Robin Perches sent her oldest son to Central Washington University this fall to begin his bachelor’s degree in computer science and art.

The 38-year-old said she’s always hoped that her children would see college as an attainable goal — an expectation. But she said that dream wouldn’t have been possible without the Mollie Davis Scholarship, a local fund supporting its 10th cohort of Yakima students in pursuing degrees this school year.

In 2009, Perches moved to Yakima from the Tri-Cities. She came from a background of poverty and struggle, she said, and turned to a community organization to find housing in her new city. After finding a place to live, she was able to access counseling services and begin work at the YWCA Yakima through a welfare-to-work program, which is aimed at building self-

sufficiency among struggling populations.

“I came from poverty and had a lot of problems and had a lot of people help me along the way, and so I received a lot of services,” she said. “As I was receiving services I thought, ‘Well, I want to do that for someone one day.’”

Perches began pursuing an associate degree at Yakima Valley College while working full time and raising her two sons. Then she heard about the Mollie Davis Scholarship: a fund specifically for Yakima residents pursuing two- and four-year degrees, with a need-based emphasis.

While Perches continued to work full-time to make ends meet, the scholarship helped cover the cost of college courses. She graduated from Heritage University in 2013 with a bachelor’s in social work and just $6,000 in student loans.

From there, she was hired to work at Yakima Neighborhood Health Services doing outreach with people experiencing homelessness. In May, she will graduate from Eastern Washington University with a master’s in behavioral health as her son wraps up his first year of college. She’s proud to able to financially support him as he works to attain his education.

“That’s why I really like the Mollie Davis Scholarship, because I feel like it’s really an investment in Yakima and in educating people here, so that our kids can get educated,” she said. “It’s a generational thing, where he’s not going to have to go through the things that I had to go through because I was able to get that bachelor’s degree.”

Ten years of scholars

The Mollie Davis Scholarship began in 2009 after Yakima resident Mary Monroe Davis, known to friends as Mollie, died in 2008 at age 94. While her wealth was largely unknown during her lifetime, Davis left $20 million to be distributed by the Yakima Rotary Trust to local students attending or planning to attend college each year.

The scholarship is need-based, but also takes academic ability and community leadership into account. The program awards up to $7,500 a year and up to $30,000 overall toward a bachelor’s degree. It awards up to $3,500 a year toward an associate degree.

In June, the 10th group of students received Mollie Davis Scholarships. More than $1 million was distributed to the 44 students, according to Yakima Rotary Trust President Jill Falk.

Over the 10 years, 379 students have received a collective of $7.2 million in scholarships through the fund, Falk said. About 95 percent of recipients renew their scholarships year-on-year. This school year alone, the renewable scholarship is supporting 121 students in various phases of their studies.

“That’s a huge number, and no doubt a huge impact on our Valley,” Falk said. “There’s really little doubt that the program is going to have a long-term impact … on the lives of the students, the lives of their families and our community. I think the benefit is immeasurable.”

Come back and serve

Jennifer Morales-Mata (Mendoza) grew up spending time at Madison House, a program of the Yakima Union Gospel Mission that serves roughly 500 at-risk youths each week at its downtown Yakima location. In high school, she would volunteer her time there: tutoring, serving dinner or acting as a counselor at summer camps.

In 2014, she graduated from Davis High School with an associate degree. Mendoza went on to study social work at the University of Washington with the help of the Mollie Davis Scholarship. In her junior year of the program, she gave birth to her first son, she said.

“It was a huge blessing to get this scholarship,” she said. “Being able to not have financial stress on my shoulders aside from being a mom and being a student allowed me to complete my bachelor’s.”

Mendoza was able to graduate without debt, which she said gave her the flexibility to continue onto a master’s degree in social work. She completed an advanced standing degree in 2018 and has worked as a mental health counselor at Comprehensive Healthcare in Yakima for a year.

“I think it’s really important for me to come back and serve my community, because I know a lot of the barriers,” she said. “It’s so important for our young people to also be able to do the same — to get educated and come back and serve.”

Mendoza works with youths with behavioral challenges and their families. Some young people she works with are involved in the juvenile justice system, and many have depression, anxiety and trauma. Mendoza helps them process their struggles and create goals for both the students and their families to work toward to get back on track.

This is her way of reinvesting the Mollie Davis Scholarship, she said.

“I’m always thankful to Mary Monroe for committing to these students and to our city,” she said.

Replenishing investment

Falk said the scholarship has produced teachers, coaches, case managers, nurses and medical technicians, many of whom are giving back to the community as they build their careers.

Rather than depleting as scholarships are handed out, the Mollie Davis fund has grown through investment, Falk said. The Yakima Valley Community Foundation manages the fund, which sits at about $25 million today.

This year, the Rotary began measuring the proportion of first-generation college students receiving the scholarship, she said. Some 80 percent identified as first-generation college students.

“That was just amazing, because a college education is valuable to all of us in so many ways, but if you’re the first in your family to go to college, there’s such an impact for that student, their family, their siblings and future generations,” she said.

Yasmine Mendoza-Espinoza is among the first-generation student recipients.

The 22-year-old was one of three siblings raised by her grandparents in downtown Yakima before taking guardianship of her now-15-year-old brother a couple of years ago.

Growing up, she too was a participant at Madison House, went on to work for the organization and now volunteers there. She said the program leadership inspired her to become a teacher so she could in turn invest in at-risk youths.

“I really wanted to be that support system — an advocate for students to get through their education and (to) be that role model that it is possible to overcome those obstacles that were placed in front of you,” she said.

Mendoza-Espinoza is in her final year of a bachelor’s in elementary education and a K-8 certificate at Yakima Valley College. This is her second year receiving the Mollie Davis Scholarship, which is her largest scholarship.

“It has helped me tremendously, just being able to pursue my education and not having to worry so much about being financially responsible to pay for my education,” she said.

Between classes, she supports her brother, works two days a week as a third-grade student teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School, another three days as a paraprofessional at Lewis and Clark Middle School, and is an assistant volleyball coach at Eisenhower High School. In the spring, she coaches volleyball at Wilson Middle School.

“A lot of what I do, I do to be a role model for our community,” Mendoza-Espinoza said, adding that she wants to ensure her younger brother has the resources and opportunities to succeed in school and life.

In June, she will graduate and hopes to teach at the middle school level, where she feels students have the highest need for academic and social support. Eventually, she wants to get a master’s degree to teach at the high school level. But regardless of the age group, she wants to help support students in Yakima, as the Mollie Davis Scholarship has done for her.

“This is my home, and it’s given me so much,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to return the favor.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka