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St. Paul’s, McHenry Finds New Ministry in a Difficult Season

“I have always wanted to go to college but never thought that I would be able to afford it.  My father told me to follow my heart and that is what I am doing.  I plan to become a school counselor so that I can help students like me.”

–from an anonymous student’s scholarship application

Like many churches, St. Paul’s, McHenry worked hard to feed the hungry in its community, and those efforts continued, even as the parish’s resources dwindled and it faced the impending sale of its building and the closure of its columbarium.

“When financial reasons constricted us from doing a whole lot, we found out that our local high schools had a program that provided food for students who received free or reduced cost lunches to take home on the weekends.,” says Beth Lukas, the parish’s senior warden. “The work was simply preparing the grocery bags for them, so we implemented that two or three years ago, even though we couldn’t do much of anything else at the time.”

It was in the midst of this ministry that Lukas and the Rev. Deborah Lang, who serves the parish as a deacon, had an idea that survived the sale of the church building last September and the parish’s subsequent move to renting space in a United Methodist church.

“I aspire to be a teacher who will act as a support system, and as a friend. Not to mention, help develop their education. Even though I may have to overcome challenges as a teacher, I believe with my dedication, determination, and passion for this career, I will be able to push through and deliver.”

“One of our thoughts was that feeding is meeting an immediate need, but to get to the root of poverty, one of the key components is education,” Lukas said. “So it kind of became our thought, ‘What if we could provide scholarships?’”

The parish had little money of its own, but its leaders applied for a vitality grant from the Diocese of Chicago. “McHenry Country, particularly the city of McHenry, has a large Latino population, and many of those young people, particularly if they are first-generation, don’t have an opportunity to go to college,” Lukas said. “So that became the basis of our vitality grant application.”

The diocese responded with a $15,000 grant, and Lukas and Lang contacted McHenry County College with the good news.

“I would save up all of my birthday money since my birthday was in August and I would use it for school supplies and maybe a first day of school outfit. Then when it came to high school I had to pay for my athletic fees, dance dresses, school lunch, school tuition, and anything that I would have needed. My money was never wasted.”

With money in hand, Lukas, Lang and several parishioners set to work developing criteria for the scholarship, agreeing in the end to award five $1,000 scholarships per semester in the current academic year to first-generation immigrants who had graduated from one of three local public high schools with a grade point average of at least 2.0. They specified that students be eligible for the scholarships whether their parents had a social security number and could therefore fill out federal financial aid forms, or not.

The college searched its data bases, supplied names of students who met St. Paul’s criteria, and honored the church’s request to express certain preferences about which students should receive the scholarships, although the final decision remained with the college. Eligible students wrote essays as part of their application, and reading them was perhaps the most moving part of the experience, Lukas says.

“Being that I have been looking out for myself since I was 12 years old, I am very mature and know how to do a lot of things that people at my age usually don’t know. As I have advanced to college, things have become exponentially more expensive. Along with that, having a full-time job and doing school is extremely exhausting.  I am going to school to become a dental hygienist because seeing people smile makes my day a whole lot brighter.”

A $1,000 award amounts to about a half-tuition scholarship, says Julie Arndt, scholarship and outreach specialist at the Friends of McHenry County College Foundation. “It’s a significant scholarship for them.”

“Many of these students are working 40 hours and going to school, and they are really so well-deserving of this money,” says her colleague Audra Buckner, a development specialist with the foundation, who says the gift from St. Paul’s allowed the college to pursue one of its principal goals, a more diverse student body.

The parish used the remainder of its grant to further strengthen its outreach efforts, sending Lang to the Episcopal Latino Competency Course last winter, and enrolling several members in the College for Congregational Development. Any remaining funds will be devoted to a feeding ministry recently organized by faith leaders in McHenry County.

St. Paul’s hopes to continue offering scholarships if it can continue to secure funding.

“If you really want to honor somebody,” Lang says, “you help them to become independent, and not needing your help.”