Energizing career ambitions
Local philanthropists help Clark students avoid debt, stay in college
By Claire Sykes
Hailey Runyon wanted to prove she could support herself and earn her own way, just like her father had done at her age. Ian Williams’ parents were flat-out unable to pay, so he had no choice but to be self-reliant. And Madison Rooney said that without student financial aid, she might never have gone to college at all.
Runyon ’20, Williams ’14 and Rooney ’19 join the dozen or so students each year from Clark, and as many from Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV), who are awarded $3,500 scholarships directly from Vancouver-based KMR Group Foundation. Twenty-five more KMR scholarships go to Vancouver-based Legacy Health employees on their way to Clark and WSUV for careers in health care, technology and other areas.
Ninety-nine percent of KMR recipients get $3,500; anything less is supplemented with other types of financial support. Their scholarships are renewed for up to four years while they’re attending Clark or WSUV.
“There are a lot of smart graduating high school students, and going to college or not is a fork in the road for many of them. If they don’t have a financial path, they have to start working and maybe they’d take college classes at night. We want the least amount of debt for students and the greatest chance of staying in college and graduating, and then getting employment,” said Kate Jones, executive director of KMR Group Foundation, which she cofounded in 1991 with her husband, Marty Rifkin, director. KMR is dedicated to the education, health and overall well-being of children.
Jones and Rifkin have a close association with Clark College Foundation; for years, they have helped the foundation promote and identify scholarship recipients. KMR scholarships are distributed separately from Clark College Foundation awards; however, both entities share a common goal of increasing access to higher education for deserving students. Clark College Foundation awards more than $1 million in scholarships and other financial support each year.
Entrepreneurs and philanthropists
Jones and Rifkin grew up with charitable parents, Jones in Florida and Rifkin in New York. After graduating from college, the couple remained in New York until 1987, when they moved to Vancouver, Wash. That’s the year they also founded Northwest Natural Products, later named Avid Health. It was when their 2-year-old daughter recoiled at the taste of her nutritional supplements that Jones got the idea for children’s gummy vitamins. The company continued to grow, expanding to 150 products, and in 2012 they sold the business for $650 million. The following year, Jones and Rifkin founded Coremix Capital, a corporate investment firm. Their newest business is MyBite® Vitamins, nutritional supplements encased in chocolate, caramel, peanuts and nougat, and packaged in Gresham, Ore. The product is sold nationwide through Target.
As philanthropists, the couple participates in existing programs offered by local nonprofit organizations and launches new KMR initiatives with them. One of those organizations is Share, in Vancouver, which serves individuals experiencing hunger and homelessness. There, during the summer and holiday season, KMR’s Essential Pack Program provides about 1,000 people with toothpaste, shampoo, socks and other everyday necessities; also stuffed animals, coloring books and crayons for the kids.
The most gratifying philanthropic endeavor for Jones and Rifkin is awarding scholarships. Since its beginning, KMR has provided scholarships to students at community colleges, nursing schools and major universities around the country. In 2012, in keeping with their ties to Vancouver, they added Clark and WSUV.
“Clark’s reputation is very well known and respected, and we were impressed with the great job Bob Knight (former president) had done in expanding the college. The majority of students who go to school locally here end up staying and working in the area after graduating. So if we can help get bright kids into college, it’s also an investment in our community,” said Jones.
She and KMR staff confer with guidance counselors from 15 accredited high schools in Clark County to select high school seniors enrolled in fall classes at Clark or who are preparing to do so. Those with the greatest financial need, a 3.0 cumulative GPA or higher, and involvement in student activities and community service have the best chance of receiving a scholarship.
“We interview each candidate at our offices, asking them multiple questions in various ways to get to know them better, looking for someone who’s likely to succeed,” said Jones. “Can they make the appointment on time? How are they dressed? Have they shown that they can stick with things in high school and handle the greater responsibility and attitude needed in college and for their future? How serious of a student are they?”
Runyon, a student in Clark’s pre-Nursing program, said KMR is most interested in who she is as a human being.
