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Dreams Made Here

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By Mary Daily, Photos by Max Gerber

Published Oct 1, 2012 8:00 AM


How do you spend $200 million to help organizations and people bring their ideas to life? When it’s the groundbreaking fund that arose out of last year’s Lincy Foundation gift to UCLA, the answer is: in as many ways as there are dreamers.

In summer 2011, Sogol Ashrafian had graduated high school and was at home with her mom in the San Fernando Valley. A star student, she’d been accepted by several top-tier universities. Her dream was to attend UCLA, but her family couldn’t afford the fees and didn’t want to assume loans.

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Sogol Ashrafian This star Granada Hills Charter High School graduate couldn’t have afforded UCLA without help from Dream funds.

She’d decided to settle for some other university when she received an e-mail offering her one of the Achievement Scholarships funded by the Dream Fund at UCLA. The award, for high-achieving students with demonstrated financial need, was renewable for three more years. Ashrafian was thrilled. Her mother cried. ”It was literally as if someone had answered our prayers,” says the premed student.

The donor-advised Dream Fund was established expressly to spark a myriad of dreams and help them come true, not only for beneficiaries but also for philanthropists looking for ways to support the aspirations of others. The fund is administered by the UCLA Foundation and supports programs at UCLA and charitable projects around the world.

The fund was born in February 2011 when the Lincy Foundation, founded by the successful businessman and philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, transferred its remaining assets (having made many millions of dollars of donations to a wide array of causes over the years) — approximately $200 million — and its charitable programs to UCLA, in hopes of inspiring private foundations, wealthy individuals and businesses to do the same. The Dream Fund is not an annuity but is intended to spend its funds over a few years, from the time of the transfer of Lincy’s assets, for such things as student scholarships and community needs.

College: Mission Possible

At the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, several first-year students are Leaders of Tomorrow (LOT) Scholars supported by the Dream Fund. LOT awards address two pressing and linked issues: the huge debt that many aspiring physicians take on in education loans and the freedom to choose a field that fulfills their passion for medicine. They also help attract the most promising students to UCLA.

Chosen on the basis of merit and need, each receives full tuition for four years, along with an honorarium for research or community service, and mentoring by the school’s leadership. All are required to do community service. Next fall, the Dream Fund will support additional scholars and, after that, the school hopes other donors will make the program sustainable.

Hearing a Cry for Help

Another member of UCLA's health-care staff, Salpy Akaragian '75, M.N. '80, says her passion for her work was wonderfully rejuvenated when the Dream Fund began supporting her efforts with hearing-impaired children in Armenia. The work began in 1999 when Sevak Avagyan, Armenia’s deputy minister of health, asked Akaragian, director of nursing credentialing at UCLA, if a UCLA doctor might provide a pro bono consultation. That led to the establishment of a cochlear implant regional center in 2003 as part of the Armenian International Medical Fund, a nonprofit that brings innovative health care to the republic. Akaragian and UCLA head and neck surgeon Dr. Akira Ishiyama now travel to Armenia every summer to perform the implant surgeries.

As a result, some 50 Armenian children and young adults have gained or regained their hearing. “This was beyond their fondest dream,” Akaragian says, “but we’re making it come true.”

Today's Lesson: Think Big

K-12 education is also benefiting from the Dream Fund in some special ways. At UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, a $500,000 grant could transform the lives of future scientists and engineers. The funding supports the development of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program at the UCLA Community School. “We want to dream big this time,” says Education Department Chair Megan Franke. “We don’t want to just tweak what’s already being done, but really look at what a public school can do.” The STEM program is to be a model for students everywhere.

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Megan Franke “We want to dream big,” says the faculty leader about the Dream Fund’s support of K-12 education.

The Community School — a partnership among UCLA, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the teachers union and the local community — operates as a unique partnership between the university and a public school and is bilingual English-Spanish and English-Korean. It’s the ideal setting for UCLA’s education experts to create ways to integrate the STEM disciplines in ways not seen in schools today. For the students’ futures, it could make all the difference.

Meanwhile, at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, “the Dream Fund came in like a miracle worker,” says Francisco Aguilar, general counsel for the Andre Agassi Foundation. The gift guarantees the future of the charter school started by the tennis champion in the heart of Las Vegas’ most at-risk neighborhood. “This will provide funding beyond Andre’s ‘star life,’ ” he says.

The school, with more than 1,000 students and a long waiting list, offers academic programs designed to enhance character, respect, motivation and self-discipline, and create a climate of hope. “At Agassi Prep, we’re not only setting expectations,” says founder Andre Agassi. “We’re holding our students accountable. Once you believe in the students’ abilities, they want to succeed.”

At Your Service: Dedicated to Others

Like academics, service is integral to UCLA’s mission and identity. During their time in Westwood, students develop a lifelong commitment to making a difference. Now a $1-million gift from the Dream Fund to the UCLA Volunteer Center is transforming the service the campus provides to the community. The funding, spread out over three years, supports staffing and programs broadly across the center’s activities.

“Resources are hard to come by,” says Center Director Rachel Corell, “but now we can do so much more on campus for the Bruin community and off campus with our community partners.”

Thousands of Bruins — students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents and community members — jump into service on Volunteer Day every fall. They do interactive projects in K-12 schools, sort donations at food banks, prepare and serve food at shelters, or tend to landscaping at parks.

The Volunteer Center also sponsors other annual events, plus monthly activities, including “One Bus, One Cause,” in which 50 volunteers provide requested service at a designated site. Last March, a group built a library in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A. so young students wouldn’t have to cross into rival gang territory to get books.

UCLA senior Ann Wang, who helps organize many of these activities, went along. “It was very hands-on,” she says. “The students learned new skills that you don’t often learn in a place like Los Angeles. Many of them wanted to go back and do more; we hope they will.”

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Ann Wang The UCLA senior helps organize many of the Volunteer Center events the Dream Fund supports.

Sometimes it’s the simple basics of life that are most needed. “People can’t learn, look for work or care for their families when they’re hungry,” says Julie Murray, retired founding CEO of Three Square food bank in Las Vegas, Nev., which receives support from the Dream Fund.

The fund also supports the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. In both cities, Dream Fund support is enabling outreach to seniors — a population not previously a focus of the food banks, which concentrated on children and younger families.

Already preparing weekend backpacks of food for children who receive free meals at school during the week, the food banks now create “food kits” of fresh, uncooked products so seniors living at home can prepare their own meals. “For those who need it,” says the L.A. Regional Food Bank’s chief development officer, Carole Tremblay, “it’s lifesaving.”

The Dream Fund fueled these dreams, and more. One welcome development is that the recipients of the fund’s support are beginning to connect with one another. For example, the UCLA Volunteer Center is organizing volunteer bus trips to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and to another Dream Fund recipient, Padres Contra el Cancer, a nonprofit devoted to improving the quality of life for children with cancer and their families.

Perhaps best of all, as news spreads about the fund and its beneficiaries, UCLA is receiving more gifts and inquiries about donor-advised funds, sparking greater philanthropy on campus and beyond.

The Volunteer Center’s Ann Wang’s sentiment about volunteering applies to philanthropy as well: “We’re working together to make an impact. That makes us more passionate about what we’re doing.”

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