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Originally published Monday, December 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Investing in the possible

Marissa Smith is lucky Maureen Benoliel is hard to buy gifts for. Three years ago for her birthday, Benoliel's son and husband decided to create a scholarship in her name. What a great idea...

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Marissa Smith is lucky Maureen Benoliel is hard to buy gifts for.

Three years ago for her birthday, Benoliel's son and husband decided to create a scholarship in her name.

What a great idea! A no-size gift that won't wear out and is tax deductible. A gift that expands opportunities for someone less fortunate, maybe helps someone become the first in the family to graduate college.

Benoliel embraced the idea, deciding to help a highly motivated young woman who completed community college and was enrolling at Seattle University. Last spring, she walked down the aisle at commencement with Marissa Smith. Now working as a corporate legal intern, Smith studied criminal justice, is applying to law school and wants to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"She's very bright," says Benoliel proudly of her investment, now a dear family friend. "She just needed a little help."

The Issaquah-based Washington Education Foundation administers the scholarship for the Benoliels and about 2,600 others. Bob Craves and Ann Ramsay-Jenkins founded the organization in 2000 to encourage private philanthropy for scholarships.

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Both members of the Washington Higher Education Coordination Board (Craves is chairman), they were troubled by the 8,000 Washington high-school graduates each year who had the smarts for college but not the means. They've seen firsthand dwindling state legislative support for higher education and resulting tuition hikes that push college further out of reach.

The foundation quickly became a specialist in administering scholarships for larger interests, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Costco and Gov. Gary Locke's scholarship program for foster children.

Now Craves feels a special urgency to increase private scholarships after voters rejected Initiative 884, a devastating blow for improving affordability and access to higher education. The proposed sales-tax increase would have raised about $400 million for higher education.

Craves hopes more individuals, families, businesses and organizations step up and sponsor scholarships like the Benoliels'. The program is called Leadership 1000 — the numerical goal for such scholarships that now number only 22.

The average Washington family probably can't afford the $5,000 to $10,000 a year for a Leadership 1000 scholarship. But an extended family might be able to do so in honor of a loved one who passed away; or an office of architects or lawyers might want to give an opportunity to someone with that interest; or a church or other social organization.

"What we're doing at the Washington Education Foundation can help," said Craves. "Private philanthropy has to step up to the plate to finance our children's education."

Craves, a Costco co-founder, can be gruff and prickly — I've seen the HEC Board chairman mercilessly cut off the testimony of college presidents who ran too long. But he is a big old softie when it comes to creating opportunities for young people.

Ramsay-Jenkins equals his passion. She has salted the foundation's offices with dozens of pigs with wings, big ones and small, hanging and sitting and peeking from bookshelves. The saying "when pigs fly" is an affirmation in this enterprise dedicated to making the implausible possible.

Last spring, Smith was among the foundation's first class of 18 college graduates. More than 500 foundation-administered scholarship recipients are expected to graduate next year.

Among the foundation's 2,600 students now on four-year scholarships, 2,005 are sponsored by the Gates Foundation. The Washington State Achievers Program accepts low-income students as juniors from selected high schools and assigns mentors to help with everything from college and financial-aid applications to gentle reminders to stay on track during senior year. In college, students are handed off to a mentor at the college they attend.

Randy Nuñez, the foundation's community-involvement officer at Kent-Meridian High School, says extra attention pays. About 80 percent of the Achievers scholars are expected to graduate from college, compared with a rate for other students with similar incomes of about 20 to 30 percent.

The foundation fills in the gaps in the scholarship program for foster children too. Often, these children lose their homes when they turn 18 because the state no longer supports them. The foundation staff helps the 65 scholarship recipients find housing, provides moral support and even makes sure they have invitations to holiday dinners. The HEC Board has pared its budget request to the Legislature to $200 million — still a tough case in a budget-deficit year.

But Craves, Ramsay-Jenkins, the businesses and individuals who sponsor the foundation's scholarships are on to something. Maybe we can help promising young people one at a time.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at

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