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Leaders in the Making

03/19/2013 02:48PM ● Published by Anonymous

story: Kerri Regan photos: Michael Burke, Jesse Rosten, Lyn Rosten

THE MCCONNELL FOUNDATION MAKES FUTURES BRIGHTER

Kalyn was on the verge of giving up. The McConnell Foundation had recognized her tremendous promise, awarding her a sizeable scholarship to pursue a marine biology degree – and as the first member of her family to attend college, she couldn’t wait to get started. Yet as the semester unfolded, she discovered that she hated her lab classes.

David Tanner had seen this before. The scholarship program officer for McConnell helped lead her through an exercise that helped her discover that she had a gift for interacting with youth. “She did some volunteer hours visiting kids in juvenile hall – playing basketball with the girls and having a really good time,” Tanner says. “It’s something not many people feel comfortable doing.” She changed her major to recreation administration and is thriving. “It’s not just about completing the degree; it’s about doing something you enjoy and having a life that’s satisfying,” he says.

Sharing culturally rich books with preschoolers. Fostering leadership skills among teenagers. Pulling a university education into reach for young adults. These McConnell investments aren’t in North State travel guides like the foundation’s higher-profile projects, but they have the potential for limitless returns.

One such endeavor is the Yosemite Institute, a five-day outdoor education program in Yosemite National Park. The McConnell Foundation recently invested $5 million toward a new campus there, and for 20 years, it has sent some 140 North State high school students from varying academic and socioeconomic levels to “nature’s classroom” for a week. The goal is to inspire participants to become leaders and responsible stewards of natural resources. “They see things in themselves and others that they might not have noticed back at home,” says Ana Diaz Bachman, who coordinates the Yosemite Institute program for McConnell. “We have some kids who don’t really exercise, and they get to the top of the mountain and see that they’ve done it alongside the track star. It’s a life-changing experience.”

The McConnell Foundation is on the verge of completing a Platinum LEED-certified campus for Redding School of the Arts. This advances two of the foundation’s priorities - sustainability and interactive learning. The charter school is being built on Foundation-owned property on Shasta View Drive and will include an 800-seat children’s theater and community center.

Helping North State students earn college degrees is another intense focus. The Foundation was a primary funder of the Chico State University/Shasta College partnership, and it invests $3 million annually in College OPTIONS through the University of California Regents. This partnership was launched after a 2001 study revealed three major obstacles that prevented North State students from going to college: cost, distance, and a relative shortage of college preparatory courses in high school. Through College OPTIONS, advisors at every high school (and some middle schools) in Shasta and Siskiyou counties help students set goals and make informed choices about how to get there. The program’s “access center” in Redding also hosts community events, financial aid services and counseling.

Higher education is a weighty investment for virtually all families, so the McConnell Foundation provides more than $750,000 through two scholarship programs: Scholars, for students attending four-year universities, and Vista, for those attending Shasta College or College of the Siskiyous. “The goal is to put education within reach,” Tanner says. Participants must have financial need, but they don’t need to be at the top of their class. “We want them to be able to benefit from their college education,” Tanner says. “We’re trying to foster long-term or multigenerational change in families, and certain kids offer a really high potential for a return on that investment.”

For example, recent scholarship recipients include a Latina from Tulelake who is the first in her family to attend college, and a rural student whose graduating class had nine students. “We’re creating this example for other students in their communities, and that resonates,” Tanner says. “We want to foster a college-going culture – that’s the most reliable pathway to the middle class for most people. It used to be where you could get a factory job and be able to support a family and have a house. That’s not a reality anymore.”

Rather than writing a check and wishing the youth well, these programs carry a heavy mentoring and coaching component. “I try to talk to every student every two or three weeks,” Tanner says. “We talk about handling bureaucracy in a way you can be successful. My goal is for every kid to walk into the financial aid office and the staff knows their name and is happy that they’re there.” Career coaches teach resume writing, interviewing and job hunting, and etiquette coaches show students “how to be comfortable with power brokers in any situation, and how to make a good impression on bosses,” Tanner says. He also recently took his College of the Siskiyous students out to dinner with faculty members to start fostering meaningful relationships.

“When students drop out, sometimes it’s money or grades, but mostly it’s because they don’t feel like they belong there,” Tanner says. “We want them to feel like, ‘This is my home – this is my campus.’”

Dick Stimpel, chairman of the McConnell Foundation board of directors, says the late Carl and Leah McConnell’s vision is still unfolding. “One of the most important thrusts was to try to get a (public) four-year university in Redding,” Stimpel says. “We have a considerable amount of high school dropouts and not a lot of our kids go on to school… many large businesses don’t want to come to a city where there’s no (public) four-year school. An educated labor base is quite important in the business sense.”

Making land available for a campus is one way the McConnell Foundation could contribute to this effort, Stimpel says.

Bottom line: It’s tough to go wrong investing in youth.

“Knowledge is power,” he says. “If we can educate our children, we’ll all be better off.” •

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about the McConnell Foundation.

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