Two students, desperate for financial assistance, recently emailed the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) seeking help. Each was faced with the need to pay off outstanding balances of about $7,000 before they could register for a new semester. They had nowhere else to turn.
Luckily for them, the UNCF is able to give them, along with thousands of others, the financial support they need. That scenario plays out every day, the organization's leader said at a press conference and media tour of their new headquarters in Northwest. The organization recently moved here from New York after 20 years.
The UNCF's raison d'etre is to help increasing numbers of needy students navigate rocky financial terrain on the way to attaining college degrees.
"For most students, it's a complex, almost impossible system, from filling out forms to staying in college year-after-year," said Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., UNCF's president and chief executive officer at the Jan. 24th event. "... There is a terrible patchwork of programs that do not work. Kids can't get loans. It doesn't work anymore. It's broken."
The UNCF plays a large role in being the financial fix. Lomax described it as the country's largest and arguably its most effective minority education organization. Washingtonians and others in the region will get the chance to show their support next month at the area's inaugural UNCF Masked Ball on Feb. 12. Proceeds from this event will support the education of almost 4,000 students studying in the Washington metropolitan area and others who attend UNCF's 38-member historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Co-chairs of the ball are Ernest D. and Debbi Jarvis and Dr. Dallas A. and DeDe Lea. Jarvis is the senior vice president of First Potomac Realty, while his wife serves as vice president, Corporate Citizenship and Social Responsibility at Pepco Holdings, Inc. Dr. Lea is the director of the Outpatient Spinal Cord Injury Medicine Program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest. His wife is one of highest ranking women in corporate America as executive vice president for Viacom.
"The mission of the UNCF is more important than ever. This is truly a party with purpose," said Jarvis, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, son of former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and grandson of noted scientist and physician Dr. Charles Drew. "Debbi and I are very committed to this and plan to be in this long term. My grandfather did some work on blood plasma. His driving force was education for the next level of Negro doctors."
Jarvis noted that his mother is an educator, so that the push for educational excellence and seeking to expand that to young people of all types runs deep.
"Ensuring that the UNCF continues its mission is personally important to us as graduates of Howard University, and we're honored to serve as co-chairs for the Masked Ball," said DeDe Lea.
The ball, which will be held at JW Marriott Hotel in downtown D.C., is expected to attract luminaries and dignitaries from business, education, politics, entertainment and a range of other spheres in and around the city. It will open with a VIP function for sponsors, a general reception and silent auction, a Parade of Dignitaries, dinner and a Parade of Masks. Dancing will follow with musical entertainment provided by Jeffrey Osbourne. Tickets begin at $500.
Lomax, a former chairman of the Fulton County Georgia Board of Commissioners and former president of Dillard University, spoke excitedly about the ball, explaining its success in other cities, like Atlanta where former Mayor Andrew Young established it 29 years ago.
"It was the brainchild of Andrew Young and Billye Aaron, Hank Aaron's wife," he said. "We do them all around the country and they allow us to raise unrestricted funds. We put on 150 events. We're able to step in and make a difference with the Mayor's Masked Ball. We can be the means of first response."
UNCF Executive Vice President Maurice Jenkins, who has worked closely on six balls, including the Los Angeles inaugural ball last month, said UNCF will be hosting Masked Balls or Mayor's Masked Balls all over the country, including in Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ga., and San Francisco.
"The balls are very, very important for us to raise six figures up to a million dollars," said Lomax. They're a wonderful occasion to have, a wonderful time but they raise significant money for UNCF. African-American philanthropists have really stepped up to allow another generation of African Americans to get an education."
UNCF Regional Development Director Meta Renee Williams said she expects the D.C. version of the ball to be "the bomb."
"We hope our sister cities do well, but let's be clear: Our Masked Ball can be second to no one," she said with a laugh and mock-seriousness.
Jenkins said guests should prepare to have fun.
"In Atlanta, we raised $1.2 million in this recession era," he said. "It's dancing, it's a party. A large number of celebrities will be coming in and we will try to get a lot of local celebrities. It's a great big party with people of note."
Williams said the UNCF manages 400 different scholarships for students who attend 900 universities across the U.S. This includes scholarships and a campaign for emergency student assistance which since 2009 has offered $17 million in grants to graduating seniors as well as those who owed a balance to begin a new semester.
"When students call us, it's usually the last resort," she said.
Program Manager David Ray agreed.
"It's a high-stress time for managers. We hear stories," he said. "Not only are you the manager, some
of us are fathers and mothers. It's nice to be in a pivotal position to see the impact on young people."
Lomax said a college education is more important now than ever, especially because those seeking employment no longer have the option of working in steel mills or "finding a job with Mr. Ford." At one time, high school diplomas were the minimum entry requirement to a well-paying job, he said. That is no more, as students now have to have a college degree to even get a foot in the door.
That's where the UNCF comes in. The organization plays a crucial role in linking low-income students to education by providing 60,000 students with the money they need to finance their educations through 400 scholarship programs. In the Washington metropolitan area, the UNCF has awarded about $100 million in scholarships and internship programs to 13,000 students at Georgetown, George Washington University and elsewhere. Over the past 70 years, Lomax said, the UNCF has raised $3 billion to fund scholarships and the organization places a lot of emphasis on raising the money needed to assist students.
"We're supporting students everywhere," Lomax said.
Lomax said he envisions the UNCF becoming the go-to organization on all things educational. He said officials plan to work closely with Mayor Vincent Gray, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, university officials and others who operate in the education arena in Washington. Also of importance, he noted, is being close to Congress to lobby members on issues of concern to UNCF.
"More than any city in the country, the D.C. area's high technology, information-age businesses and government agencies depend on a diverse pipeline of college-educated workers," Lomax said. "Every company and organization that supports this inaugural UNCF Masked Ball is helping fill that pipeline and investing in better futures for students, the community and the economy."
"The work we do in Washington is so very important," he added. "We're making the case for a college education for African-American students. We're going to take everything we know to make this happen."