MANATEE -- Lauren Martinez, a State College of Florida student and Freedom Village employee of six years, said she never expected to receive her first scholarship from the senior living community.
"I am following my mother's footsteps," Martinez said.
Martinez and her mother, Wilma Negron, are both recipients of Freedom Village scholarships.
Freedom Village residents have been raising money for employees to pursue higher education since 1995. The Freedom Village Scholarship Foundation has contributed more than $300,000 for more than 250 scholarships for State College of Florida students alone.
Glenn Vergason, scholarship fund chairman, said more funds have gone to support scholarship recipients at other schools.
"We are trying to assist young people to get an education," Vergason said.
The State College of Florida Foundation, Inc. held a thank-you reception Wednesday at Freedom Villages to show appreciation to the scholarship foundation for students who were able to attend the school through the scholarships.
Martinez was recently accepted into the honors society at the State College of Florida and is working toward a psychology degree with her scholarship. Negron, her mother, finished the school's LPN program and is working on a bachelor's degree in nursing.
Maria Sarver, assistant executive director at Freedom Village, said residents contribute in several ways to the scholarships. Residents can donate to the scholarship program through monthly service fees, remember the scholarship program in their wills or ask loved ones to give memorial donations in lieu of flowers at funeral services.
Sarver said that some donation methods have been unusual.
"We have had people bring in their artwork to auction off, and some people have also brought in estate furniture to auction," Sarver said. "Someone even donated a car to auction."
Residents have also come up with creative ways to donate through "Hammers and Nails" and "Needles and Pins," which provide handyman and tailoring services for tips. They have collected up to $2,000 per year to benefit the scholarship fund.
Helena Lucier, a Freedom Villages resident, has been donating to the scholarship program for six-and-a-half years.
"I give to the foundation at funerals," Lucier said. "The young people deserve it. They deserve the opportunity to go to school."
Vergason said Freedom Village employees have to meet basic requirements to receive a scholarship: be employed at Freedom Village for three months, get a letter of recommendation from their supervisor and hold a grade-point average above 2.5.
Vergason said many young people accept jobs at Freedom Village specifically because of the scholarship opportunity.
"We had one young lady come to work here whose mother encouraged her because of the scholarship program," Vergason said. "She told her mother that she did not want to work with the elderly. She ended up getting a scholarship and changing her mind."
Katie Scott, the once-reluctant employee, became program coordinator for the Clare Bridge program for Alzheimer's and dementia at Freedom Village and is now director of an Alzheimer's program.
Vergason said the retirees who make up the scholarship committee put in a lot of work.
Committee member Mary Ann Jones writes thank-you notes to each individual who donates to the fund. This month, that was 97 letters.
"It's a labor of love," Vergason said.
Jones said the committee meets every Friday with residents to encourage and thank them for contributing to the scholarships.
"The best way to encourage people to contribute to a scholarship fund is for them to see the product," Vergason said.
Carol Probstfeld, president of the State College of Florida, said today's college students are becoming more and more dependent on financial support to complete school.
"The goal is for students to get a baccalaureate degree without debt," Probstfeld said.
Martinez said she is grateful for the gift of education the Freedom Village residents provided her and her mother, although she said she will miss working there when she goes to pursue her career in psychology.
"You get to know the residents intimately," Martinez said. "You are working in their homes."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.