SOUTHERN UTAH – The first-ever Willy the Plumber scholarships, benefiting children of Utah inmates pursuing a college education, have been announced.
A total of $3,500 was awarded to four recipients, including two from Southern Utah, Danielle Cheek of Cedar City and Whitney Curtis of Washington City.
Cheek’s father has been repeatedly incarcerated for drug-related charges, beginning when she was only 3 months old. He was released when she was 9 years old, re-incarcerated when she was 12 and is currently serving time. He has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, which, although they are not close, inspired Cheek, 19, to pursue a career in the medical field.
She recently graduated from SUCCESS Academy with an Associate’s degree from Southern Utah University and will attend the University of California, San Diego, to study medicine this fall. She also volunteers at her local hospital’s emergency room and is a member of the Youth Volunteer Core of Iron County.
“When I first discovered this scholarship, I thought that it was written for me,” Cheek said. “It means a lot to me that someone has recognized my struggle through childhood and wants to reward me in the pursuit of a better life.”
Cheek received a $1,000 scholarship award.
Curtis’s father has battled addiction to alcohol and painkillers throughout her life and was eventually incarcerated long-term, after numerous encounters with law enforcement. His shortcomings, once a source of embarrassment, became motivational once she realized that the Willy the Plumber program would not overlook her struggles like many others had.
“I never thought there would be a scholarship geared for someone like me, who grew up in an environment like I experienced,” Curtis said. “This opportunity has turned something bad into something really good.”
She recently graduated from Pine View High School and plans to attend Dixie State University in the fall to pursue a career in dental hygiene.
Curtis received a $500 scholarship award.
Willy the Plumber was created in 2011 by Karl “Willy” Winsness, whose own 17-year incarceration left his two daughters with limited means to pursue their dream of receiving a higher education. Now a free man and the owner of Karl’s Affordable Plumbing in West Valley City, Winsness’s goal is to give back to the community by helping who he considers “the forgotten victims of crime.”
This is the first year Willy the Plumber scholarships have been awarded. Over a dozen students applied, all of whom Winsness said have inspirational stories and deserve recognition.
“It felt great to get over a dozen fantastic applicants, that there were that many smart kids overcoming such circumstances and who could use our help, and overwhelming knowing that we couldn’t help that many,” Winsness said. “The hardest part was telling them ‘I would like to personally thank you for your application. I was very impressed with you as a person and your story, you were exactly the type of person I had in mind and I just wanted to express my deepest admiration for you and how well you have done so far, but I’m sorry that you were not chosen.’”
The scholarship is operated by the Community Foundation of Utah, a statewide nonprofit organization focusing on community development through a variety of programs. Aside from several small donations from various sources, Winsness has contributed the majority of the funding. Willy the Plumber is currently the only scholarship in Utah with the express purpose of benefiting children of incarcerated citizens.
“The scholarship winners are kids who have achieved great things in spite of overwhelming circumstances,” said Blair Hodson, programs manager for the Community Foundation of Utah. “Supporting this scholarship is affirmation that hard work, perseverance and hope can overcome any challenge. None are more deserving of community support than these kids.”
“(The foundation) is bringing unexpected innovators out of the shadows,” Cheek said. “They give a spotlight to future scholars not normally considered and I want people to know these amazing scholarships, like Willy the Plumber, exist.”
Support for the Willy the Plumber scholarship is much needed for the coming school year. To find out more or make a donation, visit the scholarship website.
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