Emotions ran high at the Urban League of Madison on Thursday evening as local high school students shattered the cycles of poverty and homelessness by receiving hard earned scholarships to attend Madison College.
Twenty-eight students from some of the hardest walks of life strode proudly to the podium to accept their $1000 scholarship awards in a ceremony hosted by Rubin For Kids.
The students, all of whom were people of color, came from a wide range of backgrounds. Many of them came from single parent homes while others had no parents at all and were left to fend for themselves. The majority of the kids will be the first in their families to attend college at all.
“We try to identify the most deserving of the most needy,” said Board member Randy Sproule. “The requirements are there has to be a significant financial need for getting a scholarship, and I mean significant. Many of these kids either have been or currently are homeless, living on their own. We give preference to those who would be first in their family to go to college. It’s just an extraordinary group of kids.”
One by one the recipients took the microphone and spoke their dreams into existence. They talked about becoming nurses, lawyers or teachers. Many wanted to emulate the professions of the school counselors or tutors or teachers who helped them get this far.
One student was from Gambia and spoke about teaching English as a second language because he saw how much value that skill had in his own life. Another student joked about how she might become a lawyer to break the cycle of criminality in her extended family.
The ceremony was followed by a heartfelt and thunderous speech by Dexter Patterson. Like many of the students, he was thrust into a harsh life. He decided early on that pursuing higher education would be his path out of it.
Today, he takes his role as a mentor seriously.
“All of those kids, man, they go through so much,” Patterson said. “Half of them are working full time, don’t have a Dad at home; some of them don’t have any parents. They’re still going to school, still succeeding. Half of them are honor roll students. For me when I got asked to join the organization, what got me is like I was that kid. I was that kid. I teared up a couple times just looking at them, like wow. That’s what it meant to me. It meant to me like everything came full circle.”
The outcomes for teenagers of colors facing the type of homelessness and poverty these students have faced can be awful. Gangs, drugs and minority incarceration were definite possibilities for these students. So many others just like them fall through the cracks at increasing rates across the United States.
The specter of how differently these kids’ lives could have gone was lost on no one.
“So what I would tell you is my brother spent the majority of his life in prison,” Patterson said. “And the difference between him and I was education. You break that cycle by showing people options. You can be a lawyer, you can be a nurse, you can fix stuff, you can be a digital marketer, you can be so many things. And that’s what I hope these kids are seeing not only through their stories but through the stories of all their peers in there. That’s how I feel. I mean now I get to help someone who was just like me and mentor my mentee through the process. Make sure if he needs somebody when he’s getting down on himself or something like that, to be like ‘dude it’s okay.’ You know, put him in the right direction.”
The 28 scholarships represent the most ever given out in one year by Rubin for Kids. Members of the community, like Dr. Greg Landry, saw the immense need for a greater number of sponsorships and decided to step to the plate and make a difference.
“I have donated every year,” Landry said. “Then when I realized they didn’t have enough scholarships I said ‘wait we can afford this; let’s just go all in and we’ll provide more scholarships. We had 16 last year and this year we had 28.”
Randy Sproule, who is on the committee that selects the recipients, says that this year they received 53 applications for students to receive a scholarship. The applicants are nominated by teachers and counselors around Madison. Rubin for Kids only had funding to supply 15 scholarships so many of those students were going to be left out.
“It’s tough,” Sproule said. “We only had the funding to sponsor 15 scholarships but this year we had people step up like Dr. Landry to sponsor an additional 13 and that’s why we were able to sponsor 28 today. We are always looking for more people to sponsor scholarships. I sponsored one last year in honor of my mom and dad.”
James Rubin, who heads Rubin for Kids, honors his late father Peter Rubin by helping create this life-changing opportunity for students. Peter Rubin was a public defender on the Juvenile circuit who helped spearhead chances for kids all over the city of Madison who faced otherwise daunting odds of success. Whether it was organizing summer pickup basketball or spending time at community centers, Rubin was always at the center of making young lives better.
James Rubin carries that mantle with a full heart. He reminisces about the old days of going from site to site playing sports and meeting kids from other walks of life as he grew up. It helped prepare him for the mission he’s accomplishing now.
“There’s good people out there,” Rubin said. “There’s teachers, social workers, counselors. They know the kids who are working hard despite circumstances whether it be at home or in the community. Most of these kids don’t have another option for a scholarship. But they’re already achieving, they’re already successful.”
Rubin talked about programs that reward kids K-12 for achieving positive things in the classroom or the community. The scholarship to college, obviously, represents the greatest reward. But it the spirit of rewarding overcoming harsh circumstances that keeps Rubin for Kids afloat and inspires the members of the board, as well as the kids themselves, to continue pushing forward.
Towards the end of the evening, four students came to the podium to receive a second scholarship award. These were students who had been recipients of sponsorships last year, had gone to college for a year and were now collecting a second scholarship to continue their studies next year.
“It is probably almost more gratifying to see the renewals,” Rubin said. “We know that it’s challenging. Life comes at you. We had nine renewals this year which is one of the highest we’ve ever had.”
The Rubin for Kids scholarship is renewable for up to two years, which is the average length of time a student attends Madison College. Rubin said that most of the kids who go for the second year wind up doing better just from having had experience. Invariably some fall through the cracks. But by and large, the students figure out what they want and go for it.
“I love the niche of students going to a tech school,” said Greg Banks, an energetic new member of the board. “I think that’s a really good start for students who are figuring it out or who have resources that are scarce. I think it’s a good starting point.”
As the event wound down Dexter Patterson could be seen deciding what to do with his family for the rest of the evening. He stood off to the side in a moment of reflection, flanked by his own kids. Thanks to the mentors who helped him and the decisions he made to pursue higher education, his children won’t experience the depths of hardship he did growing up. It was the perfect picture of a new cycle being started.
“So many cycles being broken man,” Patterson said. “That’s what I told them helped me change when I was in that situation was to say I need to break the cycle. I’m super proud of these kids and to be part of that.”