In a village where politics can dominate local conversations, one North Riverside program for the past 22 years has brought folks together regardless of political affiliation, for the purpose of helping local students afford higher education. 

Since 1994, the North Riverside Mayor’s Youth Scholarship Program’s charity golf outing – this year’s event was held June 13 – has been held for the sole purpose of awarding scholarship grants through the donations of both individuals and businesses.

According to Village Administrator Guy Belmonte, the scholarship program and charity was the idea of the late Gary Wilt, the former Riverside Township supervisor, and former Mayor Richard Scheck. 

While the scholarship is mostly known for its assistance to college students, the program was originally started to help struggling North Riverside families afford the village’s preschool and day camps. 

Belmonte, who has assisted with the program’s committee since its inception, says that two years after the program began, the committee looked into others ways of assisting young residents. 

“After a couple of years of the golf outing, there was so much money in it that [the committee] was looking for something else to do with it,” Belmonte said. “The committee came up with the idea for scholarships for North Riverside seniors graduating and going to college.” 

Each year, the committee organizes a golf outing at the Riverside Golf Club (at $700 per foursome), which typically draws between 144 and 152 golfers.

Local businesses contribute to the fund, and Belmonte notes that Joe Rizza Ford is the biggest annual contributor. 

“Rizza pays for the luncheon,” Belmonte said. “Any money that we can get, either donation-wise or through people like Rizza who pays for [program and golfing costs] helps us give out more scholarships. Also, Riverside Golf Club does not charge us for the course, but for the golf carts and the food.”

Scholarship recipients are invited to the Riverside Golf Club for a luncheon and certificate ceremony attended by the scholarship committee, village officials, local business owners and charity golfers.

The scholarship committee consists of four fund directors, including Scheck, former Mayor Ken Krochmal, Gary Richied and Elizabeth Wittbrodt. 

While all who are eligible applicants receive scholarships, the committee has a system as to how they divide the scholarship money to applicants based on demonstrated financial need. 

The educational scholarship application is open to all North Riverside residents under the age of 25 who plan to attend or are already attending a college or vocational school. Applicants fill out a short form in which they submit biographical information, family financial information, a personal statement and two letters of recommendation. 

For funds that are delegated for use by children for preschool and day camp, scholarships are awarded by the village’s recreation department in response to parent requests on a case-by-case basis. 

“The recreation department comes up with a number they anticipate they’ll need to help families for preschool and day camp scholarships,” Belmonte explained. “Out of the money we raise, approximately $11,000 goes to the recreation department and anywhere from $16,000 to $18,000 goes to college scholarships [annually].” 

The scholarships awarded to college students can range anywhere from $200 to $750. This year, 43 North Riverside students received scholarships. 

As of 2015, Belmonte says there have been 800 total scholarships awarded to residents in a total amount of $439,000.

Despite North Riverside having a reputation among some for being a town that plays favorites in politics, elected officials from both sides agree the scholarship program is nonpartisan and benefits youths from all backgrounds in town.

“It is my understanding, prior to me becoming mayor and since becoming mayor, that every resident who applied for this scholarship award received it, regardless of who applied,” said Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. “We are a small, caring community and I believe this is our way of showing our young college-bound residents how much we care about them.”

Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, who has tangled with the majority VIP Party for many years, agrees that the scholarship has benefitted all North Riverside children.

“I think it’s beneficial to the kids receiving some monetary incentive for any of their educational endeavors,” Demopoulos said. “Although I’m not a big golf fan, I believe [the outing] has helped a lot of kids.”

Over the years, many success stories have come from students who received the scholarship. 

Natalie Moore, a May 2016 graduate from Loyola University’s Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, said she was grateful to have received the scholarship for four years.

“I always wanted to be a nurse,” Moore said. “These scholarships helped me pay for my books in nursing school.”

Longtime North Riversider Ismael Romo, a third-year pre-med student at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, has received the scholarship since he began his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010. 

Upon graduating with a degree in kinesiology in 2014, he continued to apply for the scholarship to aid in the cost of tuition and other expenses in medical school.

“I was fortunate to receive other outside scholarships, but knew that every little bit helped,” he said. “Thanks to the help of this scholarship, I have been able to cover many expenses that come with college and now medical school, especially where there aren’t many scholarships available nor government grants like there were for undergrad.”

Lifelong resident Lauren Endriukaitis said the scholarship helped pay for books and materials needed to complete her studies. 

Endriukaitis, who graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s in integrative biology from Illinois, is studying to receive her doctorate of pharmacy from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

“The scholarship symbolizes support from a community that I have lived in all of my life, and the recognition in reassuring that I’m making the right career choice,” she said.