Women In Focus, Inc. will recognize 13 high school students chosen to receive 2016 “I Have a Dream” scholarships on Sunday, April 24, at the Radisson Twist on Madison’s west side as the organization continues to work to help close the racial achievement gap in the Madison area.

Scholarship recipients, family members, members of the press, and representatives of organizations whose donations fund the “I Have a Dream” scholarship program will be in attendance at this annual event that continues to grow.

Women In Focus, Inc. is a local non-profit dedicated to supporting the education of students of color. Each year, Women In Focus, Inc. (WIF) awards scholarships to deserving college-bound students who have been selected by the WIF Scholarship Review Committee. Proceeds from the organization’s annual “I Have a Dream” Scholarship Banquet and Ball, as well as contributions from supporters, are used in funding the awards.

Women in Focus, Inc. President Kay Simmons (left) with Emilie Songolo at a previous "I Have a Dream" Scholarship Ball
Women in Focus, Inc. President Kay Simmons (left) with Emilie Songolo at a previous “I Have a Dream” Scholarship Ball

In the last few years, Women In Focus, Inc. have gotten some new, younger members who have energized the group, which started in 1983 and currently consists of 21 area women. “The new members have new ideas and are very energetic. It’s great to see them blossom and come into their own,” Women in Focus President Kay Simmons, a longtime member of the organization, tells Madison365. “They have new ways of approaching things. I think that’s really what you need to grow … continued input from all kinds of different women. And because we’re such a small group, we get to know everybody really well and have become close.”

Simmons is finishing up her second year as president of Women in Focus, Inc. which she will soon turn over to longtime WIF member Sally Hestad. The organization exists to provide scholarship funding for students of color in the Greater Madison area who are pursuing post-secondary education.

“If we’re going to be known for scholarships than we really need to focus on how to do that and to make sure that we are doing that well … and that’s why this event is so important,” Simmons says. “But we do have a lot of great other fellowship events. We do an annual picnic. We have an annual Holiday Party. We have a fun group of women and we are involved in many things.”

Women in Focus Inc.
Women in Focus Inc.

Women in Focus also has an active Literacy Program and they outreach to women and children in the YWCA Third Street program. They also give of their time by reading and distributing books to various community outlets and organizations.

“What I like about our organization is that I can see that we are really doing something good in this community and that it’s the students that we focus on,” Simmons says. “We also do things in the community in terms of literacy and work with the [YWCA] Third Street children and we give out books at Juneteenth [Festival at Penn Park]. One of the things that we have been trying hard to do is to make sure that books and literacy are things that we focus on in our community, especially for the African-American children.”

But their signature cause is the “I Have a Dream” scholarships. Every spring, Women In Focus (WIF) awards scholarships to students of color in the greater Madison community who have met educational criteria and have shown evidence of community service. Recipients of the WIF scholarships have gone on to pursue diverse career paths including business, professional careers, music, medicine, dentistry and art.

“It began in 1986 when the young people started getting scholarships which were really book scholarships at the time awarded to two students … scholarships were about $100 or $150,” Simmons says. “This Sunday, we will have 15 total students who will be receiving scholarships including two of them that will be for students who have followed non-traditional paths.”

Women in Focus Inc.'s 2015 "I Have a Dream" Scholarship winners
Women in Focus Inc.’s 2015 “I Have a Dream” Scholarship winners

Thirteen graduating high school students seeking to continue their education post-high school through an undergraduate degree or other post high school degree or certification will receive scholarships on Sunday. Two additional scholarships are awarded to adult students who are continuing their education through an undergraduate degree or other post high school degree or certification.

One of those adult scholarships is the Miss Annie Mae McClain Scholarship. In 2007 Women in Focus, Inc. awarded the first Miss Annie Mae McClain Scholarship, funded with the proceeds of an auction of 77 wonderful hats owned by Miss Annie Mae McClain during her lifetime. The hats were generously donated to WIF by Miss Annie Mae’s son Joe McClain and his wife, WIF member Carol Lobes. A foundation was created to honor Joe McClain’s mother.

Carol Lobes and Joe McClain
Carol Lobes and Joe McClain

All told since its formation in 1983, Women in Focus has awarded 272 scholarships totaling $395,000 for students of color in the Madison area.

Every year, Women In Focus invite a former scholarship recipient to be the keynote speaker for the event. “They usually can tell the students and their families what to expect in terms of what college is going to be like and what they are going to need to do to be successful,” Simmons says. “And since they are fairly recent [Women of Focus scholarship winners], they have a really good understanding of what is needed now and in preparing the recipients for what is coming.”

At the event, each of the new recipients are presented to the audiences and the emcee describes their many accomplishments. “Everybody in the audience gets to hear about what they’ve done and then we award them a certificate and the scholarship,” Simmons says. “For the last three years, we’ve been giving $2,500 scholarships to each student.”

The money for the scholarships is raised at the Women in Focus’s annual “I Have a Dream” Ball that is held the Saturday before the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and is the sole fundraising event for the organization. “We really try to keep it to the bone so that the proceeds really go toward scholarships,” Simmons says. “We have an endowment, too, a large sum of money we were given a few years ago that people continue to contribute to.”

Simmons says that Women In Focus, Inc.’s future goals are to expand their scholarships — both in number and amount.

“We want to continue to be careful in terms of how we use our money and make certain that it’s given to students and they are able to use it to move forward,” Simmons says. “Our goals for the future center around improving our scholarship program. Our hope is to, some day, be able to increase the amount of scholarship and the amount they are worth and to figure out how we can also continue to grow our endowment on a regular basis.”

Women In Focus, Inc. will recognize high school students chosen to receive 2016 “I Have a Dream” scholarships at a special ceremony Sunday, April 24, 2 p.m., at Radisson Twist, 517 Grand Canyon Dr. For additional information on Women In Focus Inc., visit here.