HASTINGS — Kindergarteners in Barry County are getting a head start on saving for college or career training.
The new “Kickstart to Career” program —launched last December by the Barry County Community Foundation, Hastings City Bank and the county’s school districts — could serve as a model for other Michigan communities, according to observers.
Under the program, each kindergartener in Barry County, located southeast of Grand Rapids, received $50, which was deposited into individual savings account established for them through the Community Foundation.
The funding comes from the DeCamp Family Foundation, which was launched by Hastings residents Douglas and Margaret DeCamp.
In its inaugural year, about 600 students received the $50 in seed money. This year, that number increased to 700.
According to Margaret DeCamp, her family always placed a priority on education, so when Community Foundation President and CEO Bonnie Gettys brought the Kickstart to Career idea to them, they threw their support behind it.
“We felt that this made sense because it wasn’t a handout, it was something the kids had to work to achieve, and it would involve the rest of the community and their families who will help them grow their savings accounts,” DeCamp said. “We’re hoping that the children will be able to begin to appreciate the importance of having a savings account and will realize the possibility that they will have to further their education.”
Gettys initially learned about the program during a presentation by a representative of the Community and Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM).
“They were interested in getting a model of the program set up in a rural community,” Gettys said. “I told them that I might know of a rural place that might be interested.”
After getting the DeCamp family’s buy-in and performing the required due diligence, Gettys and her team announced the start of the Kickstart to Career program in 2014. The program is modeled after a similar initiative that began in San Francisco and spawned the “Lansing Saves” program in Michigan.
The Barry County program is the second in Michigan, after Lansing, and is serving as a model for savings programs that are expected to be established in Fremont, Muskegon and Port Sanilac. Gettys said she has also been approached by individuals in Kalamazoo who are looking for different ways for students to access dollars.
Brian Rakovitis, manager of financial empowerment initiatives funding with CEDAM, said the program has become a hot topic among Michigan’s community foundations, which see this as something they are able to take on and provide in their areas. Multiple businesses and larger partners often try to step in to provide funding and resources, depending on the community, he said.
The children who receive the savings accounts often see it as a way to build a college-bound identity that might not have existed previously, according to Rakovitis.
“Ultimately, what happens is these children are low income and living in poverty and suddenly there’s this expectation that they could go to college,” he said. “From a social determinacy standpoint, it looks like it does improve their chances. When you compare peer groups, those with these saving accounts are three to seven times more likely to go to college.”
For Gettys at the Barry County Community Foundation, one telling difference between the Kickstart to Career program and similar ventures in urban communities has been that “poverty doesn’t have a color.”
“Rural places are generally 96 percent Caucasian, so the disparity in rural areas is access to opportunity, and if people have the ability to send their kids somewhere else, they will do that,” she said. “One of the things we really want people to focus on is that it’s not about $50. This is about creating an expectation early on.
“In kindergarten, children still believe they can be anything. When they get into middle school that belief begins to dissipate. We want to push them in a trajectory to success.”
Initially, the Kickstart to Career program was supposed to be a three-year pilot project, but after gathering data and looking at similar programs throughout the country, the DeCamps decided that was too short of a period.
Gettys said they have given enough money to permanently endow savings accounts for the anticipated 700 Kindergarteners each year who will begin school in Barry County.
They also wanted to make sure this was an equitable opportunity for children attending parochial school, some of whom are there on a scholarship basis, and homeschoolers.
“A lot of parents have a religious or cultural barrier to having their kids in the public schools,” Gettys said.
Since the program began, only one parent has raised concerns, said Amy Murphy, program director with the Barry County Community Foundation. The only information gathered about the children is their first and last name, date of birth, address and school I.D. number.
The foundation holds the accounts in each child’s name so the funds being deposited won’t count against income or access to benefits.
“Kids are automatically enrolled, but we do have an opt-out choice,” Murphy said.
As an added incentive, any money deposited into an account during the second semester of the Kindergarten year and the first semester of first grade will be matched up to $25. There also is an opportunity for students to earn a $5 certificate of deposit through the Positive Behavior Incentives Systems, in which one student from first through third grades is selected by his/her teacher.
A memorial fund through the foundation covers the cost of matching dollars and incentives.
Rakovitis said the savings accounts are an asset-building tool to help families plan for the future and to create hope so that their children see themselves as worthy of achieving more.
“For the community itself, it’s making an investment in youth and saying that they’re worthwhile,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll come back to the community and bring skills with them. This will create a better workforce.”