Foundation enhances educational opportunities for students
The Georges River Education Foundation began in 1997 with community members dedicated to making public education exceptional. School budgets could not cover costs of special programs designed by educators and GREF sought to mitigate the need.
In the initial years, only a singular project was supported. In the 2011/2012 school year, the foundation funded 10 units that benefited 675 students.
"There's a fine line between being derailed academically and being engaged," said foundation President Gill Harper. "It's a tender age and I think that's a big challenge, especially here. Education is the ticket to where you want to go."
The idea originated with former SAD 50 Superintendent John Dirnbauer, who motivated volunteers to participate and share ideas.
The nonprofit organization serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Cushing, Thomaston and St. George.
"It's a simple, straight forward, big benefit organization we hope to grow," said Harper.
Harper said the goal is to make a significant impact on education and help students realize what they are capable of accomplishing. "The teachers are great, the students are great and we get beautiful thank-you letters and hear a lot of feedback about great classroom environments," he said.
He added what the organization has seen in return has been phenomenal and is important because at that age, kids start to identify who they are and where they might see themselves.
GREF has funded projects ranging from a marine biology unit to enhancing technology in the classroom.
Amanda Knowlton, a life skills teacher at Lura Libby Elementary School, wrote a grant for an iPad with student Benjamin Davis in mind. Davis has Cornelia de Lange syndrome. Working with the iPad allows Benjamin to work on lessons with other students using academic applications. Using a computer was challenging for Davis because he has difficulty using a mouse. The iPad's structure is easy for him to manipulate.
Dena Davis, Benjamin's mother, said, "Benjamin has benefited a great deal from using the iPad in his kindergarten and life skills classes this year. It has engaged him in learning concepts such as color, shape and number and has helped him with his fine motor skills. For a child with high distractibility, the iPad holds his interest and focus."
Knowlton said without GREF, access to this technology would not be possible.
Another beneficial aspect of the projects is having professionals speak to students. "It's a great tool and an effective way to touch on careers," said Harper.
Funding is challenging and the organization is seeking assistance. With the success of the program, more grant applications are submitted each year. The need has exceeded available funding.
Funding for the organization primarily comes from an annual mailing to the residents of Cushing, St. George and Thomaston.
Money has been added to an endowment with the goal of achieving $50,000 to fund future projects through the account.
The eight board members have varying involvement in local education and are representative of the three supporting communities. President Gill Harper, Treasurer Debby Wheelock, Galen Brewster, Jamie Doubleday, Davene Fahy, Valerie Allis, Scott Vaitones and Adreth Rackliff are volunteer members.
The board is considering expanding its reach to the entire district. "We're working on a short-term and long-term plan. We have success here and see a void there, so it would be nice to grow," said Harper.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or by email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.