How Grant High alumni are giving new grads a leg up for college

When Sam Kinsey III went from Del Paso Heights to the University of Arizona a few years ago, he left Sacramento with a check for $1,000 from the Grant High Alumni Association.

Without that $1,000, “I wouldn’t have had books that first semester. I wouldn’t have had pillows,” said Kinsey. “That scholarship means the world.”

Kinsey is one of 331 Grant Union High graduates who have received scholarships from those who earned diplomas before them at the Del Paso Heights high school. Since starting in 1984, the program has given out nearly $1 million and plans on awarding 12 more no-strings-attached checks to the next graduating class.

When it does, it will break the seven-figure barrier for funds raised “from Del Paso to Del Paso,” as alumni board member George Jones, a lawyer and 1979 graduate, describes it.

The modest awards are not just the chance for kids from an economically challenged area to get set up in college. They also represent a commitment from former graduates to help other kids from the neighborhood, said alumni association president Kelvin Lee, a former school superintendent for the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District and class of 1964 graduate. Often, recipients are the first in their families to go to college, and they have little idea what to expect or what the unforeseen costs can be, he said.

“When you grow up in areas that are economically distressed and you’re working hard and a lot of time life presents a great deal of challenges … you tend to stay close to home. Your neighborhood, your community, is pretty much the world you live in,” said Lee.

Moving away to college “can be intimidating.”

Many families are just getting by, he said, making it hard to pay for the extras that come up when children go away to school — like travel costs or money to furnish a dorm room. The grants are meant to provide some financial safety from those who know what it’s like to leave the insular community.

“Sometimes the dollars just aren’t there to come home at Thanksgiving or Christmas or spring break because you are making every dollar count,” said Lee. “And if they can’t come home, the universities generally close their dorms down and these kids generally have to find another place to bed down.”

Jones said the money can help “cover the gaps” because it goes directly to students, rather than to the college, as some financial aid does.

“This money that these kids get, it’s to deal with the things they’ve never even thought of,” said Jones.

Kinsey said the surprise of unanticipated costs was what eventually caused him to come home and attend American River College. The alumni grant got him through the first two semesters at Arizona, but he couldn’t figure out a financial plan beyond that.

“If there was more scholarships like the Grant scholarships, I would have stayed at Arizona State,” said Kinsey. “I enjoyed every moment of Arizona State. I think about it now, every day when I wake up. I cannot think about, ‘What if.’ 

Kinsey said for him, returning to Sacramento turned out OK. His great-grandmother, who raised him, fell ill with throat cancer and he was able to care for her. He was recently appointed to the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission by Councilman Allen Warren, another Grant alumni, and he works at an after-school program at Grant mentoring students like himself — some of whom are applying for the grants.

“I can’t tell you how many students in my program say, ‘I want that scholarship,’ ” Kinsey said. “It means somebody believes in our education. Somebody has faith in us to continue the progress we are making, to become better people.”

Gia Jones, George Jones’ daughter and a former class president at Grant who just began her freshman year at UC Berkeley, said while her family could afford the costs of college, the money she was awarded by the alumni did hold emotional significance.

“Just knowing that my school and my alumni are supporting the students, that was something nice to know,” she said. “That kind of makes me want to give back my community and my school.”

After discovering just how large the Berkeley campus is, Jones said she may use part of her money to buy a Razor scooter to get around.

Jay King, a musician and 1980 Grant graduate, said the fund is trying to grow to prevent situations like Kinsey’s by having emergency grants and scholarships for kids who aren’t high academic achievers.

“When they have a hardship, we need dollars in our scholarship program that can help you out of your hardships,” King said. “We have to do better as a community at making sure our kids get a real shot.”

King, who won a Grammy Award for best R&B song of the year in 1987 with his group Club Nouveau for the single “Lean On Me,” will perform at a fundraiser for the scholarships on Sept. 15 at Grant Union High.

Most of the money for scholarships has come directly from alumni through donations and fundraisers like the one King is hosting, some in small dues payments of less than $55 dollars. One alumni, Micheal Donnelly, endowed $285,000 through his estate when he passed away in 2011, said Lee.

“We are proud that (the money) came from our graduates and every penny went back into to the scholarships,” said Lee. “This isn’t corporations or outside agencies. This particular scholarship program is directly funded by alumni.”

King said the accomplishment of hitting the $1 million mark is all the more important when you look at the surrounding community of Del Paso Heights, one of the most economically challenged in the city.

“This is the beginning of the dream for a lot of kids in an area where dreams have been deferred,” said King. “College is where kids create their own future. They get to be in new surroundings that are vibrant and positive and uplifting ... It’s where you get to grow and become something that you can bring back to your community.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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