Sauk Valley Community College’s earned tuition program works to make an impact

Students are earning tuition through volunteering at local nonprofits

SVCC student ambassador Morgan Leslie leads a group of potential Sauk Valley Community College students and their parents on a tour Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

DIXON – “How can we call ourselves a community college if we’re not being responsive to the community? If we don’t even know what the community’s problems are?”

That’s the question Dave Hellmich posed to Lori Cortez, vice president of advancement at Sauk Valley Community College, in 2015 when Hellmich became SVCC president.

He’d just come back from a listening tour and this is what he’d heard: There are plenty of good jobs in the area, but there’s not a trained and qualified workforce; half of the students in the SVCC district do not pursue any type of higher education within one year of graduation; a lot of people lack soft skills such as how to shake hands, make eye contact or provide good customer service; there is a big out-migration of people in Illinois; and nationwide, there is a student loan crisis, Cortez said in an interview with Shaw Local.

Then, the question became, how do we fix it?

So, in 2017, Hellmich and the Sauk Valley College Foundation Board came up with the blueprint of what has become SVCC’s Impact Program. Within the program, high school students who graduate within SVCC’s district, which includes Whiteside, Lee, and parts of Bureau, Ogle, Henry and Carroll counties, can earn their tuition through completing community service hours.

“This was not something that Dr. Hellmich and I developed in our offices. We built this with the community,” Cortez said.

For the next four years, SVCC met with the school districts in SVCC’s district, local business owners, community leaders and SVCC alumni. The college held “Sauk Summits,” where they invited members of different business sectors including agriculture, health care and more to collaborate in building the program. There were 13 groups of over 200 people, Cortez said.

Cortez recalled one summer when she was rarely in her office because she was meeting with superintendents and principals about building this program. They suggested that the college needed to start talking to kids early on about college to create a college completion mindset.

“If we’re going to talk to kids about going to college as a senior, it’s too late. They’re not going to go,” Cortez said.

One student in the program, Jack Delhotal, a sophomore at Ashton-Franklin Center High School, is thinking about doing something related to mechanics or farming. Growing up on a farm, Jack has thought about working on the family farm, Mark Delhotal, Jack’s dad, said in an interview with Shaw Local.

Since being in the program, Delhotal has decided to pursue a 4-year degree because he’s learned how business and finance knowledge play a role in running a business, like his family farm, Delhotal said.

To earn 100% of their tuition and fees, students must sign up by Sept. 1 of their freshman year of high school. Those who sign up their sophomore yearl are eligible for 75% coverage and 50% if they sign up their junior year.

“Some people say ‘Oh, this is just a great scholarship program’ and it’s a lot more than that. We consider this an economic development, workforce development program,” Cortez said.

After signing up and to remain in the program, students must complete 25 hours of community service each year of high school and graduate, on time or early, from an in-district high school or home-school program.

Volunteerism allows students to develop self-confidence, gain a sense of individual responsibility, develop soft skills and learn about the types of organizations in the community.

Brittany Whitman (left), working with the Impact Program at Sauk Valley Community College, volunteers Monday, July 24, 2023, at the Rotary Club’s Corn Boil and BBQ Pork Chop sale.

For Delhotal, he said he’s been able to volunteer at many local organizations, including serving food at The Kitchen Table in Rochelle and coaching basketball for the elementary school kids at AFC.

Today, kids spend most of their time inside playing video games, and “the funding for college is great,” but it’s so much more than that. By volunteering, Jack gets to see the immediate impact he’s making on the community - whether that’s feeding a group of people who can’t afford to go to a restaurant or teaching younger kids a sport that they otherwise might not learn until they’re much older, Delhotal said.

All of the Sauk Valley-area Rotary clubs and most municipality organizations are made up of older generations. A big majority consists of individuals who are of retirement age.

“I know of at least three or four service clubs that are no longer existing because the population [of members] literally died off, and these clubs are important,” Cortez said.

A personal example Cortez referenced was the Lions Club. Growing up, the Lions Club provided her with eyeglasses. Without that organization, “I probably would not be in front of you today because I couldn’t see the chalkboard,” she said.

Open Door Community Church in Sterling is one of the Impact Program’s biggest volunteer partners. Without the students volunteering at the church through the Impact Program, the staff told Cortez that their Sunday school would be “nonexistent.”

In the program, if a student doesn’t complete their hours, they’re disqualified from the program.

“[It’s] really to teach accountability. That’s what our donors want from our students and our employers want from our students,” Cortez said.

The Impact Program is funded through donations. SVCC is on the third year of its five-year campaign with a $10 million goal.

Cortez asked, “Do you believe in the power of sevens?”

Today, SVCC is $77,000 away from its $7 million mark, she said.

SVCC receives donations for the Impact Program from private donors, businesses and corporations, charitable organizations and municipalities.

The Rock Falls City Council recently approved an economic development donation to the SVCC Impact Program of $25,000 from their APRA funds. Rock Falls is now the second local government entity to invest in the area's largest workforce training system

2021 was the first year that SVCC began recruiting students for the Impact Program because it received its first million-dollar donation from a woman in Fulton who wanted to pay for every student in Fulton and Prophetstown to attend SVCC, Cortez said.

She recounted the woman’s rationale as “I’m getting older and I need a good nurse to take care of me, but people are leaving the area and we don’t have a college-educated population.”

SVCC kicked off the program that year, recruiting students from two smaller school districts. By the fall of 2022, SVCC recruited districtwide.

Outside of volunteering, students in the program must apply for one local, state or national scholarship and complete a FAFSA application. They are not required to receive the scholarship, but they need to apply.

It’s intended to show students what resources are available to them and how to use those resources. Half of the students who attend SVCC transfer to a four-year university that likely does not have an earned tuition program, Cortez said.

“So, we don’t want kids to graduate, transfer and go ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to pay for it’ and then drop out. The point is to get them a degree, get them into school, into the workforce,” Cortez said.

When they do graduate without student loans or a lower amount of student loans, they’re able to borrow more money to buy a nicer house or car. Then, when you own a nicer house or car you pay more taxes and by paying more taxes that money goes back into the community for things such as fire departments or road repairs, she said.

“People are taking out student loans to come here to Sauk. Over a million dollars a year, just to come to Sauk,” Cortez said.

By avoiding that, it helps to set the community up for success in the future, she said.

As the college does things “slow and steady,” the impact program has evolved since its first class in 2021.

In 2022, a department was developed to run the program that includes Ashleigh Sorenson, director; Brittany Devereueawax, coordinator; Sarah Partington, student recruiting and coordinator; and Lyndsey Kelly, advancement specialist. Cortez serves as their supervisor.

“I know of another program [similar to the Impact Program] that developed in a one-hour meeting and it bankrupted the school. That’s not the type of situation we’re going to get ourselves into,” Cortez said.

The oldest students in the program are currently juniors in high school. Currently, there are 1,359 students registered, a total of 35,158 hours of community service has been completed since the program began and there are 218 participating nonprofit organizations, according to the Impact Program’s community dashboard.

From now until Sept. 1, the program is recruiting students to sign up. For information, visit the Impact Program’s website or email Cortez at

Have a Question about this article?
Payton Felix

Payton Felix

Payton Felix reports on local news in the Sauk Valley for the Shaw Local News Network. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May of 2023.