WAIMEA — Sifting through stacks of scholarship applications seven years ago, Millie Wellington was heartbroken that she couldn’t help more local kids obtain scholarships for college.
A graduate of the Waimea High School Class of 1952, Wellington was overwhelmed by the sheer talent of some of the graduating seniors she read about while serving on the Hawaii Community Foundation’s scholarship selection committee in 2010.
“I noticed that from my alma mater, they had all these incredible kids, but my heart just went out to them because we didn’t have enough scholarships to offer,” she said. “They were just amazing kids.”
That’s when a light bulb lit up in Wellington’s head. Would some of her classmates consider establishing a scholarship, to give Waimea High graduates a better chance of being successful in college?
“So I brought it up and they all said ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” she said.
Norman Akita, chairman for the scholarship’s endowment committee, helped Wellington present the idea at their class reunion in October 2010, and got the ball rolling.
“We had our class secretary and vice president of our student class at the time all agree to go for it. There, we helped put together the first $25,000,” he said. “It’s been really amazing that the classmates came up with the first $25,000 and just continued to support it.”
The first funds raised were used to open the endowment in the first year and has grown to over $50,000 this year.
In 2011, the Class of ‘52 was able to provide a $1,000 scholarship to one Waimea High graduate, and will award a $3,000 scholarship to a 2017 graduate on Aug. 22.
“It’s very gratifying,” said Sanae Morita, a classmate of Wellington and Akita. “It’s always so nice to be able to talk to these young people and hear about their goals and even how our small scholarship is a boost to their ability to get to college.”
Morita considers herself the secretary of the endowment, keeping track of each person who has contributed from their class over the years.
Of the near 170 students in the class, around 60 to 70 percent of them contribute to the scholarship each year.
“I just got the last quarterly report form the Hawaii Community Foundation, and one of our classmates just provided $500,” Akita said. “Back in May, another classmate contributed $250 and in March, two other ones contributed $250 and $500.”
But it hasn’t just been graduates who have been contributing, as friends and families in the Waimea community have also donated.
“What’s been so uplifting is that we’ve had a number of community people come up and help,” Akita said. “Last year, we had $4,000 in just community contributions. One was very interesting. He’s a broker at Morgan Stanley and he’s been contributing $2,000 every year to the fund. The support has been tremendous.”
Morita said some of the scholarship recipients have already graduated from college or university.
“That’s been our goal, to kind of perpetuate the need to keep on growing and keep on learning with our young people,” she said. “We’re all country folk, right? We had to work hard for everything we got because we were all plantation kids. But we can certainly understand the needs these young people go through. A lot of them are still facing tough times.”
Without scholarship opportunities, Wellington wonders if some students would make it through school at all.
“We’ve had wonderful recipients each year. We’re just so excited that a class like ours would come with this grant to give Waimea High School students a chance in their first year. It’s a sizable amount, $3,000, and that goes a long way for freshmen.”
Even though Wellington and her classmates graduated over six decades ago, they still have a connection to their alma mater.
“We were just a bunch of average high school kids who wanted to do something wonderful. We’re still so involved. A lot of us still do community service and things like that,” Wellington said. “We’re hoping that some fellow alums from other classes will come up with something like this because it really is so sad that we don’t have enough scholarships to allow them to get through their first year of college, at least.”