As the recession and catastrophes such as the Haitian earthquake reduce donations to scholarship funds, a few unsung but notable Americans are stepping up to try to help students afford college. One of the most notable: Lt. Col. Terry Owens, who will spend about $5,000—some of which comes from the hazard pay she earned for her recent tour in Afghanistan—to help college students pay their tuition bills this year.
Owens, 45, who finished a tour in Afghanistan this spring, is taking applications through May 31 for three $1,000 scholarships administered by the Courtney Owens Educational Foundation, Incorporated, a tiny non-profit she founded in 2005 and named after her daughter. What she doesn't tell applicants is that she is sometimes so wowed by runners-up that she ends up sending some of them checks of $50 to $100 as monthly stipends. "It depends on how much I have in my pockets," laughs Owens, who is now stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, as the deputy chief of staff for Personnel Services at the 30th Medical Command.
Why does she give so much away when she has a child of her own who will soon need college funding? "With one child, and a husband who works, we've been pretty fortunate," she says. "I wanted to do more than complain and point the finger" at underfunded and inadequate public schools, and insufficient college financial aid. "I took a direct approach and created my own foundation," she says. "You do it because it needs to be done."
Dwight Burlingame, director of academic programs at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, says lots of Americans are quietly helping others. "The big gifts get the coverage, but we are all philanthropists," Burlingame says. Nearly all Americans contribute to their community or neighbors informally, he says. About three-quarters of Americans donate to charity each year, he says, adding that the average household donates about 2 percent of their income annually. But, he notes, the recession has forced many to cut back on their donations. And overseas disasters such as the Haitian earthquake caused many donors to redirect their donations away from domestic charities, he says.
Owens' comparatively large annual donations from a middle class family, especially out of combat pay and during a difficult economy, are noteworthy, Burlingame says.
For Owens, who signed up for ROTC while earning a master's in early education from Hampton University, the scholarship drive started in the late 1990s. She was stationed in California and helped her college sorority run a scholarship contest. She was impressed by a bright high schooler who wanted to go to Hampton, which was also Owens' undergraduate alma mater, but didn't win the scholarship. Owens had previously given to a wide variety of charities, but had been feeling like she wasn't making enough of a difference. "I thought I could dig a little deeper," she says. "If I could help one person get through school, maybe that person will do something. I wanted to pay it forward."
Owens called Carla Brown (who has since married and changed her last name to Newton) and offered to help: "I'm going to send you a little money to cover those things you don't expect to happen" at college. Owens sent cards and checks to Newton throughout her four years of undergraduate study. Newton graduated from Hampton in 2005. In addition to getting married, she has since started law school and had a child. Newton remembers what a lifesaver Owens' first check was: Newton's parents had just dropped her off at Hampton and departed. She hadn't gotten a bank card yet, and was cashless. "I needed to buy books, but I didn't have any actual way to pay for books," she recalls. Then she opened a card with a check from Owens. "I went to the bookstore, purchased my books, and I had $5 left over. I took that to Burger King for my first college meal." That was just the beginning. For the next four years, Owens would "send little encouraging notes with a check for different amounts. It was really nice to feel like I wasn't forgotten," Newton says now from her new home in Houston.
Owens soon decided to start helping other students in a more formal way. In 2005, she recruited a board of advisors and incorporated her non-profit. She created three $1,000 one-year scholarships: one for nursing students in honor of her mother, who is a nurse; one for children of soldiers that is named after a comrade who died in the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon; and a third for students who volunteer in their communities, which is named after her mother-in-law.
While Owens pays for most of the scholarships from her own checking account, she also tries to gather more money for students by fundraising and getting sponsors for an occasional 5-kilometer race, when she has time to train and run.
Students who've won her scholarships or receive her extra stipends say that no other scholarship donor stays so closely in touch or sets such an inspiring example. Kelly Gavin was midway through studies to become a teacher at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in 2005 when she received a call from Owens's non-profit offering her a monthly stipend of about $50. Gavin thought it was a little weird, since most scholarships are just one-time lump sums, but quickly came to love the monthly checks. "Yes, I can go get some groceries. I can go get that book!" she'd realize every time a check arrived. "People think it is nothing, but that little bit of money helps so much," she says. The continuing E-mails were also heartening. Owens "was really sweet. She was another supporter, somebody who really cared," Gavin says. Now an elementary school teacher in Arlington, Va., Gavin tells all the student teachers she meets about the COEFI scholarships. And the power of those small checks have inspired her. As soon as she completes her master's, she plans to start donating to COEFI, she says. "It is important to give back to those who gave back to you."
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