GRESHAM – Bob Klopke knew how expensive higher education can be.
He had just sent the youngest of his three daughters to college, and as the principal of Gresham School, he had seen many other students doing the same.
Given the success of Shawano’s Dollars for Scholars program, which has been raising funds for scholarships for high school graduates pursuing post-secondary education since 1993, he believed that Gresham students could benefit from such a program as well.
In 2001, Klopke began sending letters to people in the community who he believed would be interested in setting up a fund and holding meetings.
Before Klopke and the group even asked for donations, he told him that a farmer who lived north of town would hand him $ 100 or $ 200 out of the blue and simply tell him to “use this to get the fund going bring “.
Twenty years later, after Gresham residents like this farmer contributed just $ 5 here or $ 10 there, the community raised $ 1 million for the Gresham Scholarship Fund to help the small town’s youngest residents to pay for higher education.
Over time, the scholarship amount has also increased. At the start of the scholarship, the awards were $ 400 per qualified student. Now students are getting $ 3,250.
Newell Haffner, superintendent of the Gresham School District, said the fund had “had a major impact” in what he described as “economically depressed”.
Data from the State Department of Public Instruction shows that about three in five students in the district of about 250 students are considered economically disadvantaged.
To make it as accessible as possible, the scholarship is available to all seniors as long as they are aiming for post-secondary education and have a grade point average of at least 2.0.
“I think some of our students would not have gone to college or could not have afforded it without the scholarship,” said Haffner. “It serves the children and the community by giving them a leg up.”
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Shawano School District has considered closing Gresham School since the 1950s as a cost-cutting measure, said Curt Knoke, who volunteers for the Shawano Area Community Foundation, which owns the Gresham Scholarship Fund foundation.
Just over a decade ago, when Shawano reconsidered closing Gresham School, residents overwhelmingly backed a referendum to withdraw from Shawano and start their own new school district.
This community pride led to Klopke’s confidence that he could set up a scholarship fund for Gresham alumni.
Unlike Shawano’s Dollars for Scholars program, which received individual donations close to $ 1 million, Gresham had few deep pocket donors and broad community support.
Most contributions to the fund over the years have been $ 500 or less. To date, the largest donation the fund has ever received was just over $ 30,000, Knoke said.
Over the past few years, around $ 20,000 has been added up from the fund’s annual fundraising banquet, one of the city’s biggest events of the year, where residents raise money for a good cause – the students – and for good food and fun together to have.
In 2019, seven cakes donated by the Red Rooster Cafe in Bonduel were auctioned for $ 4,650.
“It’s pretty amazing that a small town can raise $ 1 million without a large donor,” said Dan Huntington, owner of the Gresham Hardware Store, who acts as the auctioneer at the event and makes a frequent donation to the fund. “It says a lot about the community. There is a strong sense of community and support for our school here after we almost lost it.”
Mindy Hoffman grew up on a dairy farm with five siblings and always knew college would be something she would have to work for.
Eleven years after graduating from Gresham High School as a valedictorian and receiving a $ 750 scholarship, Hoffman is now a physical therapist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Green Bay. She received her bachelor’s degree from Viterbo University, a small Catholic college in La Crosse, and her PhD in physical therapy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“This was one of the scholarships that helped me get through Undergrad and put me on a good path to start Grad school,” said Hoffman.
What also helped Hoffman get through school is knowing that at home she has a community that takes root for her.
“The people who go to the banquet and donate – they are the people my parents work with, they are the people I see in the store and ask how I am, and they are the ones who want to see you thrive and they are very supportive, “said Hoffman. “I’m so happy to have this.”
For Bruce Stoehr, who grew up in Gresham and moved to Green Bay, where he was a doctor until his retirement, the investment is well worth it. He said he enjoyed seeing his friends’ grandchildren graduate and receive the Gresham Scholarship.
“The enthusiasm this generated has breathed new life into the Gresham community,” said Stöhr. “What it has done for the community, the city and the students is incredible.”
While $ 1 million is “huge” for such a small town, Knoke believes her job is far from over as college keeps getting more expensive.
“It’s just amazing for a small town,” said Knoke. “But $ 3,000 is only about 3% of college education. I say we can do better, so I say let’s move on.”
Interested parties can donate online at donner.cffoxvalley.org/Make-A-Giftor send a check to the Gresham Scholarship Fund at PO Box 102, Gresham, WI 54128.
Contact reporter Samantha West at 920-996-7207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter below @ BySamanthaWest.