Nonprofit group seeks to boost Sonoma County students' college goals

Joanna Pacheco's family always supported her plans to go to college, but the ins and outs of high school transcripts, university applications, financial aid forms and entrance exams were foreign to them.

The dream was real but the reality was decidedly foggy.

"I always knew I wanted to get an education, but my family didn't really know how to take the next step to get there," Pacheco, 18, said.

As a sophomore at Elsie Allen High School, her counselor led her to an organization called 10,000 Degrees. Based in Marin, the nonprofit supports underprivileged students from as young as eight years old through college graduation, assisting with applications, campus selection, financial aid, exam preparation and navigating college life with the help of a mentor.

The group targets socio-economically disadvantaged students and those who are the first in their family to attend college. About $2 million is given annually to local students who meet federal poverty guidelines and those funds are used to attract matching scholarships from other organizations, said 10,000 Degrees CEO Kim Mazzuca.

"We want to get the financial aid into the hands of the students who need it most," she said.

The organization, established in 1981, in July launched a partnership with the Community Foundation to expand its operation in Sonoma County.

In 2009, the program began pilot operations at Sonoma Valley, Casa Grande, Healdsburg, Roseland University Prep and Elsie Allen high schools but the creation of Scholarship Sonoma County under the direction of the Community Foundation marks an ambitious plan to grow the program's reach.

"Community Foundation is launching Scholarship Sonoma County because (we) recognize the need for scholarship funds among those with financial need far greater than the resources we have historically awarded," said Lisa Carre?, executive director of Scholarship Sonoma County.

In the deal, 10,000 Degrees will run the program and the Community Foundation will spearhead a push to distribute $2 million in scholarships annually within five years.

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