Larry Schorno has led hundreds of auctions, but Yelm Dollars for Scholars has a special place in his heart. “It’s my passion,” he says. “I don’t think there’s another auction in the state that can come close to it both in terms of money and participation. We’re not a high-end community, but we get a great response.” Since 1991, the program has given away more than $2 million in scholarships to Yelm High School seniors.
It’s a far cry from 1960, when Bob and Kathy Wolf were approached by the president of the local Lions Club. “He came to us and asked how we could go about giving a scholarship,” says Bob. “At that time, $150 was a big deal.” The couple started the Yelm Community Scholarship Fund, and in that first year gave out two $100 scholarships. “A lot of community people wanted to join,” he says. “It just blossomed from there.” Both of the Wolfs are part of Yelm’s DNA, serving on multiple committees and boards and volunteering for various organizations. Kathy was the mayor of Yelm from 1993 to 2001.
In 1991 the Fund joined Scholarship America, a national organization that helps communities manage fundraising for student scholarships. In 1995, they held their first auction. “The first year, we gave out $11,800 to 50 students,” says Mary Lou Clemens. Clemens has been volunteering with Dollars for Scholars for 30 years. “Over the years of 2014 and 2015, we gave out a total of $282,000 to 250 students. I think it’s amazing.”
All of the awards go to high school seniors, and in a relatively small city like Yelm, that brings a significant competitive advantage. “If you’re applying for a national scholarship, you might be competing with 10,000 people,” says Clemens. “Here, the most applicants we’ve had were 150 two years ago. Last year we had 106.” Additionally, she says, Scholarship America will alert students about other scholarships they might be eligible for.
The selection process has two parts. Students apply online through Scholarship America, then do an interview conducted by committee members who don’t have children eligible that year. “We give them some pre-selected questions that they’re asked to prepare for and they’re graded on that score,” explains Clemens. “We score individually and then arrive at a composite score. The application and the interview scores are added together to get a total score. The students are assigned an ID number by Scholarship America and are listed by that number rather than by name. It’s totally anonymous. There’s just a number, which I think it’s a very fair way of doing things.”
Clemens says the interview process is her favorite part, and she tries to volunteer for it every year. “I like seeing the kids. I don’t know any of them so it’s all new,” she says. “It’s like a job interview in many ways. They have to think on their feet.”
Once students have been awarded a scholarship, a few regulations kick in. “They have to get through the first semester before they can collect their money so that we know they’re committed,” says Clemens. “They also have to accept their money by May 1. If they don’t, it goes to the Endowment Fund and gets re-used for more scholarships later. Sometimes kids drop out or change their mind.”
Frank Hudik is another long-term volunteer and the chairman of the Endowment Committee. “It’s our strategic fund, and it’s now approaching $500,000,” he says. “That has built up significantly over the last ten years. It’s matured to where we’re actually taking money out of it over the years to add to our scholarship awards.”
For the past several years, Community Crossroads Church and Nisqually Springs Farm have collaborated to raise funds through an annual pumpkin patch. Glenn Schorno at Nisqually Springs provides the pumpkins, and the church sells them. “The pumpkin patch brings in about $4,000 every year that gets split between Dollars for Scholars and the Rainier Education Fund,” says Hudik. Additionally, the Nisqually Tribe has granted the program between $5,000 and $10,000 annually for the past four years.
Larry Schorno says the key to success is the community. “It takes a lot of work. Every year, there are people that give their whole heart to the organization,” he says. “For the auction, I have ten major donors that I can count on every year.” Although Yelm has various factions that don’t always see eye to eye, the event brings everyone together, says Schorno. “This is something that everyone can get behind. It’s the most unifying event in this community.”
The Dollars for Scholars logo says, “Our Legacy Starts Here” and Hudik hopes that recipients will pay it forward. “These kids go off and become successful in life, not just in college,” he says. “It’s great if they want to come back and contribute to the community.”
Todd Blodgett is a case in point. The Yelm High School alumnus and scholarship recipient went on to graduate cum laude from Whitman College, earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Austria for three years and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School. Today, he lives in Roy with his wife Selena and practices law at Eisenhower Carlson in Tacoma. In 2014, he spoke at the Dollars for Scholars auction, encouraging the community to continue investing in its children.
“I benefitted quite a bit from it. It meant a lot to me and my family,” he says. “I didn’t feel as much pressure to work as I was studying so I had more time to have the whole college experience and I was able to graduate with very little undergrad debt.” He was happy to speak at the auction. “I think when people can see the results of what they’ve given in the past, with students they’ve invested in, it makes them want to continue their support.”
Blodgett also has some advice for today’s high school seniors. “If you can find a way to avoid shelling money out of your own pocket or borrowing it, you should,” he says. “College is really expensive. Apply to a wide range of schools and carefully consider money and scholarships. If you get a scholarship from Dollars for Scholars, thank them and recognize that they’ve done a great thing by investing in you.”