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Polson Scholarship & Education Foundation: Giving Polson grads a boost since 2022

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | March 9, 2023 12:00 AM

More than two decades ago, a group of four community members gathered with a common mission: to create a scholarship fund for Polson grads.

Paddy Trusler, George Mahoney, Pat DeVries and Chris Strom were the founding members of the Polson Scholarship and Education Foundation, which has helped 362 students pursue higher education, and spent more than $430,000 on student scholarships since its creation in 2002.

In a recent interview, DeVries and Strom credited Trusler with sowing the organization’s seeds by bringing an anonymous $20,000 donation to the table. “Paddy was the main instigator,” they say.

Strom recalls seeing an ad in the newspaper, announcing that a group was forming to promote student scholarships.

“I went to school on scholarships,” says the retired teacher. The only stipulation from the law firm that helped fund her education was “when you’re able, help other students. So that’s why I got involved – to pay it back.”

For DeVries, an accountant and former Polson mayor, the impetus was twofold. When her son, Dan, graduated from Polson High School in 2000, she was frustrated with the lack of help available for students seeking scholarships. She also knew from her profession that people often wanted to leave memorials that would benefit local students.

“It doesn’t work very well for a school district to handle those,” she said. She wanted to establish “a vehicle to make it easy for people to use, to get a tax deduction and not make the school responsible.”

Initially, the program sought to emulate the very successful Dollars for Scholars programs that were flourishing in Conrad and Cutbank. They eventually dropped out of that national network and established their own nonprofit foundation that provides an umbrella for both donors and students. DeVries and local attorney John Mercer helped craft the paperwork establishing the foundation and its tax-deductible nonprofit status and continue to advise the foundation on legal and financial matters.

Thanks to numerous donations and fundraisers over the years, the foundation’s initial seed money has blossomed substantially.

In those early years, the scholarship committee hosted tailgate parties prior to PHS home football games, featuring beef donated by Trusler and other goodies provided by board members. “That gave us a lot of visibility,” says DeVries.

In addition, Mahoney – who owned Polson Bay Grocery and was instrumental in adding the second nine holes to the golf course – spearheaded another key fundraiser, the Lake City Open Golf Tournament held each May.

Although tailgates have fallen by the wayside (“they were a lot of work,” says Strom), the golf tourney continues to bolster the foundation’s coffers, as do ongoing memorial scholarships and those funded by organizations such as the Montecahto Club, School District 23 Employees, Classes of 1959 and 1965, and Polson Beta Sigma Phi.

In addition to student scholarships, the foundation also supports classroom grants for up to $1,000 to fund needs that are “above and beyond” standard classroom expenses.

“It allows our teachers to think outside the box, to do a liitle bit more, to go a little bit further,” says PHS Principal Andy Fors. “We don’t always have funds to support that at the school level so having a partnership like this really opens the door.”

Over the years, the foundation has cultivated a close relationship with school administrators and guidance counselors.

“It doesn’t take much on our part to accept a group like this with open arms that’s trying to support our kids and our teachers,” says Fors, who graduated from Polson in 2000. “I don’t feel like I do very much other than say thank you.”

He also stresses that the scholarship foundation is unique in western Montana. “I know there are a lot of schools that do not have this great opportunity for kids,” he says. “We are very, very lucky.”

DeVries adds that the participation of counselors Betsy Wade and Chris McElwee has added to the foundation’s success. “We couldn’t do this without their help,” she says.

In 2022, the foundation was able to give money for every student who applied, paying out more than $40,000 to 31 students – and not all of them were graduating seniors.

The foundation also offers college scholarships, typically around $2,000, to PHS grads continuing their post-secondary education with the goal of earning an associate’s or four-year degree.

According to DeVries, few scholarship programs offer boosts for continuing students. “We found that especially sophomore and junior years seemed to be where they really needed a little bit of money.”

Not all scholarships are for students pursuing four-year degrees. Some target trade schools, and according to Strom, a recent donor asked that his money go to a student with a GPA that’s under 3.0.

“Not all of them have an opportunity to go and he’s saying, ‘I want to support someone who may not have a B average,’” she says. “Another gentleman wants to give $1,000 for special education.”

In part, the scholarship committee winds up acting as matchmaker, pairing students with grants that fit their accomplishments and goals. Uniquely, the foundation does not require the standard federal financial aid form (FAFSA) nor ask parents for financial statements.

“A lot of parents are right on the borderline for financial aid,” says Strom, adding, “It’s a small town. We hope the child is doing the work and not the parent.”

“One of our goals is to educate and graduate as many students as we possibly can and hopefully those students will go on to some sort of post-secondary attainment,” says Fors. “For us to be able to say, ‘if you’re willing to continue your education we have a group that’s willing to help you with some resources,’ that’s huge.”

Over the years, the foundation has helped support future teachers, engineers, physical therapists, barbers, diesel mechanics, pharmacists, dentists, pre-med students, journalists, and nurses, to name a few.

Perhaps most telling is the stack of thank-you notes from recipients:

“Your help and consideration makes college more affordable as well as assures me of the community support,” writes one student. “All this means so much to me, thank you for a wonderful opportunity."

“Financing college was a worry of mine before generous people like you were willing to help me,” writes another. “I cannot wait to see where college will take me and what adventure I may go on … Thank you for allowing me to achieve this.”

For more information, visit www.polson.k12.mt.us/polson-high-school/academics/psef.