Kapowsin resident, Harriott Balmer, was honored this week by the Northwest Regional Chapter of Dollars for Scholars for her three decades of effort raising scholarship monies for college-bound students from the Bethel School District.
Specifically, Ms. Balmer was given the “Regional Volunteer of the Year Award” in ceremonies Thursday in West Seattle.
Also lauded was Bethel High School senior Patrizia Galino, who received the Dollars for Scholars Regional Award for Student Volunteer of the Year. An honor-roll student, Ms. Galino is a Philippine-native who came to Bethel in 2007 and intends to become a physician.
Ms. Balmer’s distinction goes far beyond the work of just one year, and reflects a dedicated effort to raise scholarship money for BSD grads since 1985.
At that time, Balmer, a 1963 graduate of Bethel High School, decided to commemorate her mother, Betty Fix, with a scholarship fund designed to assist young women graduating from Bethel High School who wanted to attend a four-year college.
“That was when Bethel High School was known as ‘Cow Pie High,’” she told the Mountain News, accompanied by her signatory full-throated laugh.
Her mother, “Mrs. Fix,” had taught home economics at Bethel High since 1957 and was a beloved teacher to many. As a result, the fundraising effort that started as a one-day garage sale at the Graham Safeway, grew quickly.
“By 1987, it had grown so big we decided to form BEST, the Bethel Educational Scholarship Team,” said Harriott.
BEST was formed with the task of assisting as many college-bound Bethel grads as possible with at least a modest scholarship of $500. Presently, BEST scholarships are $750.
“Our goal was to help kids get into college, and once there, hopefully, they’d find the money to keep going,” Harriott said.
BEST continued to expand, absorbing smaller, individualized scholarship programs in the Bethel community, and by the early 1990s it became part of the nationwide Dollars for Scholars program (DFS) to capitalize on a broader array of financial contacts.
At the same time BEST/DFS widened its mandate to include all Bethel School District graduates endeavoring to attend some level of higher education.
“Now, we give a lot of scholarships to students heading for vocational training, along with community colleges and four-year universities,” she said.
This year, BEST/DFS dispensed over $80,000 in scholarships to 113 BSD graduates.
In addition, BEST/DFS has broadened its organizational and fundraising base by forming chapters in Graham-Kapowsin High School and Challenger High Schools. As a result, these chapters are now eligible to receive state matching funds for the first $2,000 they raise each year.
BEST monies come from a variety of sources, and the organization has parlayed its contributions over the years to form a trust fund that totals nearly $900,000, which is managed by the Greater Tacoma Community Fund. Interest from that fund is now the primary source of the annual scholarship awards.
BEST raises money in old-fashioned ways, such as auctioning hand-made quilts made by members and volunteers, but the greatest source of money is the “Day’s Pay” program in which BSD teachers and staff donate a day’s worth of salary.
“BEST scholarships are important in so many intangible ways,” said Harriott. “Five-hundred dollars, now seven-hundred dollars, is not that much when compared to the staggering overall costs of getting a college education – I just heard that college loan debt is now bigger than credit cared debt – but it lets the students know that the community really cares about them. You should see some of the ‘Thank You’ letters BEST receives – they’re fantastic.”
Another aspect of community building is BEST’s formation of the Promise Scholarship program for at-risk youth, whereby eligible 6th grade BSD students nominated by their teachers are guaranteed a BEST scholarship when they graduate from a Bethel high school.
BEST and DFS have also formed another level of partnership in the community by enrolling in the Scholarship America program that in turn has local “Collegiate Partnerships,” so that the $750 BEST/DFSgrant will be matched. Thus, the BEST student receives a total of $1,500.
Similarly, the Greater Tacoma Community Fund (GTCF) can facilitate Bethel grads receiving additional scholarship monies from outside of the Bethel area, such as from the Cheney Family Foundation.
To bring all this to fruition has taken Harriott and her team of dedicated individuals years of hard work. Nevertheless, Harriott sees how much more can be done.
“I’d like to see our BEST grants become renewable scholarships, so that students receive additional grants in their sophomore year.”
In addition, Harriott envisions numerous ways to generate more scholarship money.
“We could have fund-raisers at the Teacher-of-the-Year celebrations,” she said, “or how about families getting together, and instead of giving a Father’s Day gift, they pool their money and create a scholarship?”
Harriott described that many families are already forming such accounts.
“Some Bethel families have set up memorial funds for deceased family members,” Harriott said, “like the Antonio Terry scholarship fund to commemorate the Bethel grad who was a Seattle cop killed in the line of duty.”
After just a brief pause, Harriott reeled off a number of other families who are finding a beneficial way to honor a loved one:
“The Glen Weise Fund, the Bethel teacher who was killed in a car crash with his wife,” Harriott said, “or the Angelina Fund. And the Yeomans Fund – this one is a $3,000 scholarship per year that was created to honor their child, an Elk Plain Elementary student who died suddenly in the 3rd grade. It gives the family a way to focus their energies in a positive way.”
Others are declaring to bequeath a portion of their estate to BEST and DFS upon their passing.
Harriott also expressed excitement in the national Dollars for Scholars initiative to find ways on Facebook and other social media to fundraise.
“That project is going to start next September,” she said.
But after thirty-six years, Harriott is also looking to pass responsibilities to others.
“I’ve been the president of BEST for most of the time since 1985. But, Wally and I are beginning to think about retirement. BEST has a really good board, and several members have served for at least ten years, so it’s in good hands.”
Harriott also mentioned that her husband, Wally, and she also started the Graham Business Association at about the same time they founded BEST, and they also started their respective businesses – Wally, the Graham Liquor Store, and Harriott, her insurance firm, Evergreen Services.
Looking back on her legacy, Harriott is humble, yet rightly proud.
“BEST is one of the few scholarship funds in the entire country that serves a public school system the size of Bethel,” Harriott said. “BEST is special.”
© 2011 The Mountain News WA
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