunity for those who want to strengthen their community.

“We’d love more people to set up scholarships or contribute to the fund, especially for need-based aid,” she says. “We support a wide range of students in community and help to fill in the gaps for students, whether they attend four-year or two-year programs, whether they are high school seniors or adults returning to school or finishing their degrees.”

Building opportunity

One local family is a snapshot of the tremendous power of the Foundation’s student aid program — and a portrait of what makes the community behind the Foundation so special.

Lindy Ellis, a retired adjunct professor at Forsyth Tech, was a single mother raising three boys when a stop at a local bank changed her life journey. A notice in the bank announced scholarships for non-traditional students. Her education at Winston-Salem State University had been paused with just five hours to go, and she saw this as an opportunity to finish what she’d begun. A scholarship enabled her to finish her degree at Shaw University, and she turned her passion to education — and giving back.

“Once I finished school and raised my boys, I got involved,” she says. She has served on the scholarship committee for 15 years, working to give others the same opportunity she had.

But the Foundation’s investment in her family didn’t stop there. All three of Ellis’ sons received scholarships to attend college: Manley attended North Carolina A&T State University, El-Hajj went to North Carolina Central University, and Harry graduated from Fayetteville State University. Harry’s son Isaiah is a current student at A&T.

“I never forgot what they did for me and my family,” says Ellis. “I can look at the fruits of my labors. All my boys completed college and are now on their own, being productive citizens. And they all give back in their way.”

El-Hajj Harris feels a strong connection to the city that believed in his mother, his brothers, and him.

“I’ve got a piece of the community inside of me,” he says. “I’m glad to be part of that, to be part of the community.”

The Winston-Salem Foundation sets students up to succeed in multiple ways, notes Harry Harris, who was a student athlete in high school and college.

“It’s a motivating tool for students,” he says. “Your scholarship is your responsibility. This helped me build good habits. It really is your first job.”

For students, for the community

The Foundation has worked hard to make it easier for students to take steps to build their own futures.

“We worked with technology to create a one-stop application that allows students to apply for all the funds they’re qualified for with one single online process,” Daisy Rodriguez says. “This helps take some of the guesswork out for them and cuts down on their having to fill out multiple applications and write several essays to apply for scholarships.”

Many students who benefit from the Foundation’s scholarship program feel motivated to invest in other students and continue the tradition of caring that started nearly a century ago with Leo Caldwell.

Manley Harris hopes the tradition continues for another 100 years — or more.

“I’m a proud Foundation alum,” he says. “The Foundation is a pillar in the North Carolina educational community. If you want to give but you’re on the fence, remember: the Foundation being around for 100 years speaks volumes.”

Interested in learning about scholarship opportunities? The deadline for need-based scholarships is July 31. Visit wsfoundation.org/students for more information.

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