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From streets of Seattle to Stanford, Rainier Scholars breaking education color barrier

Some recent Rainier Scholars show off sweatshirts representing the colleges they now attend thanks to the non-profit program. (Rainier Scholars photo)

We’ve heard plenty about the income and opportunity gap as a key issue in the presidential election.

But how do you actually help close it?

One Seattle nonprofit has taken a radical approach: working intensely with underprivileged kids from the time they’re about 12, and sticking closely by their side to get them all the way through college.

Growing up in the Philippines and then moving to Seattle, Sharon Felix and her mother always dreamed of her becoming the first in her family to attend college.

As she struggled to even learn English, though, it was hard to see a way there.

“Most of my family only graduated high school before they came to America, so they have no idea of even the structure of college, really,” Sharon said.

But when she was in fourth grade, she heard of a Seattle-based program that would change her life, and be there throughout her school-aged years.

“It’s an 11-year-journey for a kid,” said Sarah Smith, the executive director of Rainier Scholars. “They meet us when they’re 10 or 11, and they graduate from college when they’re 22, and Rainier Scholars in addition to their family has been the consistent thread all the way through.”

The program was founded in 2002 to give underprivileged students throughout the Seattle-area a long-term support system to help them succeed in both school and life, and become leaders in business and the community.

“We identify students, give intensive preparation, and then place them in strong college prep programs so that they can ultimately go to places like Stanford and Duke, UW, UCLA, and that sort of thing,” Smith said.

Rainier Scholars actively recruits, and then shepherds dedicated, ambitious kids of color from sixth grade all the way through college.

A number of them come from backgrounds that make the future seem bleak – poverty, language barriers, the brink of homelessness. Yet those who make it through the rigorous program thrive.

“It’s tragic in our country, the disparity and the gaps between higher income, predominantly white students in our culture and community, and lower income students of color. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Smith said.

It’s highly competitive – hundreds apply, then about 65 are ultimately chosen each year after a rigorous testing and interview process.

Former Seahawks standout Ray Roberts became involved with Rainier Scholars after first learning of the program and now works as the nonprofit’s recruitment and retention specialist.

“There’s this old phrase that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And Rainier Scholars really does a great job of caring,” Roberts said.

That translates into a wide range of support from academics to mental health counseling to treat all scholars holistically, Roberts said.

The academics are grueling. Kids work after school every day in intense studies that prepare and then qualify them for either advanced placement in middle school or scholarships to some of the Seattle area’s most elite private schools.

“There’s this whole segment of our community that gets left behind,” Roberts said. “And this program, it’s like they attach a cord to them and pull them forward. And as they pull them forward they’re giving them the tools to keep moving.”

That was certainly the case for Sharon, especially when her mother was stricken with cancer and ultimately died.

“My initial reaction was to shut down. I started failing all of my classes and stuff. Unlike other places that would have just let me go, Rainier Scholars asked me why this was happening, they asked how they could help. They definitely helped me not only getting through the program but getting through my personal struggles as well,” Sharon said.

Did she ever. She graduated high school with honors and is now excelling in her sophomore year studying business at the University of Washington.

Rainier Scholars even played a big part in not only getting her in but choosing the right school from among a number of top-notch institutions.

The list of schools attended by Rainier Scholars is impressive, including the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Yale and dozens of others from among the most prestigious in the country.

The track record speaks for itself. Since 2002, Rainier Scholars have achieved 95 percent placement into college prep programs in public or private schools, 100 percent admission to four-year colleges and universities for its first six cohorts.

“I like to get in the dirt, so to speak,” said the former first-round draft pick who spent plenty of time in the dirt during his illustrious NFL career.

“And Rainier Scholars gets in the dirt with the kids and you really get to build relationships and allow them to see something that’s possible that at one point they thought was probably impossible.”

Rainier Scholars provides all of its services at no cost to kids and gets no public funding. So your donations can make a big difference in helping them fulfill their mission to give deserving kids the opportunity of an excellent education – an opportunity many of us take for granted.

The organization also encourages community members to volunteer in a number of capacities, from tutoring and mentoring to administrative support.

“They are amazing,” Sharon said. “Not just the organization but the people themselves. They genuinely care about each student. That’s something that I really, really appreciate.”

The stations of Bonneville Seattle, The Seattle Seahawks and Carter Subaru are proud to honor Rainier Scholars as a charity of the month.

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