The annual Hawks Prairie Heroes scholarship event is unlike any other awards ceremony. Every student there is celebrated, not for their academic achievements or athletic prowess, but for one major accomplishment: graduating from high school in the face of overwhelming obstacles. “Out of all the things we do, this one is my favorite,” says Hawks Prairie Rotary Club President Buddy Stevens. “It really hits our mission, which is helping people.”
Each year the Rotary Club provides a $500 scholarship to four graduating seniors, one from each high school in the North Thurston School District. Students from River Ridge High School, Timberline High School, North Thurston High School and South Sound High School are nominated by their school counselors to receive the award.
“They all have some type of challenge they’re dealing with,” says Membership Executive Corey Lopardi. “A lot of times its homelessness of some sort or there may be drug or alcohol issues in the home. We’ve had students with all kinds of obstacles yet they’re still managing to graduate, and they have some sort of post-secondary education planned. That’s the basis of the scholarship.”
Once counselors have made their recommendations, a subcommittee of the Rotary Club reviews the applicants. Those selected are invited to come and speak with the club where they receive their checks. “It’s a celebration that these types of students usually don’t get,” says Lopardi. “For a number of them, this is the first time they’ll be recognized in front of friends and family for their accomplishments other than walking at graduation.”
Every recipient has a compelling story. This year, one in particular stayed with Stevens. “There was a young girl who came from Mexico to live with her dad and got left here,” he says. “I don’t know all the details, but she had to cycle through six different foster homes and six different high schools. On top of everything else, English wasn’t her first language. She graduated this year with a 3.2 GPA, which I think is amazing.”
Lopardi recalls a student from several years back who was coping with early-onset blindness. “Here was someone who was headed down one path and then this health issue came up and it completely changed the way he had to approach his life, his school and learning,” he says. “Yet he was positive, he was appreciative of the scholarship, he had a plan and he was still moving forward.”
The club began the awards in 2004 based on a similar program that Stevens’ father encountered at an Optimists Club in Wichita, Kansas. That club would provide $50 to students who had overcome major hurdles to graduate high school. “My dad started this program with Hawks Prairie Rotary and then we worked at it to where we’re now giving out $500 scholarships,” says Stevens.
Although the amount may seem small relative to current college tuition costs, it can make the difference between being able to pay for books during a semester or not, says Lopardi. In cases where parents are uncooperative or uninvested, securing financial assistance can be nearly impossible for students. “If something requires a tax return from your parents in order to qualify and you have uncooperative parents, you need to establish yourself on your own before you can even apply for some of the assistance that’s available,” he explains. “In some small way we help them make the jump to the next level.”
In the long term, Stevens hopes the award serves to encourage recipients to keep moving forward. “My ultimate hope is that they don’t stop trying and they continue to invest in themselves, whether that’s going to a college or secondary trade school,” he says.
Obviously, students are the main beneficiaries of the program, but the adults involved also find it rewarding. “On the Rotary side, we see where the dollars are going and we can hear the kind of impact we’re having on kids’ lives when they speak to us at the event,” says Stevens. “For the selection committee, it gives them a sense that they’re making a continued impact on students’ lives.”
Plans are already underway to expand the award. Next year, the club will start providing scholarships along with $25 gift cards to Office Depot or other stores where they can buy school supplies to 9th, 10th and 11th-grade students at North Thurston Public Schools high schools. Stevens is also working on a way to solicit more feedback from the community. “I’d like to see a way for businesses to mentor kids after the scholarship is done,” he says, “whether that’s through direct mentorship or other ways we can continue their education and keep investing in these young adults.”
Learn more by visiting the Hawks Prairie Rotary website.