Volunteering was “bred” in Judge Mark Leverett.
“My mom and dad are lifelong donors to the church and community,” says Leverett, who presides over the Little Rock District Court, Division 3. “It’s what I grew up in. I have grown up [in North Little Rock] give to the community. Giving to our local church and volunteering has only been my way of getting things done. I’ve had so much grace in my life as a person, so it’s easy for me to give back. It’s something I feel like I owe.”
So, as chairman of the Oscar Washington Jr. Educational Fund, Leverett is in his element. He just oversaw the body’s 2022 banquet, held April 30, where students received scholarships of $1,000 or more to attend colleges of their choice.
Oscar Washington Jr., after whom the fund is named, was vice president of client service at Entergy Arkansas. Washington died in April 2017 shortly after being promoted. It was a difficult time not only for his wife, Doris, and her family; but for friends that included Leverett.
“Oscar and I were like brothers,” Leverett says. “Our families traveled together. My daughters called him Uncle Oscar; his daughters called me Uncle Mark, etc. His wife is one of my wife’s sisters. [personal training] clients. Oscar built my house.” They lived in the same neighborhood. “Oscar and I had unspoken plans to retire in the same housing estate. We were going to be the ones who kind of grew old together – sitting on the back porch, swapping stories and so on.
“After he died, there was just internal pain [that] was boring and wouldn’t go anywhere. I knew we had to do something to reuse that and make it into something useful.”
Leverett sat down with Doris Washington and another friend who is a financial advisor. They decided it would be “a big wedding” if they promoted education on behalf of Oscar Washington.
“Oscar was very passionate about education,” says Leverett, remembering his friend as “very accomplished.” The Carlisle native and jack-of-all-trades was top of his high school class, graduated in 1990 from the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and served as a captain in the Arkansas National Guard. A chartered accountant, he was also a home builder and owned several businesses.
“So it was a really natural fit – [he] loved the youth, loved the education,” Leverett says.
A FUND IS BORN
The fund, currently overseen by an 11-member board including Leverett, started with $10,000 in seed capital from Entergy. Organizers held the first scholarship banquet in April 2018 at St. Mark’s Baptist Church. Scholarships were awarded to four young women at the event, which sold out about two weeks before its appearance, Leverett said.
“Right after this event, we sat down and just started thinking, ‘Guys, maybe this is a little bigger than we thought.’ We thought it might be a one-off deal — we give some money and keep going — but it didn’t turn out that way.”
The board decided to move the 2019 event — “we were at full capacity and there were still people asking for tickets at the St. Mark venue” — to the Clinton Presidential Center. Former NFL player Keith Jackson was the keynote speaker. This banquet sold out 45 days in advance; the number of scholarship holders has doubled.
“When we got it, there was just a feeling in that room that was like, ‘This feels good. This feels like something we need to keep doing,'” Leverett says.
“Then the pandemic hit.” They set up a virtual video presentation instead of a 2020 event.
“What was ironic about that year was that our giving increased, so we were able to award 12 scholarships that year,” Leverett said.
“In addition, each year we tithe 10 percent of everything we receive,” donating to nonprofit social service organizations and small church ministries, Leverett says. “So as an organization we give to the kids, but we also give to the community.”
EDUCATOR OF THE YEAR
In 2019, fund organizers instituted the Alma J. Washington Educator of the Year Award, named after Washington’s mother, a longtime Carlisle educator.
“She was one of our first recipients that year,” Leverett said. Educators are nominated and then selected by members of the fund’s board; each winner also receives $1,000.
In 2021, the scholarship banquet was held as a live virtual event, says Leverett. Donations increased – again – and 15 scholarships were awarded. The virtual keynote speaker was lawyer and political commentator Bakari Sellers. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. proclaimed April 30 Washington Jr. Oscars Day.
“Then we come to our fifth anniversary [this year]”, says Leverett. “I don’t know if things could have gone much better for our fifth anniversary. … Everyone was happy to be together.”
The 2022 speaker was Colette Honorable, former chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission. “We had a full house again. We were at full capacity. People [were] always asking for tickets.”
Five educators received Alma J. Washington Awards. There were 14 scholarships awarded this year; 12 of them were regular scholarships. Two were special awards – the Hope Scholarships – that resulted from a partnership this year with the Arkansas Methodist Foundation.
Leverett explains, “They had an anonymous donor who said, ‘I want to give two or three kids the chance to go to college, college or university in Arkansas, and I want them to get their graduation without debt. So the Methodist Foundation, I want you to find an organization that I can channel that money through.'” Connections were made. And the donor committed $100,000 to the fund.
Regular OWJ Scholars, as Leverett calls them, can attend any college or university of their choice. In addition to the $1,000 reward, each also gets a “college pack” – “we give them a monogrammed backpack, an Amazon Alexa, and we give them a laptop if they need it. Our students this year have received [an] Apple MacBook Air. Therefore the [scholarship] the package itself is worth around $2,500.”
The application period for the Oscar Washington Jr. Fellowships usually opens around the first week of January and lasts approximately one month. Applications are open to college-bound high school seniors with a minimum GPA of 3.2.
Thanks to this fund, young people also benefit from a new initiative launched in 2021: the internship initiative.
“We try to be kind of a bridge between high school and college. Well, the Lord has led us to become a bridge between college and career,” says Leverett. “And I’m like, ‘We have these contacts, we have relationships with these donors. And I’ve just started reaching out…” Could you provide one of our Oscar Washington Scholars in [your] do a paid summer internship?’ [They’d respond], ‘Yes, absolutely we will. We will keep a slot open for one of your fellows; ask them to apply. So we say to students, “We can guarantee you an interview. We can put your foot in the door. We can’t guarantee what happens after that, but you’ll have our support with this particular donor.'”
So far so good, says Leverett.
“Entergy hired one of our fellows and they asked her to come back next summer. They told her they were looking to hire her after she got her engineering degree.” Another student, who is considering a career in hematology, was interned at CARTI; officials there told her they wanted her back this summer. “St. Mark has hired one of our scholars and wants to hire her once she graduates, so we are offering full services to these kids.”
Meanwhile, the fund’s board is planning for next year. The banquet of 2023 should take place in another, even bigger place.
It’s a miracle that Leverett has all the energy it takes to run the fund.
“My wife…knows it’s become like a part-time job for me,” Leverett said. “My wife said to me… ‘Listen, you need to take a break…’. She’s been trying to get me off the ground for about a month.” Good luck with that, judging by Leverett’s enthusiasm for his role in this organization.
PROJECTS FOR THE FUTURE
One thing they would like to do, however, is increase the amount of each scholarship, Leverett says. They plan to limit the number of recipients to 10-12 and increase each award by $1,000 to $1,500. They also plan to start an “Oscar Juniors” program…enter colleges, identify young college students and give them financial incentives for good grades and good conduct.
In addition to all the other things Leverett and the board are doing through the fund, “we have the ability to give kids anonymously. We’ll see kids who can’t afford their senior package – photos, cap and dress – we can write a check.
“It’s what gives me the energy to do this day in and day out. It feeds me.” What also fuels her is hearing Alma Washington say how grateful she is that her son’s memory is being honored in this way.
“And being able to honor my friend’s memory. There’s nothing better than that.”
Organizations and individuals interested in donating to or partnering with the Fund can contact Leverett directly at (501) 779-1806 or through the owjscholarship.com website.