Fifteen years ago the Mendocino College Foundation launched the Adopt A Fifth Grader (AAFG) program, which awards scholarships to fifth-grade students in Mendocino and Lake Counties. Individual donors, families, service clubs, and local businesses donate $700 to “adopt” a fifth-grade student.
The Foundation then invests that money, growing it over seven years to award a $1,000 scholarship upon the student’s graduation from high school.
What began in 2007 with one student at Hopland Elementary School has now grown to 817 students across all twenty-four elementary schools in the Mendocino-Lake Community College District. The program currently has $817,000 invested in our community’s youth.
The program is the brainchild of Wade Koeninger and his late wife, Mary Lou. When Koeninger was a young man growing up in Oklahoma, he and a friend started a lawn-mowing business. One of his clients had attended Yale University. The client saw promise in the young man and nominated Koeninger for a scholarship at Yale.
Koeninger accepted the scholarship and attended Yale. It changed his life. He never forgot the man who made it possible and became determined to provide the same type of motivation for young students in Hopland, CA, where he and his wife had relocated in 1979.
In 1989, they launched the Koeninger Elementary School Achievement Award by selecting one fifth-grade student from Hopland Elementary School. In 2007, the Koeningers partnered with the Mendocino College Foundation, confident that the newly-named AAFG program would flourish and then attract other local philanthropists to join the cause.
To date, more than 230 individual donors throughout Mendocino and Lake Counties have made a contribution to AAFG. Long-time donor Tom Herman spoke about his family’s commitment. “Angie and I started with the AAFG program because we wanted to invest in our community’s children and if possible help them succeed in their life choices.”
One of the students adopted by the Hermans was Tate Campbell, who received his fifth-grade award at Laytonville Elementary School in 2012. Today Campbell is a senior at Chico State majoring in Animal Science/PreVet. Now AI Certified, he is working at the school’s dairy farm. Recently, he applied to veterinary school.
Recalling when he had been selected, Campbell said, “It meant a lot to me at such a young age, knowing that I had the academic potential for people in my community to believe in me and my ability to achieve a successful future.”
He continued, “Programs like this supporting young minds are beneficial to small communities like the ones in Mendocino County. They help children gain confidence in their ability to achieve their educational dreams. Ever since I was young, wanting to be a veterinarian has been my goal. Knowing what I know, that award means a lot to me and has pushed me every day since to achieve my dream.”
Tom Herman was glad to hear of Campbell’s success. “To see that Tate Campbell has chosen to become a veterinarian is, to us as horse and animal lovers, a very special reward for our involvement in the AAFG program.” Herman added, “Tate, good luck with the next step in your career, and when you are a vet, please come back to Mendocino County.”
One local service club that aggressively supports this investment in our youth is the Rotary Club of Fort Bragg. In 2017, it made a commitment to help “adopt” every fifth-grade student at Dana Gray Elementary School. The Rotary Club matched all donations up to $500 with a $200 Rotary donation to get the full $700 required for the scholarship.
That first year the Rotary Club gave a total of $5,000 in matching funds to 25 fifth-grade students. Five years later the Fort Bragg Rotary Club has provided matching funds to adopt 205 Dana Gray fifth graders, an investment of $41,000 directly benefitting local youth.
Paul Sweigart, the current president of the Rotary Club of Fort Bragg said, “We believe in the Adopt A Fifth Grader program’s ability to inspire young people as early as fifth grade to start thinking about and planning for their future.”
He added, “If we can help our local students stay on track, graduate high school, and hopefully attend Mendocino College or pursue their career goals, it’s good for our community. We all benefit when students achieve success, so Rotary Club sees this as a solid investment in the future.”
This past spring, the Mendocino College Foundation Board members and staff made the rounds to the twenty-four schools in the Mendocino and Lake Counties, awarding $25 checks and scholarships to the 82 newly adopted fifth graders for 2022.
The AAFG program then came full circle when Wade Koeninger attended the 2022 End of the Year Ceremony. The event was held at Shanel Valley Academy, located on the site of the former Hopland Elementary School. He proudly awarded two Shanel Valley Academy fifth-grade students, Leonardo Soto and Jennifer Sanchez, their AAFG scholarship certificates.
Earlier this year, Koeninger had endowed two perpetual AAFG scholarships in honor of two women who were integral to the initial steps of re-opening the old Hopland Elementary site–former Principal Gloria Jarrell and former Secretary II Donna Wilsey.
By honoring these two dedicated women, Koeninger has ensured that two fifth-grade students from Shanel Valley will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship every year for the next twenty years. Many dedicated community members had also actively worked with the two women to open Shanel Valley Academy.
The Koeningers’ premise remains both forward-thinking and simple. Plant a seed in a young person’s mind that she or he is college-bound and motivate this student to graduate from high school and attend college. Anyone can help plant a seed to help grow the future of Mendocino and Lake Counties by making a contribution to the AAFG Fund.
To donate, contact Julie McGovern, Executive Director of the Mendocino College Foundation at 707-468-3164 or at email@example.com. You can also visit https://foundation.mendocino.edu/donate/ and select the Adopt a Fifth Grader option.