Sustained Support—Enduring Impact

Connections and recollections at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate

One of the most impactful elements of the support that Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) provides to more than 400 high school students annually is that their support doesn’t end when those students graduate high school. It continues throughout college, with regular check-ins, personal meetings, thoughtful counsel, and educational, personal, and professional guidance.

It’s the kind of sustained and sincere commitment that prompts Omimah Yahya, a DRDFS program grad and a junior at the University of Detroit-Mercy to observe that “Everyone thinks it’s just a high school program. That’s what I thought, too. But the support continues. DRDFS is always reaching out and checking in, continuing to provide counsel and support and opportunities for connection at alumni events.”

Fittingly enough, Omimah made that observation at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate, which took place on Thursday, September 28, 2023 at the One Campus Martius building in downtown Detroit. The unique networking event provided an opportunity for professionals from different companies in and around Detroit to come together to make new connections, learn more about DRDFS, and take in the incredible view. Alumni from the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program were on hand to share their stories and explain how DRDFS made a difference in their lives.

For DRDFS alumnus Alexander Connelly, who graduated high school in 2020 and currently attends the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that difference manifested itself in everything from SAT prep and application assistance to college campus visits. “That’s why I’m here today,” said Connelly. “I really want to give back. I really love this program and all they do for education.” For current Macomb Community College student Malik Knight, DRDFS provides “a different level of outreach” that continues today. More importantly, the program helped him recognize that “I have the ability to control my own future.” DRDFS was similarly life-changing for program alum Angeles Cuevas, who graduated from Eastern Michigan with a double major in Spanish and communications. Angeles shared that as helpful as DRDFS was for her in high school, “I’ve actually benefited more from the program after high school. When my parents were stranded in Mexico because of border closures during COVID, DRDFS was there for me, helping me stay on track in school and in life.”

Stories like these are why Anthony Catalina, Senior Vice President, Commercial Sales Manager with the event’s presenting sponsor Fifth Third Bank, took to the podium at the event to say that Fifth Third is “so glad to be supporting an organization like DRDFS which has such a meaningful impact on the students and communities of southeastern Michigan.”

It is also why DRDFS Executive Director Christa Funk, who spoke about the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program, pointed out that “in addition to the high school programming, we provide 1:1 college coaching and a $4,000 scholarship to each graduate of our program.” Funk also pointed out that DRDFS works with over 650 program alumni pursuing post-secondary pathways across the country. She referenced that metrics show DRDFS students outpacing their peers on both the state and national level, but she also made the point that behind the data and stats it’s the students themselves that demonstrate what impact really looks like.

Their testimony, and the presence and personalities of program alumni at events like the Downtown Networking Tailgate, is a powerful reminder of why a program that was founded in 1990 at a single high school has flourished and expanded—and now serves 16 partner high schools across the five southeast Michigan counties, impacting the lives of hundreds of students and families every year.

 

Mike Zlonkevicz: Breaking the Cycle

DRDFS alumni Mike Zlonkevicz grew up in a room painted maize and blue in honor of the University of Michigan football team’s colors. As the first in his family to go to college, not only was a post-high-school academic path not a priority, it wasn’t even on his radar at the time.

With DRDFS, however, that all changed.

“Just the exposure to the college experience was hugely helpful. College trips, scholarship opportunities, you name it. Those early experiences with DRDFS really opened my eyes and broadened my horizons in so many ways.”

It wasn’t just college applications and academics, either. From volunteer work and charitable initiatives to unique networking opportunities, Mike was able to give back to Detroit, the city he had fallen in love with as a child—and to connect with new people and new experiences.

“We cleaned alleyways downtown and worked with local organizations to help build homes and revitalize communities.”

There was one memorable moment stuck with him in particular: a DRDFS luncheon where he had an opportunity to speak with Kurtis T. Wilder, a Michigan graduate who was the first African American judge elected in Washtenaw County and someone who would not only go on to serve on the Michigan First District Court of Appeals, but also the Michigan State Supreme Court.

“He talked to me about my aspirations and shared some perspective from his own career. He encouraged me to follow my heart: to do what I love and let the finances fall into place.”

Mike took Judge Wilder’s advice to heart. His passion for psychology and for communicating and engaging with people is now part of his everyday experience. Today, he is an Account Executive at Brooksource, an IT services and staffing solutions provider for Fortune 500 companies. As a hiring professional, Mike still quotes some of the wisdom he heard at that luncheon and at other events like it.

A 2016 graduate of Ida High School in Monroe, Michigan, Mike was a member of the first class from his high school to join the DRDFS network. His connections to the program didn’t end there. He was involved as a college student, a program alum, and now as a working professional where he is an enthusiastic advocate for the DRDFS mission. Sitting in a seat where he focuses on hiring and talks to people early in their careers who are coming from a range of different backgrounds, he is in an ideal position to pass that passion and perspective on to others.

