Denae Gillean and Jennifer Olson have a nice and easy relationship, the kind that comes from swapping weekly text messages and picking up roadside trash together in the rain.
“She’s cool. I don’t meet a lot of moms that are super-cool,” Denae says of Olson, who at 45 could be hers.
Olson considers herself lucky to have met Denae, a Rockford High School senior who befriended the Grand Valley State University professor through a mentoring program.
A project of Rotary International, STRIVE has been active in Rockford for 10 years, during which more than 100 seniors have graduated and more than $16,000 in scholarships dispensed.
“I feel like we get along really well,” Olson says warmly of Denae, as they take a break from a recent volunteer project. “It’s not easy to put two strangers together from different generations and have things to talk about. I just really like being with her. She’s a neat person.”
There you have in a nutshell the sweet spot of STRIVE, a program that pairs community mentors with Rockford seniors in jeopardy of not graduating on time. This year nearly a dozen students are getting help toward that goal and, potentially, a $1,200 college scholarship.
Helping students find jobs beyond high school is also the business of STRIVE, which stands for Students Taking a Renewed Interest in the Value of Education. A project of Rotary International, it has been active in Rockford for 10 years, during which more than 100 seniors have graduated and more than $16,000 in scholarships dispensed.
“Children are our future,” says Ramona Hinton, a Rockford Rotary past president who helped launch the program here. “This is an investment in that.”
Seeing the Light Ahead
While many mentoring programs focus on younger students, STRIVE targets those nearing graduation but at risk of missing the mark. Seniors in the bottom one-third of their class’ grade-point averages are offered the chance to apply. Those who do are paired with adult volunteers to help them overcome problems of academics, attitude and attendance.
Through periodic meetings, shared community service projects and career advice, the mentors provide a motivating boost that helps students “right the ship” as commencement approaches, says Katy VanCuren, Rockford High School associate principal and STRIVE coordinator.
“Until that light at the end of the tunnel’s there, it just seems like we’re dragging them instead of them having some ownership in it,” says VanCuren, adding the advice of an adult who isn’t their parent seems to help. “You’re just listening to them and responding to what their needs are, walking beside them.”
She agreed to head the program after Rotary approached the district with the idea. The club had $10,000 in scholarship funds that had been raised for the program in golf outings by the late Rick Ehinger, a former Rotary president and Rockford graduate. The annual $1,200 spring scholarship is named after him.
“You just want kids to finish school, and realize that’s just a small part of their life,” says Rotary’s Hinton. “If they can get through that, their future is brighter.”
Turning it Around, Just in Time
Hinton helped this year’s group along recently by awarding incentive bonuses for improved GPA, attendance and behavior. Denae received $50 for the latter, while Ethan Morrison and Kaylynn Burke earned top honors for GPA and attendance. The awards came while STRIVE students helped set up a free Christmas store at North Kent Community Services, a food, clothing and education center.
It was one of several service activities students are performing this year. They also toured Grand Rapids Community College, where Denae would like to enroll. Winning the $1,200 STRIVE scholarship this May would help a lot, she says, as she will have to pay for most of her schooling. She’s interested in eventually studying psychology at a four-year university.
Signing up for STRIVE was a big investment in herself, Denae says.
“I knew it would push me to better my grades and better myself through my senior year, and get me a good start on my future,” she says during a break from sorting and hanging clothes at North Kent.
After struggling early in high school and falling behind in credits, Denae says she matured and took on more responsibility. This year, she adds, “I actually study and I actually turn in my work, and I ask for help a lot.”
She’s also asked for advice from Olson, an affiliate professor of health education at GVSU. Along with discussing her grades and college options, they exchange friendly texts and talk about favorite movies. Olson says she admires Denae’s commitment, as when she came out in a pouring rain to help pick up trash along 10 Mile Road NE.
“Not a lot of young people would be out there saying, ‘I’m glad to help the community,’” Olson recalls.
Denae says hanging with Olson has helped raise her sights.
“It makes me want to show her that I can strive and be better,” she says, although that’s not her only motivation.
“I care about myself and my family. I want to have them see me succeed.”