The tipping point almost came the night Angie Franklin’s young son ran downstairs to ask what the guys out front were doing with the family car.
By the time Franklin got outside, the car was already on the tow truck, repossessed because she had missed two payments.
Franklin, a full-time college student working a full-time job, was struggling as a single mother with two young children and no child support. Her work as a paraeducator paid barely enough to cover the bills, even with the overtime she picked up when she could.
Without the car, "I didn’t know how I was going to get to work, or get the kids to school" the next day, Franklin recalls.
She had returned to school to become a social worker to lift her family out of that hand-to-mouth life.
Near completion of an associate's degree at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Franklin says she seriously considered throwing in the towel at that point, settling for the two-year degree and taking on a second job instead of more studies.
“I went back and forth with it," she says. “I thought: 'I cannot make ends meet.'"
That’s how easily a woman’s dreams can hover one obstacle away from derailment.
“But I didn’t want to give up, I didn’t want my kids to think it is OK to give up," Franklin says. ‘’We have to push through the struggle to get what we deserve."
So instead of quitting, she asked for help.
A unique helping hand
For more than 23 years the Women’s Education Coalition has helped erase barriers for women like Franklin in southwest Michigan.
The annual scholarships funded by a $1 million endowment in 1997 have also provided more than $112,000 in emergency grants for recipients while they are in school.
Franklin was already receiving a WEC scholarship for her college expenses. “I used the money for school, books that my financial aid didn’t cover, care of my children," and similar expenses, she says. When she told her scholarship coordinator about the car situation within days she had a check for enough money to make up what she needed to reclaim the car.
The program had worked exactly as its founders envisioned, as a helping hand over the roughest spots.
A ripple effect
Research is clear: A woman’s own educational advancement raises the prospects for her children’s success.
It was that idea that prompted staff from the Center for Women’s Services at Western Michigan University, Nazareth College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College to design a new scholarship program for women. They knew that it wasn’t enough to simply provide money for school tuition. The program must also address the variety of hurdles that can keep unemployed or underemployed women from completing their studies.
Back in 1991, Allene Dietrich, Betty Thompson, Sally Mounger and Jane Vander Weyden approached the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to propose an endowment fund to address those needs. The Kalamazoo Network knew it would be important to partner with other nonprofits and in 1993 meetings began with representatives of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Kalamazoo Network, and the YWCA.
The new group, Women’s Education Coalition, launched a campaign to raise $1 million for an endowment fund and within four years there was enough money to offer five women a total of $6,000, the first scholarships to be awarded by the fund.
By 1997, WEC had achieved its goal of $1 million for the permanent endowment. The fund has now grown to more than $2 million and has invested more than $1.2 million through grants.
Over the years a total of 258 women have been given a boost by the program.
The community benefits, too
Lisa Boulding, 50, is one of the program’s early success stories, and her success has helped hundreds of young people as well.
Like Franklin, Boulding was a single mother of young children when she received her first scholarship from Women’s Education Coalition to help her earn a bachelor’s degree in education at Western Michigan University.
She, too, was living paycheck to paycheck, with unreliable child support, and believed an education was her chance for a better life.
Lisa Boulding works with young people in a leadership program at Kalamazoo Central High School
"I went through career counseling at WMU," she says, “and the tests kept saying ‘work with kids.’"
Boulding was awarded a WEC scholarship and continued to receive scholarship support through 2010 when she was awarded her master’s degree in secondary education.
Boulding teaches at Kalamazoo Central High School and meets monthly with a student leadership group, teens who tackle community service projects throughout the school year.
Her students either love her or hate her, she says with a laugh, but they know she will be consistent.
Her own children are adults now, independent and responsible.
Achieving her goals wasn’t easy, she says. As important as the financial help, the WEC scholarship held her accountable for staying on the path. “They wanted to see you progressing, they had guidelines that were realistic and needed," she says.
The scholarship staff also cheered her on.
“When I would turn in my paperwork, the office staff knew my name, they knew who I was, they knew the program I was in. I felt like they were rooting for me, too," Boulding says.
Boulding says her daughter recently told her that every time she encounters something difficult in her own life she thinks about her mom: “I think, ‘if you could do it with two little kids, with limited help, then I can too.'"
Franklin’s children are also invested in her success, she says. Her daughter graduated from high school a year early, attended Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids for two years, and is now working full time.
Her son is a high school freshman, graduating from 8th grade at the same time Franklin earned her bachelor’s degree from Spring Arbor University, graduating with high honors.
She was immediately offered a full-time job in her field, and this fall she is enrolled in classes to begin work on a master's degree.
The WEC scholarship program was there for her family every step of the way, she says. “They never turned me away. They never said no."
How to get help
To qualify for WEC grants, applicants must be unemployed or underemployed women who have had a significant break in their formal education. They may enroll, either part or full-time, in any educational curriculum, program or professional development opportunity that will lead to employment or improved employment.
A priority for the awards is to working mothers and those enrolled in nonprofit educational institutions. The grants are based on financial need, are renewable, and available to residents of Kalamazoo, Allegan, Barry, Calhoun, St. Joseph, and Van Buren Counties. Typical award amounts range from $500 to $3,000.
“This program helps women and their families reach their full potential," says Nancy Timmons, scholarship manager at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “Grants may be used to pay for tuition, fees, books, child care, transportation, and other educational expenses."
Timmons says experience shows having access to a variety of post-high school education, school or training really helps recipients reach their goals of increased financial independence.
“Reading the stories of the women who applied was moving, but it was even more powerful to watch their stories come to life during the scholarship interviews," Timmons says. “I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with these women and learn about their unique experiences."
Information in both English and Spanish is available online at kalfound.org/scholarships. For those without computer access, the application can be mailed or arrangements can be made to visit Kalamazoo Community Foundation to use a computer. Call (269) 381-4416 for more information.
Within two years of the first grants, WEC received the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award, and five volunteers were recognized as Voluntary Action Center’s Volunteer of the Day. WEC was honored with a STAR Award in 1998.
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.