Challenge Scholars Program meets multimillion-dollar funding goal

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The Challenge Scholars Program for Grand Rapids middle school students has taken another big step forward.

"As of this morning, the "Rise With Us Campaign" for Challenge Scholars has raised $33.6 million," a crowd applauded as Meg Willit made the announcement. Willit is the co-chairperson for the campaign.

The fundraising goal for the Challenge Scholars Program has not only been met, it`s been surpassed.

In May 2014, the inaugural class was announced at Grand Rapids Community College`s Ford Fieldhouse. At the time, $26.5 million had been raised.

This year, another group of 6th grade students were inducted. Today, nearly 300 6th and 7th graders from Grand Rapids` Westwood and Harrison Park Middle Schools are on the path to success. They`re all headed to Union High School. Once they graduate, they`ll attend college for free under the program.

The community foundation said it plans to help students find scholarships and grants and then provide the rest of the students' tuition.

Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said the 'last dollar scholarships' will ensure "there won`t be any financial barrier for them to go on to college."

"I guess when I go to college, I`ll be able to not worry about being in debt," Haylie Santiago, a Westwood Middle School student said.

She added, "I`m very thankful because I will be the first one in my whole entire family to go to college."

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation spearheaded the campaign and passed its goal by $1.6 million for phase one. It`s a combined effort from individual donors, companies, organizations, colleges and universities.

Willit said, "It took everyone in this room and so many others to get where we are."

The foundation's president said the pitch to donors involved more than giving a kid college tuition but expressing the importance of providing the resources they`ll need to get there.

"Both in the schools now and the supports needed for them to be successful, along with academic coaches, health and human services being delivered at those school-based sites," Sieger said.

"My parents at home... we don`t have a lot of money and being in the Challenge Scholar group. It`s great honestly because people are donating. They`re not doubting us. They believe in us, and I believe that I can reach my goals just like everyone else here," Ismael Lagunes, a Harrison Park Middle School student said.

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