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 MARIA HEYMANS-BECKER (PICTURED WITH LEAH & JESSICA SCHILLING BRIGMAN):  “Jeff was very caring towards everyone he worked with—everyone loved him.”

Life is Good

A new college scholarship fund for Central Minnesota students celebrates the legacy of a beloved school custodian.

By Gene Rebeck | Photography by John Linn

Jeff Schilling’s life was a gift to the students and teachers of Mary of Lourdes School in Little Falls. And thanks to a new scholarship fund, his spirit will continue to give to the communities he loved.

“Jeff was very caring towards everyone he worked with—everyone loved him,” said Maria Heymans-Becker, the school’s principal from 2010 to 2018. “He had a great sense of humor, and he was so committed to everything he did—his work, his faith, his community. He made everyone he met feel like a million dollars.”

You wouldn’t have blamed Schilling if he’d been gloomy. His career as a small-engine mechanic was cut short in the mid-1990s when he began to develop retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. As a result, he became legally blind. But Schilling refused to give into darkness. He was able to work as a custodian at Mary of Lourdes, a job he took in 1997. There he became a ray of light to all who knew him—the kids whom he mentored, the adults whose spirits he lifted. One of his favorite expressions, “Life is good,” was picked up by students and teachers throughout the school.

When he passed away at age 60 in May 2018, then principal Heymans-Becker offered to pay for his funeral. His family members, however, had that covered. Instead, they suggested a way to perpetuate his legacy. That led to the founding of the Silver Lining Fund, a name Schilling would no doubt approve. “My dad was a humble and optimistic person,” his daughter Jessica Schilling Brigman said. “He always said, ‘find the silver lining.’”

The fund began with a gift of $5,000 from Heymans-Becker and her husband. In just a few months, the Silver Lining endowment had grown to $10,000. The Schilling family’s goal is a $20,000 endowment, from which postsecondary scholarships of $1,000 will be offered. How many scholarships would the Schillings like to give out? “As many as we can,” said Schilling’s wife, Leah. “But the idea is if we have $20,000, we can give away $1,000 every year. Of course, if we get more money, we will give out more.”

The fund is giving preference to young people wishing to enter the trades. “That’s how my dad made his living,” Schilling Brigman said. “We know that for someone going to a four-year school, $1,000 might cover books for one term. But for someone going into the trades, $1,000 can cover tools or supplies.”

In January, the Schillings began getting the word to area high schools so that seniors could apply for scholarships. “We’d like to get one scholarship out this spring,” said Leah Schilling. To qualify, an applicant would have had to attend Mary of Lourdes for at least part of his or her education. The application also should include a one-page essay that discusses “how you found the silver lining in your life.”

Starting and maintaining a philanthropic fund, even a relatively small one like the Schillings’, can be a sizeable task. By partnering with the Initiative Foundation, the Schillings were able to establish the Silver Lining Fund with relative ease. The Foundation manages the legal, administrative and investment chores, which frees up the Schillings to concentrate on gathering donations and directing distributions.

The Silver Lining Fund continues to receive donations and support from a variety of areas. One of the most distinctive gifts is from Little Falls’ Starry Eyed Brewing Company, which is using hops that Schilling grew on his farm to create a new beer. It is donating a portion of the beer’s sales to the Silver Lining Fund.

“This is a shining example of how communities come together to support meaningful projects, programs and activities,” said Kate Bjorge, the Initiative Foundation’s community philanthropy manager. “It’s really about connecting people with opportunities to acknowledge the positive impact they had. Jeff ’s heart for other people lives on through this annual investment in a student’s life. That’s a silver lining to be sure.”

At Jeff Schilling’s funeral, his family was moved to discover just how many people’s lives he touched. “My dad worked at the school for so long that he had generations of kids who knew him,” Schilling Brigman recalled. “That’s why it’s so important for us to get this fund fully endowed, so that his legacy goes on for generations.”

Mary of Lourdes students who are interested in applying for a Silver Lining Fund scholarship should inquire with their local high school administration office. Visit ifoundconnections.organd search for Silver Lining Scholarship Fund to make a donation



Community Partner Funds connect resources to people and organizations within a defined geographic area.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Three Rivers Community Foundation (TRCF), which was launched in 1989. The first of the more than 120 funds that the Initiative Foundation hosts and manages, TRCF began as the Greater Elk River Area Foundation, changing its name a few years later to reflect its expanded service area, which now also covers Rogers, Otsego and Zimmerman.

TRCF is a community Partner Fund, meaning it connects resources to people and organizations within a defined geographic area. Last year, TRCF provided more than $20,000 in scholarships to area students wishing to continue their education after high school. In 2018, it awarded $40,000 in grants to a diverse group of community enrichment activities, including education, youth programs and financial literacy. TRCF draws these awards from a growing endowment. Having crossed the $1 million mark with help from a $50,000 Initiative Foundation challenge match, TRCF is now marching toward a $3 million goal, with plans to expand the annual amount it gives for grants and scholarships to $100,000.
Visit trcommunityfoundation.org to learn more or to make a donation.

For more on how you can start an Initiative Foundation-hosted fund, visit ifound.org/generosity/our-funds.

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