Olinka Clark never thought she would finish college. She tried it once, in 1993, and it didn't really work out. As a single mother of three, she had more important things on her mind.
Then a series of bad checks sent her to jail for four years.
"I met a lot of inmates that had mental health issues, and being incarcerated wasn't where they should have been," she says. "It inspired me to go to college... [to work with] offenders in the criminal justice system, especially those with mental health issues."
Today, Clark is a student at Madison College and Upper Iowa University, pursuing a bachelor of science in criminal justice, with a minor in psychology. She also holds a full-time job.
As a full-time student, Clark lives paycheck-to-paycheck. But thanks to a scholarship from Women in Focus, a Madison nonprofit that provides educational scholarships to students of color, she is on track to graduate this year.
Women in Focus was founded in 1983 by a group of professional women of color who want to inspire young people to emulate successful role models of color. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the organization initially focused on bringing nationally renowned speakers to Madison to meet with young minority women. It also brought in artists to perform free shows for the community, and offered small scholarships and book awards.
"King was a big proponent of education," says Gloria Jones-Bey, a founder of the organization who is a former vice-president at Meriter Hospital and now teaches business at Madison College. "His dream was to see the time when people of all races would get together and live the American Dream. King's life demonstrated that in the face of overwhelming obstacles, you continue to follow your vision and your dreams. This has been the vision of our organization -- we want to inspire young people to be excited about education, to let them know it's something that you always own, and can never lose."
The educational dream, adds Jones-Bey, is particularly important for students of color.
"We have students [of color] who are doing very well in school, but we also have students who don't have the support of a middle-class family, or parents who have the wherewithal to give them everything. These people are very bright, but just need a little support to get to college. It's in the best interests of the community to support education."
To support students of color in achieving their educational goals, Women in Focus provides scholarships to high school and non-traditional students heading to college. Last year, the organization awarded 13 scholarships of $2,000 each to students like Clark.
The scholarship program boasts an impressive set of alums, including Dane County District Attorney Ismael R. Ozanne, state Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) and Carlettra Stanford, principal of Mendota Elementary School.
The scholarship program is funded by proceeds from the organization's annual "I Have a Dream" Scholarship Banquet and Ball, held in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day every January. This year's banquet will be held Saturday, January 14 at Monona Terrace.
"It's a festive, formal occasion with a banquet and speaker," says Kathryn Simmons, chair of the ball's planning committee. "We use it as a way of paying tribute to Martin Luther King, and also to promote the ideas that he professed about the importance of having education."
Women in Focus believes that educational support is important long before students are ready for college. To support younger students, the group hosts a literacy program that distributes over 1,000 books every year to children at the YWCA, and at the annual Kwanzaa and Juneteenth events in Madison.
It also works specifically with mothers, to help them nurture a love of reading in their own children.
"We sincerely feel that children of color need to be encouraged, and most of the children that are in our [literacy] program are from families that don't have the advantages many children in Madison have," says Rose Mary Jackson, treasurer and former chair of the literacy committee. "Kids at the Y, for example, many have been homeless, or don't have books in their homes. We want to encourage them and give them a head start. Regardless of their background, all children need to have books available, and to learn and appreciate reading and learning."
Despite offering support, Women in Focus does not pretend it can provide students with a college education. Given the increasing costs of college, $2,000 can only do so much.
But Jones-Bey argues that the value of the scholarship extends well beyond its financial worth.
"The fact that we work with the counselors in the high schools, and work with churches and other organizations to get students to apply, sends the message that education is important. Students know that there are people in the community who support their success."