BY JEFF FALK
When he was at Lebanon High School, Sammy Diaz looked at college as a vehicle to continue playing basketball. The Lebanon Valley Educational Partnership allowed him to pursue both.
It also provided Diaz an opportunity to shift his priorities.
Diaz is a junior guard on the Flying Dutchmen men’s basketball team and a participant in the Lebanon Valley Educational Partnership. His story is special and inspiring, but not all that unique.
“I enjoy basketball more than anything,” said Diaz. “It is my passion. It’s been my passion since I was three. I never quit.
“I wanted to play basketball in college, I hoped to,” Diaz added. “But I really wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. It was a plan that I wasn’t sure was going to happen, but it was a plan.”
The Lebanon Valley Educational Partnership is a working agreement between Lebanon High School and Lebanon Valley College that gives financially under-priviledged LHS students a chance to attend the Annville college. Over the years, it has literally helped hundreds of kids go to school who wouldn’t have otherwise been afforded the opportunity.
“It’s making a difference,” said Carl Lidtka, a guidance councelor at Lebanon High who helps identify students for the program. “It’s amazing. You’re talking about breaking a cycle.”
“There are some wonderful success stories which have come out of the partnership,” said Bill Brown, an admissions councelor at LVC.
The program was founded in 1996 by then LHS guidance concelor Jerry Chepulis, then Lebanon Valley College president John Synodinos and academic vice president Bill McGill. Since then, LVEP has helped an average of 15-16 LHS students per year go to Lebanon Valley.
Last year, an all-time high of 29 Cedars took advantage of the program.
“At first, I didn’t know what it was about,” said Diaz. “Basketball was my number one priority, and then I wanted to go to college. I wasn’t being recruited, so my goal was to come here. Once I was here, I thought, ‘Why not try out for the basketball team?'”
Participation in the program is based upon whether or not a student qualifies for the government’s reduced lunch program. Potential matriculators are identified in eighth grade and are methodically introduced to college life at LVC.
“The school district identifies them, then they let us know and we match them up with current LVC students as mentors,” said Brown. “It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s see what college life is like.’ Initially, it was a way to encourage families who don’t have the same kinds of opportunities to see what post-secondary education is like.”
Lidtka estimated that 75-80 percent of the students at Lebanon High qualify for the free lunch program.
“Believe it or not, some kids are given the opportunity and don’t take it,” said Lidtka of the Lebanon Valley Educational Partnership. “We might have had one kid in the program who didn’t graduate from high school. But for most of them, even if they don’t go to LVC, they’re going somewhere. They’re getting exposed to it.”
“The way I first learned about it was through a letter at my house,” said Diaz, a graphic design and studio art major who is on track to graduate in May of 2013. “I thought it was an advertising thing. I didn’t know what it was about. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you just try it out? Give it a shot. Something might come of it.’ And it did.
“All throughout high school, Lidtka had these meetings, and I listened and took everything in,” Diaz continued. “All they want to do is help students further their educations. I thought, ‘Why not do it?’ He (Lidtka) just put thoughts in my head, and they stayed. Let’s be realistic. Basketball wasn’t going the way I had hoped. It was an opportunity and I took it.”
At the outset, Chepulis involved friend, LHS grad and former NBA player Sam Bowie in the annual fund-raising efforts. The yearly golf outing at the Lebanon Country Club usually grosses about $40,000. The rest of the finances for the program comes from LVC.
“It’s pretty darn close to being a free ride,” said Lidtka. “It doesn’t cover room and board and food. But if you qualify for a free lunch, you’re pretty much going to go for free.”
While the LVEP has helped mostly students who don’t compete in inter-collegiate sports, there have been athletes over the years who have benefitted from the partnership program – namely football players Adam Brossman, Kyle Sylvester and Kenny Horst.
“I would just say think of it as an opportunity you might not get later on,” said Diaz. “If you’re given the opportunity, why not go for it. All they’re trying to do is help you and your future. It’s something positive, and nothing negative.”
Lebanon is the only high school in Lebanon County that enjoys such an educational partnership with Lebanon Valley College.