by: ELLEN SPITALERI - Lot Whitcomb Elementary School students who have been chosen as Marathon Education Scholars stand in front of the school's mural. Front row: Litzy Talavera, Abigale Wrenn, Larry Sutton and Daniel Espinosa. Back row: Emma Gray, executive director of Marathon Education Partners, Stephanie Gonzalez, Junet Lugo, Inessa Yantsen and Antonio Cuevas.Although they are only fifth-graders, eight Lot Whitcomb Elementary School students know one thing for sure — they are going to college. And they are going to have plenty of help along the way, as the eight were chosen to be the first Marathon Education Scholars in Clackamas County.

The Marathon Education Partners program was founded in 2002, with a goal to increase access to higher education for low-income students in the Portland-Vancouver area through a combination of mentoring and a scholarship opportunity.

Students come from Title 1 elementary schools, which means that at least 50 percent of the student body must qualify for the free-or-reduced lunch program

“This is a needs-based program, and it works because it is a combination of a scholarship and working with a long-term mentor,” said Emma Gray, executive director of Marathon Education Partners.

“We identify kids who are very bright and have a desire to go to college,” she said, adding that the program starts with students in fourth or fifth grade, because “we feel if we wait until they are in eighth or ninth grade it will be too late.”

Adults who sign on to the program as mentors, commit to setting aside $100 per month for a college fund for the student they are matched with, and they also agree to work with that student for 10 years.

Mentors are required to contact their student at least once a month, by email, phone or in person, and they also meet one-on-one with the student at least three or four times per year.

“This is not an intense intervention; we are not trying to take the place of the family. We schedule at least two big events per year, and give opportunities for people to connect in person,” Gray said.

She added, “It is important to us that the relationship does what it is supposed to do; it is a really powerful tool to help kids be successful.”

A face on philanthropy

Marathon Education Partners is funded through individual and private grants and corporation foundation grants. There are fundraisers throughout the year to help with operation costs, but 100 percent of the money set up for the scholarships goes to the students, Gray noted.

There are 98 scholars and around 140 mentors; the numbers don’t exactly match up, Gray said, because some students have more than one mentor.

“I have been working really hard in this community to find mentors; to find people with a vested interest in these kids,” Gray said, noting that she has been speaking to local Rotary clubs and hopes to meet with officials in other service clubs, on school boards and involved in local and county government.

“Safety of these students is our first concern,” she said, noting that there is an application process for mentors.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to put a face on philanthropy. I know there are amazing people out there who want to help these kids,” Gray said.

And the program is working, she said, adding that 100 percent of the first class of scholars is now in college.

“Some of these kids got full-ride scholarships and have not even had to touch our scholarship money yet. We have kids in college at OSU, PSU, Pacific Lutheran, Concordia and all the campuses of PCC,” Gray said.

Why does the program work?

“The scholars get a role model who has typically been to college and can tell them about career opportunities. Mentors can expose students to cultural and sporting events, and we have partners with resources centered around college, that provide training opportunities; that can help students figure out how to pay for, apply for and be successful in college,” Gray said.

“They have this person who says, ‘I want to help you.’ And then the students start to believe that college is right for them, that they can do this. It allows them to have faith in their own dreams,” she added.

“We also take them to a college campus,” she said, just to give them the experience of seeing a college setting.

Gray added that she just can’t emphasize enough the importance of the mentoring and the long-term commitment to students.

“It is profoundly powerful to have a person who knows them. We have mentors who feel like this has changed their lives,” Gray said.

Another choice

Ellen Baltus, the school counselor at Lot Whitcomb, has decided that she is going to become a mentor, because she believes in the program.

She was raised in a family where higher education was a given, so she went on to college and became a social worker and then a school counselor. Every day she meets youngsters who don’t even think about going to college, because no one in their families has ever attended college. Many live in poverty, and their goal is simply to survive.

“I began realizing that we need to start having these conversations with kids now — they need to know there is another choice,” Baltus said.

“There are thousands of kids out there who are obviously gifted and I am just one person. I can’t do this all myself, so my mission is to bring armies of people into the school to see these children. All it takes is time; these kids need get connected with adults who care, who will come in and listen to them,” Baltus added.

Principal Sid Ong described the Marathon Education Partners program as a “huge gift out of nowhere.”

Lot Whitcomb has around 90 percent of the student body on the free-or-reduced lunch program, and the school also has the largest number of students in the North Clackamas School District on the free breakfast program, he noted.

“Most of our kids don’t have the first idea how to go to college. The Marathon program has mentors who will give them hope and help them break out of the cycle,” he said.

Ong, who has been the principal at Lot Whitcomb for 10 years, added, “This is doing a great thing for kids and it will help strengthen the community. Every time you send a kid to higher education, they become an asset to the community, and they are able to mentor others.”

Future goals

All eight of the Marathon Education Scholars at Lot Whitcomb have ideas about their futures.

Antonio Cuevas, 11, wants to be a soccer player, but knows that college will allow him to “get a job that is important to the community I live in.”

At age 10, Daniel Espinosa already knows that he wants to have a good life and a good job, and because he loves to build things, is looking at engineering as a profession.

Stephanie Espinoza, 11, wants to have a good future, and already understands the importance of community service, as a member of K Kids, a group that has raked leaves and done other tasks around town.

When she meets her mentor for the first time, she will say “Thank you for helping me.”

Junet Lugo, 10, is also a member of K Kids, where she recently participated in caroling for the elderly. She looks at the Marathon program as “a good opportunity for becoming a marine biologist.”

At age 12, Larry Sutton is the oldest student in the group, and is also a member of K Kids. He pointed out that the group adopted a park, in order to help keep it tidy, and noted that he wants to go to college to become known as a wrestler

Litzy Talavera, 10, plans to become a veterinarian and has a special affinity for dogs. What will she say to her mentor?

“I am so happy to meet you,” she said.

Abigale Wrenn, 10, plays basketball and soccer and enjoys singing. She said she would love to have a mentor who also sings, and noted that another reason she wants to go to college is that her mom has told her she needs to do well in school and go on to higher education.

Inessa Yantsen, 11, knows exactly what she wants to do.

“Go to college and get a good job as an eye doctor,” she said, adding that she plays the piano and violin and sings.

For more information about Marathon Education Partners or to become a partner for one of the Whitcomb Scholars, contact Emma Gray, 503-235-2500, or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To learn more about how the organization was founded, and to see stories about other scholars in the program, visit

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