Since she was 14, Sydney Parker, of Cockeysville, has served the residents of the Edenwald retirement community in Towson with a smile on her face.
When residents gather in the dining hall for dinner, she checks them in, takes them to a table and chats for a while. Working at the retirement community has allowed her to tap into her compassionate side, she said.
"It's almost like coming to someone's home," she added.
In return, the residents have elected to give back to Parker and 78 other Edenwald employees through a scholarship program that will provide $180,947 this year in money for college. The scholarships, which are funded solely by residents, will be awarded at a ceremony at Edenwald July 28.
With the financial boost that money has provided her, Parker, now 18 and a recent graduate of Dulaney High School, will study nursing in the fall.
While she originally limited her search to in-state schools, which offer cheaper tuition rates, Parker said the gift from the residents allowed her also to consider out-of-state schools. As a result, she'll be attending James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with the additional $5,200 in tuition money she is receiving from the scholarship.
17-year-old DeShawn Spears, of Middle River, received a $1,500 scholarship this year through his work in Edenwald's dining room. The Kenwood High School student, a rising senior, said he plans to use the money to study communications or something sports-related at the Community College of Baltimore County.
He likes working at Edenwald because of the interactions he has with the residents, he said.
"You meet a lot of friendly people, and you build relationships with them, too," Spears said.
The scholarship program, which was established by residents in 1999, allows employees to receive scholarships based on the number of hours they've worked in a given year — grades are not taken into account. If a person has worked 250 to 375 hours in a year, they are eligible for a $1,500 scholarship that year; if they've worked 375 to 500 hours the scholarship is $2,000, while more than 500 hours earns a $2,500 scholarship.
The fundraising is coordinated by a committee of ten residents and members of the retirement community's administration. Interested applicants must provide proof that they are attending or planning to attend an educational institution, and proof that the employee meets that institution's standards.
Employees can apply for the scholarship in multiple years, for up to a lifetime maximum of $10,000, and as long as they're in good standing with Edenwald they'll receive the scholarship.
Employees said the scholarship is a draw to work at Edenwald. Sheilah Otieno, 18, of Towson, said it's the main reason she wanted to work in the dining room at Edenwald. She'll be studying nursing this fall at Towson University, and was happy to get a $2,500 scholarship.
"I was so excited," she said.
The scholarship also allows students to concentrate on school work, instead of trying to work extra hours to cover tuition costs. For some at Edenwald, the scholarship is the deciding factor allowing them to attend college, Parker said.
Over the past 17 years, residents have given $957,000 to 408 employees; residents have raised $1.5 million, setting aside money for future years to ensure the program continues.
Endowments have also even been set up by some residents, according to Edenwald's Chief Financial Officer Ken Bullock. Notably, resident Nancy Kiehne left $250,000 to the program upon her death in March of 2015. She lived at Edenwald with her husband, Ernest Kiehne, who died in 2010.
"Everybody feels very strongly about how much we want to support these students," Edenwald resident Marj Quigley said. "They give to us, and we try to return that."
The students are trying to better themselves, and the residents want to support that, Quigley explained. Many of the students have formed close bonds with residents by working with them daily, she added.
"Any help we can give them they certainly deserve," she said.
The scholarship is open to all employees, including those well beyond their high school years. At the security desk, 24-year-old Fidel Pico of White Marsh is sharpening his security skills through work and, with the $2,500 scholarship he earned this year, will continue to sharpen those skills at the Community College of Baltimore County.
"It'll pay for a whole semester and more," he said.
Another employee, 30-year-old Dearis Douglas, a manager at the dining hall, said he plans to use the $5,000 he has earned through the scholarship to attend the Community College of Baltimore County and then Morgan State University to pursue a degree in physical education.
One of Edenwald's administrators, Michelle Rosenheim, of Ellicott City, was part of the original group to benefit from the scholarship in 1999. She has stayed at Edenwald 17 years, in that time gaining a degree from Towson University in healthcare administration.
"It was definitely a huge asset for me; I couldn't afford a lot of the college programs," she said.
Resident Patricia Owens, who is on the scholarship committee, is excited for the July 28 ceremony, which will include a banquet.
Speaking of Parker and other young employees of the dining staff, she said, "The kids at night are just darling."