“Numerous other scholarships focus on income and Free Application for Federal Student Aid reports, and not the student’s character or their aspirations on their educational journey. KMR is different. They wanted to hear about me and the course I wanted to take in life as a senior in high school. They wanted to know me.
“[KMR] knew my career goals were ones they could invest in, giving me this money to help me better society,” said Runyon, who expects to graduate in 2020 and has plans for a bachelor’s and master’s in Nursing, specializing in anesthesia.
While at Clark, Runyon worked for the past two years as a certified nursing assistant at a memory care center. “My passion to be a nurse has only been strengthened,” she said.
Clark’s degree programs in health care, mechanical engineering and writing for careers in education and business excite Jones and Rifkin the most, given their promising employment opportunities and less financial strain on students. The two are especially fired up about Clark’s plan to expand some of their programs to four years, and have talked with the college about offering more scholarships specifically for those baccalaureate programs.
KMR’s relationship with Clark College Foundation gets stronger every year. Jones has spoken at the foundation’s annual scholarship reception, and Clark and foundation staff have attended KMR’s summer luncheon for awardees.
“Clark College Foundation is a valuable resource for our scholarship recipients. It does a great job initiating first-time students in its organization,” said Jones. “And we both have the same goals. We want kids to be successful right out of the gate, so they’ll more likely stay in school.”
Rooney, who received a KMR scholarship four years in a row, said, “It gave me the freedom to figure out what I wanted to do with my future. I wasn’t someone who was ready to go to college after high school. I had a plan, but I wanted to explore other options. It turns out I decided to follow my plan.” She received her Science transfer degree. Now a Mechanical Engineering major at WSUV on track to graduate in 2021, she is actively searching for an engineering internship.
Jones and KMR’s community relations specialist, Lexie Knight, herself a KMR scholar, stay in touch with students every few months via email. They also make themselves available by phone and in person.
At the holidays, students volunteer at Share to help with the Essential Pack program.
“It’s so much fun,” said Runyon of assembling the packs. “I get to meet all the KMR scholars. It’s a great environment to be around people who have the same goals and drive. We have a lot in common. And, we’re taking a break from our studies and putting it to good use helping other people.”
Meanwhile, throughout the year, KMR and Clark College Foundation keep each other informed about recipients’ progress. Jones said, “Our strong partnership with Clark helps to keep students on the right path. As a team, we make sure they feel supported, as we watch them succeed.”
Recalling his time at Clark, Williams said that his KMR scholarship “inspired me to be a better student. By not having to worry about where my tuition was coming from, and mortgage my future to complete school, I was able to focus on keeping my grades up and preparing for a transition to a four-year program. I got the best possible education at Clark. Additionally, having the scholarship encouraged me to stay active in my school and community, participating in a variety of activities on campus, including our student government organization and volunteering with KMR Group Foundation to help carry out their mission.” Williams’s experience is exactly the kind KMR strives to foster for its scholarship recipients.
Students participate in internships with KMR Group Foundation’s marketing, accounting, and facilities and operations departments, as well as some area businesses.
“KMR gave me experience in foundations and nonprofit organizations, which was useful during my tenure as a Clark student government officer and also later on in my career,” said Williams, who earned his associate in Computer Science, with highest honors. He now works as a penetration tester at a leading cybersecurity company.
Williams said he values scholarships, in general, because they break down barriers to post-secondary education for historically underserved communities, increasing access for students overall.
Scholarships like KMR’s help students who might not otherwise be able to get a college education and pursue their dreams. “Many of KMR’s recipients are the first in their families to go to college. A scholarship impacts not only the students, but also their families and future families of their own as they pass on to their children that college is meaningful and valuable,” said Jones. That message couldn’t be more important for her and KMR.
“It’s really a generational thing, and that’s the level we’re trying to impact,” she continued. “Kids come out of college more educated, with more communication and interpersonal skills, and getting better jobs because of a scholarship. And then the community as a whole is affected. That’s when it all comes together.”
Claire Sykes is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose articles appear in Philanthropy, Ruralite, Communication Arts, Chamber Music Magazine and many alumni publications including Western Washington University’s Window and Washington State Magazine, among others. Visit www.sykeswrites.com.