Making college dreams a reality

Anthony Reed receives $4,000 a year from Scholarship Foundation, attends St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley where he is majoring in graphic design, and works at ScholarShop in Clayton three days a week. Photos: Kristi Foster

By Renee Stovsky, Special to the Light

Prohibition and women’s suffrage were the latest laws of the land. The Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, triggering the Curse of the Bambino. And Warren G. Harding was elected 29th President of the United States.

Here in St. Louis–the sixth largest city in the country–1920 was also a banner year. The Muny had just been established in Forest Park, Lindell Boulevard was emerging as the showiest street in town, and the Missouri Theater (with air-conditioning!) opened on Grand Avenue’s Great White Way.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

That same year, with much less fanfare, another St. Louis institution was founded in the parlor of a Parkview home, when Meta Bettman and fellow members of the St. Louis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) created the St. Louis Jewish Scholarship Foundation. Their mission-to make financial resources available to young Jewish residents of limited means for higher education-began with a $15 loan to help a young immigrant woman attend business college.

Now celebrating its 90th year, the foundation-presently known as the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis-has distributed more than $45.5 million in interest-free loans to 6,700 St. Louis area students. Though its mission has morphed-it is now a wholly independent, non-sectarian entity-its principles remain the same.

“We are-and always have been-dedicated to the idea that access to higher education can improve people’s lives as well as the communities they live in,” says Faith Sandler, executive director. “It can change a family from one in need to one that contributes to society. In fact, one out of every six Scholarship Foundation donors was once a student who received our support.”

Howard Lesser, 79, of Creve Coeur, is one of those students. His father came to St. Louis in 1942 to work for Emerson Electric, cashing in a life insurance policy to finance the family’s move here from New York City. When he died eight months later, his impoverished widow went to work at Emerson to support Lesser and his little sister. At the end of World War II, she was laid off from a relatively well-paying assembly line job to make room for returning veterans. The family struggled to survive on the $26 a week salary Lesser’s mother earned at her new position in the millinery department at Stix, Baer & Fuller.

When Lesser graduated from Soldan-Blewett High School, there was little money for college. He attended Harris Teacher’s College junior college division for two years at $35 a semester. Then, in 1952, he qualified for an interest-free loan from the St. Louis Jewish Scholarship Foundation-about $1,000 total-which helped him finish his education at Washington University, where tuition was $262.50 per semester.

Today, Lesser heads up Midwest Library Service in Bridgeton, employing 95 people to supply books to public, university and corporate libraries across the nation and in Puerto Rico. For the past 20 years, Lesser has also been a generous Scholarship Foundation donor.

“I trace my good fortune to that original $1,000 loan,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the Scholarship Foundation, I don’t know where I would have been.”

Ship and shop

The year 2010 marks more than the Scholarship Foundation’s 90th anniversary, however. It also marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most unique aspects of the organization-the ScholarShop.

In 1960, while the nation witnessed the first civil rights sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., the publishing of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Russian capture of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, and, of course, the election of John F. Kennedy, St. Louis watched as its fortunes started to slide.

The city’s population fell to 10th in the nation, thanks to suburban white flight. Street car lines were quickly being abandoned, and urban renewal in the form of a new Busch Stadium and Saarinen’s majestic Gateway Arch were still six and seven years into the future.

Yet, in this era of social change, the Scholarship Foundation-which began accepting applications from non-Jewish students in 1953 and was renamed in 1960 when it became independent of NCJW-continued to thrive. That was due, in large part, to the leadership of marketing entrepreneur and philanthropist Evelyn Newman, who found a revolutionary way to recycle fashion and, more importantly, funds, with the ScholarShop, a unique concept of an upscale resale store.

The ScholarShop was launched with the idea that high quality donated clothes and accessories, combined with the services of a committed volunteer staff, would provide a dedicated source of revenue for education programs. Half a century later, that idea has grown to include two major retail locations, one in Clayton, the other in Webster Groves, run by a volunteer staff of 150, that generate sales estimated at $2.7 million annually to help needy area students of all races and religions.

