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$2 million gift from Wilson Foundation boosts the remarkable work of Say Yes

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s $2 million donation to the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program is a testament to the nonprofit’s mission and success in achieving exciting and lofty goals.

This is the largest one-time gift to the scholarship fund. Say Yes is now less than $10 million from its goal of $33 million to pay postsecondary tuition for graduates of Buffalo public and charter schools through 2023.

Say Yes started awarding scholarships to public and charter school graduates in 2013, and has provided 3,000 so far. The payoff has been priceless. As News staff reporter Deidre Williams wrote, of Class of 2013 members with Say Yes scholarships, 57 percent enrolled in four-year colleges and 43 percent in two-year colleges. In 2014, 64 percent enrolled in four-year colleges and 36 percent in two-year colleges. Figures for the Class of 2015 will be available in April.

The influence of the scholarship as a motivator has been noted in this newspaper. The scholarship closes the tuition gap and sometimes offers assistance toward books, fees and room and board for eligible students. It is a game-changer for families that would otherwise struggle to pay for higher education and for students who might get discouraged by the challenge.

Say Yes is much more than scholarships, though. The nonprofit agency’s determination to make a difference drove it to figure out a way to keep young minds engaged over the summer after the Buffalo School District failed its students. In 2012 the district canceled elementary summer school, opting to save money by sending children home with worksheet packets. The following year, then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown advanced an elementary summer school program, but fewer than half of the thousands of registered children failed to show up the first week and attendance dwindled from there.

In 2014, Say Yes committed $1.2 million to run a summer program after district officials declined, citing the cost. Even with Say Yes involved, the thousands of registered students again dwindled, and last year district officials decided again to cancel summer school for elementary students. Say Yes refused to give up. Instead, it upped the ante, agreeing to pay $500,000 in exchange for a seven-year expense-sharing agreement with the district for “summer camps” held not in Buffalo schools but community centers and churches.

Free camp – enrichment activities and learning. It is out-of-the-box thinking and determination at work. The district will have to pick up the financial responsibility over time, but by then the summer camps should have proven their worth in delivering enrichment activities and education in a manner that is amenable to these families’ needs.

Say Yes also provides wraparound services for students during the school year. Last October, officials announced they will open 15 new mental health clinics in city schools, bringing the total to 42 clinics operating one to two days a week in 55 schools.

The extraordinarily generous gift was announced by Mary M. Wilson, foundation trustee and widow of the Buffalo Bills’ founding owner. She spoke for many when she said, “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.”

The foundation’s donation will continue to fuel the good work by a remarkable organization.