OnPoint changes Syracuse “degree by degree”
Eighteen years ago, Ginny Donohue’s daughter approached her about her friend, Jack. Her daughter explained that Jack was brilliant with computers and had so much potential, but would never be able to afford to go to college and achieve his dreams. Donohue, who graduated from Le Moyne in 1969, listened to Jack’s story and knew that, given her financial status, she would be able to help him.
Months later, after sending him off to school, two strangers approached Donohue in the middle of a grocery store and asked if she was “the lady who helped Jack.”
These individuals were just the start of what has turned into Donohue’s career, hobby and passion. For eight years, during her spare time, she worked with local students to help them with college visits, financial forms, applications, living arrangements and anything else that an incoming college student might need. She dropped them off on the first day, and visited them throughout the semester, ensuring that all of their needs were met.
In 1998, one of these students changed the course of her life, saying, “Because of you, I’m going to have my dreams. What are your dreams? If you’re not doing them now, then it’s not what you’re meant to be doing.”
At that moment, Donohue realized that she wanted nothing more than to be able to help more young people like Jack. On April 13, 1999, with no funding, she started OnPoint.
“I figured that once people saw what I was doing, the funding would figure itself out,” said Donohue. “My office was in my car for the first year and a half. Now look at where we’re at.”
Since its founding, OnPoint has relocated to a building on West Onondaga Street in Syracuse, N.Y., and now includes a total of 15 staff members.
“OnPoint kids” come from a variety of backgrounds — some from single-parent households, some from homes with no parents at all, many from the inner city, and nearly all from low-income backgrounds.
“Ninety-eight percent of our kids are first-generation college students,” explained Donohue. “There are a lot of fantastic organizations meant to help these kids get to college, but a lot of them focus on a certain demographic or age range. By focusing on those ages 17-24, we’re able to capture more people who, up until us, had been slipping through the cracks in the system.”
OnPoint works with more than 15 community organizations, including Boys & Girls Clubs, homeless shelters, Catholic charities, the Barnabas House, the Center for Community Alternatives, Syracuse Housing, refugee schools and numerous GED sites.
The process is different for each individual, but the goal is the same: “To open the door to higher education for the inner city youth; to break down the barriers that hinder potential students from entering college; and to provide support that empowers them to succeed.”
For Donohue, not every success story has to result in a diploma.
“Not all of our kids end up with a degree,” said Donohue. “But, I don’t think that always matters. For me, a success is found when a student uses this opportunity to shape their future… When they are able to change the whole course of their life through college, with or without a degree in their hand.”
For most OnPoint students, the process starts with the Keep It Real Orientation day, and continues for the entire four years of their education; however, nearly all of them consider themselves “OnPoint kids for life.”
Each year, the program shuts down for three weeks as staff members travel to more than 75 colleges to visit students.
“At four-year schools, we visit them once a semester,” Donohue explained. “At two-year schools, we visit them once a week. At OCC, we visit our kids twice a week. You can tell a lot through these visits. Most of our kids won’t pick up the phone and tell us if they need something, but when you visit them, you can tell if they have all their books, are eating enough, are having trouble fitting in and stuff like that. We know them.”
With every obstacle that an OnPoint student faces, there is someone there to help. At each campus that hosts an OnPoint student, there is a “campus angel,” who is the support system for that particular student body. At Le Moyne, Mark Godleski, assistant dean for Student Development, serves as the campus angel.
“Le Moyne really walks their talk,” Donohue noted. “Our relationship with the college started 12 years ago with Fr. Ryan, and then with Fr. Beirne. We were desperate for summer housing for some of our kids, and Le Moyne was there for us. There is not another private college in the country that lets students who are not from their institution live there, and lets them do so for free.”
Since the start of the program, approximately 3,117 students have been involved with OnPoint, and have attended nearly 200 colleges and universities.
On the day that one of their students walks across the stage at graduation, there is always an OnPoint person in the audience prepared to cheer them on. This May alone, OnPoint staff members will be attending 38 college graduations.
“I believe that if you’re doing what you should be doing, then these serendipitous things just happen,” Donohue said. “We just stay strong and smart, and never let ourselves get scared. There are more than enough resources in our community to send these kids to school, and that’s our greatest strength.”
OnPoint for College is always accepting help in the form of donations and volunteers. With the number of involved individuals constantly increasing, Donohue explained that they’re still in need of people to serve as mentors for OnPoint students, or drivers who can provide transportation to and from school for these young people.
If interested, Donohue, the executive director of OnPoint for College, can be reached at (315) 362-5003 or email@example.com. More information on this organization can also be found online at www.onpointforcollege.org.
Donohue concluded the interview by reciting her favorite quote from Margaret Mead with tears in her eyes, noting that she has kept it in her mind since day one, and it serves as a constant reminder of why she’s doing what she’s doing.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” Mead said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”