It’s often noted that if states and municipalities wanted to invest in the things that matter in their communities, they’d be putting more money toward paying teachers and upgrading educational materials. Munster is taking the cue.
Founded in 1992, the Munster Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization that serves to solicit and allocate funds to enrich the programs, activities and facilities of the School Town of Munster.
MEF goes beyond traditional school funding avenues in search of projects and educators that deserve special recognition for their contributions.
“The goal of MEF is to provide grant funds to teachers to support creative and innovative projects that add to the existing curriculum,” explains Michael Sowards, an assistant vice president at Peoples Bank and president of the volunteer board that oversees MEF. “First and foremost, we want our kids to have a quality education. And second, we want to attract and retain exceptional teachers and support them in every way possible.”
Since its inception, MEF has awarded more than $250,000 in grants to teachers, administrators, parents and community members throughout the School Town of Munster for new and innovative education projects and experiences that might not fit in the traditional school budget. MEF looks to award grants totaling $20,000 in any given year — split evenly between the fall and spring semesters — with individual grants of up to $2,000 each.
Grants are available to any student or classroom at the elementary, middle or high school level in the School Town of Munster. Sowards says the board works hard to get the word out about the grant application process and deadlines to ensure a healthy number of applicants. The process has yielded a number of creative projects — ideas that likely would not have come to fruition without MEF funds.
“One of the most successful MEF grants was the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) day done in conjunction with the Museum of Science and Industry,” Sowards says. “This was a full-day event with structured science/technology-based activities done across all three elementary schools.”
In addition to funding unique educational experiences for students, MEF also works to honor outstanding teachers with its Teacher of Merit Award. Established in 2015 as a five-year fund managed by a special MEF committee, the program provides Munster teachers who have ranked in the top two district evaluation categories with a monetary award. To date, more than $500,000 has been awarded to more than 165 teachers in the district.
Of course, none of these projects and awards would be possible without the funding to keep the MEF up and running. In addition to accepting individual donations — including those that come through the Golden Apple pin program, designed to allow benefactors to honor a specific teacher with their gift — the foundation also holds an annual fundraising event to keep the wheels of education and enrichment turning in Munster.
It requires the time and effort of a lot of volunteers, including the board that oversees MEF, to get the word out and a willingness by residents to understand just how important education is to the future of Munster that needs to be fed by outside sources.
“Once I learned more about the work MEF does, I was glad to roll my sleeves up and help,” Sowards says of his decision to volunteer for the board three years ago. “This group is so important to me because not only does it raise funds and provide grants, it gets parents involved and engaged, and it shows teachers just how much they mean to us.”