Members of Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield., gathered Sunday for a luncheon to raise funds for the 41st annual Austin scholarship pioneers educational fund.
“Education is the most important thing that we could do for a student,” Rev. Donald Wheat said.
And after four decades, education is still the No. 1 priority, he said.
“The scholarship fund (is) consistent with what Unitarians are,” Wheat said. “It’s education, and not just to have a food pantry or a soup (kitchen).”
Wheat started the educational fund with the help of others at the church, and after leaving Third Unitarian in 1996 to begin his own church, he decided to come back for a day to promote the cause.
“We started off with just two $500 scholarships,” Wheat said.
Now the program has grown to help high school students from throughout the West Side, providing $1,000 scholarships for college.
Over the last 40 years, the fund has provided college scholarships to nearly 600 high school graduates, said Roberta Wilson, a church member and longtime member of the Chicago Teachers Union.
“We want to be sure that they go to college and come back to the community and help us,” Wilson said.
It’s her job to go out to schools in Austin and provide scholarship applications to high school counselors.
This year, members of the scholarship committee hope to give 20 scholarships, Wilson said – which means raising $20,000.
This year’s award winners will be recognized May 24 at a special dinner at the church.
About $15,000 has already been raised, and money from Sunday’s luncheon will also go toward the fund. But there is still more fundraising to do, Wilson said.
“If you’re someone who has got some money and don’t know what to do with it, we are right here waiting for it,” Wilson said.
Former Austin High School Principal Earl Williams was involved with the scholarship fund for the 10 years he was principal.
An opportunity like the one they are offering students from the Austin area can impact entire families, Williams said.
“It’s that first step when you don’t have the resources,” he said.
If Williams had been able to get this kind of financial boost when he was younger, he said it would have made his road to achieving an education much easier.
Many recipients will be the first in their families to attend college, Williams said, and that will create a ripple effect for others in the family.
“It’s important because you touch so many first-generation college attendees,” Williams said. “And we know that if you get someone in that family to achieve, they set the example for the rest of their brothers and sisters.”
Applications are available at Third Unitarian Church or through counselors at Austin schools.
The deadline to apply is May 1.