Ten graduating high school seniors from Austin were each awarded a $1,000 scholarship recently at the Third Unitarian Church’s annual scholars service.
The 46-year tradition, held during services May 31 by Zoom rather than in person in the church sanctuary, continued despite a global pandemic, lost mail and shuttered schools.
Congregation members joked about Rita Maniotis, co-chair of the Austin Scholars Award Committee, storming the post office in search of missing applications.
Maniotis said “that’s just folklore.” What she did was more like a detective’s investigation.
When an application she and Roberta Wilson, the other committee co-chair, knew had been mailed never showed up, they thought “we’re missing more than just one,” Maniotis said.
Worried about how many student’s applications might be missing, Maniotis began calling school counselors and post offices, reconstructing the dates and timing of the mail.
With less than a week until the award ceremony, a post office in Austin found a bin containing all of the church’s mail. It should’ve been diverted to the church secretary’s home but never made it there or back to the church, Maniotis said.
On Friday, May 29, less than 48 hours before the awards ceremony, Maniotis recovered the missing mail. “We found one student that we didn’t know about. So that was worth it,” she said.
Denean Mayes is graduating from Whitney Young Magnet High School. She applied for several scholarships, including the church’s Austin Scholar Award, because of the prohibitive cost of attending college.
“It’s a ridiculous amount, and it’s especially hard for people of color and people from underserved communities to pay for,” she said. “I just can’t, you know, afford going to school without applying for scholarships.”
Mayes will be attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in political science on a pre-law track.
Wilson has been involved in the Austin Scholars Award program since it began in 1974. One Sunday, then-pastor Don H. Wheat said the best thing Third Unitarian could do was give scholarships to Austin high school students. It took off from there, she said.
Wilson said she’s maintained the program over more than four decades through word of mouth. To raise money for the scholarships, she’s leveraged her connections with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Board of Education and throughout the community..
Additionally, Third Unitarian hosts three fundraisers each year for the program: a pancake breakfast, the Martin Luther King luncheon and a “super soup” contest. On average, they raise about $20,000 per year, said Maniotis.
The scholars program is important because “it shows an investment in the Austin community.”
Mayes expects that investment to pay dividends. She wants to become a lawyer to help people of color in her community receive access to healthcare and equal rights.
“I believe that as I do this, I will encourage more improvement, more progress,” she said.
The following students received a scholarship this year from Third Unitarian:
Sieon Brown, Westinghouse High School, Illinois State or Bradley University
Starmesha Brown, Al Raby High School, Northeastern Illinois University (NIU)
Trevion Cobbins, Westinghouse High School, Jackson State University
Ivory Griffin, North Grand High School, NIU
Denean Mayes, Whitney Young High School, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Iyana Quinones, Michele Clark High School, Harris Stowe University
Danyel Smith, Collins Academy High School, Harris Stowe or NIU
Tyneasha Tate, Douglass High School, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Tikayih Walker, Michele Clark High School, Harris Stowe University
Tanajah Willingham, Al Raby High School, Western Illinois University