Scholarship foundation revamps ceremony, seeks financial support

For the past 30 years, nearly all graduating Vashon High School’s seniors have been sent on to their next venture with a bit of extra money, scholarships provided through the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation.

Those students — and many of their family members — also experienced the scholarship awards ceremony, an evening event that stretched to more than four hours and could feel more like a feat of sitting endurance than the celebration it was intended to be. This year that is changing.

The May awards ceremony for the class of 2018 is slated to let each student shine — and do so in just two and a half hours. It will be not in the gym, as in years passed, but at the Open Space for Arts & Community with refreshments and music and, according to board member Shirley Ferris, “a sense of festiveness about it that will carry us through a much shorter program.”

As for why the change is happening now, Ferris cut to the chase.

“It was just time,” she said.

The foundation board includes 16 people, and members say they have been hard at work creating the new format for the ceremony. In fact, so much of their attention has gone to that process that they have not been able to hold their usual fundraiser, such as the spelling bees and chili feeds of days gone by. Now they are hoping the community will step up and donate $25,000 by May 1 for the foundation to pass on to students. They also hope more people will come to the ceremony on May 30, when it will give out more than $160,000 and celebrate the graduating seniors.

As for the new format, each student will be in the limelight once, board members say. This is a departure from previous years, when some students were called to the stage repeatedly for scholarships. This drew some criticism, although board members say sometimes students received a collection of small scholarships, while other students received one or two larger scholarships. Regardless, now each student will come forward once, be recognized and receive all their awards at that time. There will be a panel of presenters who will have a script — and will be encouraged to stick to it — to introduce each student. Instead of just having a quick photo taken with the recipients, donors will be encouraged to stay until the end of the ceremony and meet and talk with the award recipients.

The intent, board members say, is to keep the best of the ceremony and elevate it. Ferris stressed their goal for the ceremony’s length is two and a half hours, the duration of a movie.

“Most everyone can sit through a movie,” she added.

The foundation celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Since it began, it has given out more than $2 million to some 2,500 students, according to board member and island tutor Liz Loveness.

At Vashon High School, Principal Danny Rock has high praise the group’s work.

“I am so impressed with the foundation and year after year, the community’s generosity and the foundation’s commitment to youth,” he said.

In particular, he noted the equality of the event, with all participating students receiving at least one scholarship and a couple of students receiving significant help all four years, as well as the opportunity for students to defer their awards for one year.

He said the positive side of the long ceremony is that is was a celebration of the community and graduating seniors, but he, too, is glad to see the ceremony shortened.

“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.

The foundation was started in 1987 by Nancy Weinstein, a local school counselor, Ferris said. Weinstein had attended a conference, where the seeds of the idea were planted, and she believed something similar could work on Vashon.

“I think they were thinking five or 10 scholarships,” Ferris said.

But the foundation went far beyond that number, and participation is now a tradition for most seniors — with a wide range of post-high school plans. Awards are not based on financial need, but on the teens’ experiences.

The notebooks they create to participate — a staple of the program from the beginning — include a resume, personal collage and essay, as well as references.

“It is the kind of thing they need to be thinking about as seniors if they have not already,” said Stephanie VanDevanter, co-president of the foundation with Linda Mather.

After 30 years, board members say the selection process is finely tuned.

“Our goal is to match participating seniors with generous donors,” Ferris said. “The process of doing that takes a lot more work than people know.”

In the fall each year, foundation board members meet with students at Vashon High School and encourage them to complete a notebook, which are collected in January. Foundation members begin reading them then, getting to know the students through their notebooks so that they are able to match up the students with potential donors.

February and March is the donor selection period, when board members say they take the notebooks all over the island for donors to review. Currently, there are more than 50 donors, Loveness said, and many give to more than one recipient. In equal numbers, the scholarships come from businesses, memorials and individuals or nonprofits.

“We really reach the whole community,” Loveness added.

In April, the foundation board members select a panel of community members to choose students for scholarships from businesses, which do not choose their own students, as well as some other groups that choose to have a student selected for them.

“Panel members are making a big commitment when they say I want to do this,” Mather said.

Not all students are selected for scholarships, and the foundation then awards scholarships from its own money to those students.

Some of those who provide scholarships have done so for years, board members say, such as Rotary, Thriftway and the Aspiri, Britz and Beardsley families.

Each year, there are new scholarships, too, although often tinged with sadness, as these are frequently memorials. In recent years, memorial scholarships have been established in honor of Ryan Krug, a high school student who was killed in a car accident in 2013, and Katie Chale, who died in a collision with a tour bus on Vashon in 2014.

This year Ferris and her husband Bill have established a scholarship of their own. Shirley Ferris said she was overcome with emotion reading the notebooks from some of the immigrant teens participating this year and will support one of them.

“These are kids who have worked hard and have courage and faith that they will be the first person in their families to graduate,” she said.

At times, too, the scholarships have levity to them, including the Giraffe award, given to a young woman who has stuck her neck out while in high school. This year, there are several aerialists in the graduating class, and that skill might bring rewards of its own, board members say.

Now, the end of the school year is in sight, and the award ceremony is just two months away. After that, there will be a few months of quiet before the process begins again next fall, with more students who are about to set out into the world, with a little bit of support from Vashon helping them.

“What fun,” Ferris said. “It is an honor to be part of this endeavor.”

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