Paying for college when parents are in jail with a little help from an ex-con
Crime doesn’t pay for college.
Especially when you’re a kid with incarcerated parents trying to scrape together money for tuition.
Karl Winsness, a 67-year-old plumber from Salt Lake City, Utah served 17 years behind bars at the Utah State Prison in 1988 for shooting and wounding a police officer after cops issued a no-knock warrant to search his home for drugs.
“I thought I was being robbed,” Winsness tells Moneyish. “I thought it was a home invasion by thugs. I fired two warning shots over their heads. One of the unseen officers got hit.”
At the time of his arrest, his two daughters were 11 and 16-years-old, and essentially left to fend for themselves.
“They struggled while I was away,” says Winsness.
Not being able to support his family inspired the father of two to help other kids with incarcerated parents pay for higher education. When he got out of jail in 2004, Wisness got his plumbing license back, and almost a decade later he started his own website devoted to the cause he calls “The Willy the Plumber Scholarship,” named after his childhood nickname “Willy.”
“Most of the time if a child has a parent or two parents incarcerated there’s almost always a financial need for them,” Winsness acknowledges.
Winsness makes around $30,000 a year as a plumber and has dished out more than $12,000 in scholarship money over five years to students from the Beehive State. He manages to save up extra cash from his “frugal lifestyle.”
“I don’t have HBO, I don’t do Starbucks and I don’t smoke,” he admits.
Winsness posts flyers about his scholarship around town, and gets up to a dozen applicants per year. He gave out $1,000 each to two recipients in 2017, and $500 to a runner-up.
“Most of them are just super, over the top fantastic and deserving and almost always in financial need, many with a straight 4.0 GPA, and that’s with tough AP classes. A lot are involved in sports or other extracurricular activities,” Winsness says, of his top-performing scholarship candidates.
And aside from academics, Winsness is most interested in the student’s background.
“Most are very inspiring, some heart-touching; these are all great, great, smart kids. I take in the whole picture maybe with more emphasis on their essay, and their attitude and life story,” he adds.
After the first few years of starting the scholarship program, Winsness was so happy with the turnout of “dynamite applicants” he went out and got $20 to $30 gift cards to all who participated, in addition to shelling out money for the scholarship winners.
“I put in $2,000 to $3,000 to make sure I kept it afloat,” Winsness says of his annual contributions to the scholarship fund, adding now he gets donations from local businesses, community members and his family.
Each scholarship is typically between $500 and $1,000 for applicants who live in the state of Utah with a minimum of a 2.0 grade point average. He suggests students send letters of recommendation from school advisers, teachers or caseworkers.
“Parents arrest record speaks louder than their W2’s,” he writes under the scholarship guidelines on his website.
Applicants must include the years of incarceration their parents are facing, and how their parents’ mistakes affected their lives in an essay. Students can only receive two-years worth of scholarship. All materials are due by April each year.
“A thousand dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to,” says Winsness. “But if you’re 18 and broke, $1,000 is probably way helpful.”
It certainly is for one recipient, Macie Nielson, who applied with an essay revealing her parents were sent to jail for drug related reasons.
“I grew up with parents who were addicted to drugs,” Nielson wrote in her essay.
“To keep up with their addictions, they stole people’s credit cards, made false social security numbers, stole birthday money from me, and pawned everything.”
While her parents were in jail, her grandparents raised her. The $1,000 from Winsness helped her go to college.
Winsness plans to keep the scholarship going for as long as he can.
“I hope it stays around longer than me. I’m sure my daughters will keep it afloat,” he assures.
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