“DRDFS means a lot to me. Not just because of what the program has done for me personally, but for the ways in which I see it opening up new opportunities for so many smart, hard-working, and talented young people who need and deserve a hand.”

Mike sees how the young people that DRDFS supports are part of an untapped and underutilized pipeline of talent that will help drive the future of Detroit. As someone who loves the city he calls home, keeping talented young professionals in Detroit is a worthwhile and valuable mission to Mike.

“I’m very much aware of the real-life impact of DRDFS. I’ve lived it! So I know that this is an organization that is helping those who deserve the help and who haven’t traditionally had access to the resources they need for one reason or another—whether systematically, socially, or financially.”

In his line of work, Mike sees how pernicious and pervasive those cycles can be. Which is why DRDFS’s proven ability to break that cycle is so exciting to him and why he loves not just being be a part of that story, but also helping to perpetuate that mission in his own work.

“People that have unconventional journeys are just as valuable—and I want to make sure that they are just as valued. DRDFS is focused on making sure they have the resources to achieve their potential.”

Mike feels that he is in the position to help make a difference today because of DRDFS. The impact and influence that DRDFS has had on him makes it possible for him to pass that passion and perspective on to others.

“I want to do as much as I can for DRDFS because of how much they are doing for people in communities across Southeast Michigan. I’m just one person, of course, but if I can help break the cycle, pay it forward, and help others in the process, that’s something I feel really good about.”

DRDFS and Scholarship America Awards Ten Students with a Trailblazer Scholarship Award

Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS), in partnership with Scholarship America, awarded Trailblazer Scholarships to ten deserving DRDFS college students. The scholarship is a $4,000 per year award renewable for four years or until a Bachelor’s Degree is completed, whichever comes first.

This award is part of Scholarship America’s goal to grant a majority of their scholarships to high-need, historically marginalized students so they can realize the benefits of a high-quality college degree or credential. It also serves as an example of new ways to bring private-sector scholarship dollars and community-based student services together, in order to help students with financial needs succeed in college.

“Combining Scholarship America’s national reach with the intimate local knowledge of partners like DRDFS is a game-changer,” says Scholarship America CEO Mike Nylund. “Not only are we providing 360-degree support to students, we’re also learning how we can evolve the scholarship industry and help our funders and partners deliver the biggest and most equitable impact possible.”

In order to be eligible, students had to be enrolled in an accredited two- or four-year college or university within the United States, have completed their first year of academic instruction, self-identify as Black, Latino, Indigenous, and/or of a historically marginalized community and demonstrate financial need.

“We are really excited for this opportunity to partner with Scholarship America to lessen the financial barriers of college for our students and support them in persisting through post-secondary education,” said Christa Funk, Executive Director of DRDFS. “Students, especially first-generation college students, often need more than just financial support throughout their college journey. This pilot program allows for amplified scholarships while also layering on additional holistic support to ensure students reach their educational goals.”

Harold Dubrowsky: A Spark of Inspiration

 

For Harold Dubrowsky, longtime Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) supporter and board member, finding out that he was the 2023 recipient of the organization’s Spark Award came as quite a surprise. The award is given annually to an individual who embodies the DRDFS founding principle of igniting a spark in a student’s interest in education into a passion for their future. It is typically handled by the organization’s Publicity and Recognition Committee—one of many committees that Harold serves on.

“We never discussed it this year, which I thought was a little odd,” he admits.

To anyone familiar with Harold’s work with DRDFS, news that he was the 2023 Spark Award honoree comes as no surprise at all. Harold has been an active supporter of DRDFS for more than a decade and has played an integral role in DRDFS’ evolution into a recognized, respected, and influential regional organization.

He’s someone that DRDFS Executive Advisory Board member Michael Plotzke describes as a “smart, dedicated, and passionate advocate and a steadfast supporter of scholars in our community.”

A native Detroiter, Harold was a CPA when he first met DRDFS Board President Bill Young in 1998. The more he learned about the organization from Bill, the more he wanted to get involved.

“I’ve always been active in not-for-profit organizations, serving on boards and in leadership positions where I could use my skills to help raise money and organize events. When Bill reached out to ask if I was interested in serving on the board and helping DRDFS evolve from a grassroots model to an executive-led, board-driven organization, I saw an opportunity to help.”

And help he did. Working alongside the dedicated DRDFS staff and board members, Harold has had significant influence in helping reshape a group of enthusiastic volunteers into an efficient, committee-led model that drives the growth of an impactful charitable organization. He has helped clarify roles and streamline and improve the DRDFS committee structure, tapping into his professional and charitable resources to help create an executive advisory committee.

