HOLLAND, Mich. — The Holland/Zeeland Promise program is delivering on its promise, thanks to help from the community. The program just received its largest grant yet, to the tune of $1 million. That money will help young students with limited resources set the foundation for a strong future.
“My parents really wanted something better for me," said Yadah Ramirez, a former scholar of the program. "That's why it's really a moment of pride for me to be able to say that now I am a graduate of the University of Michigan and a homeowner.”
Growing up, that kind of life was far from reality for Ramirez.
Her mom is an immigrant from Mexico. Her dad is a U.S.-born citizen but lived an immigrant experience, working in the fields at the age of three. They've been homeless, twice.
However, Ramirez's favorite quote from a book called 'Never Eat Alone' by Keith Ferrazzi puts her story in perspective.
“‘Poverty, I realized, wasn't only a lack of financial resources, it was isolation from the kind of people who could help you make more of yourself,'" Ramirez said, reciting the quote. "I think that that just definitely really rings true for myself, and a lot of the students that are still going through the program today.”
The Holland/Zeeland Promise program not only helps students continue their education at the next level but offers resources to help them outside the classroom too.
Mike Goorhouse, President & CEO, Community Foundation which is the sponsor organization for the program, told FOX 17, “In addition to the finances, we also walk alongside that student. We provide them access to mental health counseling, career testing, and coaching.”
The program started 10 years ago, sending many first-generation high school graduates and first-generation U.S. citizens to college. It provides $50,000 in scholarships over the course of four years.
Goorhouse said 77 students have been through the program with a 94% graduation rate.
“These kids, they made it," Goorhouse said with a smile on his face. "They graduated, and they came back to our town and they became nurses of the local hospital. They became program directors at local nonprofits, they became teachers in our local schools.”
The program is similar to the Kalamazoo Promise. It doesn't have access to public funds and instead runs purely on private donations.
So far, Goorhouse said it's been "money in, money out." Basically, anything raised has been immediately committed back to the students, until now. An anonymous couple recently donated $1 million, the program's largest single donation yet.
“There will always be students in our community who deserve the chance to pursue that post-secondary education, and better their lives," Goorhouse said. "Our communities need to come around those students now, five years from now, 20 years from now. This is the beginning of that, which is really cool.”
When it started, the program could only send 1-2 students to college a year. That donation, though, will allow 12 students to continue their education in the fall.
They have to be nominated by high school counselors or local non-profits. Goorhouse said they'll pick the winners in April, and it won't be easy to narrow down the pool of applicants.
“The hardest job in the world is doing the interviews and having to decide," said Goorhouse. "You get into every interview and you're like, just give them all, 'Yes, yes, yes and yes!' Every one of these kids is amazing.”
That's why he said donations like these are so important to grow the program.
For Ramirez, it's come full circle. She now works as the program's College Success Coach, helping the very students whose shoes she once filled herself.
“Being able to then use shared experiences to make sure that they feel empowered, they feel encouraged, they feel motivated," she said. "They have multiple people cheering for them to succeed and just help them along the way.”