Delaware church helps high school turn students’ college dreams into reality

By Lola Michael Russell
Posted Jun 6, 2019

Students at Seaford High School in Seaford, Delaware, meet with volunteers from St. Luke’s Church to work together on scholarship applications. Photo: Episcopal Church in Delaware

[Episcopal News Service] In 2016, when Terry Carson, then principal of Seaford High School, asked St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Seaford, Delaware, 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 60% minority enrollment and more than 45% 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 a 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 checklist, templates of resumes 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 in value 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 the scholarships’ spring deadlines. The volunteers review the students’ scholarship cover letters, personal resumes, supporting essays and applications.

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 return for additional help that they may not be getting elsewhere. In spring 2018, the church volunteers met with 59 students. Each student met with the volunteers up to six times, with an average of eight seniors per session.

During one of the mentoring sessions this year, the volunteers prepared in a designated room for the influx of seniors. As they arrived, the students sat down and, each with a laptop, immediately began to work one on one with the volunteers. Conversations ranged from how best to answer a specific application question to the most effective way to phrase a resume statement, the requirements of a specific scholarship opportunity to the proper punctuation of an essay.

Volunteer Bonnie Getz said punctuation is one of the major skills they work on with students. The school has many students originally from Haiti and Central America for whom English is not their first language, and the church volunteers’ support is especially helpful for them.

Getz explained that the volunteers really enjoy the work. “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. “I can’t thank them enough,” said student Trevor Holmes, who received assistance from Bill Hubbard. “Mr. Hubbard helped me out on the first day, and I got six or seven scholarship applications done with him.”

Holmes said he was profoundly grateful for the assistance. “You guys are the reason all of us are going to college,” he said. “We’re the future, and you guys are helping prepare for the future.”

That same day, volunteer Deb Spandikow worked with student Caden Dickerson, who said he’d received help ranging from developing essays to filling out applications. Parents and teachers may not have time to give extra assistance, he explained.

“It’s like a third party to step in and help, especially at this time of year,” Dickerson said. “It always lifts some pressure off our shoulders when we have someone there who listens, talks with us and gives some advice.”

“It’s good for us, too,” Spandikow responded, “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, while another is wheelchair-bound. Another, who arrived in this country from Haiti two years ago not fluent in English, is graduating as an honors student.

Clarence Giles, associate principal, appreciates the volunteers’ 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,” Giles said. “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.”

That reciprocity is key, Giles said. “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.”

Each year since this effort started, there has been an increase in scholarship money awarded to graduating seniors. Giles said that in 2018, Seaford High School’s graduating class of 163 students received almost $4 million in scholarships. This has enabled more students to afford a post-secondary education. He thinks this can be attributed to the attention to detail encouraged by the volunteers from St. Luke’s.

At the end of the academic year, the volunteers were 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. 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 outreach.

Having no children or grandchildren, Hubbard initially felt unsure about volunteering with teenagers. Now, 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,” Hubbard said. “Now, they are my grandchildren, and I am so very proud of them!”

– Lola Michael Russell is a regular contributor to the Delaware Communion Magazine and the editorial assistant for the Episcopal Church in Delaware.