Planting seeds for the future: Adopt A FIfth Grader program celebrates 15 years of investing in our youth

[The Ukiah Daily Journal] Planting seeds for the future: Adopt A FIfth Grader program celebrates 15 years of investing in our youth

From the Mendocino College Foundation

Fifteen years ago the Mendocino College Foundation launched the Adopt A Fifth Grader (AAFG) program, which awards scholarships to fifth-grade students in Lake and Mendocino 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 become a $1,000 scholarship upon the student’s graduation from high school.

What started with one student at Hopland Elementary School in 2007 has grown to 817 students across 24 elementary schools in the Mendocino-Lake Community College District as of 2022. That’s $817,000 invested in our community’s youth.

The program is the brainchild of Wade Koeninger and his late wife, Mary Lou. When Wade 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, and he saw promise in Wade, which caused him to nominate him for a scholarship to Yale.

Wade received the scholarship and attended Yale and 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, where he and Mary Lou 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, where they believed the newly-named AAFG program would flourish, inspiring and attracting other local philanthropists to join the cause.

And that’s exactly what has happened. To date, more than 230 individual donors throughout Mendocino and Lake Counties have made a contribution to AAFG.

“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,” says long-time AAFG donor Tom Herman about his family’s commitment.

One of the students adopted by the Hermans was Tate Campbell, who received his award as a fifth-grader at Laytonville Elementary School in 2012. Today, Tate is a senior at Chico State, majoring in Animal Science Pre-Vet and has recently applied to Veterinarian School. He was able to get AI Certified and is working at the school’s dairy farm.

Remembering back to when he first found out he had been selected, Tate says, “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 continues, “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 Tate’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. Tate, good luck with the next step in your career and when you are a vet, please come back to Mendocino County,” Tom adds.

One local service club that has really gotten behind 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 club matched all donations up to $500 with a $200 Rotary donation to get to the full $700 required for the scholarship.

That first year the club gave a total of $5,000 in matching funds for 25 fifth-grade students. Five years later the Fort Bragg Rotary has provided matching funds to adopt 205 Dana Grey fifth-graders, an investment of $41,000 directly benefitting local youth.

“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,” says current Rotary Club of Fort Bragg President Paul Sweigart. “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 sees this as a solid investment in the future.”

This past spring, as the Mendocino College Foundation board members and staff made the rounds to 24 schools in Mendocino and Lake Counties, awarding $25 checks and scholarship certificates to all 82 of the adopted fifth-graders for 2022, the program came full circle. Wade Koeninger was able to attend the End of Year Ceremony at what was once Hopland Elementary, now brought back to life by dedicated community volunteers as Shanel Valley Academy.

He proudly awarded two Shanel Valley Academy fifth-grade students, Leonardo Soto and Jennifer Sanchez, their AAFG scholarship certificates. Earlier this year Wade endowed two new perpetual AAFG scholarships in honor of two women who were integral to getting the initial Hopland Elementary program off the ground: Gloria Jarrell, former Principal; and Donna Wilsey, former Secretary II. By honoring these two dedicated women, Wade is ensuring that two fifth-grade students from Shanel Valley are awarded a $1,000 scholarship every year for the next 20 years.

The Koenigers’ 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 them 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.

Contact Julie McGovern, the Executive Director of the Mendocino College Foundation at 707-468-3164 or jmcgovern@mendocino.edu. You can also visit https://foundation.mendocino.edu/donate/ and select the Adopt A Fifth Grader option. Thank you for helping us to help them!