Innovate March 2019

Rachel Debigare

Written By: Tracy Wright

Motivated by Passion for Helping Students and Schools

Rachel Debigare may be a millennial, but she’s bucking the stereotype of that generation and proving how much millennials can contribute to society. At 29, she’s quickly risen in the Education Foundation of Alachua County, and she’s tripled the number of participants in the organization’s popular Take Stock in Children program.

While pursuing her degree in recreation, parks and tourism at the University of Florida, Debigare envisioned herself at a corporate job planning events in New York City. Now seven years after graduation, Debigare finds herself as executive director of the Education Foundation of Alachua County, driving the mission of supporting the county’s public schools, its students and teachers.

“Our primary mission is to help support the work of our schools, assist at-risk students to realize their potential through mentorship and scholarship and help to fund innovative educational programs,” Debigare said. “We are truly trying to make this community a better place.”

Although it wasn’t where she thought she would be, she can’t imagine being anywhere else, having spent the last eight and a half years with the foundation. Beginning as a special events intern, she returned after graduation and truly began to understand the impact the foundation makes on the county’s youth.

“We are touching people’s lives in a very unique way,” Debigare said. “I have developed such a passion for the work that we do and how we can help support both students and the hard-working educators who may have innovative ideas but cannot get funding to support their ideas.”

One of the major programs that the foundation sponsors is Take Stock in Children, which is a scholarship and mentorship program that helps low-income, at-risk students break the cycle of poverty by graduating from high school and receiving a college degree. Students apply for the program in middle school and must have a 2.5 grade point average. If they are accepted, they sign a contract agreeing to maintain their GPA, adhere to school attendance, meet with a mentor weekly, and stay drug- and crime-free.

Once the students graduate and fulfill the terms of the contract, they receive a two-year Florida Prepaid Florida College Scholarship, which will pay for 60 credit hours of tuition and fees at any of the 28 Florida Colleges, but can be used at any public institution in the state of Florida for college or vocational education. Community members and businesses are encouraged to become mentors or to sponsor students.

“Our primary mission is to help support the work of our schools, assist at-risk students to realize their potential through mentorship and scholarship and help to fund innovative educational programs. We are truly trying to make this community a
better place.”

“We want to support students who want to better themselves but who may not have the knowledge or support to navigate the system,” Debigare said. “Being able to provide education to a student who would not be able to otherwise is just one way we are making a difference.”

After Debigare graduated, she worked her way up the ladder of the foundation by serving as a part-time and then full-time program director. In June 2017, she was named executive director of the foundation.

Debigare finds it gratifying to represent an organization that works for equity in the educational system and providing the best quality education for every student in the county, regardless of their background. She finds that working for the betterment of the community is very rewarding.

“Although we all need money, I believe always chasing more dollars in your career is not always fulfilling,” Debigare said. “What’s fulfilling for me is that I believe in the cause of our organization and its mission. It’s what has kept me here for so long.”

As a member of the millennial generation, she understands the group has its difficulties, but it also has strengths and differences that sets it apart from other generations.

“I think millennials, more so than our parents, have a stronger desire to work for something that they believe in over just a big paycheck,” Debigare said. “Our generation can find positive experiences in our workplace rather than in a prestigious position.”

But Debigare does advise that those wanting to work in the non-profit setting have a strong passion for the organization’s mission.

One criticism of the millennial generation that Debigare acknowledges is the reliance on non-personal communication. As executive director, she is responsible for ensuring the health and wealth of the foundation, primarily through fundraising.

“As millennials and for future generations, we are not used to having phone conversations, especially meaningful ones,” Debigare said. “Not everybody wants to use email and text to communicate. As a chief fundraiser, I had to get out of my comfort zone and learn the art of picking up the phone and having a real conversation.”

Debigare recounted a story of a project the foundation supported that encapsulates her passion. A few years ago, the foundation sponsored a visit to the Kennedy Space Center for a group of children in Hawthorne through its grant program. After an overnight visit learning about the space program, they stopped at the beach on their way home. More than half of the students had never seen or visited a beach.

“It was so great to expose these students to a different experience,” Debigare said. “Being able to see the work that you are doing and the impact that you make on individual lives is what motivates me each day.”

Buffy Bondy, a professor in the UF College of Education’s School of Teaching and Learning, is a member of the board of the Education Foundation. She said that Debigare’s passion inspires the entire board to do more than what they may even believe is possible.

“Rachel is a force of nature in the very best way,” Bondy said. “She is confident, creative, collaborative and vibrant. Rachel always has a smile and a dazzling strength and energy that surrounds her. She energizes the people around her and makes us want to do more for the work of this incredible foundation.” 

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