Brothers Joel and Stuart Portman, 23 and 20 respectively, are current beneficiaries of the foundation’s interest-free loans. Both attend the University of Denver, where Joel will graduate from a 5-year dual-degree program in June with a B.A. in international studies and an M.B.A. in business administration. Stuart is a sophomore pre-med student there.

“The Scholarship Foundation has made a big difference in my college career,” says Joel. Though his father, Ron Portman, is a payroll supervisor at St. Louis Community Colleges, money is tight; his mother is a permanent resident in an area nursing home. After graduating from Parkway West in 2006, he says the only way he could attend the University of Denver was by “cobbling together” a variety of loans, scholarships, grants and financial aid programs.

In addition to an interest-free loan, Stuart Portman also received a need-based “Bravo Grant”-begun in 2001 and awarded to individuals who have overcome significant obstacles and achieved in the face of adversity-from the Scholarship Foundation.

“I was attracted to Denver because of small class sizes and easy access to biology research labs,” he says. “It’s so nice to know that money is not an obstacle-that the resources are in place to take care of tuition even though my family could not afford it without help.”

According to Sandler, ScholarShop revenues now provide 40 percent of the Foundation’s operating costs. Another 20 percent come from charitable contributions, and the other 40 percent come from repayment of loans. Each year, more than $3.3 million is loaned to approximately 600 area students selected on the basis of financial need, academic progress and strong character.

Even so, she says, twice as many students contact the Scholarship Foundation in search of interest-free loans each year as can be served. And many who do receive loans still fall short of what they need to support themselves and pay school tuitions.

Getting and giving back

Such was the case with Anthony Reed II, 24, a graphics communication major at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley who hopes to someday work in computer animation at Pixar or Disney. Since his father was murdered 11 years ago, Reed’s family has been hard-pressed to make ends meet. Despite part-time jobs and multiple loans, including one from the Scholarship Foundation, he still found himself with unmet financial needs. That’s when the ScholarShop stepped in and offered him a job working 18 hours a week.

“The people at the Scholarship Foundation and the ScholarShop really do care-they completely follow their mission every day,” says Reed. “Even the volunteers are interested in how I’m doing at school. It’s like I’m part of a really big family that’s helping me follow my dreams.”

Feeling like part of the organization-and giving back to it-is a major emphasis at the Scholarship Foundation, says Sandler. “The concept of stretching and recycling resources goes back to our founding, with the emphasis on interest-free loans instead of monetary awards. Our loan repayment rate is 96 percent-higher than the national average,” she says. “Our mission is truly to act as an agent of transformation. We not only hope to change people’s lives through education, but we emphasize selecting applicants who show the potential to change society by becoming productive community members.”

To that end, in recent years the Scholarship Foundation has implemented a student advocate program to provide support for high school students navigating the college application and financial aid process. Currently, the program is administered by a full-time advisor and employs four full-time advocates serving students at 40 high schools, community colleges and community organizations throughout the area.

Kirsten Jones, 21 and a 2010 graduate of St. Louis University, is one of those advocates. The youngest of seven children in her family-and the only one to go to college-she became a Scholarship Foundation loan recipient when she was a sophomore at SLU.

“Both of my parents lost their jobs; without an emergency interest-free loan from the Scholarship Foundation, I would have been forced to drop out of school,” she says. As it was, she was juggling three part-time jobs to meet financial obligations. When the Foundation offered her a part-time position as a student to “work off” a portion of her loan repayment in the advocacy program, she jumped at the chance.

Now armed with her B.A. degree, she has taken a full-time job with the program, helping students with all aspects of college planning at 10 locations, from high schools like Vashon, Ritenour and Beaumont to community colleges in St. Charles and Union, Mo. The experience, she says, has changed her life-and her career plans.

“Through this job, I can help kids obtain something that they will have for the rest of their lives-an education,” she says. Though she originally hoped to land a marketing job, she says she is now considering a master’s degree program at University of Missouri-St. Louis in leadership for non-profit organizations.

“I always knew I wanted to help people,” says Jones. “Working for a great organization like the Scholarship Foundation just showed me how to do it.”