“We are a community.” That’s how the Fresh Start Scholarship Foundation describes itself.
It is a community helping Delaware women overcome obstacles to earn college degrees.
“We’re very impressed by what they do to get to a better place,” board president Michele Whetzel said of the women helped by the foundation since giving its first scholarship in 1996.
Help includes funding – $1.2 million in 589 scholarships to more than 260 women – and mentoring.
Fresh Start began in 1996 when Mary E. Maloney, a former president of the Wilmington Women in Business board, and Joyce Hayes, then the board president, and other women set up a program for needy adult women returning to school seeking to transform their lives through education.
The first scholarship was awarded to Delia, a single mother, homeless after leaving an abusive marriage and living in a car with her four children. She earned her associate degree in accounting with a 4.0 GPA, accepted a position in the financial industry and secured a home in a safe neighborhood for her family.
Since then, similar stories have been repeated many times as women in need are identified and supported financially and emotionally by the volunteers of Fresh Start.
Rising Stars, the foundation’s signature fundraiser, has been transformed this year into a virtual event running 6-7 p.m. Oct. 15. Highlights include a keynote address by Dr. Velma Scantlebury (the first Black woman transplant surgeon in the U.S.), a celebration of its 34 scholars (its term for its scholarship recipients) and recognition of the program’s 2020 graduates. RSVPs are requested by Oct. 5.
The foundation focuses on women living or working in Delaware who are also entering or attending a Delaware college and have also had some sort of gap in their educational progress, Whetzel said.
Awards are based on school, course load, financial need, academic record and motivation to succeed, with applications due May 15 each year.
Mentoring is the foundation’s other essential component, and some mentor-mentee relationships go beyond the basics and have lasted long after graduation day.
The foundation measures its success in grades (scholars’ average GPA is 3.4) and graduation rate (70%, “significantly higher … than other non-traditional student populations at respected institutions”).
It also surveys its scholars two years after graduation.
“Our goal is to have our scholars emerge as independent women with a renewed sense of self-esteem and financial independence,” its website says. “Our many testimonials of new jobs, increased salaries, and better living conditions for their families are evidence of our success in doing just that – improving the lives of women through education!”
Here are three scholars’ stories.
Vickie Farrell was busy. Busy working full time. Busy building her own Dover house through the Milford Housing Development Corp. Busy helping her neighbors build their houses. Busy volunteering with Jobs for Life, a Bible-based career development program with her church, Grace Presbyterian.
Those are some of the reasons why her college education took so long: She graduated from high school in 1987, started studies in human services at Delaware Technical Community College in 2006 and earned her bachelor’s in social work from Delaware State University in 2018.
“I didn’t just want a job,” she said, in explaining her pursuit of a college degree. “I wanted a career.”
Fresh Start supported her “academically and professionally. “They’re alongside of you throughout your journey,” she said.
She’s passing that along, including serving on the Rising Stars event committee.
“I want to give back,” she said. “Anything is possible. Never give up.”
Kira Johnson began college straight out of high school but stopped after her mother died. She began again, and “then I sacrificed my education for my daughter [Shakira] to go to parochial school.”
When Shakira graduated from college, she asked her mother to go back.
Thanks to outreach at Faith City Family Church, she learned about Fresh Start and resumed learning in 2018. After courses at Delaware Tech and Delaware State, she graduated this year from Wilmington University with a associate degree in behavioral science.
The Newark resident works as a customer service representative as she works on her bachelor’s.
Fresh Start helped with funding — “I didn’t have to stress on how I would bridge the gap” — and guidance. Mentor Barbara Buckley “checks in and encourages me.”
“It’s an amazing program for any woman with issues or constraints,” Johnson said. “I rave about it.”
Ralandre Lacy is giving back the help that she got from Fresh Start, by being a mentor, board member and chair of scholar engagement.
“I’ve been in their shoes,” she explained.
After high school, Lacy studied at Delaware Tech but “I moved away from my passion. I was trying to figure out my life when my parents divorced,” and that was followed by concussions in two accidents and a pregnancy.
Her calling turned out to be teaching – the Wilmington resident is a kindergarten teacher at Kuumba Academy. Thanks to Fresh Start she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2016 from Wilmington University. She’s following that with a master’s in organizational leadership.
“Having a mentor was essential, to cheer me on, assist me and be my personal coach,” she said.
She now mentors two scholars.
“I help wherever I can,” she said. “I help them study. And I’m there for them.”