From IWU Magazine, Winter 2008-09

Gerstner helps local students live up to their promise

As executive director of the not-for-profit, economic development group Peoria Promise, Tara (Mitchell) Gerstner ’01, has an ambitious goal: to help local high school students further their education while improving the economy and quality of life in the community at the same time.

And she’s pursuing that goal from home, while caring for two children under the age of 3.

Besides a “very dedicated” volunteer board of directors led by Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, “there’s no staff and no office,” she says with a laugh. “It’s just me. But we hope to expand the organization in the coming years.”

Peoria Promise offers a two-year scholarship to Illinois Central College for every Peoria resident who graduates from one of the city’s public high schools. Lifelong residents are eligible for a 100-percent scholarship, while those who have attended Peoria schools for lesser amounts of time are awarded funding on a sliding scale.

Tara stresses that Peoria Promise is not a need-based scholarship program and is not supported by taxpayers or other public funds. The organization’s mission, she says, is “to support economic development in the city of Peoria through enhancement of workforce skills and academic opportunities for the graduates of Peoria.”

“We’re trying to create a better and more skilled workforce for Peoria,” she says, adding that a more educated workforce will help expand the housing market, increase the high school graduation rate and decrease the number of dropouts at local schools.

The organization was founded in 2007, and the graduating class of 2008 was the first to benefit, with 245 students receiving scholarship money from Peoria Promise. The scholarship plan was inspired by a similar effort in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Tara, a native of Chester, Ill., majored in business administration at Illinois Wesleyan and earned an M.B.A. in marketing from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She came to Peoria Promise after several years living and working in the Southwest with her children and husband Greg. After she and her family returned to Central Illinois, where Greg joined the Illinois Cancer Care group, Tara applied for the post of executive director for the newly-founded Peoria Promise Foundation.

She hopes to raise over $900,000 to support students during the 2009-10 school year. She knows it’s a big number, but she’s already a third of the way to her goal, thanks to donations from local businesses.

“I think that’s pretty impressive for an organization that’s just getting started,” she says.

Click here to visit the Peoria Promise Web site.