The 309 Challenge: What one organization is doing to send Peoria’s high school graduates to college

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A Peoria non-profit is asking for the community’s help to send hundreds of local high school graduates to college in 2022.

Peoria Promise previously had to cancel their Gala fundraiser two years in a row due to pandemic safety mitigations. MJ Schettler, the organization’s executive director, said they’re taking a new fundraising approach to make up for the lost funds.

“We are challenging 309 friends, Peorians, and companies to donate $309 to Peoria Promise,” Schettler said.

Schettler said the Gala is their biggest fundraiser, raising thousands of dollars to send Peoria high school seniors to Illinois Central College. Now, the team is having to raise the money by word of mouth.

“That 309 individuals can generate close to $100,000 for us, which are critical funds that we need,” Schettler said.

The program allows students graduating from public, private, charter, or homeschool in the city to apply for need-based college tuition reimbursement. Schettler said an average of 300 kids a year rely on the program to receive a college education, many of which are first-generation college students.

“If you look at the need today in the Peoria area, about 68% of the jobs available in the open market require a post-secondary, high-school education,” Schettler said. “Peoria only averages about 48% of our population that has those needs.”

Schettler said, on average, the program reimburses, more than $3,000 per student per year of school.

“What Peoria Promise does is provide the city of Peoria graduates the opportunity to go to college without incurring student debt,” Schettler said.

Jimmy Dillon, vice president of Peoria Promise, said the program not only gives kids the opportunity to get a college education, but it also benefits the economy of Peoria.

“Most people that go to ICC stay in Peoria, so this is helping keep our future here,” Dillon said. “Past high-school, that assures, if people have credentials, a successful economy with good, well-paying jobs.”

Dillon and Schettler said they are lucky they have not had to turn anyone away despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, but they need donors’ help to continue supporting students.

“We’re giving students the hope and the support that they need to go on and get the education they need in order to pursue the education and career of their dreams,” Schettler said.

The 309 Challenge ends on Jan. 31, 2022. To access the donation form and contribute, visit Peoria Promise’s website.

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