Watching Ellen

Watch party – Emily Podolak (in blue shirt) with (standing, l-r): Stephanie Coventry, Emily Peterson, Ariel Kelley and Elena Halvorsen watched The Ellen Show Friday afternoon at Wild Flowers Saloon, when the announcement was made that Healdsburg volunteers would be part of a $1 million gift that Ellen Degeneres and Cheerios were giving to volunteers from all over the country.

Organization to launch kindergarten-to-college fund

In recognition of the tremendous effort in opening the Healdsburg Free Store for fire relief, five representatives of Corazón Healdsburg and the Free Store were invited to a special taping of The Ellen Show honoring those who “do acts of good” in their communities. In a star-studded 60th birthday celebration for Ellen DeGeneres that featured former First Lady Michelle Obama, Jennifer Aniston, Jimmy Kimmel and many more, Healdsburg’s local delegates received the surprise of their lives.

In partnership with Cheerios, and in celebration of the talk show host’s 60th birthday, DeGeneres launched the “One Million Acts of Good” campaign — where individuals have been asked to log their acts of good with the goal of reaching one million good deeds.

In the episode that aired Friday, Feb. 2, five members of the Healdsburg community, Ariel Kelley, Elena Halvorsen, Lisa Meisner, Stephanie Coventry and Emily Peterson, were lucky to find a box of Cheerios under their seats when prompted by DeGeneres to look. In the big prize reveal, the box of cereal meant that each of the individuals was gifted a percentage share of a $1 million gift that had been given to audience members in celebration of their individual acts of good.  

“Shocked, surprised and elated does not even begin to describe the overwhelming emotion that filled the room,” said Healdsburg native Elena Halvorsen. “Here we are thinking that meeting Michelle Obama and Channing Tatum was our surprise and then we were blown away when the $1 million giveaway was unveiled.”

The five local delegates — two of which are Healdsburg Charter School Kindergarten teachers (Coventry and Peterson) — realized they could do more than cash their checks.

“We wanted to do more than just cash our prize money,” said Healdsburg Charter School Kindergarten teacher Emily Peterson. “We wanted to double-down on our winnings and invest in the students of Healdsburg that had spent weeks collecting items to donate to fire survivors.”

The kindergarten teachers reached out to the other members of the group and proposed the idea of pooling their winnings to do something larger that could impact local education.

Ariel Kelley, chair of the board of Corazón Healdsburg (local Health Action chapter), shared research about the impact of College Savings Accounts (CSAs) on improving educational attainment for public school students, and advised the other members of the group to look at programs such as the Oakland Promise and San Francisco’s Kindergarten2College program.

“Through our work with Sonoma County Health Action, I have been studying the dozens of college savings account programs from all over California and across the U.S. and have seen the amazing outcomes,” Kelley said. “CSA programs are a game changer for getting underserved kids to college. If cities as large as Oakland and San Francisco could do it for all of their students, I knew we could do it for Healdsburg.”

These CSA programs, often called “College Promise” programs, create universal college scholarship accounts for every student at a particular school or school district. There are many forces that can promote higher education attainment, including financial resources as well as academic readiness, but one of the key factors of success is whether students and their families are aware of programs early enough to take necessary action and change their mindset on access to higher education.

With agreement from the five initiators, Kelley approached the Healdsburg Unified School District (HUSD) Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel and Healdsburg Education Foundation chair Dana Grande with the idea.

Titled “Healdsburg Kinder2College Fund,” the program allows for each graduating kindergarten student from Healdsburg Elementary School and Healdsburg Charter School (starting with the kindergarten class of 2017-2018) to receive a $250 scholarship invested into a 529 College Savings Account in their name.

The money is then available to each student upon high school graduation, as long as they graduate from Healdsburg High School and maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average. The funds can only be applied to post-secondary educational expenses such as college tuition, apprenticeship programs, or a qualified trade-school program.

“We are excited about the potential for this scholarship program to increase higher education attainment and close persisting gaps we see in educational outcomes here in Healdsburg,” said Vanden Heuvel.

“Achieving the end result will require a sustainable program that supports students who would not otherwise enroll and complete post-secondary education. We are enthusiastic about partnering with Corazón Healdsburg on this endeavor because they are going to assist HUSD in engaging parents and families from the Latino community and build collaborations around the program within the entire Healdsburg community.”

“We thought about whether families would feel forced into participation and we wanted to be sure students and their families could opt-out should they decline the ‘free money’ for their kids,” shared Lisa Meisner, Free Store co-founder who initially wrote to DeGeneres asking for help for their fire relief work. “Most importantly, families will also be invited to participate in making monthly or annual contributions to the individual investment funds to grow their child’s fund should they choose to.”

In her role as vice chair of the board of the Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, Meisner has studied the impact of financial stability on overall health, and feels this fund has the ability to not only improve access to higher education for students, but also improve the overall health of an entire family.

With the stamp of approval of both the school district and the education foundation, the team began seeking matching gifts from local businesses and residents who are supporters of education in Healdsburg.

Since last week, the group has raised over $30,000 in addition to The Ellen Show prize money and continues to raise funds. Donations have ranged from regional businesses such as Encore Events Rentals to local real estate agents like Samantha Marquis of Sotheby’s, who has committed a percentage of her annual commission on future homes sold to be earmarked for the local scholarship fund.

Email ariel@corazonhealdsburg.org to learn more about the Healdsburg Kinder2College Fund, or visit www.facebook.com/healdsburgfreestore to see photos from the group’s trip to The Ellen Show.

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