Harold has remained heavily involved and continues to dedicate his time and energy to DRDFS. He chairs the Finance Committee and the Next Level Scholars Committee, is a co-chair on the Investment Committee, serves on the Publicity and Recognition and Fundraising committees, and sits on the DRDFS board, where he is a member of the Executive Committee and the DRDFS Treasurer.

Over the past decade, DRDFS has expanded from one to 10 full-time employees and has grown its network of fundraising and financing support to over 100 foundations, corporations, and individuals. Harold has helped DRDFS launch several fundraising programs and grow its savings and net worth to support continued growth in the future.

“I’ve had a front row seat to see this organization evolve from a relatively small startup to an influential regional non-profit that serves 15 high schools,” says Harold. “We are well on our way to reaching our target of 25 schools.”

As gratifying as that growth may be for someone like Harold, the greatest source of his inspiration and passion hasn’t changed.

“It’s 100% the students. They are so engaged and so committed. We talk all the time at DRDFS about the need to inspire, prepare, and succeed, and I see the “inspire” part of that in action all the time. Watching kids transform not just their lives, but their communities by fulfilling their dreams and becoming active and passionate role models for others.”

For Harold, it’s rewarding to help students dream big, envision, and articulate what they want, and help them map out a plan academically and financially to achieve it. But getting the chance to see them go out and do it is the most rewarding part of all—and it continues to inspire him every day.

That inspiration is at the heart of Harold’s pitch to others when explaining why DRDFS matters and why it’s a worthwhile cause to support.

“I talk to people like me all the time who want to give back, and they often ask me how they know which charitable organizations to support. The good news for me is that DRDFS can demonstrate very clearly what we do, how we do it, and what we spend to make it happen. Most compelling of all is that our outcomes are incredible. I’ve been a part of many charitable organizations, and DRDFS is one of the most visible and clearly impactful ROI-driven examples I’ve seen.”

Why does DRDFS make such an impression? According to Harold, it’s because “People get it. They can see it working. And they want to be a part of it. People that come to our events tend to get involved and stay involved, because it’s clear that something special is happening here. We are changing the trajectory of students, families, and communities. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something like that?”

For this year’s Spark Award recipient, being a part of it is reward enough. “It’s so gratifying because this organization means so much to me. I’m hardly the only deserving recipient; there are so many influential and selfless and hard-working people that have made this organization what it is today. I’ve never been involved with an organization where I felt the kind of passion, joy, and commitment that I see regularly from everyone who is a part of DRDFS. And I’m so proud to count myself among them.”

Erin Talbot: Passion into Purpose

Erin Talbot

Erin Talbot loves seeing students’ hard work come to fruition.

As the Awards and Alumni Manager for DRDFS, Erin oversees the awarding of over $600,000 in scholarships to the graduating high school senior class each year. This year, she’s in charge of issuing scholarship funds to more than 320 students — the most recipients DRDFS has seen since its inception.

As someone who has been with DRDFS for the entirety of her professional career, Erin has had the pleasure of witnessing the scholarship process come full circle. Many of the former high school students she helped award DRDFS scholarships to are now graduating from their chosen post-secondary programs, whether it be from colleges, universities, or trade apprenticeships. Erin has experienced first-hand how scholarships and academic support can alter the trajectory of a student’s life.

“I’ve been with DRDFS long enough now to see a lot of our students graduate from college,” she said. “Seeing that transformation, that growth over time, has been super rewarding and really exciting. Now, watching them start their careers, it’s just been fantastic.”

Initially drawn to teaching, Erin set her sights on pursuing a degree in secondary education. But after some reflection, she realized her true calling was creating opportunities for students beyond the classroom. This led her to a degree in Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration from Grand Valley State University, and since 2017, a role with DRDFS

“We can directly see the benefits of our organization at work,” she said. “The scholarship dollars, the alumni support, and all of the preparation students receive — we do it to enable them to reach their goals.”

But Erin’s role doesn’t end at disbursing DRDFS scholarship funds. Students need help with the array of research, processes, and administration work that comes with scholarships, such as filling out and filing all necessary paperwork, planning how to use funds, and making sure their next institution actually receives the payment toward the student’s tuition.

Erin also excels at helping students overcome new challenges and changes that often come with attending post-secondary school, such as being away from home and family. She checks in with alumni regularly, and recently helped one of them find an apartment in an area near their school. She’s also helped former DRDFS scholarship recipients find their path after college, such as applying for grad school or jobs that align with their long-term goals.

