We’re all looking for signs of hope.
I discovered mine a few days ago when I opened something I’d received in early March. The binder, with its black cover and 150 or so pages, completes a circle that began 10 years ago when I wrote about Michael Hanna.
Hanna, his wife and their two teenagers lived the good life in a home in Northeast Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood. An advertising executive at a cable company, he was laid off during what we now call the Great Recession.
He was 47, had skills and contacts, and figured he’d find a new job. He found nothing and had to create one. He convinced his wife they should take out a home equity loan to start a mattress store in an empty building.
Six months after opening, Mattress Lots turned a profit and I wrote about Hanna. I moved onto other stories, forgetting about Hanna until late February when I received an email from him asking for a favor.
When I got home one evening, I found a package at my front door. Inside was a black binder. This was in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Oregon. Like everyone, I had more pressing concerns than reading the binder.
So, there it sat.
Last week, I received an email from Hanna asking if I’d read it and made my choice.
That night, I began reading, slowly turning the pages.
Sometimes, we stumble over glimmers of hope.
Six years ago, the mattress store doing well, Hanna and his wife, Mary Ruth Hanna, created a $1,000 college scholarship to be awarded to a senior at Grant High School, where both of their kids had graduated.
“When we started this business, there was a lot of stress,” said Michael Hanna. “A huge concern for us, as for many families, was how could we help our kids go to college.”
In time, the couple called it the Mattress Lot Dream Big Scholarship and offered the $1,000 scholarships to a senior at Grant, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Madison and Franklin high schools. Each recipient must attend an accredited four-year college. Criteria for winning were grades, test scores, a personal essay and financial need. Since it began, more than $23,000 has been given to students.
“We are committed to the east side of Portland,” said Mary Ruth Hanna. “Those were the people who supported our business, and we wanted to support them.”
The couple never made it a citywide scholarship, focusing on public schools where they thought there was the greatest need. Last year, the couple – for the first time – decided to go to a high school and sit, anonymously in the audience to watch a ceremony where the winning student was honored.
“It was so touching,” Mary Ruth Hanna said. “I began crying.”
This year, the couple decided to offer one student a $2,000 scholarship renewable for four years, and four $1,000 runner-up scholarships, with students at all five schools competing for the awards.
“One thousand dollars is a lot of money for these families living on the edge,” said Michael Hanna. “It may mean the difference between getting a new laptop or not. The parents are doing everything they can for their children. They know going to college will change their lives.”
That’s where I came in.
The couple asked me to be one of the team of judges they use to pick a winner, and four runners-up, from a pool of 35.
That night, I began reading the entries:
My parents left their home country to come to America empty handed to find opportunity and new life. I am low income, as well as a first-generation student carrying a goal of both my parents and myself to become a successful person in the future.
My dad works hard preparing food for just $12 an hour, but he earns barely enough money for rent and food for our household of five.
My mother works 8-hour shifts every day, and occasionally two shifts when necessary. People who looked at my home situation did not understand how hard my mother worked and would often tease me by saying ‘Your mother works at McDonalds and you live in Section 8.’ I work every weekend to help her with other expenses.
A mother who works as a housekeeper at a downtown hotel.
Kids who work during the school year to help out their parents with bills and rent.
Kids whose parents rely on government assistance for food.
How could I choose?
I felt a sense of despair, knowing each of these students needed the financial boost that comes with a scholarship.
But as I read the essays, and studied transcripts, test scores and evaluated their class load, I felt – for the first time in weeks – a sense of hope.
These are smart kids, with better grades and test scores than I could have ever dreamed of when I was in high school. They did it facing obstacles unheard of to me and my friends back in our day. It was then, late at night, that I found myself optimistic about the future of our city, our state and our country. These kids, and kids just like them across the United States, are our future.
We are in good hands.
Over the years, students have sent thank you notes to the couple. Parents come into Mattress Lots, seeking out the Hannas to express their gratitude and bring the couple up to date on how their sons and daughters are doing in college.
“I think about these kids working part-time jobs, with parents who have their own struggles,” said Mary Ruth Hanna. “They do all that and get good grades in their classes. I admire them.”
The store has not escaped the economic carnage caused by the coronavirus. The showroom has been closed, sales have been moved online, and all employees have been laid off. The Hannas have taken a financial hit, and people would understand if the number of scholarships were cut in this most unusual of years.
“No,” said Mary Ruth Hanna. “If people can give to the community to help, they should. Helping just one person is so important.”
Her husband takes the long view.
“These kids are prepared for the future,” he said. “They’ve been fighting all their lives to get where they are now. They’ll come through this stronger than a lot of us because they weren’t always dealt the best hand in life.“
Days ago, I made my choice for the winner and four runners-up.
— Tom Hallman Jr; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8224; @thallmanjr
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