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Sonoma Stories: The odd, wondrous road to college accounts for Healdsburg kids

A gift to Healdsburg public-school kindergartners of college savings accounts didn’t simply drop from the sky.

The founding of the town’s Kinder2College initiative by five women capped a journey that began at a free store for survivors of the October fires and moved on to a star-studded episode of the Ellen DeGeneres show and the discovery of generous prizes inside Cheerios boxes.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind,” said co-founder and kindergarten teacher Stephanie Coventry.

Today Coventry and her fellow four educators and equal-opportunity activists are preparing to offer every advancing kindergarten student at two Healdsburg grade schools a higher-education savings account seeded with at least $100. The intent: to help change the path and trajectory of low-income, predominately Latino youngsters and families who may not view college or other post-secondary education or training as a possibility for them.

“It’s really hard to get off the road you’ve been placed on,” said Ariel Kelley, a Healdsburg mother of two and a leader of Kinder2College.

Despite that difficulty, Kelley said, placing money in college savings accounts for kindergartners improves the likelihood that the children’s families will begin to operate on the presumption that college is attainable.

Others agree. A report by New America, a D.C.-based think tank, said research shows that children with even small education savings accounts “will be up to seven times more likely to attend college than those without an account.”

Kelley and her colleagues in Healdsburg Kinder2College have so far raised just more than $50,000. When the school year ends in June, they will present seeded college investment accounts to 100 kindergartners at Healdsburg Elementary School and the allied Healdsburg Charter School.

Children whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced-cost lunch will receive $150 in their accounts. The initial deposit for children in higher income families will be $100.

To encourage families to make additional deposits into the accounts, another $100 will be offered as a match. So the maximum available per student is $250.

The creators of Kinder2College of Healdsburg are well aware that $250 won’t go far toward paying for college or trade school for someone who’ll graduate from high school in or after 2031. The student and his or her family will need to add to the seed money.

The Healdsburg fund declares on its website, kinder2collegefund.com, that as little as $500 in savings for post-high-school education makes it far more likely that students will find ways to fulfill their expectation of advancing on to college or a trade school.

The Healdsburg initiative is the first in Sonoma County, inspired by the experience of a San Francisco program that started in 2011 and Oakland Promise, which began this school year and aspires to provide college savings accounts to all of Oakland’s kindergartners.

Co-founder Kelley said the goal is to develop the community support that will allow Kinder2College to expand to all of Healdsburg’s public school kindergartners, then to partner with organizations that will help to carry the program countywide.

“We are trying to grow it,” she said. “We feel there’s a lot of momentum right now.”

It was just last fall that Kelley and the other founders came together to do some community good. The cause then was all of the Sonoma County people displaced by the firestorms of early October.

Kelley was the prime mover behind the creation of the Healdsburg Free Store, which offered donated clothing, toiletries, baby supplies, gift cards and other items at no cost to fire survivors.

Kelley, who holds a law degree and a master’s degree in business, currently is a stay-at-home mother and a leader of Corazón Healdsburg, or Heart of Healdsburg. The nonprofit works to improve the health and well-being of Latinos in north Sonoma County by breaking down barriers to their economic and cultural inclusion. The store she helped to open for fire survivors attracted the attention of Healdsburg Charter School kindergarten teachers Coventry and Emily Peterson.

Keen to enlist their students in efforts to be of service to others, Coventry and Peterson and their students mounted a successful school campaign to collect new socks, shoes and underwear for the Healdsburg Free Store.

A co-founder of the store, Lisa Meisner, a member of the board of Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, wrote to Ellen DeGeneres to tell the acclaimed TV talk-variety hostess of the relief effort. DeGeneres had for months asked to hear about people doing good for others - she wanted to compile and acknowledge 1 million such acts.

Early this year, a producer for DeGeneres invited a crew from the Healdsburg Free Store to go to Burbank for the taping of a special, two-hour show.

It brought on Michelle Obama, Jennifer Aniston, Jimmy Kimmel, Channing Tatum and other luminaries to celebrate both DeGeneres’ birthday and the acts of good.

Healdsburg’s Kelley, Meisner, Coventry, Peterson and store volunteer Elena Halvorsen all went. It was a rush.

Coventry said a high point was being in the presence of the former first lady. “That was amazing, to be in the same room with her,” she said.

Another thrilling moment came when DeGeneres suggested that everyone in the audience look beneath their seats. They found Cheerios boxes. The breakfast cereal’s maker, General Mills, sponsored DeGeneres’ One Million Acts of Good.

Cards inside the boxes informed the in-studio guests that for their kindness to others, they would share $1 million. All were sworn not to divulge the amount of their share, but it was several thousand dollars.

Each recipient was free to keep the money, or do whatever they wanted with it. On the long drive back to Healdsburg, kindergarten teachers Coventry and Peterson struck upon the idea to use the money for the benefit of the students who’d done so well at collecting socks, shoes and underwear for fire survivors.

Back in Healdsburg, the pair shared the notion with Kelley. Soon was born the decision to create Kinder2College, with the first dollars for college savings accounts coming from the gifts that five Healdsburg women found in Cheerios boxes.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211.

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