SOAR can make college possible

When determined people get together, even if it’s just over a cup of coffee, things have a way of happening, like when two longtime educators met and shared their concerns about bright students who might not make it to college.

The result is a program that not only gives those students a start in college but the hope that their education will pay off for the City of Altoona in the long run.

The program, Project SOAR, for Study, Overcome, Achieve and Reward, didn’t start overnight.

When Patricia Labriola, a well-known retired teacher in the Altoona Area School District, first met with retired Altoona Area school guidance department director Kathleen O’Rourke six years ago over coffee, the two talked about students who often missed out on educational funding.

The students didn’t qualify as mentally challenged on one end of the intellectual scale, otherwise known as special-needs students. Yet they weren’t quite at the opposite end of the scale, either, the very gifted students who could receive several academic scholarships when they graduated from high school, O’Rourke said.

“There are so many good students out there, but there’s only so much money to go around,” she said. “We wanted to provide hope for these kids who were kind of middle-of-the-road kids.”

Faces of Project SOAR

A lack of funding didn’t stop Labriola and O’Rourke once they decided they wanted to help the students.

They were talking about students like Angel Hoover, who was spotted by an eighth-grade teacher because he told her she reminded him of himself when he was growing up, Hoover said.

“He said he had faith in me,” she said.

Hoover has an older brother who is academically gifted and received grants and scholarships to go to college, she said. The daughter of a single mother who struggles to make ends meet and cares for her elderly mother in their home, Hoover said she has always worked hard to do well in school. She said she was a little confused about the program at first and hadn’t heard that much about it in school.

But she and her mom, Cindy Hoover, attended an initial informational meeting, and both signed a contract agreeing to continue to keep up their ends of the bargain. For Angel, that meant she, like other students in the program, would have to maintain an 85 percent grade point average, a 90 percent attendance record and attend all Project SOAR monthly events.

She also would have to do a variety of things like hone study skills in the monthly meetings that once became a field trip to visit colleges. The meetings might also feature guest speakers like Dr. Zane Gates of Altoona.

Throughout her high school years, Angel said she was mindful of the obligation she undertook, but it never became a burden.

“I knew I had responsibilities that I had to fulfill,” Angel said. “They kept close tabs on us, but that was okay with me.”

Silver lining

Cindy had her share of duties in the contract, too. She had to attend family meetings that usually included dinner with other students and their families.

Cindy had to make sure that Angel fulfilled her part of the contract by not missing school, even when Angel had her wisdom teeth out. But Angel, who is also the daughter of Richard Hoover, didn’t even miss a day after the oral surgery, her mom said.

“I looked like ‘The Godfather,”’ Angel joked. “But I was there the next day.”

Both Cindy and Angel said the program made it possible for Angel to go to college.

“I was always on the kids about their homework because I struggled,” Cindy said. “For somebody like me, it was a struggle to just maybe have bread on the table.”

Angel finished her freshman year at Penn State Altoona last spring where she is majoring in graphic design. She would like to be a graphic artist someday. She said Labriola had told her that she should aim high and envision herself working for the Walt Disney Co. one day.

She recalled there were times in high school when she would get tired and feel like she wouldn’t make it, but she had an answer for herself at those times.

“I just really always thought of college as the silver lining,” Angel said. “So the times when I lost my motivation, I kept that silver lining in mind.”

Mentors as guides

Along the way, Angel had some other help, too.

The program matches the students with adult mentors both in and out of school to give them a little coaching as they make their way through high school.

Angel’s outside mentor was Elizabeth Happeny, who taught English and theater in the Altoona schools for almost 33 years and is a part-time English instructor at Penn State Altoona. The program tries to match a mentor and a student who have similar interests, and both Angel and Happeny enjoy the theater.

Happeny said not only did she help Angel with academics, but she and Angel would talk when they met in their bimonthly meetings about what was going on in Angel’s life. They often spoke about her family, even what Angel would wear to the prom, Happeny said.

“We really talked a lot about several different things,” she said.

Happeny recalled once when she and Angel went together to a career fair, and Angel was looking at what one trade school offered. Happeny said she secretly hoped that Angel wouldn’t sign herself up for the school because she knew that, although Happeny said trade schools are right for some students, she knew Angel could make it in college if she stayed the course.

“She was very shy, and it was as if she was limiting herself,” Happeny said. “But I have seen her artwork, and she’s amazing. I’m sure she’ll go very far; she’s just amazing.”

First in their families

Happeny said she believes several of the students in the program are the first in their families to go to college, something O’Rourke reaffirmed.

Financial need is not a requirement to enter the program, and no financial information is requested when families sign up, O’Rourke said.

But she said many of the students do come from families like the Hoover family, which would have had trouble finding the funds for Angel to start college.

“Some of these families are really struggling, especially if they have several children,” O’Rourke said.

That’s the case with Rob Feathers, whose daughter Shania was selected for the program.

One of four girls in the Feathers family, Shania said she always liked to stay on top of her grades. Shania, who is also the daughter of Cheryl Feathers, said she was surprised when she got a letter saying she’d been selected for Project SOAR.

“I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know where the money was going to come from,” she said. “I know it’s very expensive.”

Rob said he liked the concept of the program, and he believed his daughter could meet its requirements.

“I thought it was a great deal,” he said. “It was also a good way to keep them focused on what they needed to do in school.”

Shania played basketball in junior high and high school, and because of her commitment to sports, she had to juggle that along with the SOAR program, academics and everything else in high school. But she said it all taught her the importance of time management, and she learned to cope with it all successfully, although she did admit sleep was at a premium some nights.

The SOAR program helped a lot, even with such things as assisting in filling out college applications, she said. The program also helped her develop leadership and public speaking skills, she said.

Feathers finished her first year in pre-med at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., last spring. She chose the school because for one thing, she likes the basketball program.

Benefits for Altoona

Feathers also likes the Indiana college because it is in another state, away from Altoona, she said.

Like many 18-year-olds, Feathers had the itch to leave when she graduated from high school. That might not bode well for one of the goals of the program, which is ultimately to boost Altoona’s economy by coaxing the program’s participants to come back and work in the city.

“I wanted to get away and be more independent,” she said. “But I really like it here, and I do miss the mountains.”

That’s fine with O’Rourke, who said many of the other students in the program who just completed their first year of college are attending colleges in central Pennsylvania.

“They’re our future,” she said, “and most of them are staying around the Altoona area.”