May 28, 2024

Children of Fallen Patriots: Paving the Way for Gold Star Families in Higher Education

Author National Philanthropic Trust

Esteemed military titles are a great privilege to those who serve and their loved ones. But for Gold Star Families, the immediate relatives of a fallen service member who died while serving in times of conflict, it’s a tragic designation.

These honored families are a small and often misunderstood part of the military community, explains Lily Long, the development director of the Virginia-based nonprofit Children of Fallen Patriots. “It’s assumed that there are government benefits that set these families up for life, but that’s simply not the case.”

While eligible families can receive a gratuity of $100,000, Long points out that this aid may not go far for some, particularly later in life when it comes to paying for higher education.

“That’s why we exist,” Long says of the organization which provides college scholarships and educational counseling to military children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. This includes military training accidents, service-related illnesses and suicide. Long explains that the group provides, on average, $25,000 per student to cover tuition, application fees, books, housing and other related expenses.

For Development Associate Sheridan Skurupey-McDonald and Development Analyst Alexa Fairis, both former scholarship recipients, the work they do is deeply personal. (Skurupey-McDonald’s father was killed in a plane crash in Georgia in 2001 and Fairis’s father passed away in 2016 from cancer as a result of exposure while serving in Afghanistan.)

Both Fairis and Skurupey-McDonald attribute being able to graduate debt-free from their respective colleges to Children of Fallen Patriots and want to provide that opportunity to others. “It’s great to give to other students who went through the same thing,” Fairis says, with Skurupey-McDonald adding, “We’re all in the same boat together, even when the boats we took to get here were different.”

That sense of pride and purpose in giving back is felt not only throughout the organization (which was co-founded in 2002 by David Kim, who served as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army), but from their donors as well.

Due to generous board donations, 98% of third-party donations go to their scholarship program, reaching students all over the country. The program benefits students and alum from every state, and 33% of their scholars identify with racial and ethnic minority groups. “Our donors care about these students, and they have a true connection to this foundation and what we do,” she emphasizes.

Donors also understand that value of unrestricted funding, Long says, as it is particularly important to their work. “If the government shuts down, funding for military families stops,” she explains, making paying for college tuition untenable for many.

With a program budget that serves approximately 1,225 students yearly, Skurupey-McDonald explains that granting through vehicles like donor-advised funds (DAFs) is “more crucial than ever now because of all the deaths from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we are seeing more students than before.”

Dealing with both higher education and military benefits often means miles of red tape. Long assures that the funding for these scholarships allows students to follow their dreams, with no strings attached or caveats. “What would your fallen service member have wanted for you if they were here and able to assist you on this journey? That’s what we do, and that’s the least we can do for their sacrifice.”

Photo: Ashley A. is a scholarship recipient of Children of Fallen Patriots. She is the daughter of U.S. Army Major David A., who was killed in action in Iraq in 2009.

About the Author

Aly Semigran is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She has been writing and editing professionally for over 15 years, with articles in Billboard, Well + Good and Mic, among many other notable publications. In addition to her editorial background, Aly is currently getting her Master of Social Work degree from Temple University. She resides in Philadelphia with her dog.