Promise of Changed Futures, Postmarked with Gratitude

Guest Correspondence

It was just as the fall semester was beginning at campuses both digital and physical that a small, unassuming envelope found its way to our offices at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Inside was a thank you note with the beautiful, hand-written words of Kiarra Louis, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida and longtime scholarship recipient of our foundation. As she described the pride she felt having been the first in her family to graduate not only from high school but also college – debt free, no less – we couldn’t help but hold her letter close to our hearts.

In a matter of weeks, Kiarra’s letter would be joined by hundreds of others – some coming in the form of emails, others as video – from past and current scholarship recipients. Each message recounted an inspiring story of those who bravely decided to better their lives through education in the face of a global pandemic. Not lost within a single word was the heartfelt gratitude expressed for the support they received along the way and optimism for all that lies ahead.

As unimaginable economic hardships continue to challenge local families and individuals, support from our community remains key to unlocking possibilities for students of all ages and journeys. It’s why, this year alone, our Community Foundation has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships to positively change the futures of nearly 500 learners, young adults and parents who call our area home. Imagine what this assistance will do to break down barriers, alleviate stress and build opportunity, especially knowing that nearly 100 percent of our applicants who demonstrated financial need received at least one scholarship.

The celebration doesn’t stop with just these numbers, as personal touches from donors and review committee volunteers elevated festivities through Zoom calls, in-person gatherings and personalized awards. Ceremonies for recipients of the Bogner Family Scholarship, the Father Connie Dougherty Memorial Scholarship, and the Lela D. Jackson Family Scholarship included such moments, along with plenty of smiles, laughs and even tears. These opportunities – combined with 70 other scholarship funds in our Traditional Scholarship Program for students under 24 years of age – changed some 398 lives, a majority of whom are just starting their post-secondary paths at college or technical school.

This success accompanied tremendous momentum in our Adult Scholarships Program, which awarded 97 out of 98 students in the first of its two yearly cycles. You may be wondering what happened to that single student who didn’t receive an award. As it would turn out, shortly after submitting their application, they were able to graduate from their program and no longer required assistance.  

Responding to the needs of our students, however, is a year-round commitment. Our donors recognize this, and thanks to the 87 scholarship funds they’ve so generously entrusted to us, we’re able to expand and enrich opportunities no matter which semester happens to be a student’s starting point. This includes our Mid-Year Adult Scholarship application, which will be available later this month for students 24 years of age or older in Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto or Charlotte counties.

With opportunity on my mind, I’d like to return to Kiarra’s thank you letter. After recounting her personal accomplishments and what a difference her scholarship had made in her life, she signed her message, “Thank you for believing in me.” Kiarra, I think it is we who should be thanking you for believing in us. Because the next generation of leaders – like yourself and every single one of our scholarship recipients – is helping create a future we have only just begun to dream of, bringing hope and optimism to learners of all ages.

Roxie Jerde is President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

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