Every quarter, Gerald Beeson digs through a stack of progress reports, attendance records, and report cards to analyze the performance of some important individuals: the 80 students at Big Shoulders Fund schools who are part of the Beeson Scholarship program, established by Gerald and his wife, Jennifer.
If Gerald finds any student struggling, he and Jennifer develop a plan to boost the student’s performance. The plan may entail extra tutoring or perhaps a one-on-one talk. “We want to make sure these kids stay on the right path,” said Jennifer, who regularly visits the scholars. “If we see a math grade drop, we go right in. Is the student able to improve it on his or her own? Or is tutoring needed?”
The Beesons’ approach is hands-on and proactive because they’ve set big goals for the middle schoolers who enter the program. “We’re really eager to see where these kids end up in college,” commented Jennifer.
The Beeson family has strong connections to Catholic schools. Gerald is a product of Chicago Catholic schools, having graduated from St. Gall on the city’s Southwest Side before moving on to Marist High School, then earning a four-year full academic scholarship to DePaul University. Jennifer is a former Catholic school teacher, and their four children now attend Catholic schools.
“I strongly believe you’re a product of the people who have helped you along the way,” said Gerald, now chief operating officer at Citadel. For that reason, he and Jennifer wanted to find ways to give back to the programs and schools that led them to success in life. The couple started with a scholarship program at Marist in honor of Gerald’s late father, a longtime Chicago police officer who passed away in 2004.
The couple turned to Big Shoulders to expand their efforts, creating the Beeson Scholarship for students at five Big Shoulders Fund schools where they also had personal connections, such as St. Symphorosa, where Jennifer taught. The scholarship starts with students in fifth grade and is renewable through high school for those who maintain a B average and attend a high school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Beesons provide additional funding to students who attend Marist due to their family’s history with the school.
The scholars come together around a service project each year to teach them the importance of contributing to the community. One recent project involved making blankets and cards to decorate the NICU at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. “We are trying to show them a lot of simple ways you can pay it forward,” Jennifer explained.
Faith Gilliam, now a junior at Marist, started as a Beeson Scholar at St. Walter. One year, Jennifer organized an event where the scholars volunteered at another school. The experience stuck with Gilliam and motivated her to collect school supplies to share with needy students. “The fact that (the Beesons) are so nice and generous and involved with the community really inspired me to become successful and help out other people who need it,” said Gilliam, who is looking at colleges with hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner.
The couple also created a code of conduct which they expect the scholars to follow, emphasizing the importance of discipline, focus, and always trying your best. A celebration at the end of the year unites all the scholars from the various schools. Jennifer wants the students to leave knowing they have been chosen for something special and “are going to do great things.”
Richard Guerin, former principal of St. Bede the Venerable, one of the Beeson Scholarship schools, said Jennifer quickly became “one of us” through her regular visits to the school. With the children, she is generous with hugs and serious about asking how they are doing. “The Beeson Scholarships made such a difference to the families and the students. It was so much more than just the financial support. It was an honor,” he stated.
Gerald said the personal approach to the scholarship program works for the couple, so it is not “just this credit on their tuition statement once a year,” he said. “There is a name and a face to it. Hopefully, as they go on to bigger and better things, they’ll have the opportunity to go back and do the same thing for someone else because it was made available to them at a time when their families needed it.”
As Jennifer sees it: “I always say to the kids, ‘Our journey doesn’t end after you graduate. We’re always here. We’re the people you’ve got in your back pocket. You need advice, we’re here to help you achieve the goals you want to achieve.’”