Kerr Foundation and National Hispanic Institute: Commemorating 10 years together
In 1994, the Roy G. Kerr Foundation officially launched with a very specific mission: To provide funding and support to the Latino community in Lake County over a 25-year period. A decade later, the Kerr Foundation made contact with the National Hispanic Institute, a Texas-based organization that has provided leadership education for top-performing Latino high school students for more than 30 years.
Since the Kerr Foundation began funding NHI students in 2005, nearly a thousand Lake County students have attended NHI week-long summer programs through foundation-funded scholarships. And while the Kerr Foundation will be closing its doors in 2019, this long-standing relationship between educators and funders continues to flourish.
Roy G. Kerr, an Abbott Laboratories executive who died of cancer in 1994, chose Lake County because he wanted to give back to the place where his career first flourished, and chose the Latino community because it was the fastest-growing and most underserved population in Kerr County at that time. Holly Kerr, Roy G. Kerr’s widow, who manages the Foundation’s day-to-day operations, recalled, “It’s a community he admired greatly.”
She was initially impressed with NHI because of its reputation, and was intrigued with NHI’s approach to leadership education – especially the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, the NHI program for 10th and 11th grades in which students hold elections, write legislation, and author, debate and vote on bills. “I was impressed, in particular, that the program had a number of returning students who helped run the program and served as mentors,” she said.
Jesse Villanueva, currently chair of the English Language Learners Program at Highland Park High School, grew up in Texas, attended NHI programs, and earned his degree Southwestern University near Austin, where NHI founder Ernesto Nieto also graduated.
“I was a shy individual in high school, and NHI helped me get a voice, and helped give me the self-confidence to take chances,” said Villanueva. “NHI also helped me meet other students who wanted to succeed, and who were interested in school and doing well in school – which was very important to me as I progressed through school.”
Now, as an educator, Villanueva’s helping his students find their own networks of fellow NHIers — including Highland Park High School senior Cecilia Limon, who is preparing for her third straight summer in an NHI program.
Limon attended the Midwest Great Debate in 2013 and the National LDZ in 2014, and she will be traveling to the University of Tampa this summer for the Collegiate World Series, with an eye on either Depaul University, Dominican College, or the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison for her college career.
At the National LDZ last year, Limon was an attorney in the judicial side of the program, but to support a bill she helped author — providing insurance for undocumented immigrants — she testified before the LDZ’s Senate on July 4, her birthday, and was met with a flurry of rebuttals from Senators who opposed the bill. While she did find backing from her fellow Lake County students, they were not able to gather the necessary support from other Senators to pass the bill.
Though the experience was initially quite a bit to absorb, Limon regards it as a highlight of her LDZ experience. “It didn’t matter that there were so many people — I’m proud of myself for standing up and speaking out.”
She added, “Even though it’s hard, and it takes you out of your comfort zone, it helps you do much, and teaches you things that you just don’t get in school. We don’t learn out social entrepreneurship in school, and we don’t think about community in school the same way we do in NHI.”
Nicole Sada, Executive Vice President for NHI, notes that students like Limon have helped NHI cultivate a sizable network in the Midwest, and have made programs like the Midwest Great Debate and National LDZ remain NHI mainstays.
“Lake County students have become an integral part of our programs based in the Midwest, and that’s got everything to do with the Kerr Foundation,” said Sada. “Because the students that go through our programs develop into community leaders, the scholarships end up supporting the entire community, not just the students who receive them.”
A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 23, 2015 edition of the Lake County Journal.