Retirement community helps staffers with soaring college costs

$700,000 is furthering education of staff, their families
Bartender Afi Jones (from left) and Park Springs Foundation Board members Ross Lenhart, Missy Vanderbilt and Jim Stark. Park Springs retirement community formed a nonprofit to assist employees and their families with educational financial support. Courtesy of Cristina Anderson

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Bartender Afi Jones (from left) and Park Springs Foundation Board members Ross Lenhart, Missy Vanderbilt and Jim Stark. Park Springs retirement community formed a nonprofit to assist employees and their families with educational financial support. Courtesy of Cristina Anderson

Cobbling together enough funds to send kids to college is never easy, but Afi Jones of Lithonia found help for her son Josh Jones in the oddest of places – a retirement community.

Afi Jones is a server and bartender at Park Springs Life Plan Community, a continuum care neighborhood in Stone Mountain. Some of the residents voluntarily fund a nonprofit that awards educational scholarships to Park Springs employees and their families.

The Park Springs Foundation was founded by residents eight years ago. Since then, it has given out more than $700,000 in scholarships and typically helps about 25 students a semester.

“The financial award is substantial, especially if there are multiple students in a family,” said Park Springs Senior Executive Director Jeff Helms. “But even more important is the sense of community it fosters when employees know they are valued and appreciated.”

The Foundation provides $3,500 per semester, plus up to $500 for computers and books. The money can be used for spring, summer and fall terms, totaling up to $12,000 a year per scholarship winner. Families can have multiple recipients at the same time.

For the 2023-24 school year, the nonprofit will give away $93,517 with no strings attached. Recipients don’t have to continue working at Park Springs after their studies – though they are encouraged to – or commit to a specific program of study. No income limit restricts who gets the money.

No application is denied so long as the applicant, their parent or spouse, has been an employee of Park Springs for six months at the time of the award and is attending a not-for-profit educational institution.

Some scholars, like Josh, are working toward academic degrees, but others just want to return to school to learn, and that’s okay, say board members. The program is geared toward self-improvement.

The money can be applied toward college, technical school, graduate school, a GED, or English as a second language courses.

“There’s no requirement for what they take,” Board Chair Missy Vanderbilt said. “We don’t look at their grades. We don’t care if they’re getting a degree. It’s just here to help them in their goals.”

For Josh Jones, the scholarship helps cover books, technology and summer semester tuition at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He is a student-athlete at Lehigh with a football scholarship that doesn’t cover these other expenses.

Afi Jones, a single mom, said the scholarship helped her son afford to attend the college of his choice and not worry about the extra out-of-state fees and private school tuition.

“With that Park Springs Scholarship, it takes a load off of us parents who are trying to get their kids off to college,” Afi Jones said. “I really appreciate the members there so much. It means a lot to us.”

Josh Jones, 19, and his mother Afi Jones at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Josh is a freshman student athlete at Lehigh on a football scholarship. He also receives a Park Springs Foundation Scholarship that helps pay for his books and summer semester. Photo courtesy of Afi Jones

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The scholarships are also an added perk that helps recruit and retain good workers, says Helms. Foundation members keep the administration stocked with brochures explaining the offer to new hires.

Park Springs residents keep up with Josh Jones and other scholars like benevolent grandparents. Members provide an extra layer of support to help students navigate the academic world and to make sure they are fully taking advantage of the resources available to them.

For example, when one student who was getting ready to go to nursing school was not awarded any aid, they gathered a team to coach her through the process of appealing and brainstorming additional sources for funding her education.

Afi Jones said members frequently ask about her son and have grown fond of him. They have followed his football success since he was a star athlete and honor student at Miller Grove High School in Lithonia. The 19-year-old said he appreciated such caring attention, especially since he is far from home.

Park Springs scholar Josh Jones is finishing his freshman year at Lehigh University where he is a defensive back for the football team. The 19-year-old says the additional money from Park Springs helps pay for books and his summer semester. Courtesy of Afi Jones

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Park Springs is neighborly, and residents and employees like to get to know each other and their families, said Board member Ross Lenhart. The scholarships add another layer of friendship.

“It really has been a pleasure to see the bonding that has taken place between people,” agreed Board President Jim Stark. “We have followed Josh’s career, and it’s really been a bonding situation.”

Lenhart sends members a monthly newsletter that includes profiles of some students, which helps to raise money and awareness. He said Park Springs is a highly educated community and that drives the scholarship program.

“We’ve all helped our kids, grandkids as well (with college tuition),” added Vanderbilt. “And we’re very happy to have other families benefit from our ability to do so.”

Afi Jones said she also plans to apply for a scholarship because she wants to work in healthcare, a career that interests her.

“It’s just there for the opportunity for employees and their families to grab hold of – and I’m going to take hold of it,” she said.

That’s good news to Foundation members.

“We are changing lives. It’s very fulfilling,” said Vanderbilt. “It’s not just for one person, but for generations to come. Now, they are examples and mentors to their children and they are passing along the benefit of education.”