It was a simple question from a homeless teenager, but it gave Ginny Donohue pause. Thanks to her efforts, the young man had recently landed a spot at one of the country’s best music conservatories.
“You’ve helped me live my dream,” he said. “But, what’s your dream?”
“I wasn’t unhappy in the corporate world, but I realized I was never happier than when I was helping kids like him get into college,” Donohue recalls. “I had a unique set of experiences — I had been an inner city teacher and now I was a chief financial officer — I was 52 years old, I was ready for a change.”
That was 16 years ago and Donohue has never looked back. The nonprofit she founded, On Point for College, has enrolled some 5,500 students — generally between the ages of 17 and 29 — in hundreds of colleges. Unlike other such programs that identify at-risk but top performers in high school, On Point targets young adults who have already graduated but have given up hope on ever getting it together to apply to institutions of higher learning.
“This all started when my daughter told me about a friend who was basically homeless and couch surfing,” says Donohue. “She said ‘he’s great at computers and wants to go to college. I told him, you’d help.’” She did so, and news of her success spread. “Kids started stopping me in the grocery store. ‘Are you the lady who can help me get into college?’”
When she decided to formalize her efforts, she began by visiting local shelters and refugee sites in her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y. “I’ve never really had to motivate anyone,” she says. “It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s that they need a playbook.”
On Point has no shortage of volunteers, either. More than 200 assist with mentoring or fundraising, others drive kids back and forth to school when necessary. “People want to make a difference, and this is something they can easily do,” Donohue says. “A lot of them are ex-teachers, but entrepreneurs are supportive too because they understand the value of investing in people.”
In the end, she adds, everyone benefits. “Time in college is the best road out of poverty. And it usually ends up with someone giving back to their community.”