By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
Reed and Louise Valleau partner with ECCF to offer scholarships to graduates of ABC of Andover program
Reed and Louise Valleau were taking a drive when they heard an episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast focused on student loan debt, and in particular the ways in which higher education contributes to the racial wealth gap.
What they heard – that the 10 to 1 racial wealth gap for the median household expands to a 20 to 1 wealth gap for Black and white households that carry student debt – stuck with them. And they wanted to do something about it. Could they use charitable dollars to help students of color pay off some of this debt?
“We just couldn’t find a way to do that and have it make financial sense,” said Reed.
But then in 2022, they connected with staff at Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF), who helped the Andover couple establish a scholarship fund that would help academically talented young women of color pursue their dreams by reducing the amount of debt they need to take on to pay for their college education, thereby lifting some of the financial burden that often weighs heavily on students – particularly students of color – after graduating.
“It seemed like if we could help with paying for college, then these students could start thinking about the long-term,” said Reed.
The students that Reed refers to are participants in ABC of Andover, the longest continuously running local affiliate of the national “A Better Chance” program that invites BIPOC scholars from cities across the country to attend academically rigorous suburban high schools with rich extracurricular programs. To date, ABC of Andover has graduated nearly 150 students from Andover High School. One hundred percent of those students have gone on to college and 97% have graduated college.
“ABC is able to provide a lot of support for the scholars, help them succeed at Andover High School and get into the college of their choice,” said Louise. “Even with limited resources, the program is so strong because of the deep commitment of volunteers and staff.”
It is an organization the Valleaus have been passionate about for a long time.
Their involvement with ABC of Andover began when their own kids, now grown, were in high school and the Valleaus chose to serve as a host family, a four-year commitment during which they hosted their student once a week for dinner and once a month for an entire weekend. For a time, Louise served as the host family liaison for the organization and as secretary of the board. Reed can often be found fixing things at the “ABC House” on Main Street, where participating students live in a dorm-style setting while attending high school.
“Because of their work with ABC, the scholarship fund became this really great marriage of the Valleaus’ personal commitment to the program and their desire to do something about the larger social issue of student debt,” said Bonnie Zahorik, president of ABC of Andover.
Zahorik said she has seen first-hand the stress that paying for college has on the BIPOC students participating in her program. Many students, she said, worry about how they and their families will make loan payments after graduation.
“I’ve rarely seen a student with a financial aid package that doesn’t include loans,” said Zahorik. “What the Valleaus are doing is so important because it relieves some of that stress.”
Zahorik said that when the Valleaus approached her with the idea of building a scholarship program specifically for ABC of Andover scholars, she was elated – and so were the students.
“I was thrilled of course with this opportunity for our scholars,” said Zahorik. “And I cannot tell you the joy, relief and the positive impact this had on the students when they learned of this opportunity.”
ABC of Andover typically supports eight students in any given year – two per high school grade. Scholars enter as freshman and remain at Andover High School all four years. Graduating seniors become immediately eligible for the scholarship; there is no lengthy application process.
“What the Valleaus have done is to say, ‘You’re an ABC scholar and that’s enough for us,’” said Zahorik.
Since the inception of the Valleaus’ fund – called the Andover ABC Loan Reduction Scholarship Fund – last year, four scholarships totaling nearly $40,000 have been awarded to graduating ABC scholars, who will be eligible to reapply for the scholarship for up to four years of college.
“ABC’s mission to promote education equity is inextricably tied to our nation’s overarching racial wealth gap challenge,” wrote Zahorik in a letter to the community announcing the new scholarship program established by the Valleaus. “At the intersection of education, student debt and inequality is a story of a pervasive struggle for BIPOC students, with staggering debt disproportionately impeding their long-term financial stability and upward mobility.”
In addition to supporting students through high school and through the college admissions process, ABC of Andover really emphasizes positioning young people of color as leaders in society.
“They come to us ready to achieve and seeking opportunity,” said Zahorik. “Our program exists to support and empower them to pursue that opportunity and forge their own unique path.”
Many graduates go on to become involved in their home communities across the country and in their professional lives – as leaders, mentors and volunteers – creating a ripple effect. And now the Valleaus have put a vehicle in place to support graduating seniors of the ABC program as they go on to pursue their dreams and continue to create those ripples as they move through life.
The couple says they plan to fund the scholarship program – which they do through a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from their IRA – for the long-term.
“Louise and I have been very lucky financially,” said Reed. “We don’t need the money in our IRA.”
QCDs are an efficient way to lower your taxable income once you are required to start withdrawing the Required Minimum Distribution from your IRA – usually by the age of 73, according to recent changes by the SECURE 2.0 Act. Donors who withdraw from their IRAs and contribute directly to charity via a QCD will not pay taxes on the amount donated.
ECCF can accept QCD’s to help donors establish certain types of funds, like the scholarship fund the Valleaus have created. From there, the foundation handles all the administrative work involved with distributing those critical charitable dollars to qualified nonprofits.
“One of the things I’ve appreciated about ECCF is the flexibility,” said Reed. “The foundation has provided just the services we need.”
Zahorik calls this a win-win.
“We’re so grateful to Reed and Louise, and many other outstanding community members who support ABC of Andover’s work to help open doors and eliminate barriers for students of color,” said Zahorik.
For more information about A Better Chance (ABC) of Andover, visit www.abcandover.org.