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The Rotary Club of Naples has an interesting problem in that it has more money available than it has applicants for its Learn2Earn scholarships for vocational and technical students.

“Financially, we are in a great position, but we have more money to give than applicants that we’re getting in and part of that is a system problem where a lot of schools don’t talk about technical or vocational programs. They talk about UF and FSU,” said Mackenzie Fluharty, a Rotary Club member who is on the advisory committee for Learn2Earn, a scholarship program initiated nine years ago by the local club. “Part of that we think is a problem of just lack of knowledge for students who are going into a vo-tech or technical college degree. They just might not know about us. We’re trying to work hard with the schools to be added to their scholarship list but also get a little more recognition with employers or with students in the community.”

Learn2Earn is a scholarship program that is directed to skill training, anything that gets certified and makes graduates immediately employable. “And that at this point has been everything from cosmetology to nursing and everything in between with a lot of technical programs, computer hardware, computer software, auto technology and also auto body,” said Jim Scartz, co-chair of the education committee for the Rotary Club of Naples.

The club works with vo-tech students at Lorenzo Walker Technical College, Immokalee Technical College, Florida SouthWestern State College, Cape Coral Technical College and others. “We are really looking to work with any students in the Collier, Lee or Charlotte County area,” Fluharty said. “Our goal for the program is to provide students with the funds to stay in school, not take on a large amount of debt and to be employable in the local Southwest Florida area the day they graduate.”

The amount awarded is specific to each student because different programs have varying costs. A lot of the scholarships were funded initially by the club itself through its local fundraising events. “We also accept donations from the general public and from our members at-large. We’ve been able to fund it the last few years mostly from public donations,” Scartz said.

The scholarships provide funds to the school for the student’s tuition and books. For most of the students, the scholarship covers their full program so they graduate with no debt.

“Really what we do is we supply scholarships to any student, whether they’re traditional – 18 years old graduating from high school – or nontraditional – someone going back to school or someone that’s been in a career for a while and wants a promotion or needs a certificate or some type of formal education,” Fluharty said.

Although the Rotary Club of Naples has been funding the scholarships for nearly a decade, it encountered a minor setback in 2020 because the pandemic led to distant or virtual learning, something that doesn’t exactly work well for hands-on vocational education.

“We have a really unbelievable program. Right now, we have more than 100 graduates in that 9-year period, and, unlike most programs, we actually can see the results, we can feel the results,” Scartz said. “We get to talk to the folks after they graduate, get updates from them and, in some cases, after they’ve been on the job awhile. It’s wonderful to be able to actually see the results of your efforts when you’re working a program like this.”

The club can handle scholarships for about 15 students per year. The majority of the scholarships go to students in medical-related fields such as nursing and dental assistants and LPN and RN nurses.

“We look for students with work ethic. We’re looking for the student who comes to us and can convince us that they’re going to not just start the program but do well and complete it and get whatever certification is necessary to get a job,” Scartz said.  “And I can tell you, we don’t have anybody that’s not working. There are so many jobs available. When these folks graduate, they’re employed.”

For instance, an auto mechanic student from Lorenzo Walker Technical College who had been working at Taco Bell to make ends meet was one of our first students to receive a scholarship from the club more than eight years ago.  “He was a young adult and came to us and said, ‘I can’t afford this. I can’t go to school. I have to work. I’m doing what I can do while I’m working. I need help or I have to get out of the program.’ So, we helped him out,” Scartz said. “He became just a friend to all of us. He stood in front of our group one day and said, ‘I want to thank all of you. I’m the very first person in my family to ever go to any kind of post-high school education or training and I’m setting an example for my younger brother.’ And that’s just one of many stories.”

Knowing that they are directly making a difference in people’s lives is rewarding for the Rotary Club’s members. “That’s what keeps the program going because we’ve been able to get many of the students and graduates to come back and talk to our members. And, our members are on board with this 100%. It’s just been an exceptional program for our club.”

Scholarship applications are available at learn2earnscholarship.org.

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