The bright blue metal roof of the Ellis Foundation building is quite visible on the downtown Fort Scott skyline. In contrast, the work that the Ellis Foundation does is quiet and behind the scenes, but that work makes a priceless difference in the lives of students all over the United States.
We caught up with Chris Ellis, President of the Ellis Foundation, to ask a few questions about the mission of the Ellis Foundation, its impact, and the daily operations of the foundation.
Ellis started by giving a bit of background on the beginnings of the foundation. “My sister, Kathy, grew up here,” Ellis said. Ellis explained that his sister, a beloved English educator at Blue Valley High School, passed away from cancer in 1997. Ellis said that students held a ceremony for the family and “said things that were just amazing” about Kathy and how she had encouraged and supported her students. “That was an inspiration for everything we do here,” Ellis said.
In 1998, the Ellis family gave out 3 scholarships funded with their own money. “That was the beginning,” Ellis said. After about 5 years, positive feedback from recipients and a desire to expand and continue the work prompted Danny and Willia Ellis to ask their son, Chris, to take over the running of the foundation.
Ellis said that the foundation has grown from its initial few family-funded scholarships to 185 new scholarships this year. Ellis added that the foundation now has over 100 partners that fund scholarships, including the Helzberg family of Helzberg Diamonds fame. The first year of Ellis’ involvement, the foundation raised $13,000 from donors for scholarships. This year donations jumped to over $3 million. “It’s grown like you wouldn’t believe,” Ellis said.
Ellis said that the foundation attracts donors for two reasons. The first is that the foundation requires students to be accountable, and the second is that 100% of the donors’ money goes directly to paying tuition and fees for students.
Ellis explained that the mentoring program begun by his’ wife, Cathy, helps students succeed throughout all 4 years of college. Cathy Ellis identified an Ellis Scholar, Alexandria Horttor, whom the foundation hired as Mentoring Coordinator. Horttor travels to every university where Ellis Scholars are enrolled to hold mentoring meetings. In addition, each student is given a student-created “survival guide” specific to the college they attend. According to Ellis, this guide includes not only information geared toward academic success, but also the best place in town to get pizza. “We try to take the mystery out . . . and make them part of a family,” Ellis said.
Ellis also mentioned that donors appreciate the way the foundation operates financially. Not a cent of donors’ funds go to running the foundation. Ellis said of the donors that many are wealthy people in the Kansas City area who took it upon themselves to give back. “Our list of donors is impressive,” Ellis said. “When you have that kind of people . . . you can do a lot.” And the foundation does, indeed, do a lot. This year, according to Ellis, the foundation has offered scholarships of $1,000 per semester for 8 semesters to about 600 students. In addition, students send a personal letter to their respective donors each semester keeping the donor up-to-date on the progress of their education. Ellis said that at least one donor was moved to tears after reading a letter from a student.
The foundation not only looks to metropolitan areas for funding, but also looks locally to generate opportunities for scholars. The foundation involves the community of Fort Scott to offer a Community Scholarship funded by local donations. “It’s the cumulative total of masses of people that create an opportunity,” Ellis said. According to Ellis, $6-10,000 is the amount usually raised by the annual campaign the foundation holds every year in Fort Scott.
Regarding the process of selecting scholarship recipients, Ellis and his wife interview every candidate personally. This is quite a task, considering the foundation works with about 75 different high schools in 19 different states, and an additional 105 colleges and universities, according to Ellis. “We interview every kid face to face,” Ellis said, except for a few in remote areas that the foundation interviews through telecommunication. “That’s powerful.” The approach has, indeed, been a successful one. The retention rate for returning freshmen is 95.41%, and Ellis expects that percentage to rise. “Our overall percentage of students retained is 81%,” Ellis said. “The national average is 47%. We’re almost double the national average.” So far, the foundation has “given 2,140 scholarships and graduated 823 students out of college,” Ellis said.
Of the students the foundation works with, Ellis said the foundation likes to work not only with students who are at the top, academically, but also with those “gap kids” who may be hardworking and possess a decent GPA, but have been overlooked by colleges.
The foundation also does valuable work in connecting industry with prospective workers. According to Ellis, the foundation works with Westar Energy as well as Delta Dental to identify students these companies would eventually want to hire, and in some cases, the company will pay the entirety of the student’s tuition through college. Ellis used as an example the program through which Delta Dental funds a student’s education on the agreement that a dental student will go to work in a “dental desert,” an area that is in desperate need of a dentist or dental hygienist.
Aside from the daily work the foundation already does, Ellis said that foundation is planning for the future. “Absolutely, we’re big thinkers,” Ellis said. “We’ve already met with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation twice.” Ellis said that he hopes to build the foundation until it has a national reach and a “$100 million endowment.” “I think that’s realistic,” Ellis said. There’s need out there.”