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After awarding 3,000 scholarships, Say Yes gets $2 million Wilson gift

Since rolling into town five years ago, Say Yes Buffalo has provided about 3,000 scholarships for Buffalo students to attend more than 100 colleges and universities.

It bailed out the school district’s summer school program and came up with a plan to sustain it over several years.

And it provides an array of academic, health, social and emotional services for students and their families.

That kind of traction is why the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation on Wednesday gave $2 million to Say Yes for its scholarship program. It is the largest one-time gift to the scholarship fund.

The donation means that Say Yes is less than $10 million away from its goal of $33 million, which could provide postsecondary tuition scholarships for graduates of Buffalo public and charter schools through 2023.

“It’s such an incredible opportunity for every kid here, and it’s already making an impact,” said Mary M. Wilson, foundation trustee and widow of the Buffalo Bills’ founding owner. “I know Ralph would be so proud to be part of this.”

Say Yes got the attention of the Wilson Foundation through a presentation last summer by the nonprofit agency’s executive director, David P. Rust. “We were totally, absolutely amazed – blown away at what they are doing, which is wrapping around what it takes for a student and child to be successful,” Wilson said.

That ability to build partnerships to offer services was the primary reason the $2 million gift was awarded to Say Yes rather than the Buffalo Public Schools, Wilson said.

“Say Yes brings businesses, philanthropy, social services, churches together. It’s the wraparound,” Wilson said. “… It’s a game-changer. Nobody can do it alone. In this program, so many people are working together to make it work. It’s really exciting and could be a great model for the rest of the country.”

The donation was warmly received during an announcement Wednesday morning at the Emerson School of Hospitality on West Chippewa Street.

“Today’s gift from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is a resounding example of what can happen when a community comes together,” said Alphonso O’Neil-White, chairman of the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Board.

Say Yes started awarding scholarships to public and charter school students in 2013, averaging 1,000 a year. For the Class of 2013, 57 percent enrolled in four-year colleges, and 43 percent in two-year colleges. In 2014, 64 percent entered four-year institutions of higher learning, while 36 percent opted for two-year colleges, Rust said. The figures for the Class of 2015 will be available in April.

The nonprofit agency also engineered a plan to save the school district’s summer school program. Back in 2012, the district canceled elementary summer school and instead sent children home with worksheet packets. The following year, then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown pushed for an elementary summer school program. More than 9,571 children registered, but fewer than half showed up for the first week, and attendance continued to dwindle.

In 2014, Say Yes committed $1.2 million to run a summer program after district officials said they could not afford to pay for it. Even with the help of Say Yes, many of the approximately 6,400 registered students failed to stay, with attendance falling below 4,000 by the fourth week.

Last year, district officials decided again to cancel summer school for elementary students because of the cost and high attrition rates. But Say Yes agreed to pay $500,000 in exchange for a seven-year, expense-sharing agreement with the district for a new effort rebranded as “summer camps” held in community centers and churches rather than Buffalo schools. The free camps include time for both academics and enrichment activities. Over time, the financial responsibility will gradually shift to the district.

Say Yes also announced last October that it will open 15 new mental health clinics in city schools, bringing the total to 42 clinics that operate one to two days a week in 55 schools. Two mobile health units helped 219 students with issues such as anger, depression and trauma. And six law firms provide volunteers to offer advice on matters such as immigration, child custody and housing. The clinics, which have helped hundreds of families, are open one day a week at six schools citywide.

In addition, Say Yes has placed a family support in every school to provide quick intervention when families need help with food, clothing or shelter or when they are at risk of child welfare workers stepping in. The specialists make home visits and match families with the services they need, helping a “few hundred” families last school year, Rust said.