Dan Blaufus' recruits help students chase their college dreams

Dan Blaufus figured there were Portlanders willing to give up their daily lattes for a few Kelly Yeungs of the world.

He was right.

And now, when 10-year-old Kelly Yeung talks matter-of-factly about being a doctor someday, her mother sits across the kitchen table from her and beams.

Kelly is the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants a waitress and an assembly line worker and she suddenly has a major head start on something her family wasn't sure would happen for her: a college education.

Through a nonprofit corporation founded by Blaufus, Kelly and 13 other promising fourth-graders from poor Southeast Portland families last month were named Marathon Scholars. Fourteen Portland professionals will set aside $100 a month for the next 10 years to help pay for the 14 kids' college educations.

Depending on interest the money earns, the program should be able to provide each child with $15,000 to $20,000 for college by the time each needs it.

The money won't pay all college bills, Blaufus said. But it gives a handful of children a different view of their futures.

'It's just logical for a kid (to say), 'How can I get to college if my parents didn't go and there's all this poverty around me?' ' Blaufus said. 'I think what we're trying to say to them is, 'It can work. So go ahead and dream, because it's possible. We're going to help you get there.' '

Similar programs have sprouted across the country in recent years. But many of those programs have sponsors with the resources to adopt an entire class of elementary school students.

Blaufus, a 45-year-old Nike lawyer, envisioned a program in which people with more modest means could sponsor one child and develop a more one-on-one connection with the student at the same time.

'I've got kids, and I save for their college. What if I pretended I had another kid?' Blaufus said he remembered thinking. 'If I can give up one latte a day, I can help a kid get through college.'

Blaufus said the idea sprang in part from his belief especially after Sept. 11, 2001 that he was not doing enough for his community.

'You come out of college and you want to do something to change the world,' Blaufus said. 'And then life kind of gets in the way jobs and careers and stuff.'

After he watched a nonprofit activist talk on television about the 'social footprint' that people left in their communities, Blaufus said he asked himself: 'What would be my social footprint? And for me, quite frankly, it was a lot of consumerism.'

He e-mailed a friend about his idea, and a few other friends had signed on within days. On Sept. 11 last year he chose the date intentionally Blaufus drove to Salem to incorporate the nonprofit Marathon Education Partners Inc.

After talking with Portland school district officials, program leaders decided to focus the program's first year on Woodmere, Clark and Marysville elementary schools in and around the Lents neighborhood of Southeast Portland. The schools enroll many first-generation immigrants, and most of their students qualify for subsidized school lunches because of their low family income.

'It's an area that has tremendous economic need, and tremendous social obstacles for these kids,' Blaufus said.

'Just putting bread on the table can be difficult for some of these families,' said Woodmere Principal Vonnie Condon.

Without special programs like Marathon's, 'the barriers would be very great' for even the best Woodmere students making it to college, Condon said.

14 partners recruited

Organizers decided to start the program with children who were last year's fourth-graders, because that would allow sponsors the time to build up the students' college funds, Blaufus said.

The program requires students to have met state benchmarks in reading, writing and math 'we're looking for kids who've exhibited some motivation and aptitude for college,' Blaufus said.

The program also requires students to have good school attendance, to have been enrolled in their school for three years, and to come from families that have demonstrated financial need.

Under the program, the 14 'partners' will contribute at least $100 a month to a special Marathon education account. All partners' $100 contributions and the investment income from the contributions will go toward the students' college bills. The program also asks that partners stay in contact with their students seeing them or talking with them at least once a month.

Ten of the eventual Marathon scholarship winners were Woodmere students; Condon called a few families herself last month to tell them the news.

'You could hear these kids on the other end of the phone É there were a few of them jumping around the room,' Condon said.

'We were really, really happy,' Kelly Yeung says of getting the phone call. Kelly and her parents met their 'partner,' Shouka Rezvani, a lawyer with Tonkon Torp, a few days later at the awards ceremony. 'We thank her so much É we gave her a big hug,' said Kelly's mother, Moon Yeung.

A move for opportunity

As Moon Yeung sits at the kitchen table in her small Southeast Portland home, she talks about a very different life from the one her family now leads in Portland. She speaks in sometimes halting English Kelly at times translating for her.

Moon grew up in a rural area of Canton and remembers working in the farm fields as a girl and as a young woman, bending over for hours at a time to plant rice or lugging the harvest in large buckets balanced on her back.

She remembers her family never knowing whether a typhoon might blow away the year's entire crop. She remembers her schooling ending after nine years because her parents couldn't afford to send her to high school.

'We were really poor,' Moon said.

She left China as a 29-year-old woman almost two decades ago because she wanted a better life for her future children, Moon said. She wants a college education for them for the same reason. (Moon and Sam Yeung, also from China, were married in 1989; both of their children, Kelly and 7-year-old Kathy, were born in the Portland area.)

'You have a higher education, you don't have to worry about everything,' Moon said. 'You have an opportunity to do anything.'

Kelly already figures she knows her future.

She will go to college 'so when I grow up I can be a doctor and help other people,' she said. 'I can help Chinese people who don't speak really good English.'

'She's wonderful,' Condon said of the pigtailed, almost-always-smiling Kelly. 'She takes her work very seriously in the classroom. É She's very focused, very enthusiastic.'

Rezvani said she has a special appreciation for Kelly's background and her family's challenges. Rezvani's father is an Iranian immigrant 'I think he had $200 in his pocket when he came to the U.S., sleeping at the Y with his money under his head,' she said.

She doesn't know Kelly well yet.

Still, 'Kelly is just one of those kids who strikes you as being a very smart person,' Rezvani said. 'She's very mature. She's very poised.'

And about being a doctor? 'I don't doubt her for a minute,' Rezvani said. 'I'm sure if that's what she wants to be down the line, that's what she'll be.'

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