What was born 11 years ago out of a Thanksgiving Day conversation in the small town of Granger between two women concerned that the children there, mostly Hispanic and poverty-level, would go hungry over the Christmas holidays has grown into an effort to also feed the minds of not just the youngsters, but also their families.
The specialness is that this year has brought a new and growing relationship with nearby Heritage University and its largely Hispanic student body, as well as the remarkable results of the energy and creativity of Heritage student Alma Sanchez that have brought the tiny non-profit its first grant.
Thus is many respects, this is the most important year since the tiny 501c3 was founded to focus on providing Christmas baskets to the mostly Hispanic families. It subsequently grew to not just feed but also enrich the children with programs ranging from providing warm clothing and school supplies to creation of a month-long summer day camp. In addition, an emergency fund was established to help families in crisis.
In her annual e-mail report and "ask" to "friends" last week, Wallace noted that the little non-profit had received a $15,000 grant from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation (YVCF), due mainly to the involvement of Sanchez, a mother of four who is both a student and an employee at Heritage.
The grant is for the education-focused program Sanchez created to use incentives to keep kids in school. Sanchez, who in addition to being a Heritage student also works in the office of Michael Moore, Heritage's Vice President for University Advancement. It was Moore who first reached out to Wallace to create ties between the university and her programs.
Sanchez' attendance incentive program, promoted with posters visible around the school, attracts attention with the headline "Win One of 5 IPads," with the explanation that five will be raffled at the end of the year. Plus, in a style worthy of an ad agency, the signs read: "every quarter that you are in school every day you will receive fabulous prizes."
The results of Sanchez' efforts are already paying dramatic dividends since the 400-student middle school that last year had six students with perfect attendance already has 100 kids with perfect attendance this year.
Moore explains that Sanchez "has also worked inside the school to create a belief among faculty and staff that full attendance is possible and put encouragement, support and incentives in place for students."
Now Sanchez' program can be expanded as a result of the grant from YVCF, which held a special luncheon last week where Wheaton, now Director of Federal Programs, Assessment, Curriculum & Technology for the Granger School District, received the grant check from Linda Moore, the community foundation president.
Sanchez, whose children range from a 20 year old down to a third grader, decided four years ago she needed to get her degree and so, in her mid-30s, enrolled at Heritage. In her sophomore year she went to work in Moore's office because she needed money to finish school.
She had nurtured the goal of going to college, originally hoping to be an attorney, since growing up in Chicago, the city which has perhaps the largest urban Mexican-American population in the country. She moved her family to Granger when her husband relocated to the Yakima Valley.
After learning about Friends of Granger, she got involved, did some research and learned that lack of attendance was the major problem in the Granger schools.
She says she researched attendance across the country and explored what different schools were doing to address the problem and found what kinds of incentive programs to keep kids in school were working in other districts, then came up with her plan for Granger schools, but needed the funding to implement her ideas. That led to the application for the grant.
Sanchez has also helped put together a series of financial literacy workshops for the Granger families and the first one, last week, exceeded all expectations as at least 500 people, representing 150 different families, showed up.
Here again incentives came into play as each family picked up food baskets, then stayed to listen to the presenters.
"When the grant got approved, I can't tell you how ecstatic I was," Sanchez said. "What I would like to see is for this program to continue because I am confident if it continues that we will see significant increases in attendance, and that thus more students will graduate and more students will go on to college."
She also shared her vision that the project "could become the protocol for other districts elsewhere that are facing attendance problems."
Meanwhile, the Heritage connection will be ratcheted up next year when18 student teachers will be working in Granger with master teachers from the School District for the entire year, five days a week in a program viewed as a national model for how teachers need to be trained.
The vision for the Heritage program is that by teaching with master teachers in some of the most challenging districts in the state, Heritage-trained teachers emerge with skills and experience no other programs can produce while also substantially moving the needle on performance for the schools and classrooms they touch.
Granger will appropriately be the initial beneficiary of this program.