As anyone who has been to an end-of-year school assembly knows, the room is full of students, teachers, administrators and proud parents.
Some of the most influential and important people, though, are there in spirit.
When my two sons were seniors at Lyons Township High School, I was struck by how many scholarships were given in someone’s memory, often a student who had passed away all too young or a local community member who wanted to give back in some ongoing way.
Learning who these people were and what they stood for was interesting and meaningful. Even more meaningful was seeing the family members who donated the scholarship interact with the winners, sometimes moving from a handshake to a hug or posing for an impromptu photo.
On the flip side, when my dad was giving scholarships in my mom’s name to students at my alma mater, where she worked as a volunteer and development director, I helped write the letter to student applicants as a way to share details about her life and legacy with them.
Brenda O’Laughlin with her husband, John, and through the Kelli Joy O’Laughlin Memorial Foundation, gives out scholarships in their daughter’s memory and honor. The generosity of the foundation’s donors has allowed the O’Laughlins to provide scholarships to students at several local high schools, including Kelli’s school, LTHS, as well as Fenwick and Hinsdale Central.
O’Laughlin, an LT freshman, was stabbed to death in October of 2011 after walking in on an intruder in her Indian Head Park home.
“It isn’t just receiving the scholarship’s monetary award and the plaque, it’s the whole picture,” says Brenda O’Laughlin. “In all of our presentations, we give information about Kelli, and how the scholarship came about. It’s important to us for them to know who Kelli was and carry on her legacy.”
Such generosity extends to many other named scholarships at LTHS and other local high schools, including Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park.
Alena Murguia, public relations coordinator, says Nazareth awards several memorial scholarships each year and tries to connect students in some way with the person for whom it was named and their family.
She cites one example, the Lisa Marie Santoro Scholarship.
“Lisa was a Nazareth student who died tragically in a dating violence situation. Her parents established the scholarship and actually spent many years coming into school to talk to our students,” Murguia says. “The alumni recipients of this scholarship remain close, meeting annually as “Lisa’s girls.’”
As Lisa and Kelli’s names are announced at assemblies this month — along with other names such as Stacy Ann, Katherine and Christopher at LTHS and John at Nazareth — they aren’t just part of that moment on that day. They are carried into the future with these scholarship winners, and will be again next year and in years after that.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance columnist