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Helping with an uphill battle

Meritus scholar Olushade Unger (center) went to Honduras to participate in a public health project during her spring break this year.

GOOD WORKS | Carol McLaughlin

If anyone knows what it means to keep going in the face of adversity, it’s Olushade Unger. She grew up shuttling between her mother’s home in the Fillmore district and her father’s place in Hunters Point, where violence and gang activities were commonplace. Unger was in high school, planning on attending college, when her musician father became ill with cancer and couldn’t work. Life became an emotional and financial roller coaster.

Her high school grades suffered during the year of her father’s illness. But she worked hard to catch up, graduated with good grades and was accepted at UC San Diego, where the annual bill is nearly $28,000. She got Pell and Cal grants that covered some of the costs, but not nearly enough. And her B average grades weren’t high enough to qualify for the merit scholarships available to top students.

So she applied for a Meritus College Fund scholarship, awarded to students whose GPA is 3.0 to 3.7. Meritus College Fund, which began 15 years ago, is the brainchild of Dr. Henry Safrit, who retired a few years ago from his endocrinology practice at California Pacific Medical Center in the neighborhood.

Safrit developed the idea of providing college scholarships to underprivileged children while serving on the board of an organization that provides services to homeless youth. During his tenure, he saw the uphill battle young people face when they lack the education or resources to extricate themselves from their situations.

In 1996, Safrit founded the Meritus College Fund to provide scholarships to low-income San Francisco high school graduates who, in spite of significant challenges in their lives, maintain at least a B grade point average and are determined to go to college. Many grow up in neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence, some are from single parent families or live in foster homes — and most are the first in their families to attend college.

That first year, Safrit and his wife Karin, along with a few friends, pooled their resources to provide a single scholarship and mentoring to a low-income student. Safrit’s passion for the Meritus program was infectious. Soon other community members were signing on to fund a student, either individually or in groups. A draw is that 100 percent of the scholarship donation goes directly to the student.

Dr. Henry Safrit, founder of the Meritus College Fund

From the beginning, the Safrits invited students into their home in Pacific Heights for dinner and talks. Meritus scholars say it’s not just the money that’s a huge benefit, but also the personal guidance each student gets and the friendships that develop.

Many student-donor relationships have flourished beyond college years. That first student, Diana Wang-Louie, stayed in touch with Safrit and the Meritus staff since her college graduation in 2000. Now a successful businesswoman, she has given back to Meritus by becoming a donor herself.

Unger, who has now completed the Meritus program, intends to stay in touch with her donors, who were also mentors. “I couldn’t have made it throughout my college career without your insight and motivation because these two characteristics are definitely what have given me the strength to continue all of these years,” she wrote. Unger is finishing up at UC San Diego, majoring in human biology, and making plans to go on to graduate school.

Since its founding, Meritus has awarded 485 scholarships totaling more $5 million. And 87 percent of its scholars graduate from college. The program guarantees $12,000 scholarships to qualifying applicants, and all a Meritus scholar has to do is attend a four-year college, maintain a passing grade and correspond with his or her donor twice a year.

In June, $552,000 was given to the 46 new Meritus scholars, who were recognized at an awards ceremony and will begin their college careers in the fall. The fund is already recruiting students and donors for next year.

Safrit in 2008 stepped down from the Meritus College Fund board to launch the San Francisco Achievers program. His aim is to shepherd African American boys whose GPAs are between 2.0 and 2.9 through high school and college. The program, modeled after Meritus, has awarded 30 $12,000 scholarships since its beginning, and 90 percent of the students are still in college.