Emerging Leaders Program in Mon Valley helps kids achieve their college dreams

College applications, financial aid forms and scholarship applications are daunting for anyone, but for a family that’s never been to college or is struggling just to get by, it can be insurmountable.  A special program in the Mon Valley is helping high school seniors from disadvantaged families achieve their goals, and their success rate is unbelievable.  It’s called the “Emerging Leaders Program” and is in 5 high schools in the Mon Valley, serving disadvantaged kids, most whose families rely on government assistance and food stamps.  In many cases, it’s changing the trajectory of their lives.

Kaelynn Hillegass’s full-time job is helping the 35 seniors in the Emerging Leaders Program at McKeesport Area High School. She spends her day with them in groups and one on one.  Hillegass has a master’s degree in counseling and teaches them how to reach their goals.  “Without her, I wouldn’t even know how to apply to college,” said Azhane Morgan, one of the students in the program. De’Mere Johnson, also in the program, said, “Believe it or not, I’m basically going to be the first family member to go to college.”

The numbers prove the program’s success.  Last year, 96.7% of the students in the Emerging Leaders Program entered college, compared to the national average of 65.9%.

Morgan, Johnson and Brianna Bray have all been accepted to several colleges.  “I was excited, and my mom was excited, and miss Kaelynn was excited, and everyone in the class was excited!” Bray said about her first college acceptance.

At the school, there’s a “wall of acceptances” where their letters hang.  It’s a big accomplishment.  “This whole process for everybody is so overwhelming and daunting when you think about something like FAFSA (financial aid applications) or what scholarships are available,” Hillegass says.

The students say without Hillegass and the ELP program, they would never have been able to complete all of the applications, scholarships and financial aid forms.  “Before I applied for ELT, we really weren’t talking about it as much as we should have been,” said Morgan, referring to her family.  “Throughout this program, we’ve done everything that should have happened.”

In addition, the students learn about careers by job shadowing at area companies.  “I had a job shadow in Pittsburgh with an accountant. It seemed pretty hard, but they do make a lot of money, and it seems like that’s what I really want to do in college,” said Johnson.

Hillegass also prepares them for interviews, helps with college tours and even addresses issues at home. Leah O’Reilly, program director for the Human Services Development Corporation which runs the ELP program, says, “A lot of districts we are in, the staff is overwhelmed, teachers are overwhelmed, guidance counselors have a lot on their plate, so we are that extra help.”

The students love working with Hillegass, calling her friend as well as a counselor. Johnson says, “This is the best thing in the whole school because it helps you with college, financial aid, money, everything!”

There’s a full-time counselor at each of the five schools in this program in the Mon Valley.  It’s paid for by private foundations, the United Way and federal funding, as part of the Human Services Center Corporation which operates many free services for people in the mon valley.  Students apply in their junior year, and then the program starts the summer before their senior year and continues through until they begin college, the military or a job after school.