Jan Schilling looks back on the birth of her scholarship program and says everything "just fit together."

As a young woman in the early 1960s, Schilling spent two years volunteering with the Peace Corps in the African country Ivory Coast. Her time there, and the people she met, deeply influenced her.

"I had the most marvelous, life-changing experience," she recalls. "The women of Ivory Coast made me feel so much at home. I felt I owed them."

Schilling came home to California feeling that she needed to give back. It wasn't until 1996 that she figured out exactly how she would help.

Schilling had been living in the Marina Bay neighborhood of Richmond, and she drove past Kennedy High School each morning on her way to work. After years of saving money, she had a light-bulb moment one day: Here was a local school named after John F. Kennedy, her personal hero who started the Peace Corps. Here was a school filled with young, black women who needed the financial and emotional support to go to college.

She decided to dedicate her savings to a new scholarship program that would award $5,000 a year, renewable for four years, to a low-income, black, female student at Kennedy High.

"So many African-American women have a difficult time. Having an education can help them be more independent," said Schilling, who now lives in neighboring El Cerrito. "This is my way of giving back."


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Now in its 14th year, the scholarship program has helped these young women go to universities around the country and pursue a variety of careers. Many say they wouldn't have been able to make it without Schilling's financial, or emotional, backing.

"It's nice to have that kind of support system," said Nyree Hall, who received the scholarship last year and is attending Sacramento State, studying psychology and ethnic studies. "The money aside — having someone who cares about you and wondering how you're doing in school is really good, too."

Schilling has stayed in touch with some of the scholarship recipients. She holds a breakfast meeting each summer with several of the young women to catch up and give encouragement, as well as to check on transcripts and renew their scholarships.

Maintaining such a close relationship with Schilling keeps the students accountable in a way they would be to a family member.

"She was kind of that extra person who kept me going on," said Terina Williams, who received the scholarship in 2000. "I wanted to make her proud, and make something of myself."

Williams, a foster child with a difficult upbringing, graduated from UC Irvine and went on to get a law degree. She recently passed the State Bar exam on the first try — a fact Schilling likes to tell anyone she talks to about her program.

For the Kennedy High staff members who help with the program, being able to offer students a large monetary award is unusual, and inspiring.

"To have a scholarship at this amount is so exciting for them," said Finy Prak, a counselor at Kennedy High School. "It's overwhelming. So many of them are low-income. They have a dream to go to college, but finances are in the way."

Hearing these success stories, attending graduations and seeing these young women advance reassures Schilling that this was the right thing to do — for the students who directly benefit, and for the women of Ivory Coast.

"These students really show the potential of women. With just a little financial help, these women can be a terrific success," Schilling said. "That's what I wanted to see, and that's what's happening."

Jan Schilling
  • Age: 71
  • residence: El Cerrito
  • Family: Two sons
  • Occupation: Executive director at Weigh of Life, a nonprofit in Richmond that helps West Contra Costa families improve their lives through better eating habits, regular physical activity and social support.

    How to apply
    Jan Schilling's scholarship program is accepting applications through the end of March. Applicants must be African-American girls or women at Kennedy High School in Richmond with at least a 3.1 GPA and financial need. The winner is announced at a scholarship banquet at the end of the school year. Students who are interested in applying can contact Ms. Davis or Ms. Prak at Kennedy High School.

    Hometown heroes
    Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area and create a spirit of giving.
    Read about a new Hometown Hero every other Monday and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
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