Tonya Jones was desperate for help. Her husband had passed away several years ago and she was now scraping by on what was left of his small life insurance policy. On what few dollars she had she was trying her best to raise her son. By the time he reached 5th grade, however, the money was running out and Jones was faced with the possibility of removing her son from the private school that had been a source of stability for the boy.
She applied for a scholarship for her son from a newly formed nonprofit scholarship organization in Philadelphia called Faith First Educational Assistance. She was almost certain that their great need would qualify them. They ended up on the bottom of the list, however, because others had even greater need. Jones was invited to tell her story at a Faith First scholarship reception and, after hearing her story, an anonymous donor gave the funds to keep Tonya’s son in private school.
Tonya Jones’ story is one of hope, perseverance, a noble cause and Alberta Wilson, founder and CEO of Faith First. A woman with a dream to see the disadvantaged children of Philadelphia and beyond succeed, Wilson says she "allows God to use her to see children be given a chance at a quality Christian education." Her self-sacrifice and drive has allowed many parents and children who would otherwise be forced into a sub-par Philadelphia school system to realize their dreams.
This fall, Mackinac Center for Public Policy President Lawrence W. Reed will deliver the keynote address at the fifth anniversary banquet for Faith First. Because of Wilson’s significant positive impact both in her community and in the lives of families elsewhere, her work ought to be recognized and encouraged, especially in Michigan’s troubled cities.
Wilson founded Faith First in 2002 with the primary mission of aiding parents in making decisions regarding their children’s education. Wilson firmly believes parents are solely responsible for their children and should educate them in an environment conducive to the values and traditions of the parents. A passion for choice in education drives Alberta and her husband, Woody. The secondary mission of Faith First is to grant scholarships to children attending private schools. Faith First’s aid to children is no small matter; it awarded more than 100 school choice grants at an average of $500 each to low-income children in Pennsylvania and Virginia last year, and has given away more than 300 scholarships since its inception.
Wilson recognizes the importance of this two-pronged approach. Faith First engages the parents in the educational process so they will have the necessary skills to ensure their child succeeds. Alberta has often stated, "If money is just given away, without an engaged parent, nine times out of 10 the child will not succeed." Parent Engagement Meetings (PEMs) are held twice a month in Philadelphia, once a month in Virginia and quarterly in Scranton, Pa. While recognizing the importance of the monetary assistance, Wilson has realized the PEMs have been the most necessary component to ensure that the children are successful.
Wilson and Faith First are a testimony to the spirit of entrepreneurship. After receiving her degree and also teaching at Tabernacle Baptist Theological Seminary, she returned to Philadelphia to assist in starting a Christian elementary school. The school started with five children in the fall of 1997, but by the time Wilson left as principal after five years, the school was up to 100 children. The school was founded to give families an option other than returning them to the government education system that was failing their children. Those same government schools in Philadelphia would soon be taken over by the state because of their poor performance. Wilson finally reached the tipping point after seeing so many parents dissatisfied with public education yet unable to afford a private alternative.
She became convinced vouchers should be available to all parents so they would be free to choose the education best suited for their children. To implement this she decided to run for mayor of Philadelphia, but later changed her plans to pursue this goal privately. Pennsylvania amended its public school code in 2001 to authorize the award of tax credits to businesses that make contributions to scholarship funds or educational improvement organizations. With this new door open, Wilson dropped her political ambitions and followed her true passion — education — by founding Faith First. With the donations Faith First receives from businesses, it gives grants to worthy families in need of assistance to send children to private schools.
Last summer Faith First opened an office in Virginia and plans to open another in San Diego in 2008. Wilson and her husband would like the organization to expand to make available a quality education to any needy child according to the parent’s choice, not the government’s district lines. What she is doing provides an example to us all. Alberta’s approach to aiding families is a model for Michigan and the rest of the country.
Benjamin D. Stafford is an economics major at Hillsdale College and a summer intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.
(Editor’s Note: If you, like Alberta, have a passion to see parents receive the necessary assistance that can mean the difference between "success" and "failure" and you desire to help reach these children, please send your tax-deductible contributions to Faith First Educational Assistance Corporation; 6900 Revere St. (ground floor); Philadelphia, PA 19149.)