by Lola Michael Russell
How a small church and a small high school in a small town are changing the future!
“You guys are the reason all of us are going to college!” Trevor Holmes, Seaford High School senior
In 2016, when Terry Carson, then principal of Seaford High School, asked St. Luke’s Church for volunteers, no one could predict the profound results. From a lay-led parish with Sunday attendance averaging 35, six parishioners stepped up to help high school seniors with their scholarship applications and have been supporting students every year since. With 750 students, Seaford High School is a Title 1 school, with a 60 percent minority enrollment and over 45 percent of students coming from low-income families. That the school now has so many graduates going on to higher education because of scholarships is a kind of miracle.
School counselors provide incoming seniors with an extensive folder of material: an overview of possible career and educational paths, a timeline for navigating senior year, a check list, templates of résumés and letters, and resources for SAT and ACT preparation. A vital component of the folder is a chronology of more than 250 scholarship opportunities open to Delaware students, ranging from $250 to $31,500. Under the guidance of the school counselors, the St. Luke’s volunteers mentor the students twice weekly from mid-February through early April to meet scholarship spring deadlines. The volunteers review the students’ scholarship cover letters, personal résumés, supporting essays, and the applications themselves.
The diverse group of retiree volunteers includes a former engineer, English teacher, social worker with legal experience, two nurses, and a lifelong hospital volunteer. In the first year of the program, the students called the St. Luke’s volunteers the Council of Elders. This name, a sign of respect, has stuck. The elders believe in the students, share their own life experiences with them, and commit to helping them succeed. The students believe in the elders, and many of them return for additional help that they may not be getting elsewhere. In spring 2018, the elders met with 59 students. Each student met with them up to six times, with an average of eight seniors per session. I visited the school this year to observe one of their mentoring sessions.
In a designated room, the elders were prepared for the influx of seniors with specific tasks in mind. Completely focused, the students sat down immediately, each with a laptop, and began to work one-on-one with an elder. Conversations ranged from how best to answer a specific application question to the most effective way to phrase a résumé statement; the requirements of a specific scholarship opportunity to the punctuation of an essay. Volunteer Bonnie Getz said the punctuation of an essay is one of the major things they work on with students.
The school has many Haitian and Central American students for whom English is not their first language, and the elders’ support is especially helpful for these students.
Getz explained that the volunteers really enjoy doing this. “When we found out just before Christmas that we were invited back again this year, it was like an early Christmas gift to me! We really look forward to it.” She went on to say, “We learn a lot from our students, just by listening to them. We don’t quiz them but we learn from them because they share a lot with us.” Of her personal experience, she stated, “It’s witnessing to these students that we believe in them.”
The students value and appreciate the elders. Trevor Holmes, said, “I can’t thank them enough. Mr. Hubbard helped me out on the first day, and I got six or seven scholarship applications done with him.” Holmes is profoundly grateful to the elders. “They make each one of us want to get that scholarship more and more, and it’s awesome.” In gratitude to them he said, “You guys are the reason all of us are going to college. We’re the future, and you guys are helping prepare for the future.”
Working that day with volunteer Deb Spandikow, student Caden Dickerson said he’d received help ranging from developing essays to filling out applications. “This is a good way for people who know what they’re doing to help and explain the best way for us to do something.” Parents and teachers may not have time to give extra assistance. Dickerson said, “It’s like a third party to step in and help, especially at this time of year. It always lifts some pressure off our shoulders when we have someone there who listens, talks with us, and gives some advice.” Spandikow responded, “It’s good for us too, to get excited for you and say, ‘Wow, you’re doing great!’ We get to see the wonderful things that students are doing.”
Several of this year’s high school seniors have faced and overcome daunting challenges. One student is fighting cancer. Another, who arrived in this country from Haiti two years ago not fluent in English, is graduating as an Honors student. Yet another college-bound senior is wheelchair bound with significant physical challenges. They are remarkable human beings who are forging stellar futures for themselves.
Clarence Giles, Associate Principal, appreciates the elders’ support of the students. “This is an avenue for someone to come in that the students don’t see on a daily basis, to help them with their applications.” He believes this is a two-way process. “I think the elders get back more than they give. Obviously, our students are getting the assistance they need for college scholarships. It’s an unintended positive thing that they’re giving back to the Council of Elders.” Giles believes that reciprocity is key. “This is an opportunity for school and community to meet, and that’s what the ultimate goal is — for school and community to have that connection. This is an excellent vehicle to make that happen.”
The experience is clearly rewarding for both elders and students. Each year since this mission started, there has been an increase in scholarship monies awarded to graduating seniors. Giles said that in 2018, Seaford High School’s graduating class of 163 students received almost $4 million in scholarship monies. This has allowed more students to be able to afford a post-secondary education. He feels this can be attributed to the attention to detail the Council of Elders encourages and a focus on the requirements being met.
At the end of the academic year, the elders were honored by being invited to attend the Honors and Awards Ceremony for graduating seniors, family, and friends. They joined the students at their Senior Breakfast and were recognized with gratitude at commencement.
Since its founding in 1835, St. Luke’s has had a rich history of vital parish ministry and mission. Perhaps its most relevant ministry ever is the Council of Elders. As this year draws to a close, with another group of students having successfully secured scholarships, St. Luke’s is grateful to the Seaford School District for the opportunity to be of service to its community and remains committed to this unique outreach.
Having no children or grandchildren, volunteer Bill Hubbard initially felt unsure about working with teenagers. He said, “I see this as an opportunity to recognize young people as young adults, having motivation and a desire, already knowing what they want to do with their lives, and making a plan to get it done. I get to help in doing that, and that’s pretty exciting.” He went on to say, “Now, they are my grandchildren, and I am so very proud of them!”
Lola Michael Russell is a regular contributer to the Delaware Communion Magazine and the editorial assistant for the Episcopal Church in Delaware. email@example.com