Not everyone is interested in attending college right after graduating high school, so the DRDFS team helps these students find alternatives. DRDFS scholarship funds aren’t exclusively for students pursuing a degree from a traditional four-year university — Erin has connected countless students to trade schools and community colleges that allow them to zero in on a career in a matter of months, not years. Her responsibilities also involve ensuring students are aware their DRDFS scholarship funds don’t need to be used immediately upon receiving an award — the money can be spread out over multiple years, or deferred in the case of students who want to take a gap year between high school and college.

“All of our students are on a very unique path individually,” she said. “Supporting them, in whatever way that may look like, is our top priority.”

Erin’s dedication to empowering students who otherwise may not pursue an education after high school is the embodiment of DRDFS’ mission as a whole. By turning her passion into purpose, Erin continues to change the lives of a remarkable number of students — but it’s worth noting that they’ve made a mark on her, too.

“Not only are our students’ lives changed throughout the program, but the staff is also incredibly impacted through working with them and hearing their inspirational stories,” she said. “Watching them fulfill their dreams of being a first-generation college graduate or a first-generation high school graduate has been so rewarding. Experiencing their successes and being able to be alongside them during their different journeys is such a privilege.”

Elijah Daniel: Energy and Opportunity

Elijah Daniel

College wasn’t on Elijah Daniel’s personal radar screen in 2018.

He certainly did not expect not only his collegiate future, but the entire trajectory of his life, to change, as well. But that is exactly what happened. DRDFS would help Elijah grow as an individual and as a student, helping him develop and refine the tools that would enable him to make the most of his natural charisma by becoming a skilled communicator and a college-ready student.

“Three years ago? I was not remotely ready. Today I’m a very different person—and DRDFS has a lot to do with that.”

It’s a sign of just how much DRDFS has made an impact on Elijah that he has trouble deciding on his favorite part of the program. Two things he circles back to, however, are the sophisticated SAT preparation assistance and etiquette and communications training: both elements of the DRDFS program that he sees as vital and practical skills for an aspiring college student.

“Knowing how to speak to and engage with not just your peers, but with professionals and people in college and beyond is so important. There are programs to help you with that in college, but DRDFS gave me an invaluable head start. The practical skills I learned and developed through DRDFS are already helping me build and maintain long-lasting relationships.”

His DRDFS experiences sparked a passion for communication that continues with Elijah today. A self-described quiet kid who never used to talk, Elijah is a buoyant and compelling communicator who knows how to connect with a listener and engage an audience. His enthusiasm is obvious, and the clarity of his answers does justice to the depth of his keen insights.

Clarity is a consistent theme for Elijah, who was able to tell almost immediately on a DRDFS-sponsored tour of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing that it was where he wanted to go to college.

“I’m big on energy. If I get a good feeling and the energy is right, I’m all in. MSU was our first college tour. I remember just feeling so happy. It truly felt like I was home. My friends would joke with me about it and my response was always the same: I’m going here. I made a vow to myself that the next time I came back to MSU it would be for an orientation as a new student. And then I went to work.”

Sure enough, Elijah applied for early admission and was accepted to MSU.Elijah Daniel with MSU Shirt

“That wasn’t the only college I got into, but it was the only one for me. It felt like it was meant to be.”

He not only applied early, he enrolled early, with a scholarship that allowed him to start taking summer classes—and he remains ahead of schedule, slated to graduate from MSU a semester early.

When he had a chance to apply to be a DRDFS intern, Elijah was similarly decisive in seizing the opportunity.

“I think about one of my heroes and fellow Spartans, Magic Johnson. Magic obviously started off as a basketball player, then moved to the front office and became a business owner. As an alumnus, I will always be a part of the DRDFS program. And my experience there was so positive that I was actively looking for ways to stay involved. So, when the internship program presented itself, I jumped at the chance to apply.”

That internship gave Elijah the chance to expand and refine his communication skills, to work in a professional environment and to connect with people of different backgrounds and perspectives. It gave him new tools and new opportunities to challenge himself and broaden his personal and professional toolkit in ways that continue to open doors for him.

And now he wants to do the same for others.

“When you get into any program, or any school, the first thing I tell young people is how important it is to know what you want. No one can tell you what you want or figure it out for you. Once you take that critical first step on your own, there are people and programs that can help you go from there and get you started walking the path to achieve your goals.”

Elijah says he is committed to educating other kids like him who might want this opportunity—or who might not even know it exists. He encourages students to believe in themselves and to align themselves with a program—and people—that believes in them. Elijah knows firsthand how a little belief and support can have a life-altering impact.

“This program and the people around it have had such a profound influence on me. DRDFS hasn’t just changed my outlook—it’s changed my life.”

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