No matter how many Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara luncheons I attend — and at my age, I’ve been to a few — I’m always inspired by the student speaker. Marissa Carrillo, a UCSB junior sociology major, did not disappoint Friday.
Carrillo, a Carpinteria native, is the second oldest of eight children in what she calls “a blended family.” Hers was not an unfamiliar story: a so-so student, ran track at Carpinteria High School, a part-time job at the Best Western Carpinteria Inn, summers at the beach with her friends.
All that changed her junior year when her mom, the center of her world, was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her mother sought to reassure the close-knit family that things would be fine, Carrillo could focus on just one thing.
“Thoughts of my mom not being there for us began going through my head,” she said. “What would happen to my family terrified me.”
It was the jolt Carrillo needed to bring focus to the rest of her life. She became her mom’s primary care-giver as chemotherapy took its toll. She took increasing responsibility for her youngest brother, Pedro, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, and she learned sign language so she could teach it to him. And she committed herself to academics.
When things got tough for her, Carrillo took solace in running, which helped her clear her head. An opportunity to participate in the Orfalea Foundations’ Montana Yellowstone Expeditions further changed her life and got her thinking about her future — specifically college, even though it looked out of reach financially.
Enter the nonprofit Scholarship Foundation, which has been providing a brighter future for local students for nearly 50 years. Since its founding in 1962, in fact, the foundation has distributed a staggering $65 million in student aid to more than 27,000 Santa Barbara County youth. In 2008, Carrillo became one of them.
Just before her high school commencement, she got more good news when her mom was pronounced cancer-free. Carrillo decided to attend Ventura College, which would be less expensive than a four-year school and where she could run track. She earned a place on the Dean’s List each semester and set her sights on UCSB.
The admissions letter came while she was at work at the Carpinteria Inn. Her mom telephoned her with the news and she recalls the moment she heard her mother read the word, “Congratulations,” as one of the proudest of her life.
She still needed financial assistance, however, and the Scholarship Foundation again stepped in to help. Carrillo has been thoroughly inspired by her family and the opportunities she has been given. As a sociology major, her goal is to become a teacher working with special-needs children like her brother, “Pedrito.” As a scholarship recipient, she was excited to recount her story for more than 300 people at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort — in hopes that others would step forward to make dreams like hers come true.
That message of giving back and helping others resonated at an early age with Ken Saxon, Friday’s keynote speaker and a former board president of the Scholarship Foundation. When Saxon was a student at Princeton University in the 1980s, he was shaken by severe cuts to federal financial-aid programs that jeopardized the college careers of several of his closest friends. While his family could afford Ivy League tuition, their families could not, and Saxon vowed to do something to make the cost of higher education a lower hurdle.
Saxon went on to get an MBA at Stanford University, where he developed a love for entrepreneurialism. That experience led him to start with a classmate what he jokingly describes as “the lowest-tech company in the Silicon Valley.” Their brainchild was a records-management storage facility straight out of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When Saxon and his wife, Jo, and their two young twins moved to Santa Barbara, the Scholarship Foundation provided him with the opportunity to re-stoke the passion of his Princeton years. He has since embraced philanthropy with an enthusiasm that is hard to suppress. He and close friend Craig Zimmerman founded FUND (Families United to Nurture Dreams), which provides their now-teenaged children hands-on experience in all aspects of nonprofit work. And he’s a force behind Courage to Lead, a program that helps develop skills and strategies for nonprofit industry executives.
Still driving him is that basic focus on education, and helping those who have earned the opportunity to attend college but need some financial help to do so.
“The idea that people like Marissa can grow up here, and be a vital part of our community, but be denied college for financial reasons bothers me as much today as it did back at Princeton,” he said.
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