Twelve special needs students from the Blue Valley School District are heading to college thanks in part to a Leawood family that has funded $286,000 in scholarships over the past seven years.
This year the Cocherl family gave a total of $64,000. The money, which goes directly to colleges to fund tuition, books and lab fees, can be renewed annually for four years.
“This is where our children grew up,” said Patrick Cocherl, who has lived in the area since 1979, “and I served on the Board of Education here for eight years, and we decided that’s where we want to spend money in our community.”
The scholarships are a continuation of the work that Cocherl, now the president of the electronics repair company Heartland Services, saw during his time on the board. He said the school district was on the “cutting edge of inclusion” for special education students, and the issue has remained important to him and his wife, Kathy.
“What we thought we could help with is the next step in education,” he said.
They know that applying for college admission and government loans can be cumbersome, and their scholarships help students acclimate to that.
“We work through the school district and they identify those that they think are capable of at least giving college a volley,” he said, “and then they go through a very arduous process. They have to write three essays to us, and it must be written in their own hand. They can’t even use a computer; they have to write to us.”
James Geary, a former scholarship recipient who graduated from Blue Valley High School in 2010, said the scholarship is aimed toward students who are “overcoming, and want to continue to overcome in college.”
Geary received his degree in business in three years and graduated from Kansas State University. Now the Cocherl family is helping him continue that education.
“He did so well ... we grant[ed] him the right to go back to K-State, get his MBA,” said Patrick Cocherl. “We’re honored to do it for him.”
Brandon Boardman and Allison Malcy said they were happy to receive the scholarships this year.
“I want to thank them for giving us an opportunity to do what we’re passionate about,” said Malcy.
Samantha Harkins is nervous about attending college, but she said the scholarship will be a big help.
“I think it’s a huge load off my back because I don’t have money at all so this is partially determining if I can go to school,” she said.
Cocherl released the students from a celebration picnic this month with some advice: “You’re just college kids. You’re going to goof up, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how you learn. You learn a lot more from doing wrong than you do right.”
“We can all (graduate) …,” he said, “but what does matter is if you go there and you really try. If you try, you’re going to learn something and you’re going to be better for it.”